EP40: Laura Barnett’s Greatest Hits
In this episode you will discover…
- How music can inspire your writing
- The balance between respecting the reader and writing for yourself
- How the first fifteen minutes of your day can be the most creative
- How collaboration with an artist in another medium can unlock untapped talents
‘Excerpt of ‘Common Ground’ performed by Kathryn Williams used with kind permission of One Little Indian Records.’
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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Laura Barnett’s 2015 debut The Versions Of Us was a smash hit number one bestseller, translated into 23 languages. Now she faces that difficult second album syndrome, but Laura has come up with an ingenious solution and a unique piece of fiction with her new book, Greatest Hits, which has its own soundtrack album courtesy of singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams.
What drew you to do a book with a soundtrack?
The idea for making a soundtrack album to a book came to me on the M6, on a long drive back from Scotland, that very glamorous road, we can call it the new Route 66. I was sitting and thinking and looking out at the rain and it just occurred to me that there could be such a thing as a soundtrack album to a book and that this would be a really exciting new way of bringing together two art forms. That probably came out of twelve years that I spent as an arts journalist, covering all sorts of cultural collaborations, what we might call crossover projects. I remember interviewing Ray Davies about working with a choir, or choreographers who had worked with visual artists, and my husband used to be an actor and he would act with Secret Cinema who do theatrical, immersive experiences around films. It felt like there was this ferment of activity between art forms. But literature, which is probably my primary love, alongside music, was still a case apart. And reading is still a solitary experience, but the new digital formats and audiobooks really give us a chance to take reading to new places and to expand the experience beyond the page. That immediately struck me as an exciting possibility. And it was a few months after that when my agent was just about to send my debut novel, The Versions Of Us, out to publishers she said, ‘Are you working on anything else?’ and I was, like, ‘No, this is my life’s work that I’ve poured into it.’ But I sat down and thought about ideas and had this idea of a book about a musician, and the two just seemed to fit together. It was a convergence of ideas.
Did you write the songs with Kathryn, or did you give her the background to the songs?
Kathryn didn’t come into the process until a little bit further down the line. Although I pitched the idea to the publishers from the beginning as having a soundtrack, I didn’t even quite know at that stage when I would want to involve a musician, I didn’t know which musician it would be. I was quite open. I didn’t know at that stage if she would definitely need to be female. That became clearer to me as I wrote. I’m not a writer who tends to plan in meticulous detail.
I like to take a premise, a concept, a character and then get to know her or him over the course of the novel, as you would a person in real life.
I don’t like to decide everything about a character in advance, as I like to give them room to surprise me. It felt pretty obvious that I would need to write a draft of the whole novel before approaching musicians, partly because I just wanted to know what was going to happen and what I was presenting them with. I wrote first drafts for the lyrics for all sixteen as I wrote that first draft of the book, so I wrote what I was thinking of as holding, or embryonic lyrics, for each song. That was partly because I needed to work out how each chapter would then express itself in song.
I had to live the experiences with Cass, the character, before I could write a song about it.
I had the whole draft before I approached Kathryn, who I had been a fan of for years, then heard her on the radio on the 6 music Cerys Matthews show talking about her last album Hypoxia, which was inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I thought, wow, this is amazing; here’s a musician who’s already thinking about how to express music and literature. There’s a natural synchronicity here. I fired off an email to her publicist at One Little Indian — from my journalist days I had an email address knocking about — and he came back saying this was something she might be up for. And she was! She rang me the next day and we just spoke for half an hour, and got on really well.
She said I’ve no idea how this is going to work, it sounds totally impossible, so let’s do it!
A few weeks later… you know how you decide on something and then life decides to throw… I suppose it either tends to throw a spanner in the works, or helps you? And life did the latter in our case. She was doing a gig — she lives in Newcastle — but she was doing a gig down the road from me in South London, so I went along and she came to stay at my house. We had never met at this point, so she just rocks up at my house after the gig at quarter to twelve, and I gave her glass of wine and she stayed in our spare room. The next day we sat down, I handed her an A4 page composed on Scrivener — which is what I genuinely write in! — which had the lyrics for a song called Common Ground, which is the first song in the book, and the first song on the album. I said, these are the lyrics I’ve written, this is what the song’s about, my character is this age when she writes it and it’s inspired by this, she’s listening to this, it’s the late ‘60s, so it’s that early singer-songwriter acoustic Nick Drake vibe. She picked up a pencil and said ‘How brutal can I be with it?’ I said go for it, be absolutely free. So she started moving things around, and started to sing and as far as I was concerned it was as if she was taking dictation from somewhere. The song just emerged, more or less fully-formed.
