Half way through my interview with the best-selling author Lucy Atkins, at The Weston Library in Oxford, I realise I have lost her attention.
While answering my questions, her focus has been diverted to the table next door where two academics – framed by the splendid view of The Sheldonian, Bodleian and Oxford Camra – have embarked on a heated debate. She is transfixed – the wherefores and why’s absorbing her momentarily.
Which seems entirely fitting, considering that Lucy’s new novel Magpie Lane zooms in on exactly this kind of situation – lifting the lid on Oxford’s academia and its ambitious, domestic, often out-dated players vying to get to the top of this globally recognised educational tree.
“I talked to college wives in Oxford and Cambridge, who will remain nameless, but told me stories which were too incredible to print, stuff that makes your toes curl.”
It all began when Lucy got chatting to a new College Master in the porters’ lodge of an Oxford college, and was offered a tour which included the newly renovated lodgings of his family.
Because Lucy’s novels always start with a place, and she instantly knew she had found the basis for her next novel.
Magpie Lane is the result, two years in the writing, and published today, which lifts the lid on Oxford’s academia and its ambitious, often out-dated players, vying to get to the top of this globally recognised, educational tree, perfect timing in the wake of the current Christchurch scandal.
Hence we meet new College Master Nick Law and his stunning Scandinavian wife Mariah, brought in at great expense and controversy to reverse college fortunes to bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
And yet of course, all is not what it seems. A traumatised child, a dark past, the mysterious death of an ex-wife, in-fighting, red tape and a devotion to the academic cause that has no room for victims, or family, there is a sense of foreboding and unease from the onset.
“Magpie Lane is about elitism, privilege and the people who refuse to be crushed by it, who would be otherwise marginalised”
Seen through the eyes of the nanny Dee, the pace gallops ahead, and only when the final page of Magpie Lane is turned can you relax. Another brilliant thriller to add to Lucy’s impressive stable.
So why Oxford and why now? “I’m really interested in that shift from the world of the old don to the new media savvy brought in to whip things into shape,” she says, “because Oxford University is an institution, and within that there is that peculiar British mix of status, elitism and power
“I also wanted to include the massive weight of history hanging over Oxford and its subterranean and hidden spaces – the graveyards full of people who shaped literature and history.
“So yes, Magpie Lane is about elitism, privilege and the people who refuse to be crushed by it, who would be otherwise marginalised.”
It is a departure for the award-winning author, whose domestic noir novels usually feature a more homely, if equally dark, context, to great acclaim.
Having taken us around the world from British Columbia in The Missing One, Boston in The Other Child, and London, Sussex and the idyllic South of France in The Night Visitor, Lucy is now firmly back in her home town of Oxford, realising that the rich tapestry of life here is bursting at the seams with plot-lines and intrigue, where superficially perfect lives pan out in the city’s quads, back lanes and historic colleges.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing the research, because it was all insider information and opening a door into that closed world,” she admits.
“I talked to College Masters and their wives in Oxford and Cambridge, who will remain nameless, but told me stories which were too incredible to print – stuff that makes your toes curl,” she laughs.
Lucy also had a hidden card up her sleeve, having been a student at Corpus Christi herself, so had first hand experience of the machinations of the university, and its quirks, especially having arrived straight from state school.
“I sat next to a classics don at my inaugural dinner who told a really long joke with the punchline in Latin,” she howls with laughter at the memory. “I couldn’t believe it and wondered what world I’d wandered into,” she remembers.
“But I found my people and I had an amazing time there. I would be very upset if anyone thought otherwise. I don’t want to offend my college, but other than that….” she shrugs.
And what of the slight, blue-eyed, blonde-haired ethereal writer sat in front of me, who also teaches creative writing at Oxford University and is a literary critic for The Sunday Times? Why tackle such a thorny subject?
“Well, I’m fantastically interested in weirdos and people that do not fit in,” she says with a sparkle in her eye.
“But I also wanted to challenge myself. Maybe I wanted to go a bit deeper into the complexities of people and their relationships than I have before – to take more risks.
“I suppose there is an element of confidence as well, now that I’ve written three books, to allow yourself to explore areas that I may not have ventured into before.
“And while I do not have a political agenda in my books. – they are not aimed at exposing anything or anyone – Magpie Lane is all about hierarchy and the people who do not fit in, who can’t be controlled. And the ones who fall through the gaps.
“I’m also interested in the notion that something can be right and wrong at the same time – that grey area – and middle class neglect that is so often ignored, in the name of ambition and success.”
Currently half way through her next novel, which is top secret but has a #MeToo story-line, Lucy loves coming out from behind her writing desk in Oxford, where she lives with her husband and two children, back into the real world.
“It can be quite mind-blowing at times because writing is so solitary, so meeting the public, (the interview was conducted before the current coronavirus crisis) and the people who read your books is my favourite bit, because otherwise you can believe you are just writing it for yourself.
“But it’s been great finally writing about Oxford, which has played such a big part in my life, and I wanted to get some of that across, you know – what its actually like. How someone can be wandering along talking quite seriously about Proust while a drunken student might be vomiting on the other side of the road in black tie.
And with that she’s off, racing back down Oxford’s twisting streets past its many characters, in whose lives she is so intrinsically fascinated.
Magpie Lane is published today by Quercus Books and available from all good bookshops online.