Laura Barnett, The Versions of Us
‘The domestic is the battleground on which we all live’
If you’re planning to read Laura Barnett’s bestselling debut novel The Versions of Us on the beach the summer, take a box of tissues. It’s only been out two months but it’s already earned a reputation as this year’s tearjerker. ‘I’m sort of sorry when I hear people say that,’ says Barnett. ‘But also sort of not. I’m glad to have heard it from as many men as I have women, though.’
The book’s protagonists are Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor, who first cross paths as students in 1950s Cambridge. In a neat twist of quantum storytelling it follows iterations of their relationship up to the present day: through marriage, children, work and divorce. ‘I woke up one morning with the idea clearly in my head,’ says Barnett. She spent two days frantically scouring Google, Amazon and her local library to check something like it didn’t already exist.
It didn’t. The book has been compared to David Nicholls’ One Day and the film Sliding Doors, although Barnett says her greatest debt is to the American author Anne Tyler. ‘She gave me the courage to root my stories in everyday life and draw out the beauty that exists there,’ says Barnett. ‘The domestic is the battleground on which we all live.’
Barnett, 33, grew up in Wimbledon; her mother worked at Springfield Psychiatric Hospital where she ran a prisoners’ reader programme, while her father, a writer, also helped foster her passion for books. ‘I wrote a poem on the back of a napkin about a sunset on the Thames when I was about five and I think my mother still has it,’ she says.
Barnett studied Spanish and Italian at Clare College, Cambridge, before becoming a journalist. She lives in Gipsy Hill with her husband Andy, an actor and musician, and their tabby cat Eno (named after the musician Brian). A prolific short-story writer, she had attempted two novels, which failed to take off, before her debut success. What changed? ‘I curated a diverse circle of friends to read and plug holes in it: an expert on Ely Cathedral’s interiors, a sci-fi lover and a Twilight fan.’
Alex Christofi, Glass
‘In many ways this book is my worst nightmare’
London’s skyline is the unsung hero of Alex Christofi’s Glass. Protagonist Günter Glass is an aspiring window cleaner who mops the 72-storey Shard, somehow managing to foil a suspected terrorist plot in the process.
The book, says Christofi, ‘is a coming-of-age story for the generation that came into adulthood at the time of the financial crash.’ Glass, a 23-year-old redundant milkman — his name is a nod to both the German novelist and the crystalline structures he cleans — is an underdog, a young man trying to find something to do in the city: ‘I wanted to play with that genre of the naïve first-person narrator.’
As his day job, Christofi, 27, works as a literary agent (he’s currently between firms). Glass’ profession was inspired by a decade of walking along the South Bank, gazing up at the London Eye and the Shard. ‘I kept seeing people abseiling down buildings with squeegees,’ he says. ‘The Shard in particular brought the book together. At first it was this dirty pillar that didn’t look anything like a shard, but it was becoming this great building that couldn’t have existed a century ago. As an idea, it allowed me to talk about our philosophy as a city.’
Christofi grew up in Bournemouth, the middle of three brothers. ‘They have proper jobs in finance. I’m the black sheep,’ he laughs. He moved to Brixton after completing his English degree at Oxford and now does much of his writing in the café at the Ritzy cinema. Has he ever attempted any window-cleaning of his own? ‘I’m terrified of heights,’ he laughs. ‘Absolutely terrified. In many ways, this book is my nightmare.’ Fortunately for him, it’s a reader’s dream.
Irenosen Okojie, Butterfly Fish
‘I have a fascination with people unravelling’
Irenosen Okojie wrote her novel by hand at the oak table in her mother’s kitchen in Beckton. Apparently the fridge is better stocked there than at her own house in Barking.
‘People run in and out all the time, but I like writing around noise,’ she says. ‘I’m such a city girl, so I need stuff happening.’ Her mother brings her bowls of Jollof rice as she writes. ‘She’s so supportive now,but she had to come round to this career,’ laughs Okojie. ‘She wanted me to do law or medicine like most Nigerian parents.’