It was a very emotional moment, and I started to cry, and then so did she, and there were lots of tears and hugs and we knew then that it was going to be okay.
Once you heard the songs, did your subsequent drafts change much?
The book was pretty much there by the time I approached Kathryn. I went through lots of drafts as all writers do, refining and improving and getting to know the character better and sorting out plot points and all that sort of stuff. Music-wise, I had been quite careful not to be too specific about how the music sounded, so I could be open then to how the music actually did end up sounding. Once we had the songs written, I did go back in and rewrite some descriptions in order to reflect the songs that we had actually written. Some of that happened really quite late on. The publishing process is a lot longer than the music-making process. We worked together over the course of about a year to write the songs, but actually recording them and arranging them, which was done by the most amazing man called Romeo Stodart, who a composer and producer from The Magic Numbers, and he’s such a knowledgable and amazing man and he’s worked amazing wonders in the studio down in Eastbourne where they have all this analogue equipment, so we could get the right sound for the different decades. Various things happened during that process that then influenced the book. For instance, there’s a song called Edge Of The World, which is one of the newer songs that Cass, the character, has written and it’s a very key, very emotional song about this big tragedy that strikes her. In the book I had a chapter where this song appears in Cass’s mind in the middle of the night and she goes out to her studio in her slippers and nightgown and she takes her Martin guitar down off the wall and strums out this song. one morning I arrived at the studio in Eastbourne and Romeo and Kathryn were looking slightly sheepish and they were like, yeah, we’ve done a first take of Edge Of The World, and Romeo’s ended up playing piano rather than guitar and we just want you to have a listen. And I was a bit, uhm, I’m not sure about that. then they played it to me and it was just the most astonishingly, beautiful rendition. The piano sounded languid, the washing of waves against the beach, which is the big theme of the song. I said, that’s the take, and I changed that section of the book so it happens that, instead of taking down the Martin guitar, she sits down at her Steinway and writes the song on piano. So, yeah, there was definitely mutual influence.
One of the book’s themes is sacrifice. Is that something you’ve experienced, or were you tapping into real musicians’ lives?
It’s always hard to draw the line between reality and truth. There’s definitely a lot of my musings in the book, as a woman in her mid-thirties, married for a number of years, trying to figure out if we can fit kids into the equation. My husband used to be an actor, he’s also a musician, so we’ve got two creatives in a partnership, and it’s not always easy to see how people living slightly unconventional lives can make room for children, and there is a big part of the book that draws on Cass’s experiences of motherhood and her own ambivalence about becoming a mother. There is a lot of my working out about these things, which I didn’t even realise would be there, really, until I’d finished it. So that’s me being brutally honest, also I did draw on a lot of true stories of women in this era. Everyone from Sandy Denny, Kate Bush, Carly Simon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell all these inspiring women. So many of them had stories of sacrifice, particularly personal sacrifice. There’s no escaping the fact that it remains difficult for anyone, but particularly for women to sustain a career at the top her game in the arts, without sacrificing some aspect of her emotional life, whether it’s her relationship with a partner, or with friends, or perhaps not becoming a mother at all, or losing touch with family. This is a very common experience for all artists. As a journalist, I was lucky enough to spend twelve years interviewing artists of all stripes, and women of that generation, women who are now in their sixties and seventies, were very candid with me about the choices they had to make. In reading about women like Joni Mitchell or Carole King, all of them had some story of difficulty with motherhood, whether it was, in Joni Mitchell’s case, giving up her child for adoption, or in Carole King’s case having to take a step back from music, or even having her daughter perched on the piano while she was trying to write. It was the pram in the hall thing. So all those things came out in the book.
There’s me and there’s them and it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
I don’t want to speak for Kathryn too much, but we certainly had a lot of conversations. She found some parallels with Cass and her dilemma and some differences. I should say one key decision that Kathryn took very early on in our collaboration was that she would wait to read the whole book until we had all sixteen songs written. This whole process was us feeling our way in the dark, because it had never been done before and we really didn’t know how to do it.
She felt that it was important for her that she was able to live each experience with Cass, consecutively, without the hindsight caused by reading the whole novel.
