First-time novelist and mum of three Lucy Atkins tells how she moved from reviewing fiction to writing it. Jaine Blackman reports

Being a mum of three might make finding time to write a novel more difficult – even for someone who makes their living out of words – but it’s not impossible.

“It can certainly be distracting having a family, especially working from home. It’s easy to think ‘I’ll just shove another load of laundry on’,” says Oxford’s Lucy Atkins, whose first novel The Missing One was published last week.

“I’ve realized that to get anything done, I have to make sure that (in theory) I’m at my desk by about 9.30 on weekdays and that I don’t answer the phone or email or meet anyone for coffee or do any non-fiction writing for at least the first three hours.

“This forces me to write. I’m also sharpest in the mornings so it’s the ideal time to be creative.”

Lucy, 45, is no stranger to writing. An award-winning journalist and author, she has written for publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Red, and Grazia and written, co-written or ghost-written six health-related books.

But novel-writing is a different discipline.

“Writing fiction is more complex for me (and takes longer),” she says.

“I find non-fiction writing straightforward and enjoyable, it’s a very satisfying intellectual exercise, but writing fiction goes much deeper.

“Hours can whizz by in a blink, and I can get myself tied up in knots worrying over seemingly tiny things. None of that tends to happen when I write non-fiction.

“The Missing One took me several years to write – including a year in which I abandoned it completely.”

Lucy, who studied English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, began her writing career while working for Amnesty International.

“I began by reviewing books in my spare time and wrote a new fiction round up for The Guardian,” she says.

“Then I realised I wanted to make a living from writing – that was what I loved doing most - and so I began to write freelance features for newspapers and magazines.

“This career worked well around having babies and toddlers at home. Then I started writing non-fiction books too.”

Although they both studied in Oxford at the same time and had mutual friends, Lucy didn’t meet husband John until a few years later. The couple have three children – Izzie 15, Sam 13, and Ted, nine.

John’s job with Microsoft took them to Seattle where they lived for four years, and Sam was born, before returning to the UK and settling in Oxford.

The Missing One was inspired by a visit back to Washington State.

“We were staying in a friend’s cabin on a remote island, and I picked up a magazine article about a pioneering whale researcher who was one of the first people to study the language of killer whales in the wild,” says Lucy.

“She went out following whales across the Pacific Ocean in all weathers, listening to them, recording and photographing them, even taking her baby out with her on the boat.

“After I left, I couldn’t get the image of this woman on a boat with her baby out of my head – and I started to write a short story.

“The short story got longer and then I realised I was working on a novel.

“I was trying to write a comic novel at the time, and I abandoned that, and started to work properly on The Missing One.”

Oxford also features in the book as Kal, the main character, lives in the city.

“I’m sure that future books will have Oxford angles somehow – it’s bound to happen,” says Lucy. “It was odd coming back to the city as a grown up, but it feels like a different place now – and my third child was born here so we are very rooted.

“We went away again – recently we spent two years in Boston USA – but we came back to our house and picked up our Oxford life again.”

Lucy thinks it’s easy for women not to take their own writing seriously (“whereas men seem to have less of a problem with that”).

“So my main advice is to prioritize your writing – really make it something you ‘do’ rather than something you dabble in,” she says. “This means carving out at least an hour a day (more if you can) and making that your time to write. I think women are more liable to feel guilty about this – most of us are pretty overwhelmed by home life and work and so we feel we should be doing other things, or that writing is somehow self-indulgent or even selfish. “You just have to push all that aside and take yourself seriously as a writer. Then you work at it over and over.”

The Missing One by Lucy Atkins is out now in paperback, £7.99, Quercus


Lucy Atkins will be at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday March 29 with The Sunday Times writer India Knight.
“We will be discussing a supposedly new and currently very popular genre known as the domestic chiller, or even chick noir,” she says.
“By this we mean books like Gone Girl or Before I Go to Sleep, both of which are being made into Hollywood movies. These are psychological suspense novels in which home life, families, marriages, husbands, wives, becomes dangerous and menacing in some way.
“The Missing One basically falls into this category too.
“In the festival discussion we’ll be asking things like: Why can’t we get enough of books in which spouses turn out to be psychopaths, and home is unsafe?
“Is the name chick noir belittling or accurate? Is this all a displaced fear of terrorism? And is this really a new genre at all?
“I can’t wait to talk about this at the festival.”