Meeting Lucy Atkins for lunch in Gees seems the perfect location for the Oxford based author, both such quintessential characters in the local landscape.
After all, Lucy’s last, award-winning thriller Magpie Lane, took place amongst Oxford’s colleges where subterfuge and backstabbing reigned supreme.
So could we expect more of the same with Windmill Hill then, being published this week? Not a bit of it. As usual Lucy Atkins has shrugged off all expectations and preconceptions and taken an entirely different path, spending three years crafting this exceptional new novel based in a windmill in Sussex.
Empowering, fun, surprising, rare, Windmill Hill is a celebration of women, friendship, eccentrics, freedom, Bohemians, and being unconventional. In short, it’s wonderful.
“I knew then and there that I would have to set my next book in a windmill, because they are so incredibly atmospheric”
So where did it come from I wonder staring at the petite, wonderfully deceptive author, lost in the pages of someone else’s book when I arrive at Gees for our interview.
“Yes, it is a bit of a departure,” Lucy grins mischievously, blue eyes sparkling: “I think of it as #MeToo for octogenarians. I just liked the idea of how much experience and wisdom women in their 80s have, and yet how invisible they can become and how patronised. And I wanted to have fun with that.”
Having herself grown up in Sussex, Lucy’s friends recently rented a house with a windmill for a birthday celebration and Lucy went for a look around. “We went through a tiny door and crawled through this tunnel full of spiders to get to it. I was sure I would see a ghost.
“And while it was totally abandoned and had no electrics, it still smelled of milling and wheat and the views from the top were incredible. You could see all around.
“I knew then and there that I would have to set my next book in a windmill, because they are so incredibly atmospheric,” she explains.
I think of Windmill hill as #MeToo for octogenarians
Having taken us around the world from British Columbia in The Missing One, Boston in The Other Child, London and the South of France in The Night Visitor, and most recently Oxford in Magpie Lane, Sussex it is then.
Lucy always starts with a place when writing a new book (this is number 5), so once the location was set, the seeds for Windmill Hill were sown. But it wasn’t until listening to an elderly lady talking about how hard it was being old on Radio 4, that the premise of the novel unfolded.
“I thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if someone old, frail and used to other people doing things for them, had to get tough,” she ponders.
And so Astrid was born, a lady of society who retreats from London life, and her marriage to a closet homosexual, to the windmill where she found a life of contentment and solitude, albeit in an enormously eccentric existence.
Accompanied by her fellow protagonist Mrs Bignell, their friendship is pivotal. But when their pasts come back to haunt them, their former resilience is required to set the record straight and save themselves.
“Astrid and Mrs B drive each other crazy and are so different but their friendship is rock solid. Back then women had no power so all they could do was walk away, and that was empowering in itself,” Lucy says.
Careful not to be pigeon-holed, Windmill Hill cleverly avoids being genre driven, although Lucy says it’s perfect book club material. “I just wanted it to be a satisfying, well-written book with an element of mystery and the unknown. It’s more about independence and resilience than anything else.
Three years in the writing, Lucy had to get through lockdown, the death of her mother and moving house, but still find the motivation to finish it. “It was quite an intense time,” she says, with typical understatement, “but I never struggle to write.”
“I do however put a lot of pressure on myself. You would have thought by now, this being my fifth novel, I might have got the hang of it by now, but it was almost the opposite because I was trying to do something different. So I do doubt myself.”
Does teaching Creative Writing at Oxford University help? “Oh absolutely. My students help me as much as I help them. We have so many in depth conversations about writing,” she says. “And being an author can be so isolating so it’s good to mix with fellow writers.”
“My students help me as much as I help them. We have so many in depth conversations about writing”
And despite being a book critic for the Sunday Times and Guardian, as well as judging the Costa Book Awards, she is still equally nervous and excited about Thursday’s book launch at Daunt Books in Summertown, even though the reviews are already really impressive.
As for what’s next, Lucy is currently mulling over a novel about Dr Johnson. Niche then? She smiles. “It’s early days.” And as Lucy cycles off home, no doubt to immerse herself in 18th century London once more, one can only applaud that she is anything but predictable.
Windmill Hill by Lucy Atkins is being published by Quercus on Thursday (May 23) and available from all good bookshops.
Lucy Atkins and Mick Herron will then be in conversation at Waterstones in Oxford on May 31 at 7pm.