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Kate Atkinson: Bouchercon 2010

I owe a lot to Kate Atkinson. She wasn’t by any means the first crime writer I read, not even the one who has most influenced me. As a child my bookshelves were filled with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden mysteries. I would grow into my grandparents’ shelves, which were lined with Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Louis L’Amour, Patricia Highsmith, True Detective magazines, and lots of pulp. With another grandmother, who tended to watch TV rather than read, I watched The Bad Seed, M, A Touch of Evil, The Night of the Hunter and endless hours of the series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

I read In Cold Blood the year it was published. I was 13. I lived on a farm on the outskirts of a small town. It wasn’t hard to imagine those events; it wasn’t hard to look out the large front windows of our farmhouse to fields of alfalfa and out to the highway and imagine a couple of killers turning onto the dirt road that led to the house where I sat scaring myself to death.

I cut my teeth on crime. But it wasn’t until I began to consciously think of my writing as crime fiction that my direction became clear.

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie, and also the first book of hers I read, fascinated me. I fell in love with her language, with her quirky characters, and more importantly with her style, which I find a bit meandering and sometimes hard to follow. But I’m always willing to follow it where it takes me.

Looking over Bouchercon 2010’s program packed with amazing panels and interviews, I immediately checked off the ones I wanted to attend. I circled, underlined and resisted the temptation to draw embarrassing juvenile hearts around the Sarah Weinman interview with Kate Atkinson. Weinman, not surprisingly, is an excellent interviewer and very quickly got to the question about why a “literary writer” would begin writing crime fiction. Atkinson has a wonderfully prickly way of responding to questions, and she tackled this one right away by resisting the label, and “crime writer” as well. She tells her stories; people can classify them however they want. But listening to her speak, it was hard not to think about the genre wars involved here.

I’ve only attended one other writer’s conference—Squaw Valley Community of Writers—where I went with the first chapter of a novel that I was beginning to think of as a crime novel and to do something called workshopping (don’t get me started). At that conference I heard a lot of talk about genre vs. literary fiction. When I met with an agent who had read my first chapter, he suggested I think of what I was writing as a suspense novel, and we talked about structure—something I needed a lot of help with. When looking at Squaw’s offering of panels and craft talks, we noted that there was only one that dealt with “genre,” inasmuch as it spoke specifically to plotting—and it was occurring at the same time we were meeting. He made the observation that much of what Squaw was offering had to do with language, something I really didn’t need help with.

I became acutely aware of these words: structure, which, of course, has to do with plotting, and language, which has to do with resonance. It isn’t as though I hadn’t thought of them before—I’ve written and published a lot of short stories, some of them heavily plotted, others more about voice or language—but I knew I was going to have to give more thought to this. I began reading suspense and crime fiction with an eye to how they worked. I wasn’t looking for a formula, a word often associated with genre fiction, but rather for the movement, the shape, of these novels.

When I saw that Bouchercon 2010 was going to be held in San Francisco—right across the Bay from where I live—I signed up for the full four days. And over the four days, I heard very little talk about genre or formula. Writers talked about their characters, about how they explored ideas or situations until a story came to them. There was a little “literary” bashing, but it was mostly good-natured. When it comes to the writing process, the literary and genre camps, if these terms are even useful, seem to have a lot in common.

In fact, the “literary” Kate Atkinson spoke very concretely about how plotting, not character, was always uppermost in her mind as she writes. But she also said that she does no prep work before beginning a book, that her characters spring fully formed, and that she writes while exploring the story, which often relies on coincidence. She dismissed the criticism she’s received for this by noting how full of coincidence life really is. Her claim that writing about crime is liberating was in itself liberating for me. She also talked about how she was intrigued by ethical decisions that are also criminal decisions. These ideas gave me a lot to think about as I reflected on the interview, which I left anxiously awaiting the U.S. release of Started Early, Took My Dog, her newest novel—which she read a tantalizing excerpt from—and the BBC production of Case Histories, based on the first three Jackson Brodie novels, a six-part series that will air in early 2011.

I also left inspired to continue working on my novel and grateful for Atkinson’s clearly articulated insights. Write the story. Classification be damned!