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May 16, 2016

Book Notes - Laura Barnett "The Versions of Us"

The Versions of Us

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Laura Barnett's novel The Versions of Us is an innovatively told and moving debut.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"Its very scope is a joy, the technical achievement seamlessly done, and the ending – all the endings – suitably affecting."

In her own words, here is Laura Barnett's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Versions of Us:

Music, like literature, is central to my attempts to make sense of the world. The flat in south London where I grew up was always filled with music. My father was a composer and lyricist, and, when I was two or three, a TV crew filmed me sitting on top of our piano, plump-limbed, swinging my legs as my dad's hands moved over the keys.

Years later, as a teenager, I formed a punk band with five schoolfriends. We were dreadful (Brian Eno once left the room while we were on stage, though these facts may have been unconnected), but utterly committed. I remember once asking my mum, with absolute seriousness, whether she thought I should dedicate my life to becoming a writer or a rock star. I am eternally grateful to her for answering that writing was probably a safer bet.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that my debut novel The Versions of Us should be shot through with music. The novel traces three versions of the relationship between two characters, Eva and Jim, across 60 years - from their first meeting (or non-meeting) as students in Cambridge in 1958, to seventysomethings in 2015, trying to make sense of the paths life has drawn them down.

Since the novel's publication in the UK last year, many readers have asked how I went about researching the various eras. The answer lies, often, in music. I never listen to albums as I write - I find it far too distracting - but I often hear fragments of music in my mind while composing a scene. Much of the music I heard over while writing The Versions of Us found its way into the novel, evoking a particular period or a mood, or speaking to my own state of mind.

Here, then, is a selection of this music. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I do.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - "This Is Us"

I first heard this song - the title track to Knopfler and Harris's 2006 album, All The Roadrunning - in a rented car on the east coast of Spain, driving up a hairpin mountain track. I was 23, and my mum and I were on holiday with my stepfather Peter. Mum had brought this CD with her, and we played it at full volume in the car throughout the holiday.

This song is a novel in miniature, telling the story of a couple's relationship from first meeting, through marriage and childbirth, to middle-age. As soon as I came up with the idea for The Versions of Us, it seemed exactly the right fit, and I quote from the lyric as an epigraph at the start of the book.

Editors - "The Weight"

My husband, Andy, is a musician, songwriter and actor, and I have him to thank for drawing me back to guitar bands, after a few years in my early twenties spent listening exclusively, for reasons that are now obscure, to Cuban salsa, Spanish flamenco/hip-hop, and the lyrical stylings of Jill Scott.

Andy's a big Editors fan, and we were both instantly obsessed with this track, which opens the album The Weight of Your Love, when it came out in 2013. I was just a few months into the first draft of The Versions of Us, and terrified about how I was going to make the novel work structurally. If nobody had ever woven three versions of the same story into one book, I worried, then why did I think I was going to be able to do it? I took to going for regular morning runs around my local park, with this song playing on repeat. Somehow, that helped me find the courage to keep going.

Northern Light Exposure - "Embers"

This is one of my favourite songs by Andy's band. Looking back, I can see how much I was inspired to write The Versions of Us by the fact that Andy and I had recently got married. I started writing the first draft about six months after our wedding, and though the idea seemed to arrive in my head from nowhere, it seems obvious now that I was pondering the fact that Andy and I might so easily never have met.

We'd been introduced by mutual friends four years before, in Edinburgh, at a party both of us only decided to attend at the last minute. As the idea for the novel began to take shape, I became intrigued by just how differently our lives would have turned out if we hadn't gone to that party. Would the person who is now so central to my life have become central to someone else's? And if we'd met twenty years later - or forty, or fifty - would we have felt differently about each other?

Stan Getz - "You Go To My Head"

I don't like to plan my writing too intricately - I carry a broad sense of structure in my mind from the first paragraph, but within that I prefer to allow my characters the freedom to make their own decisions (in many cases, these turn out to be unexpected).

With The Versions of Us, I decided early on that I would bring the three stories together at certain key moments, and then have those scenes elapse consecutively, allowing the reader to make a direct comparison. The first of these is a party at the Algonquin in New York in 1963. In each iteration, I describe the same setting, and the same jazz band. I don't name the tune they're playing, but this is the one I could hear as I wrote - understated, romantic, insistent; and, in its title, offering some indication of how deeply Eva and Jim feel for each other, whichever version they are living through.

The Rolling Stones - "Wild Horses"

Jim is a huge Stones fan in the novel - more than I am myself, actually. I was devoted to the Beatles as a teenager - I had the most enormous crush on Paul McCartney (as he'd been twenty years before I was born, anyway) - and have only really started listening to the Stones properly in the last few years. But Jim, like Eva, comes of age in the sixties and seventies, and the Rolling Stones is the band that he turns to in good times and bad.

This particular track is playing in version one, as Jim and Eva slow-dance in the garden at her brother Hans's thirtieth birthday party. Hans's party is another of the key moments that I explore consecutively, in each version, teasing out the similarities and differences. I have fun with the music, too - in each scene, a different Stones track is playing, each one pointing towards the characters' differing states of mind.

Bob Dylan - "Tangled Up In Blue"

After my parents separated, I spent a lot of time in the car with my dad, being driven to and from his various homes (we both joke, now, that he moved house so often, our time together gave me a crash-course in English geography).

We always listened to music on these journeys, and I was probably about fourteen when Dad produced a remastered CD copy of Dylan's 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. It accompanied us all the way up the M4 from London to Bristol, where Dad was living at the time (and still does), and it has remained my favourite Dylan record.

I imagine it's natural for a novelist to be drawn to songwriters who tell stories - and I love the tale Dylan weaves here, both specific and allusive, about a man's fate intertwining with that of a red-headed woman. In version two of the novel, Jim - now a painter - plays this song on cassette in a scene set in 1977, when he is working on a triptych called The Versions of Us . It's a painting made up of three panels, each one slightly different from the other - like the novel itself.

Talking Heads - "Burning Down The House"

The only Talking Heads track I knew well before I met Andy was "Road to Nowhere" - but he's a serious fan, so I've had to brush up on my knowledge of the band. One of our earliest dates was to see David Byrne play at the Royal Festival Hall in London (still one of the best, most dizzyingly energetic gigs either of us has ever seen). And I ended up walking down the aisle at our wedding to a Byrne and Eno track ("Everything That Happens," in case you're interested).

I'm not going to say too much about where this song appears in the novel, as it will give away a major plot point - but suffice it to say that it underpins the emergence of a new character whose appearance is going to prove explosive for both Jim and Eva. It's just a spiky, infectiously danceable, brilliant song.

Paul Simon - "Hearts and Bones"

I've loved Paul Simon since childhood, when both my parents played Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints incessantly. To me, he's the best musical poet and storyteller there is, packing so much emotional resonance into every line.

This is my favourite of Simon's songs, about a couple – possibly Simon and his former partner, Carrie Fisher – driving to New Mexico, and confronting the fact that the reality of love can't live up to their high ideals. We hear it quite late in version one of the novel, when Eva is reflecting on her long marriage to Jim. More widely, too, this song reflects much of my motivation for writing The Versions of Us. We hear so much about the impossible, idealised forms of love. I am fascinated by love as it is actually lived, day to day, month by month, and year by year, in all its glorious beauty and banality.

Laura Barnett and The Versions of Us links:

the author's website
the book's website

Entertainment Weekly review
Guardian review
Independent review
Irish Times review
Kirkus review
Telegraph review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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