Female Ambition in The Night Visitor

17 May 2018

 Night Visitor PB final image


‘How far would you go. . .?’ Female historians as TV presenters – and The Night Visitor

The historian and TV presenter Kate Williams  tweeted today about the contents of her mailbox at Reading University, where she is Professor of History: ‘Today’s uni pigeonhole haul: exam scripts for marking, a PhD report, a note about the photocopier & obscene & threatening letters based on my TV appearances. The joy of being a woman in the public eye…’ Mary Beard, another brilliant historian and TV presenter who certainly knows what it’s like to be trolled, immediately tweeted back advising Kate to report the letters to the police. They are, she wrote, a crime. And a crime cannot be ignored.

As I watched all this unfold on Twitter I found myself wondering whether anybody is leaving poison pen letters in historian Simon Schama’s pigeon hole? Is anyone Twitter Trolling the handsome David Olusoga about his hair? Or publicly shaming Dr David Starkey for his glasses? Or telling Dan Snow that he’s fat. I doubt it. But when a female historian appears on TV she ceases to be judged on her intellect or wit or presenting skills. Instead she’s judged by the sum of her (body) parts: hair, teeth, bum, age, clothes.

I cannot imagine what this must add to the pressure these women are already under. Their jobs (juggling intense work in both academia and TV) are incredibly demanding. They know they are being scrutinized. As I watched the Twitter discussion, I found myself thinking about my character, Olivia, in the Night Visitor. Olivia, like Kate Williams, or Susannah Lipscombe (who helped me with the research for the character) is a history professor who also presents TV programs. She has a brilliant career, a talented husband, three children and houses in London and Sussex. But she also has a terrible secret and if the truth is ever exposed then her career will be in tatters – she will face public ridicule and shame. When you are in the public eye, with a huge Twitter following and an awareness of how vicious people can be, then the stakes must feel very high indeed.

Only one person knows Olivia’s secret and that is Vivian, the sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor. Vivian has become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant and on the surface the two women could not have less in common. Vivian is single, unattractive and socially awkward, devoted to her rescue mutt Bertie. But as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that my characters have far more in common than they might ever believe (or admit to). They are both ambitious and very clever. And they both care, very deeply, about their careers.

In The Night Visitor I explore how far a successful woman like Olivia might go to protect her reputation. Everything she has worked so hard to achieve – her reputation, her public image, her good name, her job, the happiness of her children – is under threat. Is it okay to lie to protect all this? Is it okay to commit a crime?

I wanted to write a nail biting and entertaining book, but I also wanted to examine some moral grey areas. Successful women – particularly those in the public eye – get a bad rap, as Kate William’s matter of fact Tweet about her pigeonhole poison pen letters demonstrates so eloquently. I’ll admit that neither of my main characters is exactly ‘likeable’ (I find writing likeable characters very dull). But still, I felt a growing and powerful sympathy for both Olivia and Vivian as I wrote the book. Ultimately, all these women really want is to be taken seriously, for their minds. They just want to be allowed to do what they love, and to do it well, without being shamed or exposed or ridiculed. And really, where the crime in that?

Inspiration for the Victorian Gothic manor in The Night Visitor

11 Aug 2017

Spooks, memories and visitors

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

When I was a teenager, growing up in a village near Lewes in East Sussex, I had a friend whose house was very different from everyone else’s. For a start, it had about five times as many bedrooms. It also had tall iron gates, a long, tree lined driveway and a haunted Minstrel’s Gallery. This place – which I now know to be a Victorian Gothic Manor – looked very grand on the outside. It had tall grey flint walls and grand, mullioned windows, but the inside told a different story. The house was in coming undone.

My friend’s family was not landed gentry, far from it. Her father, a drinker, keen on the races, had won the house some time in the 1970s in a bet. It was crumbling and damp, with rattling casement windows and no central heating. There was no money to fix anything. I got the sense that nobody really cared because the family was breaking down. The house was not just physically gloomy, but unhappy and troubled in a more profound, less tangible way. And I felt, instinctively, that it was not just the container of the family’s sorrows, but – somehow, inexplicably – feeding them.

I would go there from time to time during the secondary school years. I’d marvel at the grandeur of those iron gates and that long driveway; we’d climb the sweeping staircase to what is, in my memory, an endless procession of dark and musty rooms with plasterwork damp to the touch, old quilts, a pervading chill and flitting shadows. It was thrilling for a teenager. I remember one party – twenty drunk fourteen year olds screaming across the unkempt lawns, only to end up crammed into the (surprisingly tiny) kitchen, too spooked to venture further into the house.

