Hello! welcome to my new series, 10 Questions With… Just as the name suggests, I will be sitting down with different people and asking them 10 questions. They will be slightly different for each person, but will be focused on their careers, inspirations and passions.
I am excited that the first person to take part in this new series is the delightful author, Laura Barnett. There really couldn’t be a nicer person to start off with.
Laura is the author of the number one bestseller The Versions Of Us and her new novel Greatest Hits. Before writing these novels, Laura was an arts journalist and wrote for The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph and Time Out London. I went to her book festival event and totally fell in love with her. Her latest novel is about Cass, a singer-songwriter who spends one day going through her back catalogue of music. Each song that features tells a little bit of the story of her life. This most incredible part of all of this is that there has been an album created to go along with the book. Although I haven’t read it yet, I can tell you what I’ve heard of it is incredible and the music is just beautiful.
I met Laura in the beautiful Roxburghe Hotel in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square to have a chat on Thursday morning.
So, lets get to know a bit more about Laura Barnett…
Growing up, was writing something you always wanted to do?
“Absolutely, yes! I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, which is pretty much since the age of 4 or 5. I can remember this really specific moment. I had loads of eye problems when I was a really small child. I had a lazy eye and they were going to have to do surgery on it and my mum used to take me to the hospital all the time. It was this hospital called St Thomas’s which is right by the River Thames and it was where I was born and then I kept going back there and I can remember I was there for an eye appointment when I was 5 and it was in the evening and the sun was setting over the river. I remember thinking wow that is really beautiful, I wonder if there is a way to keep that moment before it disappears forever. So I said to my mum ‘can I have a napkin?’ I probably didn’t say it like that more like ‘mummy can i have a tissue?’ and she gave me a tissue and I wrote a poem about this sunset on the napkin and I can really remember how exciting I found the idea in writing something down I could keep that moment forever and I think that was when I realised that it was really what I wanted to do.”
How did you go from being a journalist to a novelist?
“Well, I would say I always wanted to be a novelist and I hadn’t really thought about journalism until I was in my last couple of years at university. I had been writing quite seriously through my teenage years. I had written some novellas and short stories and I had some published and I had won some competitions so stuff was picking up but I just felt really young. I was really young and I felt really young and I didn’t feel ready to write a novel. I didn’t feel like I had lived enough or experienced enough to have enough to say about the world. So, I sort of thought, you know, what should I do with myself while learning how to write a novel. I decided journalism would be the best thing to do. So, I trained in Journalism and did that and started that career and then obviously that rather took over because I had to pay my mortgage, well at that time rent, and its a tough job anyway and I loved it so for about 10 years, through my twenties, I was a journalist but I was still writing in my spare time. Then, basically, a very senior colleague at the Guardian and I had a conversation one day and I admitted to her that I didn’t really want to be doing the job that I was doing and I just wanted to write fiction and she was like well why don’t you go freelance and do it? And you know when someone gives you the permission to imagine something that you hadn’t really let yourself think because I was just really full of fear and I just said well how am I going to pay my rent? Like its all really scary and she was like well, I will help you and she helped me with a small contract and I could just afford to just about scrape by every month and that was enough to build on and to have the confidence to then go and be free. she set me free. It was completely amazing. It was a woman called Georgina Henry and she was really special. she died sadly a few years ago. So that was really it. It wasn’t easy after that, it was really hard. I wrote a whole novel that didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t get published. It just wasn’t very good. Then I started again with Versions Of Us, so by then I was 30 and I had known I wanted to be a novelist since I was 5, so thats 25 years of false starts and then finally I got there.”
Are your family supportive of your writing?
“My family are immensely supportive of my writing. I am so lucky and its funny, my parents split up when I was really young and it wasn’t easy. But I came out of that with a really close relationship with both my mum and dad, each of whom just always taught me that I could do anything I wanted to do. I don’t think I was a spoiled brat, I hope not! They didn’t tell me everything I did was great, They helped me to be critical and to improve and to work hard. But they just gave me this sense that my opinion was worth something and that art is worth something and dedicating your life to writing is worth something. When i meet other artists and writers now I know how valuable that was because a lot of people struggle against , you know, parents just want their kids to be happy and stable and they don’t necessarily think that that’s a a job, a career, that will pay off and it doesn’t, it is tough. But they are both huge readers, my parents, and really really supportive and now my husband is as well.”
What book are you currently reading?
“I am reading a book called Object Lessons by an american author called Anna Quindlen. she is exactly the kind of author that I love. I am reading that because I have read some quite challenging stuff recently, I have been having a big Virginia Wolfe phase, which I adore but sometimes you just want to just sort of sink in a warm bath of loveliness and thats kind of what it is like with Anna Quindlen. Not to say that her writing isn’t tough and important, it is but she writes a bit like Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout or Joyce Carol Oates, a lot of the American/Canadian authors that I love. She writes just really well about family life and the eccentricities and weirdnesses and brilliance of family and relationships and how we navigate the world inside our families. She is really great, and actually she used to be a journalist as well so I just read her and feel really inspired, she is great.”
What authors inspired you to write?
