From poetry scribbled on napkins in hospital waiting rooms and Beatles fan fiction to a critically acclaimed bestseller, Gipsy Hill author Laura Barnett has come a long way. That is, while now being firmly rooted in her native south London.
Her debut novel, Versions of Us, was published in June and became a top-ten Sunday Times bestseller with translation rights sold to 21 countries and a TV adaptation in the works. What sets the novel apart – and has tantalised readers across the world – is the three parallel narratives all featuring a pair of Cambridge students who cross paths in 1958.
Eva swerves to avoid a dog while on her bike, as Jim is walking nearby; and what happens immediately after sets in motion a trio of wildly different realities, unfolding over fifty years across New York, Cornwall, Paris, Rome and Los Angeles – as well as Gipsy Hill and Dulwich.
As readers we share the characters’ love, friendship and heartbreak as their lives unravel and the plot lines twist and turn, sparked off by events as mundane as a nail piercing the tyre of a bicycle.
It’s been billed as a mixture of One Day and Sliding Doors, but is also something different altogether.
Belowtheriver visited the writer and journalist in her SE19 house with her musician husband working in the garden office and their cat Eno (“after Brian”) making many vociferous attempts to curtail the interview by meowing loudly outside the door.It was Laura’s childhood that shaped her love of literature. “It feels like the air that I’ve breathed since the moment I was born – it would have been difficult for me not to be a bookish child. I grew up in Clapham with my mum who was a librarian but an unusual one – a community services manager in Wandsworth and then Lambeth.
“She took books to people who couldn’t get to a library, and worked in various prisons in south London and organised writing courses there. She is a very well-read adorer of books. My dad is a writer so I was surrounded by books all the time.”
Laura’s first attempt at fiction was aged five, inspired by the view from a hospital room, whilst waiting to see a doctor about her childhood squint (“which then magically corrected itself”).
As a teenager she became obsessed with the Beatles and ran early fan fiction novella, “where I travelled back in time to meet Paul McCartney. I still have it somewhere.”
After studying Italian and Spanish at Clare College, Cambridge and writing fiction in the holidays, Laura tipped her toes into journalism. “I studied at City University and went on to work on The Telegraph books desk.”After moving to the Guardian as commissioning editor and spending four busy years there, she was encouraged by her colleague and mentor, Georgina Henry, to go freelance to devote more time on fiction. Laura still has a contract with the Guardian and writes for many other publications.
Several agents showed interest in her first two novels – one featuring a single mother living with her daughter in a caravan on the coast, the other about a young woman who has an affair with a politician in the 1960s – but the conversations gradually fizzled out.
“The agents were very complimentary initially and then didn’t feel the book worked as a whole and I felt like I was forcing the books down a pathway that I didn’t want. So I put them aside, got on with freelancing and held in my mind that basic question – why did I want to do this? And what makes a novel successful? I analysed novels and decided that with the ones we love, it’s because the author has been utterly sincere in what they have to say – even if it’s a crazy idea. It has to be the kind of book that you drag up from your soul.”
After some time of reflection and research, Laura had a revelation. “The idea for The Versions of Us came after a dark night of the soul. I was 30 which I know isn’t ancient but all I’d ever wanted to do was write novels. I was pretty down. But then I woke up in our old flat in Sydenham and I thought: wow, three versions of the same love story, and how amazing that would be. I immediately started researching whether it had been done before and couldn’t find anything quite like this.”
From the first writing session she felt this was a different sort of book: “it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t about me, and it made sense in a way the other ones didn’t. The first draft took around nine months, then there was a lot of re-writing but some glimpses of the earlier novels worked their way into Versions.”
Laura cites American author Anne Tyler as an important influence and says she wanted to explore the various routes to happiness in her book, rather than focus on the idea of one “soulmate”. “I believe that partly because of my mum: she’d been married twice and had a few important relationships and has always been quite open. I wanted the book to have a reassuring message – we make of our lives what we will – there will be pain and sorrow but also happiness. It doesn’t mean if you don’t get on that train you won’t meet him, and so you won’t be happy because you can meet someone else.”The book is testament to Laura’s love for south London: as well as numerous exotic, transatlantic locations, one narrative features a private school in Dulwich where Jim teaches art, and a shambolic house in Gipsy Hill.
Laura revealed she was influenced by the “slightly shabby and bohemian” atmosphere of the area as well as being inspired by some of its inhabitants.
“I met the artists Audrey and Martin Hammond – who live in a pink house in Gipsy Hill – when my godmother gave me a drawing of Crystal Palace as a wedding present.”
Laura is full of passion for her home after a brief, post-university flirtation with Kentish Town.
“I lived in Wimbledon Park after Clapham as a teenager and I never really appreciated it. We had the common, the model boats on the lake but it was a different place in the 80s and 90s. South London is my home though and I love it. I got engaged at Joanna’s in Crystal Palace, my favourite restaurant, and we go there for any special occasions. I often go to Crystal Palace market, go running in the park, I love the Bookseller Crow and Brixton Village.
“I also like the White Hart pub in Church Road and Beer Rebellion near Gipsy Hill station does amazing burgers and pickled gherkins.”
Laura is now working on her second novel, Greatest Hits, about a musician looking back over her life as she chooses her favourite records. “It’s set over the course of a day, very Mrs Dalloway-style. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of looking back and trying to make sense of life. And there are always some things you can’t make sense of.”
Versions of Us is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. For more information visit laura-barnett.co.uk