If she came in knowing all that would come to pass, she couldn’t inhabit the experiences as Cass was living them. We wrote the songs by me giving her this embryonic lyric sheet for each one, and then me telling her about what Cass was listening to, and what the song was inspired by in abstract, and me sending her a couple of paragraphs to illustrate that point. But it wasn’t until all sixteen songs were written that Kath read the whole book and then she told me that there were things that struck a chord with her. Kath is a fantastic mother, she’s really inspiring to me as someone who’s managing to do that with a very supportive husband and making it work. She’s an awful lot younger than Cass Wheeler in the book, and she’s also not a confessional songwriter in the way that Cass is. Kath is a writer who invents, and it irritates her — and she thinks it’s particularly something that women musicians get asked — when it’s assumed that she’s lived through every kind of experience that she writes in her songs. Whereas someone like Bob Dylan can write about a character (and that assumption isn’t made). Whereas Cass, in the novel… It’s weird isn’t it? Kath and Cass. In the novel I had to change the name of my protagonist after Kathryn got involved, because in the first drafts Cass Wheeler was called Cass Williams! And that really would have been one step too close, so I had to change it to Wheeler. I can’t speak for Kath too much, but she found some resonances and we had a lot of conversations that fed in.
The Versions Of Us was a smash hit. What were the biggest lessons you learned from that?
The biggest lesson I learned writing Versions was to choose a subject that really meant something to me as an author, which sounds like a true-ism, but it’s actually harder than it sounds. So, although Versions was my debut, it wasn’t the first novel I’d written. I still have two others in a figurative drawer — they’re actually on the hard drive of my computer — that I had sweated blood over the ten years between leaving university and seeing Versions get published. They were tough years. I was working full time as a journalist, which isn’t the calmest of professions, then I was freelance, then I did this crazy thing of leaving a staff job at the Guardian, which at the time had a no compulsory redundancy clause in the contract, so they couldn’t make you redundant, and everyone thought I was insane, but I left because fiction was what I really wanted to be doing and what really mattered to me. It was hard paying the bills, being a freelancer, all that stuff. In the meantime, writing these novels that I think now, looking back, I was writing for a sort-of imagined reader rather than for myself.
I was trying to write for the market, which is probably fine if you’re writing a thriller or a genre novel — and I’m not saying that no knowledge of the market is important, it is important — but ultimately a reader can smell inauthenticity a mile off.
The idea for Versions came out of a depressed period when I was thirty and felt like life was getting a bit serious and I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing wrong? Why are these books not working? Why can’t I get published?’ The answer came to me that I wasn’t dragging these stories up from the depths of my soul and so I asked myself, ‘What did I want to write?’ and that’s when I thought of the idea for Versions, which was the idea of this one couple’s story told over three different way across sixty years, another crazy idea that inspired fear and a sense of impossibility and therefore made me more determined to do it. I carried that over into Greatest Hits, the story of a creative woman having lived this long, apparently successful life, with a lot of pain and difficulty behind the scenes, that excited me, as did the possibility of making an album to go with the book.
Leaving your day job: was it a case of realising that you had to do it, or was it a gradual process?
It was a bit of both. I loved my years as a journalist. I’ve wanted to write novels since the age of five, it’s just that when I graduated from university I was twenty-one and I thought what have I got to say to anyone about anything at this age? I need to go out and earn a living and live some life first, really, and find out what the hell this is all about.
Of course, the longer you live, the less you realise you know about anything, but anyway, there y’go…
I trained as a journalist and loved it, but kind of knew it was always a means to an end. It’s not the easiest day job to combine with something else, because you’re working ten or eleven hours a day and it’s quite high intensity. It was a combination of being increasingly unhappy in the role I was in, and a senior colleague at the Guardian took me under her wing and said I can see you’re not happy, what is it you want? I said, I want to write novels, and she said why are you in a staff job here then? You should really go freelance. I had a mortgage to pay, and she said we’ll sort you out with a contract and we’ll figure that out. She really helped me make that decision. I was gently pushed, and I’m not sure I would have done it without that and I’m incredibly grateful to her. Unfortunately, she passed away a couple of years ago, she was an amazing woman called Georgina Henry. She was a real mentor at that stage, and without her help and her belief I would have found it really difficult to jump out of the nest.
How did you handle the success of a bestselling first novel?
