The event which this morning opened the adults' programme at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival was Kate Atkinson in conversation with Jenny Brown. To begin with a word on the chair, and in Jenny Brown - herself the first director of the Book Festival, and now a respected literary agent - we had the perfect 'intelligent reader' and gracious inquisitor.
Kate Atkinson really needs no introduction on these pages, but she was appearing today to talk about her most recent novel, the stunning Life After Life, described by Jenny Brown as her most ambitious book and a "dizzying, dazzling one" at that. It's a novel which follows its central character from birth to death, but far from being a straightforward linear narrative it looks at a series of alternative fates and a range of permutations of choices, decisions, events and moments which dictate and define the course of a life or lives. From her birth one snowy night in February 1910, Ursula Todd lives through the major events of the 20th. century but does so again and again on parallel paths, a range of 'what ifs' and accretions deepening her story, each one hardening and strengthening her in some way, each one showing the fine line between living and dying, each success predicated on an earlier failure of some sort.
Kate read a passage from near the beginning of the book, one which introduces the reader to the Todd family home, Fox Corner, a place seen as idyllic and ideal. This is Edwardian England in its 'golden afternoon', the halcyon days before the Great War changed so much, though as the story moves on, it's the Second World War and in particular the Blitz which provides "the dark, beating heart" of the book. Asked about her fascination with this later period, Kate explained that during her childhood (she was born in 1951) the war was in the very recent past, and was a subject of fascination and excitement to her, if of rather different significance to those who had lived through it. Her immersive reading on the subject informs and soundly underpins much of the novel.
A considerable part of the discussion was given over to Ursula's repeated lives, especially with reference to the book's structure and to Kate's own predilections in writing. She likes endings, she says - and she gives herself many to play with here - and in particular she likes a "symphonic crescendo of endings", a form which allows for the neatly finished as well as the open situation or unanswered question. She wrote the book sequentially, and having established her premise early on she felt secure in the structure and worked (with a storyboard) as the shape of the book dictated. Incidentally, she says she is "not a natural plotter", and finds plotting inhibits flow in writing.
Asking about her readership, a gentleman pointed out that the majority of the audience were female, but Kate said that while more women than men are readers and more women than men typically attend literary events, she had no specific group in mind when writing: "I write for myself," she said, "and when the book is done, it's everybody's".
As to whether she missed her characters once she'd killed them off, Kate admitted that of course she became fonder of some than of others but she most upset herself - in the writing of this book - by the deaths of the dogs who are the Todd family pets. "It's very important to have dogs in novels."
If you haven't yet read Life After Life I'd urge you to do so - it's marvellously original (even if, when asked about 'echoes' of the various alternative endings in The French Lieutenant's Woman Kate modestly said that there was nothing new in writing), and beautifully, pleasingly complex; it is, just as Jenny Brown said, "dizzying and dazzling", and it was a great pleasure to hear Kate talk about it.