Many fiction authors can surely sympathize with Laura Barnett. It’s not a revelation that writing a book is excruciating work. The creative process behind visualizing a story, translating it into words and then sending it out into the world for people to read and unavoidably critique it, is nothing short of admirable. Imagine now that difficult and time-consuming plight times three.
In The Versions of Us, British author Laura Barnett accomplishes the dire task of simultaneously providing us with three versions of the same love story,giving us the opportunity to glimpse beyond the author’s vision of the plot and exploring instead different options sprouted from one unique scenario, actually giving the unsuspecting reader the chance to travel down roads not taken; well actually, down three possible ones.
In the opening chapters, The Versions of Us introduces Eva and Jim, young students who meet by accident on a Cambridge street when Eva’s bicycle tire is punctured by a rusty nail in her attempt to avoid hitting a dog.
This is however, only one version of their encounter. In the second version, Eva dodges the dog and her bicycle escapes unscathed and she rides on, never stopping to talk to Jim and changing both their fates. The third version is much like the first but with a significant twist that takes Eva and Jim down completely different paths than the first.
If you think that flashbacks and time jumps though decades are difficult to keep up with when it’s one plot, and that this feature in three different versions within one novel would render it impossible to read and supremely confusing, you would be pleasantly and possibly shockingly surprised. Barnett incredibly manages to write not only three proverbial sides of the same coin that are equally compelling and mesmerizing, but also her narrative does this in such an impeccable way that avoids confusing the reader in regards to which version is which.
I reviewed The Versions of Us here on Blogcritics when the book was published, so I asked Laura Barnett via email to delve a little deeper on the complicated process of creating three different plot lines for the same characters, and the challenges that she faced in keeping every detail of each version straight and clear for readers and for herself. She graciously agreed and in the end added that if I wished, I was free to correct a few British-spelt words that might have “crept in” the interview.
Of course I did no such thing.
What (or who) was your inspiration for The Versions of Us?
It’s always difficult to know where ideas come from – they seem to appear from nowhere, install themselves in my head, and refuse to let me go. That’s certainly how it was with The Versions of Us – I woke up one morning, just over three years ago, knowing that I wanted to write the story of one couple’s relationship, from beginning to end, in three different ways.
Looking back, I can see that the idea was the product of various things. I’d got married about three months before, so I was thinking about how I met my husband – at a party, that either of us might so easily never have attended – and how different both our lives would have been if that hadn’t happened. And I’d recently lost a close relative – my step-grandmother, Anita Bild – so I think I was also musing on what it means to live a long, complex, fulfilling life.
Developing one linear plot in a novel is in itself frequently challenging, but three plot lines must be particularly difficult. How was the process of keeping the details and characters of all three versions organized and separate?
It was certainly a challenge. Before starting to write the first draft, I composed character sketches for both the main characters, Eva and Jim – page-long descriptions of each of them: their facets, ambitions and personalities. Then I wrote brief, paragraph synopses of each of the three versions of their story, to get a sense of how they would differ, and how they would stay the same.
As I wrote, I departed from those synopses a lot, but it was comforting to have them – like setting out on a long journey with a road-map, I suppose, and knowing that if I took a wrong turn, I could always look back at the map. And I kept Word files with the various dates and character names for each version, in order to avoid any confusion between them.
But actually, strange as it might sound, it all seemed really quite simple. I could see the three strands quite clearly, intertwining and separating, and stretching out towards an ending that I didn’t have in mind when I started writing, but that began to feel inevitable as it approached.
In all three versions, Jim and Eva seem predestined to have a life together whether they meet in the beginning, the middle or almost at the end of their lives. When you were writing the novel, did you ever toy with the idea of a version where they wouldn’t end up together at all?
Yes, I did, and I do think it would have been interesting to have had that strand winding through the novel. But I was pretty clear from the outset that I didn’t want to write more than three versions of the story, in order to avoid excessively confusing the reader – and myself. And from a narrative point of view, it seemed most satisfying to bring the two protagonists together in each version – even if, in one of those, as you say, that doesn’t happen until they are almost at the end of their lives.
The three versions differ because of a small event that leads to a radical change in Jim and Eva’s destiny. What, if anything, did you want readers to take from this?
