Making Journalism (Her)story: Lucy Atkins
Lucy Atkins is a well-respected and highly acclaimed author. And when it comes to journalism, she has almost all of the bases covered: book critic, advice columnist, and nonfiction author. If nothing else, she knows how to communicate and she does so effortlessly! Here at Teen Voices, we’re calling her the J.K. Rowling of health magazines! She has sold more than 40,000 copies of her books, and made books that people not only enjoy, but often deem as having “literally saved their lives.” Lucy Atkins is devoted to her work as an author, but she also loves being a mother and details in this interview with Alexys Butler, 17, her work for The Guardian and desire to spend time with her children.
Teen Voices (TV): Most recently, you’ve received praise for your book The Cancer Survivor’s Companion. Have you always wanted to be a writer, whether it’s as a ghost author or lead author?
Lucy Atkins (LA): Before I was a writer, I worked for a nonprofit organization, Amnesty International. I’ve always felt that it’s important in life to try to help other people, and do the right thing. I think that has carried over into some of the things I’ve written. With the Cancer Survivor’s Companion, I was the coauthor, not the ghostwriter, which is subtlety different in that I’m a named writer. That was a partnership with a very good friend of mine—she is a clinical psychologist and was talking to me about the problems she encounters. She knew what people were dealing with, and there wasn’t a book that she could recommend to help them. And I just said, “Oh, well, we should write it.” So we did.
As a writer, you think that you’re in a room all by yourself, you’re not having any impact on the world. But actually, as a writer you can have a very fond impact on people’s lives. And with that book, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from cancer survivors who have said, “This book saved my life.”
[…]As a writer, you spend so much time alone, not talking to or interacting with people, and you can feel terribly isolated sometimes. But then when you produce something that touches people’s lives in a helpful way, that makes it all worthwhile.
TV: You’re also a renowned book critic. How do you balance being a mother, a wife, and a writer?
LA: After I worked for Amnesty International, I then worked for the [London] Times Literary Supplement, which is like the New York Times book review. It’s a newspaper that’s specifically all about books, and that’s really my passion. Once I had children, I realized it was too difficult to do all my freelance writing, and go down to London two or three times a week to work at the paper, and then have time to be a proper mother. That’s when I stopped going in to work at the paper and that was, in some ways, quite sad.
I think that when you’re a mother, you have to make your own priorities. I don’t judge anyone else who is still working full time, but I personally felt that I needed to be around for my children as much as I could. The beauty of being a freelance writer—the beauty and the curse, actually—is that you are in the house. If my children are sick, or if the nanny can’t show up, or if it’s just that something is happening and they need me, or they need me to go to a show that they are in, as a writer, because you’re working for yourself, you can do it. There is some sense that you can kind of “do it all.”
I have managed to build up a really successful writing career as a journalist, and also an author, but I’m also at home every day when my kids come home from school. They sometimes have to remind themselves that I’ve got a job...I want my daughter to know that my work is incredibly important to me and it’s a big part of who I am. I find great fulfillment from it and I’m hoping that I’m able to give her a role model for when she has children, if she chooses to have them. I hope she will see that you can have a very rewarding and relatively important career, but also be there for your children.
[Being a freelance writer]—It’s doable, but it’s not easy. I have to be very single minded. Nobody is expecting me to work; it has to all come from me…You have to motivate yourself all the time; you have to really want it. You have to send in the book proposals and you have to send in the feature [article] ideas. You have to keep it going. It’s quite hard when you’ve got demands at home and family; it’s quite hard to say to yourself, “This is what I’m doing.” You do have to be quite determined to do it.
TV: What is your writing environment like? Do you try to control the noise level? How do you motivate yourself to keep writing and working?
LA: Well, right now, my kids are at school, so I know that I’ve got a certain number of hours in the day. I’ve learned over the years that I’m most productive in the morning. If I can get myself to my desk quickly once they’ve left, then I’ll get lots of work done. If I get distracted with laundry or if I go out and have a coffee with someone, it could mean that the whole day is just gone. I’ve learned to make sure that I’m at my desk in the morning as much as I can. Sometimes, if I’m on a deadline, that can spill over to the afternoon, the evening, and then the night.
Sometimes, when I’ve got very intense work to do, I can be working all hours of the day, having to rush downstairs, cook dinner, and then run back upstairs while the kids are eating their dinner to carry on with writing. I remember when [the kids] were babies and I was doing phone interviews and having to sort of put my hand over the phone, because the baby was crying. I’m pretending that I’m this professional woman working in my office, while I’ve got my baby crying and my toddler pulling things off the shelf. There’s a certain amount of determination required. When they were little, it was often exhausting—completely exhausting. That was the point when I was still building up my freelance career and I was driven. I just knew that I wanted to do it. I think that you have to be driven; you have to really want to do it, or it won’t happen.
[…] In the early days I used to feel like I was always on the verge of unemployment. You’re only as good as the article you’re writing, and suddenly you’ve got nothing. A lot of your effort has to go into the next article and the next one and the next one. It takes a lot of time when you’re beginning to build up those contacts and skills and to network. It evolves; it’s constantly evolving. It’s not a static career like one minute you’re not a writer and the next minute you are.
TV: Who are the authors and writers you admire?
LA: Gosh, that’s an interesting question. My favorite book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; I love that book so much. It brings me goose bumps every time I read it. I am now reading it to my 13-year-old daughter, so it’s very lovely. People often ask me about my favorite writer and I can never come up with a good answer, because it changes a lot. I mean, I like Anne Tyler; she’s a wonderful writer. She’s low key, but incredibly subtle and powerful. I read very widely and very generally. I often just find myself reading books that someone’s recommended or books that I have to read for work.
TV: What do you think of the roles portrayed by young females in Young Adult (YA) literature today?
LA…I’m probably not the best person to comment on Young Adult Literature. I don’t read it. There are a lot of moms I know who are very hands on and strict; they feel that their daughters should be reading a certain thing. [From when] I was a child until I was 14 or 15, all I read was pony books. I was obsessed with horses. It was endless, but I read avidly. I ended up studying literature at Oxford University and being a writer; necessarily, my belief is that it really doesn’t matter what you read. My boys want to read comic books and I don’t care. The only thing that matters [to me] is that they read, and find enjoyment as a reader. Once you’ve got that book you love, you’ll read for the rest of your life.
I think people are too hung up on what they should be reading, and I think adults are the same. They get terribly hung up on what they should be reading, and reading all the most, you know intelligent or recent or trendy books. I think all that matters is reading—enjoying and getting something from it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a comic or a magazine or a 19th century novel.
I think girls feel that they should be doing certain things and reading certain things, and if they’re not reading the “clever books” than they’re not clever. I think that’s wrong. I think they should allow themselves to just read the things that they want to read. If you’re bored with a book, don’t read it. (Laughs.) I always feel like if you haven’t gotten into a book by the first 80 pages, then stop. Life’s too short!
To learn more about Lucy Atkins, see: www.lucyatkins.com
Teen Voices had the privilege of working with Lucy Atkins while she and her family were living in the Boston area for two years. She generously shared her skills to help us launch our “20 Under 20” writing contest in 2011, for which she developed an online series of writing classes, and helped us judge the submissions. She was also instrumental in the design and creation of our current Artist of the Month contest. We were sorry to see her go back to London and miss having her, as she put it, “on this side of the pond!”
Tagged as: Alexys Butler, Lucy Atkins, making journalism (her)story, women in journalism