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A Q&A with Laura Barnett – Author of The Versions of Us

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Laura Barnett is a journalist and theatre critic. Perhaps you read her touching piece in last weekend’s The Guardian about people finding love in their later years. You may not have noticed the byline. But now her debut novel –The Versions of Us – is garnering rave reviews. The book is one of those novels with universal appeal because it taps into your feelings about your life no matter at what stage you are. Everyone at some point wonders what might have been, if they had done things differently, taken another path. said yes instead of no or vice versa. It might not necessarily relate to a love affair, it might have been a quirk of fate that made you miss something or put you somewhere at a certain point in time.

In this novel, it is a random thing that sets everything off: Eva, a student in Cambridge, is cycling on her way to a tutorial, when a rusty nail in the road causes her to swerve. The story splits off into three different versions – does she meet Jim who stops to help or not, does she leave her actor boyfriend David for Jim or not? We travel from 1950s Cambridge up to almost the present day, taking in New York, Greece, Suffolk, Cornwall, and London along the way. None of the three stories pan out in the way you would have expected or maybe they do, because your view of how things work out for them is coloured by your own views of love, happiness, marriage, compromise, ambition, adultery to name a few.

I am delighted that Laura answered some of my questions

I understand that you wrote the book chronologically – plaiting the three parts together rather than attempting to ‘lift’ each timeline out. I think this very much shows as no narrative strand is dominant and I was equally invested in all three versions. Did you ever try it another way or did you always know this was the way to go?

You’re absolutely right – I did write the book chronologically, plaiting the three parts together as I went. This approach just seemed natural to me from the start. It never even occurred to me to, say, write the whole of version one before tackling versions two and three. I was aware from the beginning of the need to pace the novel carefully – of, to borrow a filmic term, the need to jump-cut from one version to the next, while at the same time holding the whole narrative in view. Throughout, I was trying to conceive of the novel as an organic whole, rather as the sum of three disparate parts.

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I love the fact it is a completely random quirk of fate that – a rusty nail in the road that punctures a bicycle tyre forcing Eva to swerve to avoid the dog and meet Jim. Do you have your own ‘what if’ moment that you can share?

I’m so glad you related to that. It was important to me from the start that we got the sense of how the course of our lives can turn on a dime; of how easily, even randomly, we find ourselves choosing one path over another. As for my own “what if” moment – well, my mum often jokes about the fact that, aged 21, she very nearly married a biochemist and moved to New Mexico, so I could very easily never have been born…

I really enjoyed reading some of your short stories (read them here) particularly ‘You’. What were the specific challenges you found when moving away from the short story format to the novel?

Thank you – I’m so happy to hear that. I do love writing short stories – it’s a chance to conjure a whole world in miniature – but I was actually drawn to the novel first. As a child, I’d get my mum to sew pieces of paper into little books, and I’d write the title of my next magnum opus on the cover – usually, as I recall, a highly derivative sequel to Narnia or the Famous Five. I rarely got past the first few chapters, but I seem to have always had the novel in mind as a format. Later, as an adult, I began writing novels as well as short stories, so my interest in both really evolved in tandem.

My favourite kind of fiction is also the kind that, as you say, “takes the world we know, and our own familiar, everyday lives and renders them rich and strange.’ citing Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley as great examples. Is there one novel that you constantly go back to or wish you’d written?

Ah, there are many! I do adore both Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley, among others, but a book that had a particular impact on me at a young age, and which is often in my thoughts, is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I studied it for GCSE English. It was my first encounter with Atwood’s luminous prose, and it opened my mind to the wonderful imaginative possibilities contained within lives that, on the surface, could seem humdrum, even dull. I remember a particularly wonderful image about memory being not linear, but a deep and multi-layered thing, like a pool of water into which we can dive to retrieve the elements of our past. That has stayed with me ever since.

Thanks very much to Laura. The Versions of Us is out now, published by Orion. The clever marketing campaign is asking readers to share their ‘what if’ moment.. Tweet or Instagram your moment using the hashtag #what if.

