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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Greatest Hits: how a novel by Laura Barnett was brought to life by an accompanying soundtrack

Author Laura Barnett and musician Kathryn Williams tell us how they brought fictional ‘rock legend’ Cass Wheeler to real-life through her own Greatest Hits album.
Laura Barnett and Kathryn Williams. Photo by Chris Donovan
Laura Barnett and Kathryn Williams. Photo by Chris Donovan

Sci-fi and fantasy writers aside, perhaps, one quality much-prized by novelists is believability; that verisimilitude of plot, dialogue and circumstance that can give characters real substance. Laura Barnett’s lengthy new novel about fictional English singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler rings wholly true – no mean feat considering the rather besmirched reputation of the “rock novel” genre.

“Initially, there was a lot of fear in me,” says Barnett of Greatest Hits, the follow-up to her bestselling 2015 debut, The Versions of Us. “There is this idea that you can’t write a good novel about rock music, but in the end I approached this book the way that I would any other novel. I knew that if I had a secure foundation of music industry research I could concentrate on the characters and hopefully create something with broad appeal.”

The ingenious structure of Barnett’s second novel has its own momentum. When it opens, Cass Wheeler (“I kind of imagined her as the English Joni Mitchell”, says Barnett) is in her sixties looking back on her life. Having been out of the limelight for many years, she has been tasked with compiling a greatest hits album to accompany a new LP she has made, and so we follow her over the course of one day as she ruminates upon her selections ahead of a listening party taking place at her country pile that evening.

What’s really clever, though, is that the autobiographical lyrics of each of the 16 songs Cass chooses for her greatest hits set intermittently preface different sections of the book. This device gives Barnett a natural jumping-off point for backstory, each subsequent chapter revealing the significance of its proceeding lyrics, and more often than not packing real emotional punch.

As the author unwraps Cass’s life layer by masterful layer, Wheeler becomes real; a woman whom we really care about, and whose motivations and life-decisions we fully understand.

All of this would have been impressive enough, but it was while driving on the M6 motorway to Scotland, Barnett says, that she hit upon an idea that would give Greatest Hits another dimension. “I suddenly thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if this novel had a soundtrack?’,” she says.

To that end, Barnett got in touch with English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, asking her if she might be willing to attempt the near-impossible, namely to bring the 16 fictional hits Cass Wheeler had written over the course of four or five decades into the real world.

“Laura had heard me talking about my Sylvia Plath Hypoxia project, where I wrote songs inspired by Plath’s The Bell Jar,” says Williams, “so she knew I had some kind of relevant experience. Hypoxia was really hard and I’d only just recovered from it, but Laura was so lovely that I could hear my voice saying ‘Yes’. It was probably only when I driving to her house in London at midnight after a gig to meet her for the first time that I realised what I’d agreed to was kind of terrifying.”

All the same, Barnett and Williams sat down with the lyric of Common Ground in front of them the next morning. This early Cass Wheeler song, the reader of Greatest Hits comes to understand, was written about Cass’s rather dysfunctional mother Margaret walking out on Cass and her vicar father Francis for another man, when Cass was still a child.

“So I picked up my guitar and that first song came out”, says Williams. “It was so nerve-wracking. After I finished singing I looked up and Laura had tears in her eyes and then I had tears in my eyes. She said it was like a character that had lived in her head for so long coming to life in front of her.”

Williams went on to write or co-write the music for the other 15 Cass Wheeler songs outlined in Barnett’s novel. Working with Romeo and Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers, among others, she recorded and mixed Greatest Hits the album at a gallop, finishing it in two weeks.

When she and Romeo Stodart came up with a piano arrangement for Edge of the World, another key song from the book, Barnett liked it so much that she went back to amend the latest draft of her novel accordingly, as it had Cass Wheeler writing the song on her Martin acoustic guitar.

Touchingly, the book also has a small homage to Williams which Barnett added at the 11th hour. On page 293, Cass Wheeler’s late-period record producer Callum mentions seeing Williams perform at The Union Chapel in Islington, London, and wonders if they might get her and Cass Wheeler on the same bill.

Barnett is a former freelance arts journalist, but she was sure to augment her good working-knowledge of rock music and the music industry with plenty of good old-fashioned research.

“I spent about five months reading biographies of everyone from Joni Mitchell to Sandy Denny to Chrissie Hynde,” she says, “and I also spoke with PR Andy Prevezer (chief UK press representative of Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, etc) to ask what a big rock band tour looks like from the inside.”

Such diligence ensures that every character in Greatest Hits is beautifully-drawn. Among them are Ivor, the guitarist who becomes Cass’s co-writer and husband, but can’t handle living in her shadow, and Larry, the handsome and well-intentioned sculptor whom Cass meets late in life, when she’s battling the trust issues engendered by all that has happened to her.

Cass Wheeler certainly emerges as a unique and compelling character, but is she also partly a composite of real-life musicians, I ask Barnett? Isn’t there something of the Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham about Cass and Ivor’s dysfunctional relationship, for example?

“Ha! You’re very perceptive,” says the author. “Cass and Ivor were not inspired by those people directly, but when you are trying to create a story with veracity, you’re partly considering real events that have happened to real people. There are shades of Stevie and Lindsey in that relationship, but there are also shades of any creative partnership where two people are jostling for oxygen inside the echo-chamber of fame.”

There is also a point in the book where Cass’s childhood friend Irene meets up with her again in later life. After Cass has confessed all, Irene says she had imagined Cass’s life being happier and more glamorous than it actually is. So is Greatest Hits partly a debunking of stardom?

“Yes, it absolutely is,” says Barnett. “When I was freelance arts journalists I used to do a weekly column in The Guardian called Portrait of the Artist. I spoke to some really big names, and it was remarkable how candid many of them were about life inside the bubble.

“The women artists especially were often struggling with their relationships, partly because they were not expected to be out there being high-earners. I’d say, ‘What have you sacrificed for your art?’, and they’d say: ‘Friendships. Relationships. Not having a family. Everything.’ Fame was a huge burden for them as well as a joy, and I definitely wanted to get that across in the novel through Cass.”

Greatest Hits, the novel by Laura Barnett, is published by Weidenfield & Nicolson.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.