Here at the Boro book club, we like to hear what our authors think about their work. We’ve had interviews with Paul Magrs and Richard Milward and a lovely visit from Stella Duffy. These things are made possible by the internet and my journalistic aka stalking skills combined. ha.
This month, we discussed 21 Locks by Guardian journo and writer Laura Barton and in a weird retrospective fashion, we have an interview with her. Hurrah.
What made you want to write Jeannie’s story? And what did you think about her? Would you be mates if she existed?
There were various reasons for writing Jeannie’s story. I wanted to write about that period of time when a woman is engaged, and when everyone is expecting her to be super-happy, but in actual fact there are a lot of conflicting emotions about getting married – I think it makes you look at who you are and where you come from and what you genuinely want out of life.
I wanted her to be a fairly blank character in a way, to be quite unformed. She was vaguely based on some girls I knew at school, people I wasn’t exactly mates with, but I would sit next to them in some of my classes, and even though I knew them for years, and I could have told you where they lived and how they had a pet rabbit or whatever, but I always felt that on a deeper level, and not for want of trying, I knew absolutely nothing about them. I sort of think some people don’t really come into focus, even to themselves, until something happens in their life to make them look at who they are. I don’t know if that makes sense, but to me, Jeannie was one of those people.
You’re from the North West and the book has a lot of descriptive pieces – what do you love about that area? and what image or depiction did you want to get across through this novel?
The North West is one of those areas most people write off, even before they’ve visited, but I think it’s a really beautiful place. There is some gorgeous countryside, and I find the industrial landscape really affecting too, especially when you come to think about how and why these buildings and canals and things were built. I wanted the book to talk about both those landscapes and how there can even be beauty in a rainy grey town. It’s also about how you can feel trapped by the place you come from, but also realise a great love and attachment for it too. In a way, Jeannie’s relationship with her home town mirrors that of her relationship with Jimmy.
The book group said that the characters seem very passive (bar Terri) and they wanted something ‘more’ to happen (I think especially with the ending) – what would you say to that?
From the outset I wanted my characters to be really passive. Partly that was to do with realism – I think in general people are pretty passive — certainly a lot of the people I knew back home were quite passive, and in fact a lot of people I know now are quite passive, too, but they rarely get written about or appear in films. And I felt rather sad about that – that we miss all these ordinary voices because they’re not exciting enough for us.
Similarly I really didn’t want a great deal to happen in the book, I wanted it to be a small snapshot of a few months in someone’s life. I think that was because I always liked a lot of theatre and films and poetry where very little actually happens but it’s about the detail, plus I’m fascinated by the point in people’s lives where they almost took another path.
People always ask me about the ending. I think we’ve come to expect the big Hollywood ending in everything, but in truth, most people wouldn’t ride off into the sunset on a white horse, most people behave how they are expected to behave. I also wanted the ending to raise the idea of what love is really – is it this great romantic confection? Or can it be something to do with the bond of familiarity?
We like to have soundtracks to go along with books – can you give me 5 songs which match ’21 locks’ or ones you listened to whilst writing?
I listened to a lot of music while writing, but I returned often to these ones:
(i) Bon Iver – Re: Stacks
(ii) Bruce Springsteen – Stolen Car
(iii) Cat Power – I Found a Reason
(iv) Bob Dylan – You’re A Big Girl Now (the Biograph version, not the Blood on the Tracks one)
(v) Smog – Left Only With Love
How do you make the definition between writing as a journalist all day and then writing as a novelist in your spare time?
I’ve found that’s really hard, and I turned into a bit of a wreck trying. I would write all day at the office and then write again in the evenings and weekends and holidays, sometimes staying up half the night. After a while I took some unpaid leave from work to get it finished. Earlier this year I decided to leave my day job – which means I can say no to more assignments, and work on non-journalism stuff too. Plus I get to spend more time with my cat.
What are you working on next novel-wise and what is it about?
You will be thrilled to hear my next novel is much more exciting. Broadly speaking, it’s set in the States, and it’s about a recently widowed woman who finds out that her husband was not the person she thought he was.
Thanks to Laura for taking the time to answer questions and thank you for everyone who came to December’s group. I hope everyone has a lovely Christmas and gets lots of books in their stockings.