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Laura Barnett: 'write a novel that feels as if it couldn’t possibly have been written any other way'

BY Katie Smart
2nd Nov 2018

Laura Barnett joined the Curtis Brown Creative teaching team in 2018 and is now a regular tutor of our novel-writing courses. Laura also leads on new four-week online course Plot & Story – The Deep Dive. We've been huge fans of Laura's work ever since her wonderful debut The Versions of Us came out in 2015, and we're pretty chuffed to have her on our teaching team.

Laura's debut was a Sunday Times number-one bestseller, translated into 24 languages, and shortlisted for Debut of the Year at the British Book Awards. Her follow-up, Greatest Hits was published in 2017, with an accompanying soundtrack album by the musician Kathryn Williams. Laura has taught creative writing for Guardian Masterclasses, delivered a TedX talk on originality in fiction, and worked as a writing mentor for the charity Arts Emergency. She is also a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School.

Laura, we’re very excited to welcome you to the CBC tutor team! This week you have been guest tutoring some of our current London-based students, what's the most rewarding part of teaching creative writing?
Getting to sit in a room with a group of people who are all as passionate about writing as I am. I see teaching as very much a reciprocal process: I learn as much from the writers I teach as I hope they learn from me. And it’s wonderful to be able to pass on my own experience of the working life of a novelist - from finding an agent, to working with editors, marketing and publicity teams, and actually seeing a book on the shelves. Before a writer is published, a lot of these things can seem shrouded in mystique; I know I was always desperate to learn more about them from writers who were experiencing them first-hand.

Your first novel, The Versions of Us explores three alternative realities of one couple. What was the most difficult part of constructing the book’s ‘what-if’ multiple narrative structure?
Maintaining my confidence in the story I was trying to tell, and in the way I wanted to tell it. I was aware that such a structure had, to the best of my knowledge, never been attempted before: three alternative versions of one couple’s relationship, woven together into a cohesive whole. After I first came up with the idea, I spent several days frantically googling “novel with three versions of the same story”, and found nothing. My next thought was that if nobody else had attempted it, I was mad even to try. But I knew I had to tell this story - or stories. The hardest thing, then, was setting aside that fear of failure - which is, I believe, common to almost every writer or artist.

For your second novel, Greatest Hits, you collaborated with musician Kathryn Williams, she set lyrics that you wrote to correspond to each of the book’s chapters to music, creating a companion album to the novel. What inspired you tell this story collaboratively across two mediums?
Several things. Firstly, I knew that I wanted to write a “long-view” novel about a woman in her sixties, looking back on her life as a singer-songwriter, and the ways in which she had tried to make sense, through music, of all her experiences - her triumphs, her disappointments, her mistakes. It seemed really logical, then, to try to give that music a life beyond the page: to collaborate with a musician on a real-life album containing the character’s fictional songs.

I was excited, too, about the potential this offered, again, to do something that had never done before: to bring together music and literature in a new, and hopefully compelling, way. Before The Versions of Us was published, I’d spent more than a decade as an arts journalist, writing about all sorts of “crossover” projects that were breaking down the barriers between art forms, and finding new ways for audiences to experience them. This, then, felt like a really exciting way to do that for fiction and music.

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring novelists about writing innovative fiction what would you say?
Don’t just experiment for the sake of it: make sure that your story has a heart and a soul. I’m not a fan of experimental fiction that seems to exist just to show off. Be as ambitious and innovative as you want to be, but ask yourself whether this is really the way your story has to be told. The aim, ultimately, is to write a novel that feels as if it couldn’t possibly have been written any other way.

When you’re working on a novel do you have a writing routine or any rituals?
Not really. I write in the mornings - the afternoons, for me, are for editing, emailing or napping - and I like to get out for a run, or do some yoga, before sitting down at my desk: it’s always good to exercise the body before slipping back into the mind. But in my view, the only ritual worth paying any attention to is getting down to the tough business of writing, day by day, sentence by sentence, page by page.