– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m on the ‘The Weighing of the Heart’ blogtour, organised by Love Books Group Tour.
To promote this book I have a Q&As post, but b
About the Author :
Paul Tudor Owen was born in Manchester in 1978, and was educated at the University of Sheffield, the University of Pittsburgh, and the London School of Economics.
He began his career as a local newspaper reporter in north-west London, and currently works at the Guardian, where he spent three years as deputy head of US news at the paper’s New York office.
Following a sudden break-up, Englishman in New York Nick Braeburn takes a room with the elderly Peacock sisters in their lavish Upper East Side apartment, and finds himself increasingly drawn to the priceless piece of Egyptian art on their study wall – and to Lydia, the beautiful Portuguese artist who lives across the roof garden.
But as Nick draws Lydia into a crime he hopes will bring them together, they both begin to unravel, and each find that the other is not quite who they seem.
First of all thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. Here we go! 🙂
Can you, for those who don’t know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
The Weighing of the Heart is about a young British guy living in New York called Nick Braeburn, who moves in with a couple of rich older ladies as a lodger in their opulent apartment on the Upper East Side. He gets together with their other tenant, Lydia, who lives next door, and the two of them steal a priceless work of art from the study wall.
The work of art that Nick and Lydia take is an Ancient Egyptian scene, and as the stress of the theft starts to work on them, the imagery of Ancient Egypt, the imagery in the painting, starts to come to life around them, and it’s intended to be unclear whether this is something that is really happening or whether it’s all in Nick’s head.
My wife Eleanor and I have just come back from a few years living in New York, where I was working for the Guardian newspaper, so people usually assume that I based the book on my own experiences as a Brit in Manhattan. But actually I started it a long time before we ever moved there; it was all part of living out through writing a long-time fantasy I’d had about living in New York, going back to my teens growing up in Manchester, wrapped up in my love for all those great novels and films and songs set in the city – The Great Gatsby, Mean Streets, the music of Simon and Garfunkel.
I had been writing fiction and trying to get published for a long time, starting in my early 20s, when I managed to get an agent and finished a draft of a novel. That novel never got anywhere, but around 2011 I started what was going to eventually become The Weighing of the Heart, and once I’d written the first couple of chapters I quickly felt quite confident that what I was writing now was much better than anything that I’d written before.
But my agent seemed to have lost interest so I decided to find another, which was slightly intimidating since you’re always told as an author – especially when you’re starting out – that you will never get anywhere without an agent. But I felt that if I stayed with this agent, that was not going to result in this book getting published.
So I amicably cut ties with him and set about trying to find someone new – which was a much easier process than I had found it my early 20s, when you had to post your chapters out to everyone instead of just sending them by email. I started working my way through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and the response was immediately positive, which was very heartening.
I started working with a brilliant agent called Maggie Hanbury, but at that point I had a stroke of bad luck. Another book about art theft in New York – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – had just come out, and it was a massive hit. Again and again I heard from publishers: “We really like your book, but it’s just too similar to The Goldfinch.”
One small publisher was interested, but she didn’t like the ending, and wanted the book to conclude in what I felt would have been a bit of a heavy-handed manner. We went back and forth, and I asked myself whether I could compromise in order to finally get the book out there. But in the end what often seems to happen when somebody points out a problem like this is that even if you don’t agree with that specific criticism, the process of thinking through the feedback turns up issues that you do feel need to be resolved. And so I came up with an alternative ending, which didn’t feel like a compromise – it felt like an improvement.
But by this time the publisher had lost interest. And I had just moved to New York and started a new job and life had become extremely busy and complicated, and I don’t think I did any work on the novel or on trying to get it published for the next year or so.
When things started to settle down a bit, I went back to my agent, but she said she didn’t feel that she could send it out to anyone else because a number of publishers had turned it down already.
So I decided to send it out to small publishers myself. And again I went through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and the US equivalent, Writers’ Market, starting at A and sending out the first two chapters to as many publishers as I could.
And the response was very positive. The received wisdom in the literary world is that publishers will only talk to you if you’ve gone through an agent, and that may well be true for the big publishing houses. But many smaller presses seemed happy to consider my book without an agent being involved.
I had a really productive discussion with Obliterati Press, a small publishing house in the UK set up by two writers whose whole purpose is to get books out there that they feel enthusiastic about, which otherwise might not see the light of day. They agreed to publish it, and it was a great process working with them.
My publication date ended up roughly coinciding with our return to London from New York – and it felt very exciting to be coming back to the UK ready to achieve this ambition that I had been working towards for so long.
Which books did/do you love to read as a child/now as a grown-up?
