Kate Atkinson was still working on A God in Ruins - her last novel and a not-quite-sequel to her bestselling Life After Life - when she came across something of interest.
While on the National Archives’ website, she got drawn into the latest releases section, and learnt about Jack King, who was an MI5 spy during the Second World War. Posing as a Gestapo agent, he infiltrated fascist groups and prevented secret information from getting into the hands of the Nazis. But his real identity had been the cause of speculation for some time; now, it was being revealed that he was really a bank clerk at the Westminster Bank called Eric Roberts.
As Atkinson dug further, she found transcriptions of his conversations with various Nazi sympathisers, and got to thinking about the girl - and it would have been a girl, says Atkinson - whose job it was to transcribe all of these, mostly rather mundane, discussions.
And from there was born Transcription, which Atkinson came back to after putting the finishing touches to A God in Ruins. What does she do when she gets an idea for her next book while still working on a different one? “I don’t think too consciously about that idea; the unconscious mind is beavering away back there,” she says.
In Transcription, 18-year-old Juliet is recruited to work for MI5. But she sees no sign of any James Bond-like capers - instead she spends her days in a small flat in Dolphin Square, where she transcribes conversations that take place in the flat next door between spy Godfrey Toby and Nazi sympathisers. Years later, she sees Godfrey Toby again, and is forced to face a terrible incident that will connect them forever.
But why write a book about a young woman who spends her days typing, rather than a spy like Jack King, who is on the front line, bringing down fifth columnists?
"I thought Jack King was a fantastic story because he’s the perfect John le Carré spy, the person you don’t notice, the quiet, middle-aged man, plodding along,” says Atkinson. “At the same time I was reading about Maxwell Knight, who was in charge of the Jack King operation…. He was running operations right through the 1930s against the Communists, and against the Right Club [a group of anti-Semites and fascists].
“I wanted Juliet to do some spying as well, because a whole book of her typing would have been a really boring novel. So I melded those two operations - Jack King and the Right Club – together, and I moved them all into Dolphin Square.”
The spies themselves were anti-Semitic; anti-Semitism was rife in England
The result is a fascinating novel that looks at a time when paranoia was high in Britain, but which came before the bombings and defeats of later in the war, making Transcription far from a typical war novel. Atkinson says the period is “interesting because you have not seen any planes overhead, you still have a foothold in Europe, and people hadn’t suffered the moral defeat of Dunkirk”.
Instead, it’s the enemy at home that’s most concerning, and even those whose job it is to protect Britain from the Nazis have links to fascists.
Says Atkinson: “We see the war through war propaganda, and propaganda is necessary in a time of war, I’ll give them that, because there was a point when we were on the brink of it all ending and you have to rally your troops at home as well as your troops abroad. But now we see the war through that.”
The truth, she says, is actually “very murky. The spies themselves were anti-Semitic - anti-Semitism was rife in England.” That’s reflected in Transcription: Juliet finds out that her boss, Perry, as well as other members of MI5, have been involved with the Right Club, while her brief period of undercover work brings her into contact with a host of people, some of them very well-off financially and socially, who are unafraid to share their anti-Semitic views.
And then there’s Godfrey Toby, the Jack King-like character Atkinson has created, who remains mysterious and whose allegiances are unclear. As readers, we’re left trying to sort out our feelings about Godfrey Toby for much of the book - is he a little too close to the fascists he is investigating? Or is he just very good at his job?
Feelings and emotions are at the centre of Atkinson’s writing. With A God in Ruins, which featured plenty of scenes in the cockpit of a plane during the war, she had plenty of reading material from first-hand sources, but Atkinson calls herself a “non-technical woman” and so comes to her books “from the point of view of the reader who wouldn’t want to be weighted down by boring stuff”. So although she spent time researching Bomber Command bases and flight paths and other technical details for that book, it was more the emotions that concerned her.
“You want to know what it feels like,” she says, talking about the pilots, as well as those left behind on the ground. “You have to feel it and have an emotional understanding. You read other people’s accounts to get an understanding. How do the people on the ground feel? How does the squadron leader feel?”
With Transcription, the situation was different. Although there were records in the National Archives, there were clearly things missing - Atkinson says the 600 pages of transcriptions from the Jack King files don’t seem to look complete.
“I know Jack King kept his own records, but they’re not available,” she says. “Maybe they weren’t kept.” And no one from MI5 would speak to Atkinson for the novel.
But once she “got over that frustration”, she says, the lack of source material “freed me up quite a lot” and made it easier to turn fact into fiction.. Although she used Maxwell Knight (often said to be the real-life inspiration for the James Bond character M) and Jack King, as well as a number of other figures - including three female spies run by Knight - as inspiration, they “all had to be changed for the purposes of fiction”.
Changing all these people into fictional characters has worked. Despite the lack of bombs, and its focus on a typist who spends most of her time in a tiny flat, tapping away at a typewriter, Transcription is as exciting and full of tension as the more in-your-face spy fare we’re used to. Move aside, Ian Fleming, Atkinson is here.