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Interview: May 5, 2016

Laura Barnett is a writer, journalist and theater critic, whose first novel, THE VERSIONS OF US, is now available in the US. It’s a story of how lives intersect, of possibilities and consequences that ring across the shifting decades, of how even the smallest choices can define the course of our lives. In this interview with Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, Barnett discusses the challenges and delights of writing three versions of the same story and which story she likes best. She also opens up about her own feelings regarding fate and why she may not be as much of a romantic as she’d thought.

The Book Report Network: You wrote THE VERSIONS OF US in chronological order, juggling all three storylines in your head as you wrote. What made you decide to take on that challenge? Along the way, how did you handle all the plotting and details to keep them all straight?

Laura Barnett: It was an instinctive decision --- it simply didn’t occur to me to write the book in any other way. The idea arrived in my head quite out of the blue, one spring morning in 2013. I’d written two novels, neither of which I believed were ever going to be published, and had decided to ask myself some tough questions about what I really felt I had to say as a writer. The concept for THE VERSIONS OF US seemed to come as an answer to these questions.

I was excited and terrified, in more or less equal measure, about the prospect of writing three versions of the same story. And as I’m not a writer who plans my story arcs meticulously, I knew I’d have to do it in freefall. But I did write three brief paragraphs outlining each version of Eva and Jim’s story, and I kept records as I went along of important dates and character names, and the minute variations between them.

TBRN: Of the three storylines, do you have a favorite? Was any one of them easier to write than the others?

LB: When I started writing, I definitely felt most emotionally drawn to version one --- the story that, without giving too much away, follows the most conventional romantic arc, at least initially. I suspect that’s because I’d only recently gotten married myself, so, as a newlywed, I was naturally willing the characters to take the most romantic path!

But that changed continually as I wrote, and I no longer have a favorite. I suspect that sprang partly from the approach I took to writing the book, weaving continually among all three stories. It meant that I could never get too absorbed in one version at the expense of the others, as the following day I’d have to leave that story behind and move on to the next.

TBRN: The story takes place over a number of decades beginning in 1958 in Cambridge. How did you research what was happening historically to be sure you got your details right?

LB: In a number of ways: by interviewing people who’d had first-hand experience of the places, jobs and eras I was tackling; by reading widely; by watching relevant films and TV shows; by listening to music, and looking at art; by trawling through Google images and Pinterest. The archivists at Newnham College, Cambridge, where Eva studies in the novel, and Guardian News and Media, whose historical records helped me build a picture of the British newspaper industry in the early '60s, were incredibly helpful, too.

But I was wary, throughout, of weighing the novel down too heavily with my research. It was important that I knew as much as possible about each era and place, but the most important thing, ultimately, was to tell the story and resist the desire to show off about how many books or newspaper cuttings I’d consulted.

TBRN: Fate is a theme in the book as much as choice. In each of the storylines, fate took the characters in different directions. I found myself shouting “no!” in more than one instance. How tough was it to steer your characters away from an action that could have brought them happiness?

LB: Very tough! I also found myself occasionally shouting at the screen as I wrote. It wasn’t so much that I felt I was steering my characters away from something that could have brought them happiness, but that I was witnessing them making all sorts of mistakes and bad decisions, and I wanted to save them from those!

But I like my characters to have minds of their own: that’s partly why I don’t like to plan my novels too much. For me, fiction, especially when it’s rooted in realism, should be as natural and surprising as daily life. If we all knew exactly what was going to happen each day, we wouldn’t bother to get out of bed. In the same way, I think a writer knowing too much in advance about how a scene is going to go can end up robbing that scene of its spontaneity and excitement.

TBRN: You give the reader the opportunity to think a lot about what would make a life fulfilling. Do you think about that a lot in your own life? Which version of each character do you think became the most fulfilled?

LB: I do think about that a lot in my own life, and I suspect it’s not a coincidence that this theme emerged in my novel just as I was entering my 30s and going through the sorts of major events that shape all our adult lives: marriage, buying a home, getting serious about my ambitions.