I had an amazing A-level English literature course, where we studied The Great Gatsby, The Remains of the Day, The Catcher in the Rye… All of those had a big influence on me in different ways and you can see their influence in The Weighing of the Heart: The Catcher in the Rye for its depiction of New York, The Great Gatsby for its elegiac tone and study of the American Dream, and The Remains of the Day for its peerless use of the unreliable narrator.
And then at university I loved the modernists like Faulkner, Eliot, Woolf, the idea of fractured narratives, and I took a great course on contemporary writers that introduced me to postmodernism – John Fowles, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes – and the idea that you could present the reader a story within a story and play with their perception of exactly what they were reading. I didn’t go down this exact route with The Weighing of the Heart in the end, but it’s something I want to explore with my next book.
Another book I always recommend to people – but not always successfully – is Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Some readers are put off by the fact that it’s a 1,000-page masterpiece that weighs a tonne; others get past that and then are disappointed to find it starts with a baseball game. But his characters are wonderful, his depictions of urban life are so vivid, and his sentences and turns of phrase are stunning: “Landing lights appeared in the sky and the planes kept dropping toward the runway across the water, another flight every half minute, the backwashed roars overlapping so everything was seamless noise and the air had a stink of smoky fuel.” I would say that my own writing style was something of a sub-DeLillo pastiche for many years (and perhaps still is).
My favourite section of Underworld involves a nun in the Bronx in the 80s visiting homeless people with AIDS, which is also published as the lead story in his collection The Angel Esmeralda. A miracle seems to reveal itself to the characters, and I love the way that in the middle of this purely realist novel DeLillo branches out suddenly and presents you with something that can’t quite be reconciled with realism. I tried to do that at moments in The Weighing of the Heart too.
Despite its size and scale, reading Underworld for the first time in my early 20s made writing fiction seem manageable for me for the first time. It’s constructed from several different interlinked narratives – something that made me see that writing a novel didn’t have to consist of an intimidating process of starting at the beginning and then setting down pages of story one after another – you could write smaller fragmented sections and eventually knit them together. In the end that wasn’t how I wrote The Weighing of the Heart, but it definitely helped me when I first set about writing.
Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
I would love to enlist David Lynch’s help with the novel I’m working on at the moment. It’s set in the mid-‘70s and it’s about a failing newspaper journalist in New York who starts investigating conspiracy theories about the moon landings and getting drawn deeper and deeper into their world.
I want it to end on quite a complex, ambiguous note, and so far I just haven’t been able to pull it off. I know that Lynch would instinctively understand where to take it. I keep thinking about the moment at the end of Lost Highway when you realise that in some sense you’re back at the beginning. He’s been called the world’s only popular surrealist, but as a friend of mine once said that does a bit of a disservice to Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.
If you could, which fictional character (from your own book(s) or someone else’s) would you like to invite for tea and why?
There are those books you love reading because you enjoy spending time with the characters so much. I remember as a teenager racing through Another Country by James Baldwin and thinking these musicians, actors and writers living their turbulent lives in 1950s Greenwich Village were just the coolest people in the world. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye was another one for me at that age – he would be unbearable to have round for tea now.
You’d have a memorable afternoon with the cloistered students in Donna Tartt’s Secret History – there’s that fantastic line where Henry is “quite startled to learn from me than men had walked on the moon … ‘How did they get there? When did this happen?’” I also love the witty and outrageous composer in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – he would be amazing company. “Now to reveal my plan, inspired by a piece in The Times and a long soak’s daydream in my Savoy suite…”
Do you have some rituals or habits whilst writing?
I wrote a lot The Weighing of the Heart at my kitchen table and on my sofa in my old flat in north London, and then when we moved to New York I finished the ending of the book in a library quite near our flat, in SoHo, just round the corner from where David Bowie lived. We only had a very small flat so it would have been pretty antisocial to write at home.
Then later the Guardian office moved to a co-working space run by WeWork, which meant that at the weekends I could book space in any of the other WeWork offices anywhere in New York.
So when I would work on my writing on Saturdays or Sundays I would go to a different one each time, which was great because I really got to explore the city and work in lots of different places, and it was great to feel immersed in New York and to be seeing the sights of the city out of the window as I was working. There was one in Midtown that I really liked with a great view into the forest of skyscrapers. I came downstairs from one in Tribeca once at about 5pm and the other WeWorkers were having a rave on the ground floor.
Now that I’m back in London at the Guardian’s head office I often have to work at weekends, which means I get a day off in lieu in the week, which is great for me, because I try to use that day as often as possible for working on the new book I’m writing.
I try to get as many of my chores, responsibilities and tasks out of the way beforehand so that I have as long a block of time to write as possible, because I find that the more you can immerse yourself in the world of the book the more new ideas will spark up.
