Editor’s Q&A with Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us
Following the success of her debut novel The Versions of Us, the film rights of which have just been bought by the minds behind My Week With Marilyn. In The Middle talks to Laura about destiny, love and her advice for aspiring writers.
The book has drawn parallels with Sliding Doors – what is your favourite alternate universe book or film?
My favourite alternate universe book or film – well, I guess it would be Sliding Doors. I remember seeing it when I was about fifteen for the first time and finding something just so fascinating about the idea that these two doors close and she either gets on the train or she doesn’t, and that definitely set my imagination racing. I’ve also been influenced by a lot of Latin American fiction which tends to play with the idea of different realities and different universes, kind of postmodern fiction. I studied Spanish at university so that definitively got under my skin, and also Italo Calvino and his If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, which again plays with the idea that there are many different ways of telling the same story.
Does the idea that there are multiple versions of you living different lives from your own scare or excite you?
(Laughs) Probably a bit of both. I mean it’s one of those sort of just brilliant traits that kind of inspires people, the idea that we’re on this tiny little rock of a planet somewhere at the edge of a galaxy and there could be another planet somewhere that looks a little bit like ours, and the person that we are is just a little bit different. I wasn’t really thinking about that sci-fi parallel universe thing, it was more I guess almost a literary exercise: how three stories would complement each other and how the characters’ lives would interplay.
Other ‘what might have been’ stories usually have two paths, was there a significance of choosing three versions of events?
To me that felt like it wasn’t going to be diverse enough I suppose; there’s something quite elemental about the idea of three isn’t there, with the trinity, and you know it’s kind of an image that runs through so much of culture and it just felt right. It felt like one was just one story and obviously it wouldn’t work, two wouldn’t be interesting or experimental enough, and three hopefully was just right.
How did you keep track of the three narratives, did you write them at the same time?
I did yeah, I wrote it pretty much exactly as it appears. So switching between the three stories as I went, I didn’t write the whole of version one, then version two, then version three – I wrote it consecutively.
You’ve written a series of short stories, is this what you prefer to write and why you wrote three variations?
That’s a really interesting question. No, I mean I have written short stories, but it’s always been about novels for me. I’ve loved reading novels for as long as I can remember, from loving The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was about six to the sort of the novels I love now. So no, I’ve always had the novel in my head as an ambition, but I think for being a writer and trying to learn your craft, I think short stories are a really great exercise. It’s quite a different thing: it’s the difference between a marathon and a sprint I guess.
Was it important to you for Eva to be an English student and to have the story set in 1958?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was important exactly, but they were choices that I made in telling the story and in thinking about the story. The fact that it’s set in 1958, there was sort of logic to that, so I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell the relationship really from beginning to end, to the age of seventy.
The book tackles the idea of destiny, is this something you believe in?
The jury’s out on that one. I would say instinctively no, I certainly don’t believe in pre-determination. There does seem to be a pattern to things doesn’t there, and I guess we need to explore that in the idea that the three variations are still quite similar, they’re not completely different people. I think there are a lot of things that seem to be set in motion from the beginning, you can only control so much, I would say.
What have been the moments that have changed your career path?
One of the key moments was choosing to study modern languages instead of English. I’d always thought I would study English because I loved literature and I wanted to be a writer; I knew that from a young age. But I got really into Spanish at school and enjoyed travelling and learning about different cultures so I ended up doing Spanish and Italian. And I guess that took me down a different path in the sense that I ended up spending two years in Rome and I think that made me grow up quite a lot when I was nineteen when I had a number of Italian boyfriends and drank too many cocktails! As a writer, I think it’s really important I think that you spend time in other places, other worlds and learn how other people live and just develop empathy in that way, so that was a big career choice. And then I trained as a journalist after going to Cambridge before going to City University in London, then I worked at The Telegraph and I’m really glad I did that.
Do you think having a background in journalism has improved your ability to write fiction?
Yes I do, I think – well, yes and no. I’d say yes in that I feel particularly the kind of journalism that I’ve done – features and criticism – is all about detail, it’s about, you know, paying very close attention to what people say and how they say it. In terms of interviews and things like even what they’re wearing or where they live, and all those kind of details come out. And you understand that you can’t just write generalised statements, you have to really convey the sense of the person in as few words as you can. That’s the other thing I think writing to a deadline makes you aware of concision and I think that’s really important. But I think it can be a bit of a hinderance as well because you get used to not being able to make things up. I think sometimes I make it a bit hard for myself by, you know, literally plotting out the exact route my characters take from place to place on Google Maps, I actually feel quite guilty when I make things up. So a lot of what I write is very much rooted in fact and I do really try to thoroughly research everything and not just sort of take liberties. So sometimes I kind of feel like journalism plugs your imagination a little bit.
Do you have any advice for students who want to go into writing?
It sounds a bit obvious but my main advice would really be to do it – write as much as you can, find a slot that works for you to do it every day just so you can keep getting better and improving. And also it sounds a bit obvious but lots of people forget about this; read, read a lot, read really critically with an open mind, read things that you don’t necessarily immediately think that you’ll enjoy because you’ll always learn something from it. Really try and analyse what those authors have done; how they’ve done it, what makes that bit work, what makes the plot tick, what makes the characters work, like really think and read analytically and then that’s your kind of apprenticeship from the author.
Roald Dahl wrote in his shed, what’s your writing space like and do you have any rituals you go through when you’re writing?
I write in an attic room in my house and it’s quite tidy. I have quite a good coffee machine downstairs in the kitchen and I have to continually replenish that. I do have some scented candles that I sometimes burn, but other than that no rituals other than sitting down and getting on with it really.
Can you give any insight into your next novel, Greatest Hits?
Absolutely yeah! So I’m nearly at the end of the first draft of that one, so it’s about a musician, a female singer songwriter in her sixties, who has been very successful and then for various reasons has to retire from music and from the world really. The novel is set over one day when she’s in her studio at home listening, for the first time in many years, to her back catalogue and choosing a number of songs to go on a greatest hits album. Each song that she chooses becomes a means through which we learn about her life; who she is and who she’s been, and through which she comes to terms with her past, really, and with her future.
The Versions of Us was released in paperback in January.
Emma Bowden, Hannah Holmes and Zoe Delahunty-Light
Image: The Guardian.