How long have you been intrigued by the ‘what if?’ questions of existence?
For as long as I can remember, really. My mum and I have often talked about the ‘road not taken’, to paraphrase Robert Frost. When she was twenty-one, my mum’s then boyfriend asked her to marry him, and move from London to New Mexico. She said no, but it’s so strange to think that, if she’d accepted, I might never have been born …
I can also remember being very aware, aged eighteen, of going off to university, and seeing my future branch away from that of my friends. It was another key moment in which I became intrigued by the question of ‘what if ’, and by how easily, even unconsciously, we find ourselves stepping off down one path rather than another.
Was the movie Sliding Doors an influence in the writing of this book?
I wouldn’t say it was an influence, but it was certainly a useful reference point. The initial idea for The Versions of Us – the story of one couple’s relationship, told from beginning to end, in three different ways – came to me one morning in spring 2013, more or less fully formed. As I began to research the other books, films and TV shows that had played with the parallel lives theme, I thought, naturally, of Sliding Doors. I’d watched it when it first came out in 1998, and enjoyed it – as a teenager, I used to hang out with my friends by the river Thames at Hammersmith, so it was fun seeing those locations on screen – and I suspect it did help lodge that fascination with the ‘what if ’ question in my mind. But in Sliding Doors, there are only two iterations of the story, rather than three; and addressing this kind of what-if scenario is a very different undertaking in a novel. In the film, just changing the colour of Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair helps keep the stories distinct. I had to find much more subtle ways to distinguish each version from the others.
Do you believe our lives are ordered by purely random chance, or a deeper, pre-planned destiny?
Ah, I wish I had an authoritative answer to this (but if I did, I would probably be founding a religion, rather than writing novels!). I definitely don’t believe in absolute predestination. The idea of some divine, unseen hand moving us around the globe like pawns on a chessboard has always depressed me: what point is there to living, it seems to me, if every move we make has already been decided for us? But neither do I believe in purely random chance; I see too much beauty and symmetry in life for that.
When I began writing The Versions of Us, I knew that I didn’t want the novel to stand as an argument for fate – for the idea, suggested by a lot of love stories, that there is one perfect person in this world for each of us, and that if we don’t meet him or her, we are doomed to live in misery. Our lives, surely, are far more complicated than that. In each version of my story, there is a profound connection between Eva and Jim, but it is tested by the pressures exerted by real life: by work, by family, by the passage of time. We see the characters having relationships with other people, as well as with each other. I am most interested, I suppose, in the unexpected journey life takes us on, and the different ways we all find to be happy.
Will your next novel have such a profound, philosophical theme?
Well, I am already a good way into writing my next novel, and its themes are less obviously philosophical – but still, I hope, profound. The novel is called Greatest Hits, and it’s about a British female singer-songwriter, now in her sixties, looking back on her life and career. I’m interested in the challenges posed by living a creative life, particularly for women; and in the ways artists make sense of their experiences through their work. And I’m having great fun inventing a character who, of course, never actually existed – but is as real in my mind as Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny or Kate Bush. That, I suppose, is the joy and the madness of writing fiction!