My first encounter with Lucy Atkins was through her latest book, The Missing One. I downloaded it to my Kindle but almost immediately regretted it; it’s far too good to be kept out of sight on a kindle. It’s certainly not ‘chick lit, (whatever that is) but it might qualify as ‘chic’ lit. After a few cheery exchanges on Twitter I was delighted to be able to talk with Lucy, which resulted in this interview. I hope you enjoy it.
Jane: Lucy, The Missing One is an extraordinary novel, full of suspense but also really good on the detail of complicated family relationships. The main character’s painfully unfulfilled relationship with her mother is key, for example, as is the unfolding story between wife and husband. This is your first actual novel (unbelievably so) but I know previously you have written for The Guardian and other newspapers, as well as health magazines, Psychologies, Red magazine etc. Was any of the material for the characters in the Missing One drawn from that experience?
Lucy: I always wanted to write fiction, but was held back by lack of confidence – it seemed like something other more brilliant people got to do. This delay turned out to be a godsend. My 16 + years as a feature journalist was invaluable preparation for writing fiction. I’ve met and interviewed so many people I would not have otherwise encountered, and covered some sticky subjects and that has made me more curious and perhaps more willing to write about something outside my boring mother family life in Oxford (The Missing One is about family secrets but it’s set in British Columbia).
I wouldn’t say anything major in the novel is directly lifted from a story I’ve covered as a journalist, but I think that speaking to so many unusual people over the years was excellent preparation for novel writing.
Sticking with the novel for a while longer, another strong theme is the terrible treatment of Orcas. When we first spoke you said you began the novel before the expose of Sea World and its impact on the whales it captured, (heartbreakingly awful). What prompted you to take that story line? Have there been any repercussions since?
A few years ago, I was staying in a friend’s cabin on an island just north of Seattle – real orca country. I read an article about a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to researching killer whale communication in the wild. She sounded so remarkable – strong, independent, courageous – and her story stuck with me. She inspired one of my characters, though my story became something very different. I became fascinated by Killer Whales – their families, their matriarchal structure, their hideous treatment in captivity. All this reflected I was trying to say about human loss, secrets, mother-love, and grief.
Lucy, if I may I’d like to take you back to your schooldays. Were there any signs of your writing career at an early age? How much encouragement did you get at school?
Oddly, my A-level history teacher at sixth form college did tell me I was going to be a novelist. He was one of those brilliant, memorable, inspirational teachers. I wrote to him to tell him this in my mid-twenties and he said ‘where’s the novel?’ I ignored this, of course, for the next 20 years. But I should probably send it to him now.
You definitely should! he’ll be thrilled. From school onwards, how did your path to novelist evolve? Was journalism a first choice with novel writing following on, or did you become a journalist to hone your writing skills?
I did always want to write, and I wrote in secret, but was sort of sucked into non-fiction and so hid my stories away. But, when my 40th birthday was approaching realised ‘if I don’t face this now, I never will’ – and signed up for a Masters in Creative Writing at Bath Spa university, which was a spectacularly good move. I spent a year working on a dreadful comic novel that didn’t work at all, but it was a huge, accelerated learning curve that gave me the skills and confidence to then go on and write The Missing One.
Amongst the blog readership we have many aspiring writers. Number one questions is always – How did you get [insert book title] published? So just how did you get The Missing One published?
I always emphasise how much hard work and determination went into it because I do think there’s a perception that novelists sit down and pour out a work of genius in a few months – and if you can’t do that, then you can’t write. The reality is that I wrote about a million drafts, and at one point abandoned it for a year. I even rewrote it completely at the last minute, adding in the toddler Finn – who is now the centre of the story. You have to be willing to take editorial input, and rethink your structure and plot, and make bold moves.
Getting published isn’t about who you know, but you do have to approach agents in the right way or they’ll ignore you. I’ve written about this on my website (link at end of post) because I hate the idea of others being held back, as I was, by fear and a sense that it’s a members only club, and it’s ‘never going to happen for me’. There’s also an element of luck: getting the right editor at the right time when she or he is in the right mood with the right budget. But the key is to never, ever give up.
What was your very first job? Do you remember how much you were paid? Have any of those early learned skills stood you in good stead since?
Tomato picking aged 14, for 99p an hour (yes, really). No, my first proper job after university was with a non-profit, working with people with disablity. I then went on to work for Amnesty International, before I realised I was missing books and writing too much, and no matter how worthy my career path was, it wasn’t the right one for me. I then lucked out and got a job at the Times Literary Supplement and started working as a book critic for other newspapers, which I still do today.
There’s a lot of debate about female novelists getting airbrushed out of the picture over the years, not getting selected for prizes etc. Have you ever been aware of discrimination because of your gender within the writing world? If so, how have you dealt with it?
I don’t feel there has been direct gender discrimination but I do think men tend to be really good at appearing to be confident and authoritative and knowledgeable, which in a literary/journalistic/freelance career can get you a long way.
I tend to suffer from ‘impostor syndrome’ – I spent years as a journalist expecting to be found out at any moment. I’ve been bad at putting myself forward or being ‘pushy’ which again can get you a long way as a freelance writer. Men seem to be less hesitant.
You’ve said Jane Eyre is your favourite chick noir book. (Not sure what chick noir is exactly- women’s Gothic?) What is it about the character of Jane Eyre that attracts you? For years I saw Jane as a bit of a wimp despite loving the book, and took some time to realise her spirit. Aided I must say by an excellent production I saw in Bristol, which really drew out her feminist qualities.
Yes, the ‘chick noir’ point is to show how belittling that term is – if a book like Jane Eyre falls into that category (psychological suspense written by women) then it’s absurd.
My love of Jane Eyre is really simple: it brings me out in goosebumps – physically – every time I read it. It’s a deeply moving story and the madwoman in the attic is archetypally disturbing. I love that Jane is subversive – she’s not pretty, not charismatic, but she’s clever and loyal and stronger than everyone else. I wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with her but she’s a wonderful character.
What has been your best mistake to date?
Passing up creative writing class when I was doing an M.A at an American university (I was scared I’d be too crap). If I’d done the course, I might have written a novel much earlier without the life experiences I have now. I’d have crashed and burned. Far better to be older and (sort of) wiser.
What do you think has been the most helpful thing you have done, or invested in, re your own career?
Deciding to take my writing seriously and put it first, on a practical level. When writing The Missing One I would give myself 2-3 hours every morning when I’m at my most alert, and then squeeze all other projects – journalism, non-fiction books, non-profit work – into the rest of the day, even if it meant working at odd times. My novel took centre stage, and it enabled me to work seriously and make progress.
Has there been one person who has really helped and inspired you?
My husband, John, has always believed in me, encouraged me and done everything he could to let me write.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
A yoga teacher I loved when I was living in Boston used to say, with a smile:
‘I love you, but I don’t care what you think of me’.
It’s a very, very liberating thought to have floating around your head if you’re afraid of being judged or criticised or if you just feel shy. It works for almost any situation.
What advice would you give to any aspiring writers/journalists?
Don’t give up, don’t ever be intimidated by people in positions of power, do believe you have just as much chance as anyone else of doing this, put your writing first. And keep rewriting.
If you could choose an alternative career (it can be anything except journalist/writer) what would you choose and why?
A professor – though I’d be a very bad one as I’m not very detail orientated and I’m quite bad with authority structures. But I love universities and teaching motivated almost adults. I’d still write novels on the side, of course.
Lucy, thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to your next novel, out in 2015. I loved The Missing One and wholeheartedly recommend it for some great summer reading.
Posted on August 15th, 2014 by Jane