Okojie, 32, grew up in Nigeria, near the border with Benin, before moving to Neasden with her family at the age of eight. ‘Coming here I thought: “I’m a little bit different.” In Africa I was never aware of my skin colour.’
She boarded at Gresham’s preparatory school in Norfolk with her older brother Amen. ‘We were popular kids and that helped,’ she says. ‘But there was the usual bit of racism to negotiate.’
Okojie briefly studied law at London Metropolitan University, before switching to a degree in Communications and Visual Culture.
Her West African heritage is richly spun into her novel Butterfly Fish. The story skips between London and rural Benin, to the interwoven lives of a young village girl and an African king.
The tale is peppered with moments of magical surrealism: a glass bottle shattering on a South London street to release two tiny scurrying figures into the night; a butterfly fish bursts into a local pool and belches a portentous brass key. ‘I’m told my writing is quite odd,’ she laughs. ‘I take that as a compliment.’
That feeling of otherness is at the dark heart of Butterfly Fish. In the opening chapters, the protagonist Joy attempts suicide in the wake of her mother’s death.
‘I have a fascination with people unravelling and how they cope,’ says Okojie. ‘My younger sister Ota has epilepsy and that’s very tough to deal with: the anxiety, the depression, the fear. She’s very strong.’
The lyrical prose brings poignancy to the familiar London landscape. ‘Gabriel García Márquez was a huge influence,’ says Okojie. ‘So was Ben Okri, for inventiveness with language; Toni Morrison, for complex female characters; Chinua Achebe, for the scope of his work; Deborah Levy, for her fearlessness.
‘Writing was always a secret desire that I could never admit to, because who was I to say I was a writer?’ she adds. ‘It’s only when you feel that you’re good that you can finally tell people what you do.’
Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
‘I consulted DNA experts, a gun-crime expert, a labour-trafficking specialist’
Plenty of people read murder mysteries on their way to work, but business development director Vaseem Khan wrote one. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is the first in a series of novels following the fortunes of a detective and his baby elephant crime-fighting partner, inherited from an uncle in Mumbai. It’s part adventure story, part gritty noir. ‘That’s India in a nutshell,’ says Khan. ‘So many things there, although grim and cheerless, are simultaneously quirky and humorous.’
His colleagues at the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London proved helpful when it came to finessing the plot’s finer details. ‘I have DNA experts, a gun-crime expert, a labour-trafficking specialist, even a former Indian police officer,’ he says. ‘When I was stumped, there’d always be someone to enlighten me.’
His first trip to Mumbai was another source of inspiration: then 23 and fresh from an accounting degree at the London School of Economics, his taxi from the airport was accosted by a 6ft 4in eunuch in a sari pounding on the back of the car for money. ‘I decided the safest thing was to stare directly at the road in front of me,’ says Khan, 41. ‘But right through the middle of these cars and rickshaws lumbered this enormous Indian elephant with a mahout on its back.’
It was, he says, ‘totally surreal’, but he was hooked. He’d intended to stay for three months, but met his wife Nuripama, a childcare coordinator, and ended up living there for a decade.
The title is a nod to Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, although Khan says his own work is darker. He reads ‘tons of crime fiction’, such as RJ Ellory, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Jeffery Deaver. Having grown up in Hampton, he finds Newham ‘an inspirational area to live in. My wife would like to move to a nice cosy cottage, but I’d find it difficult to live on a quiet country lane writing about sheep rustling. Where would be the fun in that?’
Claire Lowdon, Left of the Bang
‘I’m very willing to be open about sex’
‘There’s a lot of pressure to have good sex these days,’ sighs Claire Lowdon, author of the riotously funny Left of the Bang. ‘It’s the modern requirement of nice young ladies — much as dancing a good waltz, or baking a Victoria sponge used to be.’
