She was born in York, and studied English Literature at the University of Dundee, gaining her Masters Degree in 1974. During her final year of this course, she was married for the first time. The marriage lasted only two years, but produced Atkinson's first daughter, Eve, who was born in 1975. She subsequently studied for a doctorate in American Literature which she failed at the viva stage. After leaving university, she took on a variety of miscellaneous jobs from home help to legal secretary and teacher. She lived in Whitby, Yorkshire for a time, but now lives in Edinburgh.