Hazel McHaffie

Kate Atkinson


The Society of Authors in Scotland regularly arranges behind-the-scenes visits – to police stations, high courts, theatres, anywhere we writers might need to have a feel for when we’re setting a scene. I confess I’m a coward at heart, none too keen on committing a crime or fluffing my acting lines or having a heart transplant in order to get up close and personal with authenticity. I like this safe way of experiencing reality.

In my own writing I go to considerable lengths to try to make the novels believable – extensive research, checking with experts, asking, revising … If there was a degree in obsession I’d have it. With a distinction. Even writing my mother’s memoirs just for the family (ninety years of astonishing experiences), well, we’ve reached the 25,000-word stage now and we’re still filling in gaps, still editing and correcting the detail. Because authenticity matters to me. And that’s probably why I struggle with the blatantly implausible in some books.

Our bookclub decided to try a Richard and Judy recommendation this month: Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Because I had several long train journeys imminent I decided to use the time to read four of Atkinson’s books to get a sense of her style. She’s impressive. Well, when you win the Whitbread prize with your debut novel you would be, wouldn’t you? She manages to convey so much about each character in a few well-crafted sentences. And her dramatis personae – well, my little grey cells struggle to even remember who they all are, never mind grappling with the task of weaving the various strands together. But plausible she is not. The sheer weight of murders, suicides, train and car crashes, betrayals and sundry other tragedies that litter the lives of almost every character defies belief.

But then … haven’t we all had our credulity stretched to breaking point by the truths revealed in the MPs’ expenses scandal over the past couple of weeks? I mean … duck islands? Hello? Cleaning moats? Claiming for non-existent mortgages? Utterly implausible, you’d scoff if I wrote it into a novel.

So perhaps it’s a matter of confidence. I’m still sufficiently in awe of critics and reviewers not to want to hand them ammunition on a plate. I want them to continue to read my books, identify with my characters, believe in me. Maybe when I’m all grown up …

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