You’d have to be some crazy narcissist to assume that any of this is going to happen. The success of it came by degrees. I’m happy this has happened to me in my thirties rather than my twenties, because I can imagine it can be quite easy to get big-headed and to take everything for granted. I’m also lucky to have a very brilliant and very pragmatic straight-talking agent, so things happen by degrees. The agent loved the book, she said I think editors are going to love the book, but obviously we can’t be sure they will, assume you’ll get ten grand and then we’ll see. And then editors did love the book and then we had a seven-way auction, so then you know that more is at stake here, and then you get to meet people, and it grows. These funny people called scouts start getting in touch, who research upcoming novels for TV and film companies, and we started getting people in touch from Hollywood, and then we sold the TV rights before it was published. It happened step-by-step, but even with all of that you can’t be sure that people are actually going to buy it and that it’s going to translate into readers not only buying it, but loving it. It came by degrees, and I still very much do no take a thing for granted. I’ve done events with four people in Bradford, then two hundred people in Glasgow, I’m as happy at the event with four people. I’m still just grateful that they’re there and they want to talk to me.
Can you tell us more about the film scouts?
We had a number of film and TV companies interested in optioning the rights for The Versions Of Us. Again, that was another set of very surreal meetings sat with people from insert name of film company that I probably shouldn’t name, talking about how they wanted to adapt it and I just kept having to pinch myself, because you just don’t really believe these things are going to happen. In the end we did sell the rights to a company called Trademark Films and a producer called David Parfitt. An awesome, British, South London-based company. They made Parade’s End for the BBC, and Shakespeare In Love and all manner of good things. That’s still in the offing. It’s a slow process, I’m learning.
Was there a moment where it hit you that the book was doing well?
It’s two years now since The Versions Of Us came out, and now the new book’s out I was comparing my experience of publication then with what’s happening now, and I remember that the book sold in America as well. For some reason, the Americans needed me over there in May, around the time that Versions was coming out here, I was on an overnight transatlantic flight the night before Versions came out, which happened because we had to bring the release date forward by four days, so I hadn’t planned it like that. And I’m not the best overnight flyer, so I had a really bad sleep on this really uncomfortable economy class flight. I remember landing in Gatwick, exhausted and bleary-eyed, taking out my phone and checking my Twitter, and there were a hundred Tweets all about happy publication day and it was in Stylist magazine and it was in this and that and it was just… I was so tired and excited and euphoric and it just felt really surreal and I was still half-asleep. I think we had builders in our house at the time, so I got home, and it was brick dust everywhere and all this stuff in our front garden and me being like, ‘My dream’s just come true!’ and the builder being like, ‘Yeah, can I have a cup of tea?’
Are you someone who writes every day?
No, I’m not. I write in spurts. There’s a kind of rhythm to publication which I’m learning, because this is only my second published book. The promotional cycle is so intense, and it’s so difficult to get yourself out of the headspace of one book, and be writing the other, that I tend to dedicate a number of months to just promoting the book, and I did that for the hardback of Versions and again for the paperback, and then I’ll get back into my writing room and just be very disciplined and get on with writing. At the moment, it’s worked out quite well. I’m already researching my third book, but I’m not actually into the writing stage yet, because I don’t plan too much, I have to do a lot of research to really immerse myself in the characters’ world.
It’s always percolating. There’s a lot of writing that happens below the surface, that happens outside the study, and it’s taken me a long time to give myself permission for that.
I do a lot of yoga and go running and those things are really important, because that seems to be when things consolidate. And that fifteen or twenty minutes when you wake up and can’t quite get out of bed and you’ve put your alarm on snooze, that too seems to be when characters form and plots form. If thinking is writing, then I write every day. I always have ideas in the shower. The idea for my third book, which I’m researching now, came in the shower.
You’ve done lots of research into the music world, are you prepared for the nerds who will start nitpicking?
I am prepared, not least because I am quite nerdy myself and quite obsessive about detail, and I think, having been a journalist, I find it quite difficult to allow myself to make things up. I spend a lot of time researching exactly which model of Fairlight computer would have been used in this particular year. One of the hardest things when writing this book was to silence what I would now characterise as a sort of men’s chorus of angry rock critics, who were there in my head telling me that everything I was doing was rubbish and what right did I possibly have to try and do this, and no this isn’t the right name for a prog rock band in this year or whatever. I had to silence them. I had to work really hard to do that and it was tough. There were days when the imaginary shouts deafened everything I was doing. I’m happy to say, I’ve met a few male rock critics so far in the promotional stuff, and they’ve all loved it, at least they said they did. Hopefully there won’t be too much of the green ink brigade.
