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Barton was born and grew up in the village of Newburgh in Lancashire, and was educated at Upholland High School. She moved out of the area to read for an English degree at Worcester College, Oxford, and following graduation, started writing for The Guardian, as a journalist and feature writer, in 2000. She has also written for Q magazine, The Word, and Intelligent Life, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Much of her writing relates to rock and pop music, and until late 2011 she wrote a fortnightly column about music for The Guardian's Film and Music supplement, called 'Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll', as well as a weekly column on women's issues for the newspaper's G2 supplement, called 'The View from a Broad'.
Her first novel, Twenty-One Locks, recounts the story of "a young small-town girl facing the biggest decision of her life". Barton has said she is working on a second novel and a non-fiction book about music. A series of short stories about Northern soul was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2011. Her favourite writers include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Yates, Bruce Chatwin, William Carlos Williams, ee cummings, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and Joyce Johnson.
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