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Laura Barton was born in Lancashire in 1977. She has been a journalist and feature writer at the Guardian since 2000. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications and media, including Q, the Word, Intelligent Life and Radio 4. Her debut novel, Twenty-One Locks, a story of a young small-town girl facing the biggest decision of her life, was published last month to widespread critical acclaim. Laura now lives in London.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for the story of Twenty-One Locks?
Laura Barton: I grew up on the edge of a small, Northern town, and though I left and went to university and moved elsewhere, I know a lot of people who stayed, sometimes unexpectedly. So I suppose I always wondered about those people, and their reasons for staying. And sometimes, too, I wonder if I was right to leave.
Even though I moved South, the North shaped me and has remained with me, and I wanted to write it a bit of a love-letter; my part of the North, Lancashire, is a region a lot of people dismiss or forget about or laugh at, but it’s actually very beautiful.
So I felt a keen desire to write about that part of the country, and about quite ordinary people with quite ordinary lives. I think we tend to assume that people have so many more opportunities today, that they can be anything or go anywhere, but I’m not sure life has changed so very much for a lot of people in this country. And I think it’s a real shame that the lives we see portrayed in newspaper reports and on television very rarely reflect real life in Britain.
I set the story in the lead-up to a wedding because I remembered when I was engaged it was, oddly, one of the loneliest, strangest times of my life — people expect you to be insanely giddy, and they talk to you incessantly about dresses and flowers and seating plans, but for me, and I’m sure a lot of other women, it was a time when I started to question who I was and what I wanted out of life.
Mark Thwaite: How close are you to our heroine Jeannie?
Laura Barton: Well I’m from a small Northern town, and I’m mousy, and I once worked as a perfume girl in a department store, but really the similarities end there. My own stint as a perfume girl was the worst job I ever had — like Jeannie, I was completely rubbish at it, and I was always a bit too pale and melancholy to fit in. That’s probably something she and I share, too, — we never quite fit in anywhere.
But in truth there’s probably as much of me in one of the other characters, Danny, as there is in Jeannie — he’s always dreaming about running off somewhere, and he’s always trying to grow into the person he’d like to be by reading books and listening to records. He’s got that same misfit quality as Jeannie, but perhaps because he’s a boy he’s managed to make it into something romantic.
Essentially I wanted Jeannie to be a fairly blank character, because she doesn’t know who she is yet. She’s vaguely based on people I went to school with, or knew back home, and very loosely inspired by Pomme, the heroine of Pascal Laine’s La Dentelliere.
Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Twenty-One Locks, Laura, and how did you overcome it?
Laura Barton: The main problem was that my day job as a feature writer for the Guardian meant that I spent all day writing, and then I’d come home and work on the book in the evenings and weekends. There were times when I thought I’d entirely run out of words. In the end I had to take a solid block of time off from journalism.
And while journalism definitely makes you a better writer, it also gives you quite a lot of habits which can make writing fiction more difficult — I’m accustomed to writing a certain number of words for a certain deadline, for instance, so in the end I had to make the chapters quite short, approximately the same length as the longest newspaper article I had ever written, because that was a size I could comprehend.
I’ve often compared it to running; this is like the first time I’ve run in public, and it makes you very self-conscious, because I’m sure it’s not very graceful and rather lolloping, but I’m just really pleased to have made the distance. If that makes any sense at all.
Mark Thwaite: Did you know how Twenty-One Locks would end when you began, or is writing a journey of discovery for you?
Laura Barton: I was fairly adamant that the ending should not be some idealised Hollywood denouement, or even some feminist triumph; the realism of it was very important to me. So I knew how it would end, but there were times when I wondered how she would get there.
Mark Thwaite: How long have you been writing for?
Laura Barton: Well I’ve been writing, in some capacity or another, all of my professional life. I’ve written for newspapers, magazines, radio, and short stories, but this is my first book.
Mark Thwaite: How did you first manage to get published?
Laura Barton: I’d had an agent for a little while (which isn’t that extraordinary, since a lot of journalists are approached by agents) and when I had written three chapters we showed it to Quercus, who were kind enough to want to publish it.
Mark Thwaite: How did working with an editor help you to shape your work?
Laura Barton: I really like the editing process. When you’ve got a good editor they’ll make changes and suggestions and help you say what you wanted to say, but always respect the style and the rhythm of your writing. The rhythm bit was particularly important to me. It’s a bit like a good hairdresser who considers the shape of your face and knows what cut will suit you.
Mark Thwaite: Is there anything you feel you can’t do well as a writer that you’d really like to be able to do?
Laura Barton: Lots and lots and lots of things.
Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?
Laura Barton: Oh usually more writing. And after that I play a lot of records, read a lot of books, sing backing vocals in a rock ‘n’ roll band, play the banjo badly, go dancing, drink gin, do yoga, cook, take a lot of roadtrips and hang out with my cat.
Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your ‘ideal’ reader? Did you write specifically for them?
Laura Barton: A few years back I began writing a music column for the Guardian, and when I started I wasn’t sure who would read it, but I hoped that if I just wrote as honestly as I could then people would respond to it. And it worked — a lot of people, men and women and young people of all ages and backgrounds and from all over the world, write to me each week because of that column. And so I hoped that if I took the same approach to a novel then it, too, might find a home. But I wanted it to be a similarly quiet thing, nothing startling or razzle-dazzle, just something gentle that would stay with people, whoever they were.
Mark Thwaite: How do you write? With pen or pencil? Straight onto a screen? Revision after revision or spontaneously?
Laura Barton: Formally: Google Docs, Verdana, 11-pt. Informally: blue biro on the backs of envelopes. And always slowly, testing the weight of it as I go.
Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?
Laura Barton: A series of short stories about Northern Soul for Radio 4; a non-fiction book about music; a second novel, exceedingly different to the first.
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? And who is your least favourite?
Laura Barton: My favourite writers: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Yates, Bruce Chatwin, William Carlos Williams, E E Cummings, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Johnson. I don’t really have least favourites, because I reckon life is too short to be nasty about things.
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite (and least favourite) fictional character?
Laura Barton: I have a great love for Doris in Alan Bennett’s A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, a lingering affection for Anne of Green Gables and a bit of a crush on George Emerson in A Room With a View. For some reason I find Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale so annoying I get physically itchy.
Mark Thwaite: Do you have a favourite quote?
Laura Barton: Yes, three come to mind:
‘You will protect me, my silken Myfanwy,/ Ringleader, tomboy, and chum to the weak.’ (John Betjeman)
‘And life slips by like a field mouse/ Not shaking the grass.’ (Ezra Pound)
‘Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims/ And strap your hands cross my engines.’ (Bruce Springsteen)
Mark Thwaite: What is/are your favourite book(s)? What is the last book you started but didn’t finish?!
Laura Barton: Favourite books: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. I don’t think I’ve ever not finished a book, but I do recall struggling through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.
Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?!
Laura Barton: There’s something really exciting about realising that only you can do this — no one else can help you, and no amount of talking it up will get you any closer to doing it. So just begin it, and get messy with it, and enjoy it.
Mark Thwaite: What do you think of e-books?
Laura Barton: I’ve spent ten years working for a newspaper that has been at the forefront of online journalism, and that has led me to be excited about the potential of online publishing. How it will actually work is still something of a puzzle to me; I hope they soon invent screens that feel exactly like paper. And I keep thinking e-books should consider the model that a lot of record companies use now, releasing albums as a hard copy but with a free digital download.
Mark Thwaite: Are you optimistic about the future of books and reading?
Laura Barton: Absolutely.
Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?
Laura Barton: Nope! But thank you!