Rosemary for remembrance

My house is full of the smell of stocks – great towering bundles of cream, lilac and fuchsia. They have an almost cloying sweetness: it hits you as soon as you walk in.

I’m climbing the stairs to J’s room overlooking Parker’s Piece. Her room is awash with stocks in mason jars on her bureau, on the wooden floor, on her shelves. J wears granddad shirts with braces, chinos and brogues. That is her signature look. I don’t have a signature look. We take black and white photos of each other. She waves her hands around as she talks about Descartes and Rimbaud and I feel a whole new world opening up.

I pass a man in the street – he’s wearing Jazz. I’m back in Finsbury Park, in a dingy flat with ripped lino, in love with a man who doesn’t love me. The debt collectors rap on the door looking for the people who moved out in a hurry. My landlord lets himself in with no warning and tells me tales, perhaps lies, of being a stunt double for Bond films. The man I love leaves me a note on the kitchen table. I slide down the door, crying, until I’m sitting in a heap.

They’re tarmacking the road a few streets along from my house. Workmen are stirring cauldrons of black molasses with wooden poles. I’m seven, the tarmac is melting in the heat. My baby sister, in a lemon knitted bonnet, is in a Silvercross pram on the front lawn. She throws my Dad’s treasured Bugatti in a perfect arc. It lands on the road and is promptly squashed by a real car. My best friend and I pick up some of the tarmac that has split into bits and put it in a white paper bag. We tell A J from the cul de sac that it is our mother’s home made gingerbread. She takes a bite and cracks her teeth. I laugh before I feel ashamed.

A very modern mystery: Q&A with the author of What She Left

what she left coverWhat She Left by T R Richmond is, in many ways, a classic mystery.A young woman, 25 year old trainee journalist Alice Salmon, is found dead in a river. Did she slip in and drown after a drunken night out with friends? Did she kill herself? Or was she murdered? However, the way the story is told feels new and brilliantly executed. An elderly academic becomes obsessed with the case and compiles his own evidence – but what are his reasons for doing so? Using a mixture of blog posts, police transcripts, tweets, forum message board and diary entries, the reader has to piece together the clues. If you’ve ever spent any time reading the comments below the line after someone has disappeared or been murdered (never advisable) Richmond has managed to capture the tone perfectly, complete with those well meant but oh so casual RIP’s. With no linear structure, I did sometimes find it hard to see how everything was going to add up but it does mimic the way these cases unfold in real life: things are messy, everyone interprets things differently.

It was in fact a tweet that sparked the idea for the book. Someone was talking about what song they would like played at their funeral – an oddly intimate thing to share. Richmond began to wonder what else you could piece together about someone purely from their online life. We all, whether we like it or not, leave our own ‘digital footprints’. With this in mind, I set about to see what I could find out about him. Within a few minutes I discovered that he has been a journalist for over twenty years, and had read some of his award winning features online. I found out that he has had two other novels published under a different name. Delving a bit deeper, I found out the name of his wife, saw pictures of his cats, that he once set fire to a bin, and that he owns a set of Blue Denby pottery.

Being much in demand, I was pleased when he agreed to answer some questions.

I read that you got up every day at 5am to write for two hours before going to your day job as a journalist. I imagine things have changed dramatically since publication a few short weeks ago or perhaps not. What’s been the best thing so far about having a book on your hands that everyone is talking about?

Everything’s changed but actually nothing’s changed. I still have my day-job. I still get up early. I still like writing at that time of day (I’m working on a new novel). The whole experience has been amazing and there have been so many unforgettable moments but ultimately for me the buzz is the writing itself and that’s like an itch you can’t scratch. One of the best aspects of having a book published is suddenly being part of a team, For years it felt like I was working in a vacuum without any real guidance or support. Now I’ve got an agent and an editor who are a constant source of ideas, encouragement and, when it’s needed (as it often is!), constructive criticism. Knowing that you’ve got talented people looking out for you and fighting your corner is the best feeling in the world.

