May 26, 2017

Laura Barnett on writing her debut novel, The Versions of Us

The Versions of Us follows two Cambridge students, Eva and Jim, and the three different paths their lives could take after a chance meeting. Drawing comparisons to Sliding Doors and One Day, Laura’s debut novel has been the literary hit of the summer – having already rocketed up the Sunday Times’ bestseller list, it’s soon to be adapted for the screen by Trademark Films. ALEX NEWSON caught up with Laura to find out how she kept track of her unusual love story, what she’s working on next, and which books she’ll be packing in her suitcase this summer…

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The tagline to your novel is “Some moments change everything”. Do you have any ‘what if’ moments that you look back on and wonder about? 

 

Many! The one that looms largest in my mind is the moment I met my husband Andy. We were introduced at a party in Edinburgh in 2008; I often think how easy it would have been for either of us to have decided not to go – and how different our lives would have been in that case. As for others – well, there’s the fact I chose to study Spanish and Italian at university rather than English, which meant I ended up spending almost two years in Rome, having lots of adventures. Or, going back even further, the time my mum met my dad, and began the relationship that would eventually lead to my own arrival in the world…
 
 
Each of Eva and Jim’s stories is equally convincing. Did you have a favourite version – or one that you felt was the ‘true’ version – when you were writing them?
 
Thank you, I’m so glad you think so. I was actually very clear from the start about not wanting there to be one “true” version – I didn’t want to imply that we’re all intended to follow one, preordained path, and therefore any deviation from that path is down to our own mistakes or shortcomings. Life is far more complex and multi-layered than that. I wanted each of the three versions, and each of the character’s points of view, to have as much validity and emotional pull as the others, to emphasise the fact that there is no “perfect” version of their lives  – just as there isn’t for any of us.  
 
 
The plot device of three intertwining stories was really interesting. How did you manage to weave the three stories together and keep track of each of them simultaneously?
 
It all just seemed to make sense in my head as I was writing. It never occurred to me to write the three strands separately, and then cut and paste them together – I think that might have felt a bit forced. From the start, I set about weaving the three stories together, alternating between them – but not slavishly following a set pattern of moving between versions one, two and three, as sometimes it felt more important to move the story on and skip forward to another version. I kept track by writing three short synopses – one for each version – before I started, and by referring to a document in which I noted all the characters’ names and key dates. It also helped that a lot of the most important events in Eva and Jim’s lives – graduation; funerals; the weddings and birthdays of friends and family – are the same in all three. These events acted like fulcrum points: moments when I could show the reader the differences between the three versions, side by side, and help anchor them in each narrative.
 
Do you think our lives and loves are pre-destined, or more open to chance? 
 
I definitely don’t believe our lives and loves are pre-destined, but I’m also not a believer in completely random chance. My mum used to keep a little book of quotes in our bathroom when I was growing up; I remember one that said, “Be at peace, and know there is a pattern running through your life”. That probably comes closest to summing up what I believe: that there is a pattern – a map, if you like – for every life, but it is up to us to decide how to interpret it.
 
Have you ever done a creative writing course, or have you always written alone? 
 
I have done the odd short course – at City Lit in London; at the brilliant writers’ charity Spread the Word – but nothing more structured than a day here, a day there. They were very useful and interesting, and I know a lot of people who’ve studied more formal courses in creative writing, and found them incredibly instructive. But for me, it was most important to actually find the time to write around a demanding job as a journalist – so spending too much time on courses would have smacked, for me, like procrastination. Some of them are very expensive, too. In my opinion, the most important source of instruction in writing lies in reading – widely, without prejudice, and always with an eye on the tricks and techniques the writer is employing.
 
 
You wrote two books in your twenties but this is your first published novel. Do you think you’ve changed as a writer in that time?
 
Well spotted – I did write two other books, and yes, I do think I’ve changed as a writer in that time. I put a lot of time, energy and love into those novels, and they were instrumental in teaching me how to actually construct a novel from the ground up – perhaps that’s where a creative writing course might have come in handy! But it wasn’t until I started writing The Versions of Us that I  hoped I might have really hit on something interesting and original. The writing felt much less obviously autobiographical, too.
 
 
The Observer hailed you as one of its ‘New Faces of Fiction’ earlier this year. What’s been your biggest ‘pinch me’ moment since The Versions of Us was published?
 
They did, and I was absolutely thrilled. To be honest, I’ve been pinching myself over and over again since my agent first submitted the novel to publishers last year; I ought to have a massive bruise on my arm by now! But perhaps the biggest “pinch me” moment came when I learned The Versions of Us had gone straight into the Sunday Times’ top-ten bestsellers list. I’m pretty sure my entire neighbourhood heard me shout out loud…!
 
 
You’re also the author of some award-winning short stories. How does writing a novel compare?
 
Yes – I’ve been writing short stories since I was very young. But I was always writing novels, too – or at least, the beginnings of them, with grandiose, derivative titles like “The Further Adventures of the Famous Five”. How to sum up the difference between them… Perhaps a short story is like one, distilled snapshot of a life, rather than a whole film. Of course a novel takes a lot longer to write – it’s a real marathon – but a short story is unforgiving; there’s no room for laziness or imprecision. So each has its own particular pleasures and challenges.
 
 
The Versions of Us is already set to be adapted for TV by Trademark Films – congratulations! Are you excited about seeing your characters brought to life on screen?
 
Thank you very much! I am so excited. Trademark Films have made so much brilliant, innovative work in film and television, from Shakespeare in Love to Parade’s End – and they have some fantastic ideas about how to translate the novel to the screen. And yes – I’m sure seeing Eva and Jim come to life, in the minds and bodies of the actors, will be incredible; another “pinch me” moment, for sure! 
 
 
Your novel is fast becoming one of the Must Reads of the summer. Which books will you be packing in your suitcase this year? ?
 
We’ve actually just booked a holiday to Greece to attend a friend’s wedding, so this is very present in my mind. I think I’ll be taking Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf – this wonderful American writer, who died last year, is one of my big discoveries of 2015; and Her by Harriet Lane, about which I’ve heard very good things. And also – because I never travel with fewer than three novels – God In Ruins by the amazing Kate Atkinson.
 
 
And finally….can you tell us anything about your next novel ‘Greatest Hits’?
 
Sure. It’s about a female singer-songwriter, looking back over her life and her music. It’s early days still, so I’d rather not say too much more about it than that, but I’m so enjoying getting to know the character, and listening to a lot of music by brilliant women like Sandy Denny, Stevie Nicks, Annie Lennox and Kate Bush. It still astonishes me that so many women of their generation had to fight so much harder than men to be taken seriously as artists – and it would be naïve to think that this isn’t still happening today. I’m looking at that, and at the pressures exerted on women in particular by fame and success. But of course all that comes through the prism of the character and her story.

The Versions of Us is available in Hardback from all good bookshops and online from:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson | Book Depository | Waterstones | Amazon | Foyles

And in eBook from: Weidenfeld and Nicolson | Kindle | Kobo

 

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