With much-loved books including Behind The Scenes at the Museum putting York-born author Kate Atkinson firmly at the top of the tree, she tells Steve Pratt why getting involved in the theatre means letting go of her work.

Kate Atkinson is a successful author. A winner of the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year, no less, when she brushed off challenges from the likes of Salman Rushdie and Roy Jenkins to take the literary honour. Yet, without wanting to sound like a whinger, she wishes to point out that writing a novel is "a really big undertaking".

She's not inviting pity, just putting the record straight. "It's great that I get to stay at home and work my own hours, but it's a really uncomfortable process. It's not enjoyable," says the York-born writer.

"You don't know if it's any good, or is going to work until the last page. There's a high level of uncertainty you have to put to the back of your mind.

"The next 18 months of my life is mortgaged to my next book. It becomes this over-riding thing, and that's a bad way to live your life."

Once, as a last resort, she took herself off to a hotel room for two weeks, existing on room service and solitude while she finished her work. Mostly, writing has to be combined with everyday living.

"My house is quiet and I can shut myself away. Edinburgh is an easy place to live. It's very suburban where I am. I suspect the best place to write is the country," she adds.

My call interrupted work on her next novel, Endurance. She's 80 pages into it and has returned recently from visiting the Antarctic as part of her research for a story that focuses on a set of people who end up in that particular remote part of the world.

Atkinson loved the place. "The best trip ever," she says enthusiastically. "Everyone says, 'what do you do there?' and, in retrospect, you don't actually do that much. You go off the boat and walk around a lot, and look at penguins. You see seals, whales and icebergs. It's fantastic. I'm a convert."

She was a late starter as a novelist, already in her early 40s when Behind The Scenes At The Museum, which won her the Whitbread prize, was published. This autobiographical piece set in her home city of York has been followed by Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird.

Before becoming a writer in her 30s, she has owned up to working at various jobs including legal secretary, lecturer, and home help.

An unrealised ambition, she lets slip, was going on the stage, which makes her current association with York Theatre Royal all the more rewarding. A few years ago artistic director Damian Cruden presented a stage version of Behind The Scenes At The Museum. Now he's directing the English premiere of her play Abandonment, first seen during the Edinburgh Festival three years ago.

That was commissioned after Atkinson wrote a short play for the Traverse Theatre, and later worked with the same director on a short film. "That was just great because, as a writer, you're always looking to change direction and keep fresh," she says. "I've always loved the theatre and wanted to be an actress, so it was like getting in by the back door."

Not that she underplays the problem of switching from the page to the stage. "It was a bit relentless because you're left with those spaces where you describe things like the carpet and what people are wearing," she explains.

"That was a challenge, to always write dialogue and convey everything without useful props like adverbs. Everything is left to the words, and you have to have a lot of faith in actors. You have to believe they are intelligent, which they are, and will understand what you've written.

"When you're writing a novel, you're very much in control. With a play, the actors interpret what you've written."

Abandonment, in common with much of her fiction, flashes back and forth between the past and the present as recently-divorced Elizabeth finds the history and past inhabitants of her newly-renovated Victorian house imposing themselves on the present.

Apart from attending the first day of rehearsals and making changes to the text to remove the Scottish references, Atkinson is happy to stay away until the first night. Just as she was content to let someone else - Bryony Lavery - adapt Behind The Scenes At The Museum for the stage and radio.

"I'm very open to what people want to do with it. If you did it with a novel, I'd probably slice your head off," she says. "For me, it's also a great release to work with theatre because, as a novelist, you write on your own."

She's written a TV adaptation of Behind The Scenes, although its future is uncertain. "The script is lying on someone's desk at the moment," she says. "It may leave TV and go back to being a film. I know they think that may be the place for it."

She left York to study English at Dundee University, but returned to live in the city for a time in the early 1980s before returning to Scotland. "I used to feel quite nostalgic but, after I'd written Behind The Scenes At The Museum, I didn't feel homesick any more," she says.

Her home city may feature in future work as she wants to write a book about the railways and she says York is the obvious place to set it. Her only worry is that "everyone is writing historical novels at the moment".

She began writing seriously - for women's magazines - while teaching at Dundee. That led to winning the 1986 Woman's Own Short Story Competition, as well as several other prizes for short stories. Being named the Whitbread prize-winner was one thing, living up to the title with her follow-up, Human Croquet, was another matter altogether.

"I wasn't really aware of this expectation. I didn't really think about it," she says. "I try not to think about critical reception. You just get sick if you do because it's such a horrible thing when a book comes out. In this country particularly, book reviewing is not about reviewing the book but other things.

"I've written a couple of reviews, but only of books I really liked. I'd never say a negative thing in print because I know how horrible it feels to be on the other side of it."

She finds everyone is so much nicer in the theatre world, although I suspect that comment doesn't necessarily extend to critics.

Writing another play is an ambition, although she too immersed in her next novel at the moment to think about it. But she's keen to make use of previous theatre experiences. "You learn so much from your mistakes. It's like having one child, it's a shame not to put into practice everything you've learnt on a second. So I will write another play eventually," she says.

* Abandonment opens at York Theatre Royal tomorrow and continues until April 26. Tickets (01904) 623568.