Laura Barnett: An Exclusive Interview on The Versions of Us

Laura Barnett: An Exclusive Interview on The Versions of Us

Hi Laura, congratulations on being chosen to take part in the Richard and Judy Spring 2016 Book Club! How did it feel to find out The Versions of Us had been selected?

Oh my goodness, oh it was so exciting. I was actually really unwell, I suffer from migraines and I’d had to take a couple of days off while I was in bed in pain. And then my editor phoned with this news and it was just really wonderful, it absolutely made my day. It’s the kind of thing that when you imagine getting published, and when you imagine the best possible scenario for how it could go, you imagine being part of this. As a reader it’s something that I’ve always been very aware of, and it’s always helped me shape my own reading choices, so it’s thrilling. Thank you!

We loved The Versions of Us and all its characters. Who was your favourite character to write?

Hmm. I can’t choose Eva or Jim, because that would be unfair, I couldn’t possibly choose between them. It’s funny, I really enjoyed writing Ted Simpson who obviously becomes quite central in Eva’s life in version two. I enjoyed thinking about him as a sort of counterpoint to Jim. Jim’s quite restless and interchangeable, possibly quite selfish, and Ted as an older man – someone who’s quite sure of himself and has found his place in the world – is a very different kind of man. And he really does love Eva. I was very clear when writing the book, while there is a sense that Eva and Jim being together is possibly the best possible version for them, that model is challenged in various different ways. And I did want each of the protagonists to find happiness in different ways with different people. So Ted is one of those characters.

And also Eva’s mother Miriam Edelstein. It’s funny, I didn’t realise until after I finished the first draft how much my own family history had found its way into the Edelstein story. My step-grandmother Anita was born in Vienna, raised a Catholic but found out she was Jewish after Hitler invaded Austria, so she actually fled Vienna in the late 30’s, more or less as Miriam does, and came to live in North London. So their house – the house that Eva grows up in – is the house that I spent many happy years in with my step-grandma.

Ah, so that’s why it feels so authentic! Is there a message that you’d like readers to take from the book?

It’s a really interesting question, I’ve not been asked it before. Readers are totally free to interpret it as they will, but I think what I intended in writing it was to consider what role fate actually plays in our lives. Some people see it as an argument in favour of fate – whatever happens they’re destined to come together – others probably see it slightly closer to what I was thinking when I was writing it, which was that things are a lot more random and complicated than that. I do tend to believe that things have some sort of pattern or symmetry to them, because I just think that things are too beautiful for there not to be. I can’t believe in complete chaos, but equally I do think we shape our own lives through our own decisions, our own characters, our personalities, our professional successes and failures, and there’s a degree of luck involved. So I guess I’d like readers to feel there isn’t just one perfect way to live and one perfect person to live it with, we will find a way to be happy no matter what, and it might be a slightly different way to how we imagined.

Do you have a favourite moment in the book?

There’s a moment about halfway through, which I can remember finding quite powerful while I was writing it, which is from Jim’s point of view, but I can’t remember off the top of my head which version it is. I think it’s version two. He’s living in Cornwall with Helena in the commune – which I know he does in versions two and three – and it’s early in the morning, he’s made coffee, he’s had a chat with Howard who he lives with, and he’s walking down to his studio to start painting. And he looks down at the sea and feels this sudden rush of happiness. And I write that he feels that happiness, it’s almost like a moment of mindfulness, he’s inside that happiness, he’s aware that what happiness is is a fleeting thing. It’s not a state to strive for or to seek to live in but this fleeting, wonderful thing that comes and passes, and you have to hold onto it for as long as you can. And as soon as I wrote that I realised that’s something I really believe. So that has stayed with me.

What was the biggest challenge for you when writing?

I think the biggest challenge was not feeling daunted by what I was taking on. When I first had the idea it came to me really clearly one morning in Spring 2013. And it was so clear in my mind that I wanted to tell three versions of the same relationship from beginning to end, that I started to think that I’d read this before. I was pretty sure that this novel existed because it was so clear. So I spent days trying to check whether it did, scouring the internet, and it became clear that it didn’t exist. And then I thought ‘right, well this is something I’m going to have to write’ because I wanted to read it more than anything. And hot on the heels of that idea came a degree of fear, because obviously if no one’s done it before you think ‘well it must be impossible’. Someone must have tried it, it seems so simple, almost an obvious idea, I couldn’t really understand why it hadn’t been done before. So I did just have to keep faith – I did a lot of running, which I find is quite good for breaking down your defences and making you fearless – and just believe that I was going to make it work. That I was going to lead the reader through these three versions without completely confusing them, and I think that has happened, I think it has worked.

It must have taken a lot of plotting?

It didn’t actually, no! I did plot out the three different versions, a paragraph each before I started, but other than that it was kind of all just in my head. People always say ‘did you cover your walls in post-it notes’ but I didn’t. I think I must just have a complicated brain!

What was your favourite book as a child, and what is your favourite book now?

As I child I loved loads of authors but I was particularly obsessed with the Malory Towers books. Was that Enid Blyton? I think there’s something very comforting about them. And the fact that I was an only child growing up in South London, going to my local comprehensive primary school, made my life as different from theirs as it could possibly be. But I loved all the midnight feasts and adventures. And I guess the politics are really reactionary now but I think there was a sense of girls succeeding on their own terms, being naughty, being tomboy-ish, being their own people. So I loved those books!

And as an adult my favourite author is Anne Tyler. I have a quote from her at the beginning of the novel and I’m really glad she gave me permission to use it because I would’ve been really sad if she hadn’t. Oh I’ve loved her since I was a teenager, and my mum – who has been a big influence on me as a reader, she was a librarian and hugely into books – she gave me a copy of one of Anne Tyler’s novels when I was thirteen and I just fell for it immediately. The sense that she gives of slipping immediately into what seem like ordinary lives and going under the surface, and showing just how extraordinary and strange and wonderful apparently ordinary lives are, that’s really stayed with me. She’s had a huge influence on me.