The onslaught of 24 hour rolling news sometimes feels that the news will eat itself. With the explosion of social media, it seems everyone is a journalist but with none of the legal training. Suspects are being named on social media despite warnings from the police and the press are often playing catch up. You’ve written about this here and as a journalist myself it worries me too. How do you think it will continue?

I’ve heard it said that the internet and social media will sound the death knell for journalists, because they no longer have a monopoly on providing information. Actually, the opposite is true. There’s so much information out there that the need for accurate, timely news that can be trusted is greater now than ever. There’s still a lot of brilliant journalism happening – the problem is that there is so much space to fill, whether it’s on the internet or on 24-hour rolling broadcast news, that a lot of what is served up is, frankly, tosh. It’s recycled, speculation, gossip and padding.

In terms of the public, I think we’re in an interim phase where people are going to realise they have a responsibility in terms of the information they share. If you have, for example, a well-read blog, you might not consider yourself to be a journalist, but you are in a position of responsibility and are governed by the same laws regarding defamation and contempt of court as those working in the media.

What do you think of the apps that will tweet for you after your death or the services that will keep your Facebook page going for your loved ones? Have you thought about what will happen to your online legacy?

Writing What She Left has made me think more carefully about my online presence. On a practical level, it’s made me aware of the dangers of, for example, tweeting holiday photos because it’s an invitation to burglars to target your home. In terns of how I’m perceived after you die, I’m not desperately concerned about that. I’ll de dead, after all.

The marketing campaign for What She Left is very clever as it really serves to enhance the book. There is a Facebook page for Alice (which I actually found desperately sad) and a tumblr page ‘written’ by the Professor. Can you tell us more about how these evolved?

We wanted the story to be as realistic as possible and it just felt inconceivable that Alice, as a contemporary 25 year old, wouldn’t have a Facebook page. Similarly, as Professor Cooke took shape, it became clear that he would inevitably want to continue gathering information about Alice even after the point at which the novel finishes. Hopefully the Facebook and tumblr pages are true to the spirit of the book – it’s partly about the online environment so it feels natural that it also has a digital incarnation. Hopefully they give the book a life beyond the page and allows readers to engage with the characters in additional ways.

The cover is very strong – it reminds me of Twin Peaks. Who designed it and did it go through many stages?

I’m delighted with the cover – the image and the title work together to make it really impactful. Sadly, I can’t take any credit for it as I have no artistic sense whatsoever so resisted putting in my two penneth. I’m a great believer in letting people get on with doing what they do best and Penguin’s designers know far more about book covers than I ever will.

I love the fact the audio version (available here) was narrated by Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance (amongst others) – a real Game of Thrones reunion. Did you go to the recording sessions and what was it like hearing your words come to life?

I went to one with Charles Dance. It’s a strange experience to hear someone else speak the words you’ve written but I loved it. It brought a freshness to the story and made me feel as if I was hearing it for the first time. I tried to play it cool but as a huge Game of Thrones fan, I was massively excited to meet him and probably totally star struck.

Many thanks to T R Richmond. What She Left is out now, published by Penguin.

Class of 83

misc i phone may 023It was my school reunion this past weekend. The Class of 83. I wanted to go and would have gone if I hadn’t been needed elsewhere. Now the photos and videos are rolling in. Some people joined in by Skype. Even though I knew what a lot of people are doing (and made and kept very close friends with some of them) it was different to see people moving and talking. They looked like themselves but not. It was weird to see the same mannerisms, the way someone folded their arms against their body, the same way of laughing. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is.

As if this wasn’t enough to bring back those memories, I went to see The Falling. Directed by Carol Morley and with a soundtrack by Tracy Thorn, it’s the eerie, visually stunning and beguiling story of an outbreak of mass fainting and hysteria at an all girl’s boarding school set in the late 1960s. It conjured up so many memories: the elderly spinster teachers berating us for hoiking up our skirts, those very intense friendships, the rumours spreading like wildfire. I was back in our chemistry lab with its bunsen burners and Belfast sinks – the smell of sulphur mixed with charred wood (from those long handled pincer like pegs); the biology lab with its rows of frogs and hedgehogs suspended upside down in pickling jars.