“So many. I think the biggest inspiration to me as an adult has been Anne Tyler. I talk about her quite a lot. She is from and based in Baltimore. She does this thing of basing almost all her novels in a really limited geographical area, like nearly everything is set in and around Baltimore which is now weirdly a city I know quite well. My husband has family over in America, near Baltimore, so I have been over to visit the city and got to know it. The first novel I read of hers was A Slipping Down Life when I was 13. My mum gave it to me, she is a big influence on my reading. It just blew my mind. That particular one is probably quite relevant to Greatest Hits because its about a teenager that falls in love with a rock musician and starts following him around the country. So the protagonist is roughly my age, maybe a few years older but what I loved about that book and what I love about all her writing is the way that she does that exact thing that I guess I try to do as a writer and that I tried to do when I was 5 with that sunset, which is to somehow capture the three dimensional experience of the world and put it on the page so that when you are reading it you are watching a film of that moment, it’s like you have entered that characters world, completely and utterly. It’s really amazing, it is the closest we can get to knowing what it is like to be inside someone else’s skin. Thats what I love, so she is a huge inspiration. She also gave me the permission to write, not only about women, but to put women at the centre of fiction, I mean she is obviously not the only writer that does that, but to write in a style that some people would call quiet. and some critics especially would use that as a pejorative word where as i think thats the best kind of writing where its not showy, its not drawing attention to how clever it is, it is just giving you a scene and a character and a place and a set of circumstances and letting you live them, do you know what I mean? It is the difference between just a film camera that just unshowingly shows you whats going on and one that gives you all the weird Hitchcock angles. I like the weird Hitchcock angles but I also just like literally experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes.”
If you could’ve written any book, what would it be?
“Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The reason I would like to have written that book myself is because I would have given Angel Clare a really painful death and I would’ve enjoyed killing him off because I think he is the character I loathe the most in all of literature. I remember getting so angry at him. He is the guy that looks like he is going to be Tess’ redemption and he confesses to her that he has had a history of seeing prostitutes and on their wedding night, and she has obviously been abused by Alec d’Urberville and she feels, it is such a powerful scene, I can feel it now like I am with her there sitting by the fire and she is in love and she feels like her whole life is starting again and Angel makes this confession and a weight just comes off her and she thinks I can be truthful now too. I can say that I have had a history and I didn’t choose it, you know. So she tells him and he rejects her. It is like the most brutal and the most anti-feminist thing I have ever read and obviously the brilliance is that Hardy has us on her side so we do hate Angel. If I had written that book in that moment I would’ve had Tess pick up a knife and just shove it in his heart because its just ah! so awful.”
Do you prefer a paper book or a kindle?
“I don’t actually have a kindle so I would have to say a paper book. I do think they are brilliant and a lot of my readers read my books on Kindle so I’m certainly not going to diss Kindle but I think I probably would like one cause I travel a lot and often I am just literally weighed down by books and the amazing thing is, I don’t know if you are like me, but I get really panicky about whether when I go on holiday if I’ve got the right books with me or have I got enough or will I enjoy it? I can’t take a book with me that I’ve not ever opened because what if I don’t like it and I’ve got it with me? So if i had a kindle everything would be there but it is about the relationship with books and actually we just built a library in our house and they are all arranged in alphabetical order and its just the best and don’t you find just looking at them makes you happy?”
Where do you do most of writing?
“I do all of my writing actually in my little office in my house in South London. It is at the top of the house, it’s like the old attic, I’ve painted it grey and I’ve got posters of the covers of The Versions Of Us and Greatest Hits and I’ve got an inspiration board with pictures of Virginia Wolfe and Anne Tyler and postcards people have sent me. I have a yellow velvet armchair from made.com that I just bought and i have a view of, obviously its London, so other houses but also we have a pear tree so I look out on that and its just really calm and quiet. I am quite weird about it, I can’t have anyone else in the room when I’m writing, I can’t write in cafes, can’t have music on, even the cat snoring disturbs me. So I like silence and that’s where I write.”
Where were you when you found out your first book was to be published?
“I was up a mountain in Wales. It came in stages. My agent had high hopes for The Versions Of Us, she hoped that the editors would like it and would make an offer so the very first offer I got I was just in my mum’s house but then it went to auction and the final decision, the final offers, came in when I was in Wales reviewing a play which was taking place up Snowdon which meant I had no mobile reception. So eventually I think I was staying in Bangor overnight and I picked up all my voicemail messages and found out that I was going to sign with W & N and that my life was going to change. I was alone in this hotel and I just sat and drank like a half bottle of prosecco in an empty bar and celebrated by myself.”
How do you feel about fans?
“It is difficult without sounding really cringey, but it genuinely feels amazing. I think you can’t really know what it is going to feel like until it happens. A lot of authors I know don’t particularly enjoy doing events, its not really why they write and its not really why I write but I really really enjoy it. I still genuinely cannot believe that anyone wants to come and sit and talk to me or has read my book. It is mind-blowing and it is a privilege and it is something I don’t take for granted at all. I am always really delighted to hear from people and sometimes people get in touch and say they didn’t like something or they didn’t like that and I won’t lie and say that I always enjoy that moment but the very fact of interaction, the very fact that someone has thought my book is worth spending their hard earned money on and time on is something I am very grateful for. So even if there is something they didn’t like I am happy to talk about that and take it on board. But it is true that when it comes to actually writing then you have to try really hard to put all of that out of your head because ultimately **yeah it will be different now that you have got some out** yeah, I mean its great because hopefully that means theres an appetite for more and people are interested in what I have got to say, which is in itself an honour. But when I am actually sitting, and I’m just about to start my next book, I will have to try and put all of that out of my head because you can’t just start trying to please people, you just have to write to please yourself.”
**photographs are from www.laura-barnett.co.uk**