Would you introduce Transcription and tell us about your inspiration for the novel, please?
I started thinking about Transcription when I was writing A God in Ruins. I was researching in the online National Archives because they have all of the records for all of the operations of the bomber bases, so that’s what I was trawling through. It was when MI5 released information about Jack King [the alias of an undercover MI5 operative]. Ever since the war there has been speculation about the true identity of Jack King and all sorts of people were put forward and it turned out to be someone no one had even known about, a man called Eric Roberts. At the time he was recruited by the Secret Service he was working in the Westminster Bank, and I just thought it’s a wonderful story about this man who was able to become anonymous.
I loved this idea for a story and was really paranoid someone else would look at it and think that would be a great novel, and I thought, no, that’s mine! But it gave me time, because I hadn’t finished A God in Ruins, to think how I was going to get into that story. I didn’t want to write about Eric Roberts himself, because he was a real person and that would be history as opposed to fiction. I downloaded the transcripts of his conversations with Fifth Columnists and there are hundreds of pages. Much of it is incredibly banal and sounds like gossip you’d hear over the garden fence except it’s sometimes about Jews or it’s about Hitler—it’s that phrase, the banality of evil. All this evil is reduced into these conversations and I thought this is the way in to the story—through the girl who’s typing the transcripts of these conversations up.
I wanted to write about this period in time, but sometimes it’s only when I get to the end of a book that I think, oh that’s what it’s about. And that’s why it’s so handy for me to have a title. I never write without a title. I can’t even think about a book if it doesn’t have a title. I think this book is about identity and I think it’s about ambiguity and fakery as well, because it’s about spying. But that only really came out as I was writing the novel, in an organic way. I do think all fiction is about identity, but I think with this novel I did want to write about ambivalence and not knowing the truth. But I didn’t think of that as a theme I thought of that as the atmosphere I was trying to create.
Tell us a little about your main character, Juliet.
Juliet thinks she understands what’s happening around her and she doesn’t. She is also a pathological liar; she is so good at it! She lies when she doesn’t even need to, that’s what makes her pathological. If you were to go beyond the book, which I never think is a good thing, but you would look to her childhood and say something made that girl have this false self. It’s like she’s protecting herself, but she’s not really protecting herself from anything we or she understands so there’s a kind of an odd twist to her character but it’s kind of perfect for what she’s chosen to do.
Is it satisfying to write that kind of character, with that kind of inner life?
All characters are satisfying to write because once you’re inside their heads they’re alive. I love minor characters. I love creating a character that exists for a sentence then disappears. I think I love character. It’s always satisfying for a character to come to life and do what you hoped they’d do. That makes it sound like they’ve autonomy: they don’t. I am absolutely in charge of these characters but just to satisfactorily open them up on the page and know that people on the whole react to them the same way you do… It’s easy as a writer to write a character that you think all sorts of things about but you’ve not actually brought it out on the page and therefore you get a lot of misinterpretations, so it’s a bit like sense of humour. I’m always gratified when the things I think are funny in a book are the things others think are funny. It’s immensely satisfying.
Do you think there was a different sense of humour in the 1940s?
I think what we see of their sense of humour is what we see in the media - how cynical were people in this period? I think we get the impression they weren’t cynical, maybe because of the wartime propaganda. Juliet maybe does seem cynical for her time, but when you think about the milieu she’s in, the BBC, MI5, you think they must have been cynical. I think the only thing that makes it different is that she’s a woman at a time when a woman would have been expected to do the typing, not someone who has any power.
Transcription is your first spy novel, was writing it a different experience?
Well, I didn’t consciously set out to write a spy novel because I never set out to write a certain type of novel because I don’t want to limit myself at the beginning. It’s only after that I can say what type of novel it is. I didn’t think it was a spy novel because I was thinking about a niche area - a small corner of the Secret Services and Juliet’s place in it. I’ve not read that many spy novels and you never want to read anything that’s in your area when you’re writing.
Would it be fair to say you enjoy playing with time in your work?
That is something I do like doing! When I get near the end of a book I lay it all out on the carpet, each chapter in this huge circle and I sit in the middle like this spider and I do move things around a lot, if I don’t want a sequential narrative.
I think I like to play with time it’s because we can’t, in our lives. We’re on one path, we know where it’s going and it’s not a good place but that’s it! We have no instances of anyone ever being able to time travel or turn the clock back but we can do it in a book. It’s a pleasure we can have that we can’t have in real life but also, it’s a very structural thing and I love structure, as we know. I haven’t finished with time, but I’m not sure where I’m taking it next. I do think it’s one of the arenas the writer gets to play God and it’s the one thing we never get to do in our own lives, sadly, there’s almost a melancholy undertone to playing around with time but it does make you think about death and defying death.
Were you conscious of the parallels in your novel with contemporary political and social issues?
I wasn’t consciously trying to; when I started Trump hadn’t been elected and the Brexit referendum hadn’t taken place. The rise of nationalism and that mean minded attitude, I mean there’s nothing new there. There is a lot of reflection going on that I hadn’t really set out to do at all, it became more apparent as time has gone on.
Who is manipulating who, who is doing what? We’ve lost the concept of absolute truth, and maybe it started during the war with propaganda. Maybe it started with all the things that were kept secret.
Bereavement often features in your work; do you think grief has a transformative effect on people?
I write about death a lot and I write about grief. I do write a lot of characters who are in a state of grief; I think we all carry a kind of a grief around with us, that sense of loss. I think we spend a lot of time imagining grief. It’s like horror films, you can explore fear – imagination is always a rehearsal. It’s such a raw thing, it gives characters a real texture and heft when they’re in that state of grief and certainly Juliet’s grief informs her character in a way. It’s her one true relationship in a world of shifting allegiances.