An Interview with Lucy Atkins
June 2015

Lucy Atkins is a British writer, who currently lives in Oxford, England, with her husband and three kids. She holds a Masters in English and American literature from the University of Pennsylvania, USA, is a journalist and has published both non-fiction books and fiction: Her two novels “The Missing One” and “The Other Child” are a mixture of psychological suspense and emotional drama.

You are a journalist and have published non-fiction and fiction. Which of these do you enjoy writing most, and why?

Fiction is what I love, though I enjoy both forms of writing very much and feel lucky to have managed to make a living this way. Writing a novel is a more insular and intense experience than writing a non-fiction book but ultimately more satisfying because it’s closer to my heart.

Please describe your journey to finding an agent and to the publication of your first novel.

I had an agent for my non-fiction work but she was uninterested in fiction and I knew I needed someone who would have more creative input. I’d heard that Judith Murray of Greene and Heaton was excellent, and interested in new writers, so when I’d finished The Missing One, I sent her the first three chapters and an email introducing myself. Luckily she asked for the rest of the book, and then took me on. But this wasn’t the end – it was actually only the beginning. She gave me some brilliant editorial input, and I reshaped the novel significantly over the next year. (For anyone who’s read it, it wasn’t until this last editorial reshape that I added Finn, who is now the center of the book!). Judith then got me a two book deal with Quercus. I’ve also just signed another two book deal with them, so feel hugely lucky.

Whales play an important role in your debut novel “The Missing One”. What inspired you to write this story?

I used to live in Seattle, and once stumbled across a magazine article about an amazing orca (killer whale) researcher up in the Pacific Northwest, studying the language of whales. I was gripped by the image of this woman out on a small boat with her toddler, surrounded by killer whales, and this became my character, Elena. Initially, I wrote a short story about Elena, then it expanded into a novel. I am fascinated by killer whale societies – not least because they are matriarchal.

How much research did you do for “The Missing One”?

Since I’d lived in Seattle I was quite familiar with the landscape of the islands off the coast of British Columbia, from visits we’d done – but almost all my research was via Google. At one point, I discovered a Vancouver ‘orca cam’ – a live underwater feed, where sometimes if you’re lucky you can glimpse a whale. I spent a LOT of time staring at murky images, hoping for a white saddle patch. I also read a lot about orcas, and became quite obsessed.

Were you confident when you started writing your debut novel, or were you plagued by self-doubts?

Completely plagued. I had a failed comic novel in my bottom drawer and had been writing bad fiction for years.  What turned me around was when I hit my 40th birthday and decided it was ‘now or never’: I gave myself the gift of a Masters in Creative Writing at Bath Spa university and it was the most valuable thing I could have done. It was only one day a week, but the workshops propelled my writing forwards by about 10 years. I’d recommend it for anyone. It turned me into a novelist. I’m still plagued by self-doubt though.

How did you get the idea for “The Other Child”?

My husband was posted to Boston, and so we moved there for two years with our three children in 2010. We lived in a pleasant, if sometimes eery, suburb, and that’s where The Other Child is set. I wanted to convey the alienation and isolation of being the ex-pat mother, though my main character, Tess, only has one child, and has married an American (a handsome paediatric heart surgeon). The whole novel is set in the house in which we lived – I know every corner, knick in the floor, scratch on the wall. I wrote The Other Child after coming back to the UK and it was really odd to be still ‘living’ there in my head for another 2 years.

Did you feel more pressure writing “The Other Child” after your success with “The Missing One”?

Yes, The Missing One’s success works both ways. On the one hand it’s a massive blessing, but there’s also a pressure to produce something even better, and not to let my readers down. But these are good problems to have.

How did writing “The Other Child” differ from writing “The Missing One”?

The Missing One took me five years (including a year when I abandoned it in despair); the Other Child was a very intense 18 months. I think I’d learned a lot, unconsciously, from shaping The Missing One, but the whole time I was writing (to a deadline) I was panicking that I couldn’t do it. The Other Child slotted into place 10 days before my final deadline – a plot element came to me out of the blue and suddenly it all ‘worked’.

Do you work out the plot and your characters’ personality in detail before you start writing your novel, or do you mostly develop them while writing?

I did no planning whatsoever for The Missing One and The Other Child, I just had a sense of place and took it from there. I find that the minute I try to plan something, I lose interest catastrophically.

What is your writing routine? Please describe a typical day.

I have just built a writer’s shed in the back garden and my new routine involves getting the kids off to school, making a double espresso, and heading to the end of my (very small, urban) backyard. I realized I needed two locked doors between me and my teenagers (!) if I was going to get things done. I try to write until lunchtime, then in the afternoons I do other work things – journalism, book reviews, publicity etc. Then when my youngest gets home (he’s 11) it all falls apart. I can’t work in the evenings at all as I’m a zombie. So – those mornings are sacrosanct.

Which aspects do you enjoy most about being an author?

I love the freedom to create these people and worlds, the sense of escape it brings.  I also love the daily joy of not having to go to an office, or have a boss. Since The Missing One was published, I’ve also met a lot of other writers and readers and being able to share their work, and talk about books is a huge source of pleasure for me.

Which least?

The pressure of sales figures isn’t much fun. The publishers, quite rightly, are quite obsessed, and it’s easy to feel it’s all a big brutal business deal (which, I guess for publishers, it has to be). It can also be lonely and weird to be in your head all day.

Who is your first reader?

I have a good Australian friend called Leanne who I walk my dog with and she’s a big reader. She is also immensely critical and speaks her mind. I’ve – with trepidation – shown both novels to her when they are finished, and waited to see if they get the ‘nod of approval’. Thank goodness both did. But she scares me (in a good way). Other than this, my brilliant editor Stef at Quercus has a huge huge role to play. I’m quite a collaborative writer and like input, and she has a brilliant eye for structure and plot.

How do you celebrate a newly published book?

I’ll be cracking open the champagne at home on Thursday 4th June with a couple of friends, and then we’re throwing a big book launch party on Saturday 6th for about 100 guests. Completely terrifying (but good too). I’ve just bought a new dress, which will make a change from pajamas or yoga pants.

How do you go about book marketing?

I try to network on Twitter – and I know I should be better at things like Facebook and Instagram but I’m not (yet). And I LOVE book bloggers: you really are the best!

What are your favorite ways to spend your non-writing time? What are your hobbies and interests?

I have three children, two of them are teenagers, so there’s a lot of demands on my time, and energy but when I can, I do yoga to stay sane, and I walk my lovely, loyal, black dog, Rocket.

Which genres or types of novels do you enjoy reading most?

I review books for The Sunday Times, so often I’m reading what they’ve commissioned me to read. This is actually brilliant as it forces me out of my comfort zone (I am naturally very intellectually lazy). I don’t have a ‘type’ of book, I just read anything that sounds good. My most recent discovery is Elena Ferrante – an Italian writer. Amazing.

How would you describe your personality?

I’d say I’m a neurotic introvert pretending to be a confident extrovert.

You have three children. How difficult is being a writer when being a mom?

You have to be disciplined. There isn’t much alone time in my day and so I have to protect my morning writing slot.  This has gone to pieces recently and I am trying to claw it back. Part of this is finding emotional space – which I really need for fiction writing. It’s a constant battle but also writing is a fantastic career to combine with motherhood, as I have the flexibility to be there for them whenever they need me. 

Thank you very much for your time, and all the best for your future!

Thank you so much for thinking of me, and asking such interesting questions!

If anyone wants more info I’m on twitter @lucyatkins or there’s my website (I’ve got more info on there for any budding writers, about How to get Published and How to find an Agent).