Behind the scenes with Kate Atkinson

The award-winning novelist has written her first play, about a Victorian ghost. And, as she tells Lynn Walker, she's been obliged to learn the dramatic art of letting go
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The Independent Culture

At the first preview most laughs came where I thought they would but what really gobsmacked me was that the audience laughed when things got really bad in one scene. I wanted to get up and say 'Excuse me, but this is not funny'. I was horrified. I've come to terms with it now. It's a different kind of laughter, a nervous release meaning 'O God, this is so awful', but I was shocked.

At the first preview most laughs came where I thought they would but what really gobsmacked me was that the audience laughed when things got really bad in one scene. I wanted to get up and say 'Excuse me, but this is not funny'. I was horrified. I've come to terms with it now. It's a different kind of laughter, a nervous release meaning 'O God, this is so awful', but I was shocked.

Kate Atkinson, who never writes a novel for a reader, always for herself, has discovered a very different type of ownership with her first full-length play Abandonment. At its first airing at the Traverse Theatre, the director John Tiffany warned her: "For the next two-and-a-half hours we have no control..."

"A novel and its writer are inseparable: you are your books," says Atkinson. "A play's not like that at all. Abandonment's not mine - it's everyone's. I wanted it to be a co-operative thing because I was tired of that anal control that I have over novels. I was getting bored redrafting the play without having input from the actors. When they finally came in it was such a relief because I hadn't really realised how clever actors were. They had so much to contribute to their characters and to the structure and feeling of the play. In the first week of rehearsals the text changed a lot. That would never happen in a novel. I wouldn't let anyone breathe on a novel."

It was only when Tiffany, who also directed her short screenplay Karmic Mothers and Nice - one of the Traverse's "Sharp Shorts", first suggested that the Traverse would like a play from her that she realised that though Abandonment had been conceived as a novel it would be a better play. As in her three novels, the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird, the present is coloured by the past. In a typically sharp family saga, dark undercurrents are masked in comedy. With the awakening of a ghostly former inhabitant of a Victorian mansion, secrets of the past are gradually exposed along with some hidden truths about the present.

"I'd thought about the structure a lot with the historical strand running parallel, underneath the contemporary one on the page, but I didn't think it was going to come off in a novel. It was a very visual thing because I saw the past under the present with Agnes [the ghost] actually living under the floor. I envisaged then a two-tiered set but it soon became obvious that past and present needed to be played out on the same level. The house with this one room was dominant in my thinking. It was John's idea to have a round room, and Georgia Sion has designed something fantastic and very claustrophobic."

Is this obsession with mixing reality and fantasy a left-over from the fairy-tales she absorbed in childhood (which included reading Alice in Wonderland every week from the ages of five to 10)? "I think I've left that behind for now. Abandonment is the last such journey through time. My next book, if I ever get round to it, will be set in the present but I do have a couple of historical novels I want to write, and I have another idea for either a novel or a play which is a bit of both. I find the past so fascinating. Photographs are strange, almost surreal, almost here yet gone. I slip into thinking what the past must have been like and I enjoy creating that ambience and atmosphere - 1730 to around 1870 is the most interesting period."

How hard was it handing over Behind the Scenes to Bryony Lavery, who is adapting it for York Theatre Royal? "I didn't know her but I'd read a couple of her plays and she's really good. I was relieved actually because I'm doing the TV screenplay and I knew I couldn't do both. I was still too close to Behind the Scenes and I felt I couldn't change anything. I only agreed to do the television screenplay when I had some distance. I went through a phase of not even liking it but now I feel I can do anything with it. I always knew it would be popular because it's got a very likeable narrator, but as soon as it became hugely popular people became very possessive about it."

Audiences at signing sessions, as I've observed too, remember far more about her characters than she does, which she finds bizarre. "I've forgotten the names of half the characters in Behind the Scenes and I'm always saying things that desperately irritate audiences at readings. I remember commenting that I wished I had killed off Ruby so that there would be no Behind the Scenes Two and there was a huge intake of breath before people started exclaiming 'How can she say that?'. I tried to explain that characters are not people (though it's great that readers feel they are) and to me text is text and I'm writing it for a reason. It's a manipulative thing and characters are just that no matter how much you may like them.

"I can't write at all at the moment, which is quite alien to me, but next I'm going to do a short story collection which has been requested particularly for the German market. I get so bogged down in a novel and I just want to feel 'I'm going to write a story today and it's going to be different from the story I might write next week.' I want to discover new styles and I want to forget how I wrote those three novels because I won't be ready to move on until I've closed the gate on them. I want to have more fun in my writing and play around."

'Abandonment', Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404) until 26 Aug. Bryony Lavery's adaptation of 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum', York Theatre Royal from 26 Oct to 18 Nov (01904 623568)

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