As for which version of each character becomes the most fulfilled, I can only say that I see each version of Eva and Jim as fulfilled, in a different way. I was very clear, from the start, that I didn’t want one version of their story to be the perfect, Ur-version, and for the others to be flawed aberrations. Real life is far more complicated than that, and I wanted the novel to reflect that. But it’s interesting that a lot of readers, since the novel has been published here in the UK and elsewhere around the world, have told me that they particularly fell in love with version two, where Eva and Jim don’t have the opportunity to be together until much later in life. I wasn’t expecting that at all!

TBRN: Do you consider yourself a romantic?

LB: Absolutely. Though it’s been interesting, since writing THE VERSIONS OF US, to talk to my husband, Andy, about our contrasting approaches to fate. He’s a big believer in fate, while I, when I started writing the novel, didn’t think I believed in fate at all: I felt, and still feel for the most part, that we make our own way in life, and that had Andy and I never met, we’d both have found fulfilling lives in different ways. But I’m glad we're both living this version of our lives: I can’t bear to imagine a life without him in it!

TBRN: Have you seen the film Sliding Doors, and did that provide any inspiration for you? Have you read ONE DAY or LIFE AFTER LIFE?

LB: I have seen Sliding Doors --- I was a teenager when it first came out and went to see it in the cinema, partly because it featured many of the London locations I knew well. And I’ve caught it a few times on TV since. I wouldn’t say it was an inspiration, exactly, but when I first had the idea for the book, the film naturally sprang to mind as a useful reference point. And yes, I had read ONE DAY a few years before, and loved it; but LIFE AFTER LIFE wasn’t published until I was about halfway through the first draft, and I didn’t read it until I finished. I adored that novel, too, and I find it intriguing that a number of contemporary novelists should be playing around with the idea of multiple lives and multiple versions. Perhaps there’s something in the air…

TBRN: The book was published in the UK first. Have you spoken with any book groups about it? If so, what has been their reactions? Is there one storyline that has emerged as a favorite?

LB: Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to meet, or hear from, a large number of book groups here in the UK and around the world --- the novel was selected for the Richard and Judy and Waterstones Book Clubs, which are both quite big deals over here, and offer useful reference points for book groups choosing novels to read.

I’ve so enjoyed meeting readers and hearing their very diverse reactions. A lot of older readers have wondered how on earth I could get inside the head of characters in their 70s when I’m only in my 30s myself; others have asked whether I papered my study in post-it notes to keep track of everything. And as I mentioned earlier, version two has definitely come out as the front-runner favorite so far. There’s something cheering, I think, about the idea that two people can fall in love so much later in life and finally find a way to be together.

TBRN: You are also a journalist and theater critic. As you were writing this book, did you ever think about what reviewers would think of your work?

LB: Ha, what an astute question! Yes, I did think about that, and I can’t say I wasn’t nervous about it. But I think perhaps it’s quite useful to have had that first-hand experience of reviewing. I know not only that most critics work very hard to provide a balanced, nuanced, insightful response, but also that such a response is always, ultimately, just one person’s opinion. That’s a very useful inoculation against letting my own understanding of what I do, and what’s important to me, sit in the hands of critics, rather than in those of my agent, editor, readers and, of course, myself.

TBRN: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

LB: I’ve just finished a draft of a new novel, GREATEST HITS. It’s about a musician --- a singer-songwriter, in her mid-60s, who has been very successful, but has retired from music for reasons she’s never explained to her fans. The novel is set over one day in spring 2015, when my character is at home in her studio in Kent, England, listening to songs from her back catalogue for the first time in a decade. Each song becomes a chapter about how and why that song was written --- so we learn the whole story of her life through her music.

I’m collaborating with a singer-songwriter on a soundtrack for the novel --- on actually bringing the fictional songs to life --- and I’m very excited indeed about that. The novel should be out in the UK next March, but as for the US publication date, I’d politely request that readers watch this space!