About The Author
Laura Barnett is a journalist, who writes regularly for the Guardian, the Observer, the Daily Telegraph and Time Out. She lives in London with her husband and a cat called Eno. Her favorute writers include Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Tessa Hadley and and Elizabeth Strout.
In 2014, she published Advice from the Players, a collection of advice from actors to anyone looking for a career in the theatre. Television adaptation rights were sold before publication and the book is being translated into 14 languages. Laura is currently working on her second novel, provisionally entitled 'Greatest Hits'.
Her first novel is The Versions of Us, a novel that explores possible permutations of the future when two Cambridge students are thrown together by fate, via three concurrent storylines. She is a writer, in love with the student theatre world's leading man; he is an artist weighed down by comparisons to his father's own striking art.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Laura talks about how she kept track of the branching variations of her characters' lives, the concept of the artist's muse and whether fate played a part in her own marriage.
Questions & Answers
Why did you decide upon three variations?
The initial idea for The Versions of Us came to me one morning, more or less fully formed. I had in my mind a love story, told from beginning to end, in three different ways - so the tripartite structure was there from the start. And when I sat down to plan the novel more fully, it just felt right to have three variations. Two, it seemed to me, would have felt insubstantial, and four or more would have run the risk of becoming too unwieldy.
How did you keep track of the three storylines? Did you write them consecutively or concurrently?
I wrote them concurrently, weaving between the three versions as I went. Again, this was an instinctive choice: it simply didn’t occur to me to write each storyline separately. I was always thinking of the novel as a whole, and of the importance of pacing and tone: I wanted the versions to flow into one another, without readers being too aware of the joins. To keep track, I wrote out a summary of each storyline before I started, and kept a document with important dates - birthdays, weddings, funerals. During the editing process I created a fuller spreadsheet, showing every significant event in each version. But for the first few drafts, the stories really all just lived in my head.
The same cast of supporting characters moves in and out of Eva and Jim's lives. Were you tempted to feature a storyline that took them much further apart?
No - it was always clear to me, from that morning when I first had the idea for the book, that the storylines wouldn’t diverge too far, and that the same cast of characters would move in and out of each one. Partly, this was a practical choice: I wanted to keep a continuity in the characters and life events surrounding Eva and Jim. But it was also a stylistic decision. I am most drawn to realism in literature, and I wanted to explore the small choices and variations that influence a life, rather than, say, have Jim move to Australia and become a sheep-farmer in one version, and a fireman in Cincinnati in another.
The level of professional success that Eva and Jim, individually, experience varies in each storyline. But can we assume that each was, in some way, an essential muse to the other?
Absolutely. I was very interested, in the novel, in exploring the ways in which all artists and writers draw on and reflect their own life experiences, often with unexpected, refracted results. In that way, I see Eva’s writing and Jim’s art as another aspect of the theme of “versions”: each of them presents their own version of their life and love in their work. And in versions two and three, particularly, Jim’s art became an intriguing way of exploring how Eva is still present for him, subconsciously, even when they are apart.
Your own journalism includes fair amount of criticism, albeit largely of theatre. How do you feel about exposing your own work to the fourth estate?
Nervous! 'Exposing' is the right word: it does feel as if I am putting my head above the parapet, and waiting to see what is thrown at me. Of course journalism is very much a two-way street these days - we all engage with our readers, so I’m used to getting a fair bit of, shall we say, robust feedback. But with fiction, the form that is closest to my heart, the stakes feel much higher. That said, as a critic myself I understand how much care and attention most critics put into their work, and, of course, that their opinion is just that - an opinion, not a definitive view, but one that is definitely worth listening to.
Television adaptation rights for the novel were optioned before the book was published. What would be your fantasy casting for Eva and Jim?
I’m afraid I couldn't possibly say! It would be unfair to anyone who does eventually get cast. But I certainly have a few ideas.
You're relatively recently married yourself. Have you and your husband ever identified a twist of fate that might, had it gone another way, have kept you apart? Do you believe in fate?
I’m not sure I do believe in fate - not, at least, in the classic sense, of some unseen hand moving us all around like pawns on a chessboard. But my husband and I met by chance: we were introduced by mutual friends, at a party in Edinburgh that either one of us could so easily not have attended. So I’ve often thought about whether we might still have met, in some other way, at some other point in our lives - and, in that case, whether our circumstances might have conspired to prevent a relationship between us from developing. And there, of course, lies the premise for The Versions of Us....