Laura Barnett: I wrote by instinct with an element of risk and chaos

The first inkling of Laura Barnett becoming a writer, arrived aged five. A precious only child, growing up in London with her Librarian mother, Laura was required to make a number of hospital visits, as many children are. It was evening, returning from St. Thomas’s, when she looked back, gazed at the sunset and knew, she had to commit the fleeting intense moment, to paper.

‘It was like a painting by Turner, so beautiful. I asked mum for something to write on – a napkin and an eyeliner – and a wrote a poem about what I could see. She has still has that napkin,’

Picture: @Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
Picture: @Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Today Laura Barnett is a bestselling author, her debut novel ‘The Versions of Us’ spending ten weeks at the top of the Sunday Times hardcover list, six weeks at the top of the Paperback Fiction list, been translated for 26 countries and optioned for film.

‘I had no idea, the response completely surprised me. The best you can ever hope for is that it reaches readers who’d enjoy it, identify with the story and characters.’

In conversation with Dave Windass, Laura explains the premise – the elevator pitch – for her global hit novel. ‘ The Versions of Us, is a story of two people Eva and Jim across sixty years, we follow the relationship over three different trajectories, through the decades.’

The Versions of Us hinges on the what if moment, exploring the very real instances where decisions are made and lives take a totally different path. Laura describes a moment, while she was living abroad for her studies, missing her uni friends still in the U.K. finishing their degrees, she had a very real sense of her life changing direction: past times, friends, interests, all shifting, all different from the previous year.

Another what if moment came in Laura’s life, when she asked her mum whether she should do music or writing. As a teen Laura was in an girl punk band. ‘We weren’t very good,’ she admits. She does tell a great anecdote about playing the Alternative Miss World show, where Vivienne Westwood danced to their band, at the front of stage. Her mum persuaded her that writing was the best option, with books propping up the walls in every room, she was hardly going to say differently.

Asked how she gets her inspiration, Laura quotes the recently departed Leonard Cohen when he said,’If I knew where good songs come from, I’d go there more often.’ Laura had written two novels in her twenties, neither found a publisher. At aged thirty after a decade in journalism, feature writing, critiquing arts and theatre, she began asking herself tough questions: questions every writer and artist, asks at one time or another. Why do I write, what do I have to say, am I doing something other to what already exists? These heart stopping questions, can and do stifle and kill creativity dead.

I needed to write this book,’ Laura explains. ‘With this story I was dredging up something deeper, more profound and emotional. It arrived fully formed, the structure, the idea of choices and consequences.’ Googling what would become her title, she searched for the book online, believing that she must have seen or read this book somewhere already: a bit like when Macca dreamed Yesterday and didn’t trust that he hadn’t heard it from some place else.

‘I wrote by instinct with an element of risk and chaos’

Asked about the complicated structure and process, whether she has post it notes and maps all over her study, she disappoints by describing a ‘scarily tidy’ work space. ‘I wrote it as it appears in the book, I wrote by instinct with an element of risk and chaos. I was aware I couldn’t get too attached to one version or another.’

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Laura reads two excerpts, the first has Eva and Jim meeting in Cambridge in 1958, both are students and both are running late. There’s a line in the reading, which echoes the theme of the book.‘He wants to tell her what it feels like to be set on a course not of his own choosing.’ Then in the second reading, we see Jim painting a tryptic: each work features a similar scene, but closer inspection reveals subtle differences, the faces change, the position of the furniture…

Laura’s next novel picks up on her love of music and is to be called ‘Greatest Hits’. It tells the story of a singer songwriter – in the mould of Chrissie Hynde or Kate Bush – now in her 60s, who is returning to the scene to put out a new record, her greatest hits of the title.

By working with real life, singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams, Laura is avoiding the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome by making it. Regular Humber Mouth fans will recognise the name, she played a concert for us last year. When released next year, the book will come complete with a sixteen-track album allowing readers to hear the music that inspires each of the sixteen chapters.

‘All you can do is write the best book you can, and that’s what I have done.’

Buy The Versions of Us By Laura Barnett

Laura is currently working with Arts Emergency – project set up by comedian Josie Long – which looks to engage, inspire creativity and mentor 16-25 year olds.

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