Yes, you’re right, that idea is key to the novel. I was – and am – interested in how so many important aspects of our lives, from the relationships we are in to the jobs we have and the homes we live in, seem to turn on apparently insignificant events. The party we decide to go to at the last minute, and where we meet the man or woman with whom we end up spending the rest of our lives. The university we decide to attend because we like the look of the campus, or a school friend is going there, and that then sets the pattern for our friendships for the next decade or more.
It’s a dizzying feeling to think that our lives could so easily have been different – but what I wanted, more than anything, in the novel, was to provide comfort in the fact that there is never one perfect version of Eva and Jim’s lives. Whichever route they choose, there are always both pleasures and pitfalls along the way.
The impression I got when I was reading The Versions of Us was that many of the hardships that Jim and Eva went through, could have been avoided if they had been better at communicating with one another. Why was it so difficult for them to tell each other and the other people in their lives, what they were really feeling?
May I suggest, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, that it might be because they’re British? Actually, I’m not entirely joking – the cliché about British reserve does still pertain, and certainly did, generally speaking, through the eras that I examine in the book. But I think an inability to communicate properly transcends national boundaries. It’s the central difficulty we all face in our relationships, isn’t it – how to properly express to our partner what we want and need, while respecting their own desires?
And in the novel, there’s also the fact that both Eva and Jim are trying to pursue creative careers, and that one of them often finds their ambition faltering as the other’s takes off. It would be very difficult, I think, to tell your partner that you couldn’t handle their success – so we see each of them, in different ways, turning away from each other, and keeping a lid on their frustration.
The Versions of Us reminded me a bit of a book by Taylor Jenkins-Reid titled Maybe, In Another Life, where the author proposes two parallel universes. One, in which a relationship comes through and the other where it doesn’t, and the two different outcomes boil down to a matter of choice by the main character to get into a car or not. Would you say that The Versions of Us is also a kind of three alternate but parallel universes or just three sides of a story?
How interesting – I’m not familiar with that novel. I’d say that The Versions of Us can be read in any way the reader wishes to – I’ve had science-fiction fans telling me it’s a sci-fi novel, and romance readers enjoying it as more of a straightforward love story – or love stories.
In fictional terms, it’s experimental – I was interested, from the first, in how weaving three parallel stories together might push the boundaries of the novel as a form, and I was inspired by a lot of postmodern fiction. But I do find that a good deal of that fiction can be rather cold and, dare I say it, show-offy. I wanted this novel to have an emotional centre, rather than for it to all to be some kind of elegant narrative game.
With a story as intricate as this one, did you ever stumble upon writer’s block during the creative process?
I certainly had difficult days. The biggest thing, initially, was just setting aside my doubts about whether the whole project was even possible – I couldn’t find any examples of other novels that had woven together three stories, so I had to tackle the fear that it might just be impossible.
And then, during the writing process, there were dark days when the whole thing did seem impossible, and I could barely string a sentence together. I’d say those days are actually more common, when I’m writing, than the good days when it all seems to flow. But those good days are so addictive, so profoundly exciting, that they make all the struggles seem worth it.
Which version of Jim and Eva’s story is your favorite?
It’s funny – when I started writing, I was particularly attached to version one, perhaps because, at least initially, it follows the most conventional path, and I was a newlywed myself! I found version two quite tricky – Eva and Jim felt like magnets, wanting to come together, and it was difficult to keep them apart. But the way I wrote – weaving the three stories together, and chopping and changing between them continually – meant, I think, that it was impossible to have a favourite, in the end.
What advice would you give new writers that are seeking to get their work published?
Just don’t give up. I’ve been writing fiction since I was a child, and seriously since I was at university – but this, my first novel, wasn’t published until I was thirty-two. It’s not the first novel I wrote, either – I have two other whole novels, and at least ten half-finished drafts, saved on my computer. It was really hard, each time I finished something, to set it aside, knowing it wasn’t good enough, and start again. But now, I can see that this was my apprenticeship – a vital part of learning the complex and challenging craft of structuring and completing a work of fiction.
Writing, and getting published, really is hard, but if you have to write – if you would keep writing even if you were never published, because it is so much a part of you – and if you read widely, keen your eyes open, and are ready to listen to the advice of those you respect about how to refine and improve your work, then you will get there. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep enjoying the miracle of fiction. There is no better way to understand this crazy, maddening, beautiful world of ours.