My school was once an elegant Georgian manor house, built from honey coloured stone, with symmetrically placed sash windows, terraces, spiral staircases, and a warren of attic rooms – once the servants quarters. The bursar worked in the cellar, and reported us for holding seances down there. I see us in our stupid bottle green tulip-shaped bonnets which obscured your line of vision when you turned your head to the left, to the right. They had to ban them when a girl was killed crossing the road. I still don’t know if that’s apocryphal.

And finally, because these things always come in threes I find, I stumbled across this project called Yearbook. (listen here on Soundcloud). It’s an ongoing project by Luke Wiget interviewing writers and the first is an interview with an author called Darcey Steinke (who I’ve only just discovered but Sister Golden Hair is how I’d like to be able to write). It throws up all sorts of interesting questions about how writers mine their own lives for material, how people saw you versus how you saw yourself. We didn’t have Yearbooks – they’re not really done in the UK. I still have my autograph book though – the candy coloured pages are warped like a Marcel Wave. On the last day of school, I fell (or was I pushed?) into the pond onto a hidden bed of jagged glass from discarded school milk bottles and cut my leg through to the bone. The scar on my shin, listed on my passport, serves as a constant reminder.

April and algorithms

 

 

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April came and went in a flurry. It seemed like I had only just put away my wooden rabbit decorations before they were out again. Easter was sponsored by Reese’s Peanut Butter and Peeps carefully brought back from New York in Walgreens carriers. We spent the first week saying ,’This time last week we were….’ and everywhere there were little reminders; receipts stamped ‘251 e 13th st nyc,’ in trouser pockets, ticket stubs from the Staten Island ferry lurking at the bottom of bags. I wondered who was looking out of our hotel window, watching the lights come on over the skyline.

Back into the routine, I logged on to an inbox teeming with press releases about Father’s Day. ‘Treat him to a new Lawnmower – you know he deserves it!’ Next came Facebook’s cheery messages Hey – Alison, exactly this time two years ago your father was critically ill in hospital? Remember?’ Yes, I remember, thanks. Every last thing. I know it’s only algorithms that brought that post up to the surface, but yeah, good old Facebook.

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I had lots of things on the April calendar which, one by one, were scuppered. A vomiting child, a derailed train (empty so thankfully no one hurt but caused days of havoc). I should have just carried on enjoying Frank Underwood’s machinations, but instead I tortured myself by watching the events I should have been at unfold online. That’s the double bind of social media – whilst it is still amazing to me you can experience things vicariously, I still ended up feeling like Tiny Tim pressing his nose up against the window of the toyshop.

What I read in April

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (Penguin)

I really loved this beautifully crafted tale. It’s the story of 8 year old Peggy who is taken deep, deep into the forests by her father to an abandoned wooden cabin. She thinks they are just going on a long hike but they end up staying for nine years. Set in the long hot summer of 1976 (which has inspired so many authors) he tells her that the world has been destroyed and that they are the only two left. It swaps between then and 1985 so we know from the outset she survives but the way Fuller reveals the truth of what really happened is expertly handled. The descriptions of nature and how they actually live day to day are riveting.  It’s about the lies that adults tell and the damage they can inflict; the way that children can’t read a situation and how it becomes clear to them only in adulthood. It had extra resonance because I was about that age in 1976 and so all the references to The Railway Children etc really took me back. This is me during that summer (wearing an Aaran jumper in the heat for some peculiar reason).

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All This has Nothing to Do With Me by Monica Sabolo (Picador)

This is a very odd little book – very slight and barely even a novella, with many of the pages taken up entirely with photographs. Translated from the original French, it chronicles one woman’s obsession with a male colleague who takes a job on the magazine where she works. She steals a succession of his cigarette lighters as little souvenirs and catalogues them. She draws a map of where he sits in the office complete with photocopier. If you’ve ever stalked anyone on Facebook, some of the letters she writes to the CEO of the Parisian office, seeking clarification about whether people can tell how many times their profile has been viewed, were very funny. Overall, it was a bit style over substance and it will be compared to Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property…’ which told the story of a relationship breakdown presented as an auction catalogue. Maybe I’m not the target market but ‘All This’ didn’t quite work for me.