It’s something that certainly preoccupies Lowdon’s twenty-something protagonists: Tamsin, who is infatuated with Chris, a trainee officer at Sandhurst, agonises over her growing antipathy towards her boyfriend Callum and his inability to get an erection; Callum, a gifted Classics teacher, is mortified by his blossoming affection for his pupils; Callum’s housemate Leah is a beautiful introvert with an eating disorder. All the different strands converge, thrillingly, before finally coming together at the end.
The title is apt, having been taken from a military term meaning the build-up to an explosion. ‘I stumbled upon it over a drink with a friend who’d toured Afghanistan,’ says the 30-year-old. Lowdon grew up in ‘deepest, darkest’ Wiltshire reading Charlotte Brontë and Rosemary Sutcliff. ‘I come from a medical family: my mother was a physiotherapist, my father a surgeon and they’re all dyslexic,’ she says. ‘I must be the genetic flip.’
At New College, Oxford, she studied English under the poet Craig Raine. ‘That’s where I first read books about sexuality: Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Nicholson Baker’s Vox, which is a brilliant novel about phone sex.’
After graduating, she moved to New York for a year and worked for The New York Review of Books, before following the ‘colossal exodus’ of her peers to London where she shared a flat with three friends in Bermondsey. She now lives in Barons Court, where her boyfriend fact-checks her writing.
Frankness, she says, is her greatest strength: ‘When it comes to sex, I’m very willing to be open about it. The conversations you can have when you’re sharing a bed with a friend late at night after a drink — those are often the most beautiful.’
Katie Marsh, My Everything
‘Whenever I’m stuck I go to the South Bank to people-watch’
Katie Marsh’s debut novel offers a devastating account of an unhappy marriage, switching between the viewpoints of Hannah, who was planning to call it quits, and her husband Tom, who, just as she prepares to break the news, suffers a stroke. He’s only 32.
It comes as a surprise to learn that the idea came to Marsh in 2010, the night before her wedding to her husband Max. ‘My bridesmaids and I were sitting in the Railway Inn in Ashcott, Somerset, drinking £1.50 triples and talking up the brilliance of my husband-to-be, and I thought, “What if..?” ’ she laughs
It took her five years to find a publisher after dreaming up the concept. Twitter, says the 39-year-old, was an enormous help. ‘I had all this encouragement from authors such as Rowan Coleman, Miranda Dickinson and Tamar Cohen,’ she says. ‘Locked away in my attic typing like a crazy person surrounded by Post-it notes, that was the single thing that kept me going.’
They would tweet each other to start word races, seeing who could write the most in a certain amount of time. ‘It creates the sense that you’re working as a team, which you rarely have as a writer,’ she adds.
Growing up on a trout farm in Somerset, her parents were ‘book fiends’ feeding Marsh and her brother a steady diet of Just William, Jennings and Malory Towers stories as bedtime reading.
She studied English at Gonville & Caius, Cambridge, and now lives in Balham with Max and Evie, her three-year-old daughter (who she keeps quiet while writing with the help of a Frozen DVD).
Marsh also manages to fit in a part-time position as an NHS manager. The details in the novel of Tom’s stroke were informed by her work implementing the London stroke model in 2005, setting up eight dedicated Hyper Acute Stroke Units in hospitals across the capital to ensure patients received specialist care within half an hour of the event.
‘With strokes, time is key. The longer it takes to receive treatment, the more of the brain deteriorates.’ One couple in particular stayed with her: the husband,
in his mid-thirties, struggling to communicate after the stroke; the wife sitting up late every night to talk and play draughts, which helped with his coordination. ‘They were stunning,’ she says. ‘They really made me cry.’
London never fails to inspire her. ‘Whenever I’m stuck I go to the South Bank and just watch people walk past,’ she says. ‘Something, or someone, usually sticks.’
Portraits by Neale Haynes. Hair by Danielle Hooker at LHA Represents using Bumble and Bumble. Make-up by Tahira Herold at LHA Represesnts using Weleda Skincare and Bobbi Brown make-up. Shot on location on the beach at JW3 Jewish Community Centre London (JW3.org.uk).