My friend, a tall, loyal, bright girl with a hint of wildness behind the eyes, confided to me once that she sometimes had a ‘visitor’ in the middle of the night. She would wake in the small hours to find a shrouded and malevolent old lady sitting on her, pinning her to the mattress. She was paralyzed when this happened, she said, unable to even cry out for help. This terrifying apparition, she was convinced, meant to choke her.

The friend and I lost touch when I went off to university. Her life, I heard, did not unfold as happily as mine, she has had troubles. Her family broke up and the Manor was sold. But thirty years on, I found it again, in my imagination, a huge, neglected flinty beast set in an idyllic spot beneath the South Downs, a stone’s throw from the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The Manor – which I called Ileford –  became a key setting in my novel, the symbol of how the most grand and imposing façade can conceal rotten secrets. My friend’s ‘night visitor’ came to life again too. But that’s another story.

I still long for the Sussex countryside – the chalk paths up to the South Downs, pheasants panicking across country lanes in the early morning mist, and my hometown, Lewes, slotted in the cleft of the hills. I live in Oxford, now, and people tell me I’m lucky to be here but I still long to move ‘home’. I did go back to the Manor while researching my novel. I went up to the iron gates, held them and peeked through but I could see very little. I thought about going up the drive, knocking on the door and introducing myself, trying to explain who I was, what I was doing. In the end, I didn’t dare.


The Birthplace of The Missing One

19 Jan 2015

The Missing One USA hardback The Missing One USA hardback


I keep remembering what it was like to guiltily work on a book I was sure would never be published. I wrote The Missing One while living in a suburb of Boston, USA. I’d sit in Lincoln Street Coffee (now closed – perhaps too many customers stayed 3 hours with one Americano?) or the tiny George Howell Coffee near our house George Howell Coffee   or  – frequently – the beautiful Newton Free Library  feeling really guilty (I had other things, paid things, to work on) and wondering what on earth I was doing this for.  And now, a year after it’s UK publication,The Missing One is about to hit the shelves back in its birthplace.

My favourite bookshop when we lived in the Boston area was the beautiful Newtonville Books  and they are kindly hosting the launch event for The Missing One on 12th February.  My friend, Nick, sent me this photo as he walked past the window yesterday. All those lonely, guilty, self-doubting hours in Newton, MA were worth it in the end.

missingone newtonville books


The Real Missing One – my uncle

2 Aug 2014

Article about Uncle Des in the Guardian family section Article about Uncle Des in the Guardian family section


When people ask if my book is autobiographical, I always say no – totally made up.  Then, a month or so ago, someone asked me a direct question: has anyone in my family ever gone missing? I couldn’t believe I’d never thought about this before – my Uncle Des, who we all adored, went missing when I was 8 years old.  Without knowing it,  I’ve written a novel drawing on some of those feelings of loss and longing, of family secrets, and the unknown. My subconscious has clearly been very busy and my book makes sense to me now, in a way that it never did before. Weird, and also oddly satisfying.

My mum is still convinced Uncle Des is in an ashram somewhere so I’m expecting his facebook friend request any day now…



Where do novels come from?

4 Nov 2013

The Missing One by Lucy Atkins

I now have the cover image, and the blurb for The Missing One.  It has been a long road, but it began when I was staying at a friend’s cabin on Whidbey Island, Washington State (http://www.visitwhidbey.com) during a trip back to Seattle with my family. We lived in Seattle for four years, my second child was born there, and the landscape of the Pacific Northwest has  always seemed incredibly mysterious and intriguing to me. At my friend’s cabin, one rainy day, with all three of my children miraculously napping, I picked up a magazine and read an article about a pioneering marine biologist called Alexandra Morton (here she is:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandra_Morton). Morton was one of the first scientists to study the language of killer whales. She also happened to be a young mother, in the 1980s, who took her baby  – later toddler/small child) out with her on the ocean, chasing killer whales, listening to their interactions, even moving to a tiny floating house on a British Columbian Island. I was gripped by her story. And from that one leisurely afternoon read, my character – Elena – was born. There were numerous drafts. Several complete abandonments – and a few non-fiction books. Then a whole new plot direction – into suspense, madness, fear – and now, here it is: The Missing One. My Elena, of course, is nothing like the real Alexandra Morton. Mine, for a start, has a daughter, Kali, who launches herself out in search of her mother’s secrets. But what has amazed me most throughout this process is how a single idea – nap time with a magazine in my case – can cling inside the mind and not let go, for years and years – until it’s finally released.