How To Make a Friend by Fleur Smithwick (Transworld)

This is the story of Alice, a photographer, who is driving herself and two good friends, Rory and Daniel, back from her Dad’s wedding to his second wife, when they are involved in a head on car crash. She wakes from a coma, to discover that Rory died. Sitting on the end of her bed, is her invisible friend, Sam, who was her companion through her lonely childhood – all grown up. Why is he back now? Is he more than a figment of her imagination? Is it the result of the head injury or is she going mad? Knowing that if she is ‘cured’ he will no longer be needed, Sam begins to be threatening towards those she loves, especially to Jonathan, the long held object of her affections. I found the premise really fascinating and the family relationships (a cold distant mother, the dynamics between blended families ) very well drawn. Fleur also has a great author blog here.

I also read the ubiquitous The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins (the fastest selling adult novel in history!), Disclaimer by Renee Knight (yes, my jaw was on the floor) Nora Webster by Colm Toibin which left me slightly cold,  the excellent The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett which is going to be huge (more on that closer to publication) and the also brilliantly original suspense novel  What She Left by T R Richmond (a Q & A with the author is in the pipeline).

How was your April and what did you read?

 

The Girl in the Red Coat – book review

You know how sometimes the voice just leaps off the page and grabs you in certain books? That’s what happened to me on the first page of The Girl In the Red Coat.

I’d mentally bookmarked this book as one to read after The Observer picked the author, Kate Hamer, as one of their New Faces of Fiction 2015 back in early January, and on Twitter there was a real buzz about it. But when it came to it, I had a curious sense of resistance. Another book about a missing child.

But this book is nothing like I thought. It is so much more.

The Girl in the Red Coat is the story of Beth, a single mother, and her eight year old daughter, Carmel. She has a fractious relationship with her ex, Paul, who has a new partner Lucy. Having had sporadic contact, he suddenly appears after five months to take Carmel out. In addition, Beth no longer speaks to her parents and Carmel doesn’t see them any more, but we don’t know why. These fractured relationships Hamer describes are so convincing and well drawn. There is none of the ‘perfect lives are shattered’ theme here.

On the day Carmel goes missing, Beth wants her to stay close, Carmel feels tied to her, straining at the leash. Dressed in a red coat, she keeps an eye out for that flash of scarlet as she browses the bookstall at a story teller’s fair. We know it is coming, because we have been told from the start, but the whole sequence detailing when she actually disappears, is brilliantly written, capturing that rising tide of hysterical panic, when time seems to slow down. The circumstances in which she is abducted are chillingly plausible; she is taken by a man posing as her estranged grandfather, pretending her mother has had an accident who says he will drive her to the hospital.

The narrative is split between Beth’s point of view and Carmel’s and this, for me, is where the real strength of the book lies. I think you know when a child narrator’s voice is authentic or not and this one was utterly captivating. The ways she sees the world, the similes she uses, are all just perfect. When she finds comfort in the familiarity of the 57 Varieties label on a can of baked beans in her strange and bewildering new surroundings, I was floored for a moment.

Beth and Carmel go on their separate journeys both literally and emotionally and yet neither, particularly Carmel, took the journey I was expecting. The passage of time is beautifully rendered. It was hard not to just rush to the end to see how it resolved.

That push-me-pull-you mother and daughter relationship is beautifully expressed throughout, capturing all its nuances and complexities, something I find endlessly fascinating. I remember vividly feeling like Carmel (and getting lost for hours and hours at Badminton Horse Trials when I got to be driven round the grounds in a police car ) and also now with my own daughter who has had a succession of red coats because she wanted to be like Little Red Riding Hood and I wanted to be able to spot her on the far side of the park. The time I lost her on Witterings Beach is still the longest twenty minutes of my life. It’s that universal struggle of how you balance keeping them safe with not letting anxiety rule your life. And moreover, theirs.

