Laura Barnett: An Exclusive Interview on The Versions of Us

Laura Barnett: An Exclusive Interview on The Versions of Us

“Truly enthralling… I simply adored this wonderful novel” – Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist

“I absolutely loved [The Versions of Us]. It’s so elegantly and beautifully written… I was equally enthralled by each of the three versions…a really wonderful book.” – Esther Freud

“It’s annoying when a book won’t let you give it up. You put it to one side and think “maybe I will read that later” because you have more important things to do. And there it is the next day, in your hands, wide open, pulling you back in, just not letting you go… As a first novel this is quite an accomplishment.” – NewBooksMag

We caught up with Laura to hear more about her new book and the thoughts behind it.

Hi Laura! Your new book The Versions of Us could be described as three stories weaved into one. What was your method for planning such a complex story?

I first had the idea of telling the story of a relationship in three different ways a couple of years ago. I then had to figure out who my characters were exactly, and get to grips with the nuts and bolts of the three stories. So I wrote character sketches for Eva and Jim, and then three brief story synopses, one for each version. These gave me a firm foundation on which to build, but I departed from them quite a bit as I wrote the first draft – so a lot of the planning happened as I went along.

Were there any books that particularly influenced you when writing The Versions of Us?

I wouldn’t say any books particularly influenced me while I was writing – all writers, I think, have to be careful not to inadvertently emulate the authors we most admire. But when I first started the novel, I did take down several books from my shelf that I felt had taken an original approach to structure and form, without undermining the heart and soul of their stories: One Day by David Nicholls, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. Whenever I felt daunted by the scale of what I was attempting, I’d read a couple of paragraphs from one of those, and feel both encouraged, and inspired.

There’s a really thought-provoking concept behind The Versions of Us of missed chances and the impact seemingly insignificant events can have on your life. How did the idea come to you?

As I say, it was an idea that came to me quite suddenly one morning, and just embedded itself in my mind. I’d got married about six months before, so I suppose I was thinking about how easily I might have missed the chance to meet the man who would become my husband. I was immediately excited about exploring the concept of “what if” – of how all our lives turn on the decisions that we make every day, most of them seemingly so small and inconsequential. And I wanted to try something new and ambitious in terms of fiction, too – to write three different versions of the same narrative, something that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been done before.

The notion we’ve been left with from your book is that it’s easy to regret a missed chance, but that chance won’t necessarily have led you to a better life – just in a different direction. Is this a message you intended and what other messages would you want readers to take from your book?

That’s interesting – the notion you describe is very much the one I held in my mind as I was writing. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to promote the idea that there might be one perfect version of a life, and that if we miss that one chance, we will forever live in some poor, black-and-white photocopy of that sunny, Technicolor version. Lives, and people, are much more complex than that. In terms of other messages, of course each reader will have their own, personal reaction. But I would certainly love readers to come to the end of the novel feeling that there are many ways to live a fulfilled life, and that both sorrow and joy are woven into every person’s story; that we are all the sum of both our mistakes, and our triumphs.

Your story could equally be interpreted as an argument for fate or an argument for chance. Do you believe each person is one version of themselves, destined to make certain decisions and have certain encounters, or are our lives more fluid than that and open to chance?

Definitely the latter. I don’t think there’s some invisible force, moving us around the planet to suit its own purpose: the whole concept of predestination, to me, seems infinitely depressing. I believe that the course of our lives is determined by a combination of luck, circumstance, and our own decisions – but equally, I can’t help wanting to believe that, no matter the outcome of those decisions, everything will somehow work out as it should.

The characters in your story seem to have different characteristics dependent on the paths their lives take. Do you think our decisions have a big influence on how we grow as people or do you think who we are influences the decisions we make?

I think it’s a bit of both. Eva and Jim, for me, are, essentially, the same people in each version: they have the same backgrounds, the same ambitions and desires. But I was interested, throughout, in how the different circumstances they find themselves in – their careers flourishing or withering; the twists and turns of their relationships – might affect their attitudes, even their personalities. I suppose it’s related to the whole nature versus nurture debate: if you remove a child from the circumstances in which they were born, will they grow into the same adult they’d have been had they stayed put? I don’t know the answer to that – but it was certainly an interesting question to examine in fiction.

You capture the voices of your characters from 18 through to their 70s. Was it a struggle to make that so authentic?

Thank you. It didn’t feel like a struggle. I think once you get to know a character – once you live with them in your head, for such a long time – the whole process has a naturalness to it; it just seems to flow. But I did do a good deal of research for each period the characters live through. And I particularly enjoyed writing the passages in which Eva and Jim are older. I have a real fascination with, and respect for, older people, and the layers of memory and experience that they carry with them.

Do you have a favourite “version”, and did that change through the process of writing the book?

Ah, that’s a difficult one! I think when I started out, I favoured version one – I remember finding versions two and three much harder going at first; perhaps partly because version one is the most traditional romantic narrative – or at least, it seems so at first. But by the end, I no longer had a favourite – I had really enjoyed drawing out the arc of each one.

Did you know how the book would end when you started out?

I always knew that I would end the novel by bringing the three versions right up to the present day, but I didn’t know exactly how I would do that.

The Versions of Us has received a lot of comparisons to Sliding Doors in reviews. What do you think of this comparison?

I don’t at all mind the comparisons to Sliding Doors. I loved the film when I first saw it as a teenager, and although what I’m trying to do in The Versions of Us is, I hope, a little more complex and subtle – partly because fiction, as a medium, allows greater breathing space than film – I think the comparison provides a useful jumping-off point for readers.

We’ve heard that the TV rights for Versions of Us have been optioned! Congratulations, do you have any more news on that yet?

Thank you! It’s all very exciting. It’s early days, so I don’t have much more news as yet. But Trademark Films, who’ve optioned the rights, have been behind some really fantastic novel adaptations – including Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, and Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle – and they have some brilliant ideas about how to translate The Versions of Us to television.

Who would you cast as Eva, Jim and David if you could choose anyone?

I shouldn’t really say, I’m afraid – it wouldn’t be fair to the actors who might eventually get cast! But I can certainly see some particular faces in my mind.

Could you tell us any sneaky details about your next novel Greatest Hits?

Absolutely. The novel is about a British female singer-songwriter – somewhere between Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell – in her sixties, reflecting on her life, her music and her career. Music is my next greatest love after fiction, and I’m really enjoying the challenge of getting under a musician’s skin. I’m playing around with structure again, too – but for exactly how, you’ll have to wait and see…

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is out on the 28th May 2015 and is available to order online as a Hardback and eBook.

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