It sounds like the sort of thing that the likes of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell went through, too.
Sure, and I think it’s there as a female author. We might touch on the fact that The Versions Of Us, which is quite a literary, quite challenging, conceptual story was called Chick-Lit by a number of critics. That surprised me, to be honest, it just didn’t occur to me that anyone would see it that way, and had I been male, and America, and called Jonathan Franzen, they wouldn’t have done. It is frustrating, but I would also say that I’ve thought a lot about the rock novel before starting Greatest Hits, and wondered why the sort of novel that I wanted to read, which was going to be quite an emotional, intense journey through one character’s life, a female rock musician, I wondered why that book didn’t exist, and it occurred to me that a lot of the rock novels that haven’t been so successful have maybe gone a bit Spinal Tap in getting too obsessed with the pernickety detail.
And I did do my research, and I did hang it round what I hope is realistic architecture, but ultimately this is a story about a woman, a human being, who happens to have been a musician, that could just as easily have been a carpenter, or any another sort craftsperson, or a bus conductor.
It’s about how you make peace with your mistakes, it’s about how you come to terms with things that have gone wrong, over which you have no control, how you forgive yourself for your errors. And, in that way, hopefully it becomes more about her than about which venue she played at in 1974.
I was never in the music journalist fraternity, and I use the word fraternity quite deliberately. There are more and more women now, people like Miranda Sawyer. I was more of a general arts journalist. I encountered an issue that I had also encountered with Versions Of Us, which is when you set a realist novel across half of the twentieth century, I like to have real people walk in and out of scenes and it’s something that an author called William Boyd does quite a lot, and he must have been just as careful about it as I then had to be, because I had various real musicians saying and doing things which the lawyers here at Orion suggested might be better that they didn’t say or do anything. You can inadvertently defame in fiction. You have to be really careful. There was a case with a French author getting sued by Scarlett Johanssen’s people for having her for a character. Obviously you just can’t go round having people who are still alive doing and saying things, or being at a party where there might be drug taking happening, so I did have to work hard to ensure that anyone who actually spoke or did anything is now dead, because you can’t defame a dead person. You could go through Greatest Hits and notice that any real people who say or do anything are now deceased. In the end, it’s on this borderline between reality and fiction, so I did invent a number of characters who might slightly resemble others… any resemblance is entirely coincidental! It was about finding out where it was okay to bring real people in and where it was better to stick with fiction.
Any advice on motivation for when you feel like you’re talking into the void and no one is listening? (A listener question from Rhoda Baxter)
I’m in that situation all the time. I would say you have to ask yourself whether you really have to do this. In my other life as a journalist I did a non-fiction book of advice for actors and Matthew Horne, the comic actor, his primary advice to young actors was ‘Don’t do it.’ It’s a bit of a cliché, other people have said it too, because that immediately sorts the wheat from the chaff. If you hear that and feel a slight sense of relief, and you just want to go and sit on the sofa and watch Netflix — not that there’s anything wrong with doing that, even while you are writing a novel… has been known, it’s called research! — if you can be dissuaded, if you can do anything else and be happy, then go and do it, because you’ll have a much happier life. But if you’re just going to do it anyway, despite not being published for ten years, or twenty years, or thirty years, if you do it because you simply cannot envision a life in which you don’t try to make sense of existence on the page, then you just have to keep doing it. Then it doesn’t really matter whether people buy it, or listen to it, or read it. Not initially. Ultimately it will be up to you, if you keep writing for fifty years and can’t get published, who knows? You’ll decide whether you want to keep doing it or not. It’s just whether you have to keep going.
I think if you’re a true writer then the answer to ‘Don’t do it’ is ‘Well, sod you, I’m going to do it anyway.’
How do you compare writing a song to writing a story?
My life’s changed in loads of ways since I met Kathryn, not least because she took me along on this really amazing retreat that we did as part of the Durham book festival last October, with four songwriters, and four authors and poets. The idea was for us to collaborate and make music together, so every person we worked with we explored that very thing: where the line is between fiction and songwriting. It’s a distillation. A novel in miniature, and the songwriters that I love the most like Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler, Joni Mitchell, that is what they do. They give you the whole life in that one song.
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