There is so much to think about in this book, the way different people handle grief differently, the apportioning of blame, the way friends rally round, or say stupid but well intentioned things, about moving on and not moving on. What we will, if we were parted, remember of each other.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for my review copy.

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Still Alice by Lisa Genova – book review

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I’ve been consciously shying away from books and films with the subject of Alzheimer’s since the end of last Summer, when my father passed away from the disease. Whether it was selfish or self preservation I’m not sure because before that moment I had greedily read everything I could on the subject in an effort to understand what was happening. I read non fiction such as Where Do Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything by Sally Magnusson, novels such as Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. The disease took him on a long, slow, inexorable descent, horrible to witness, so I opted to try and forget.

With all the publicity surrounding the film Still Alice, crowned by Julianne Moore’s Oscar win on Sunday (an actor I have long admired) I felt ready to read the book upon which the film is based.

Still Alice, by author Lisa Genova, is the story of Dr Alice Howland, a well liked and respected Harvard professor who has a doctorate in psychology, with specific expertise in linguistics. She loves her job; her identity is bound up in it. Coupled with this she has a husband, John, who has an equally demanding career, and three grown up children. One day, during a lecture with the audience waiting expectantly, she is totally flummoxed when she cannot think of a particular word.

A few more instances of unsettling memory lapses occur but still she puts it down to stress, being busy, to possible menopausal symptoms or lack of sleep.

Next, more frightening, is when she is out for her usual run, in a place not a mile from her home where she runs every day and in a place where she has lived for twenty five years, she suddenly has no idea where she is. It is not so much she is lost, as she feels totally disoriented. Like a panic attack, this sense of uneasy disconnected dread is described so well.

After a complete and through series of MRIs and tests and assessments (which Genova says in the author’s notes that she truncated out of necessity otherwise the book would have run to many more pages) she is given the totally shattering diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. She is just fifty years old.

At first she cannot believe it and rages and rails against it, keeping it secret from her colleagues. (They begin to think she has a substance abuse problem). She experiences a sense of shame and growing isolation. In an affecting scene, which brought back vivid personal memories, she visits a dementia unit which is likely to be her future. There is no one at all her age. She tries to find a support group but there is nothing for people with early on-set Alzheimer’s sufferers, so she sets one up herself.

There are some blackly comic episodes where Alice ransacks the entire house, even reduced to spilling and rummaging through the contents of a bin on the floor, looking for something – only she cannot remember what it is she is looking for, or find the noun to tell her husband what it is, and another where she surprises her neighbour by appearing in her kitchen, thinking it is her own.

The spark for the idea for the book came from Genova’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s in her eighties but it made her think what it would be like to actually know you had it – before the disease really takes hold, when you are still able to understand, or have periods of lucidity. The real strength in the book is remaining with Alice’s viewpoint. We are always in her head.  She is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator. Her doctor gives her a series of questions to answer ; where does she live, how many children does she have etc. It is the reader who sees she can no longer answer them, when she calls her daughter ‘the actress’ instead of by her name, Lydia, when she can hear conversations going on around her but only loosely realise they are about her.

Actual people who are going through this have vouched for its veracity – surely the highest compliment there is. People with early on-set Alzheimer’s are nowhere to be seen in the media or discussion, and Genova says she wanted to give this invisible group a voice. I came away with a renewed sense of the importance to treat people living with dementia with care and sensitivity – that they are not a bunch of symptoms, to be hidden away in care homes. Its message is that whatever ravages the disease takes on the brain, that the essence of the person – their soul, their spirit, their ‘me – ness’ – whatever you want to call it – remains intact.

Although Still Alice was unbearably bleakly sad, it was also life affirming. When everything is systematically stripped away, what is left is her emotional connections with her family. What remains is love.

I know I will see the film and cry for the fictional Alice, for all the real ‘Alice’s, for all the families going through it, for my Dad.

Shining a light on it can only help.

 

 

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for my review copy.

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