I usually work in the kitchen and try to have as much natural light as possible. I get a cup of tea and a glass of squash… This isn’t a Charles Bukowski-type situation where I’m downing shots of whiskey and then furiously tapping out whatever drunken visions come to me.
But I am very easily distracted and it’s not always great trying to work at home. I’ll go and water the plants or tidy something up or sort my books out… There’s a cliche about writers’ homes, that they are very tidy because the writer who claims that they were spending the day writing has actually been pottering about tidying everything up. I’m sure Charles Bukowski had that problem too.
Where do you come up with your idea(s)? Do people in your life need to be worried? 😉
I get a lot of ideas from art exhibitions and one in particular was crucial to The Weighing of the Heart.
Originally the artwork Nick and Lydia steal wasn’t an Ancient Egyptian scene at all; it was a 1960s pop art work. But not long after I had started the book I went to a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum called The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which told the story of what the Ancient Egyptians believed happened to you when you die.
As I learnt from the exhibition, the Ancient Egyptians believed in a ceremony called ‘the weighing of the heart’, something in some ways similar to the Christian idea of St Peter standing at the gates of Heaven, deciding whether or not you have lived a worthy enough life to come in.
In the Ancient Egyptian version, Anubis, the god of embalming, presides over a set of weighing scales, with the heart of the dead person on one side and a feather on the other.
If the heart is in balance with the feather, you get to go to Heaven, which they called the Field of Reeds.
But if your heart is heavier than the feather, you get eaten by an appalling monster called the Devourer, who has the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion, and the back legs of a hippopotamus – three of the most dangerous creatures that Ancient Egyptians could encounter.
To the Ancient Egyptians, the heart, rather than the brain, was the home of a person’s mind and conscience and memory, which was why it was the heart they were weighing.
And, intriguingly, one thing they were afraid of was that the heart would actually try to grass you up during this ceremony – sometimes the heart would speak up and reveal your worst sins to Anubis at this crucial moment. You could prevent this from happening by keeping hold of a little ‘heart scarab’.
I was spellbound by this ornate mythology, which had formed over centuries and millennia; I loved the way it was so familiar in its overall concept but so strange and unfamiliar in its details.
And I realised that the painting Nick and Lydia should steal should be an image of this ceremony, the weighing of the heart. It was so fitting, because the book is essentially about guilt and innocence; it’s about you weighing up as a reader how much you trust Nick as a narrator, and it’s about Nick himself and the people around him weighing up how much they trust him, what they think of him, what they know about him and his character. And without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t read it, I hope that I found a way to knit all that imagery into the book effectively, especially towards the end.
In terms of the people in my life, The Weighing of the Heart was recently up for an award called the Not the Booker Prize and the finalists were decided by public vote. My dad left a vote and a comment which said: “An exciting read this, as we ponder the reliability of the narrator, the tension of the crime and whether we (the parents of the author) appear in any thinly disguised form in the narrative…”
Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow, as a pantser?
Had not heard that phrase before – I like it… I usually start with the spark of an idea: a scene, or some dialogue, or the relationship between two characters. Then from there I’ll start writing until I reach a point where I feel like I have to plot out the ending, which I always find by far the most difficult bit. The Weighing of the Heart probably went through four or five endings until I felt I had got it right. And with the book I’m working on now I’m finding the ending a nightmare too – which is why it would be great to have David Lynch’s help.
Can you give novice writers some tips (do’s/don’t’s)?
In terms of advice for other people it’s so different for every writer and the set of responsibilities they are having to juggle: their job, their family life. For example anybody with kids would find my advice laughable.
But what I personally found was that if you want to do it, you have to cut something else out of your life. You have to not do something else in order to do this. Otherwise you’re just not going to get it done.
When I was in my 20s and starting out that meant not watching TV or going out with my friends some evenings, and now it’s more that I’ll try to stay behind after work and do some writing, or devote a Saturday or Sunday to it.
One thing that has really changed my life recently as a writer is using my phone’s ‘speak screen’ function to have it read my work back to me. So I’ll work on a chapter and get it into rough shape and then go out and have the phone read it back to me on my headphones while I’m out and about. The voice is a bit robotic, and it’s not very good with names, but it really puts some distance between you and the writing and allows you to experience it as a reader might. So for example recently I finished work on a long section and then listened back to it while I was painting the bathroom floor.
What are your future plans as an author?
So as I mentioned I’m currently working on a new book about a journalist investigating the moon landing conspiracies. It’s set in New York again, but it’s the good old/bad old Fear City New York of the 1970s – crime-plagued, falling apart. It’s essentially about the origins of this phenomenon of lack of trust in the media, in authority, and about fake news and conspiracy theories.
That was the New York that I first fell in love with through films like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. The city felt so exciting but also so gritty and I really wanted to conjure up that New York in my writing. When I moved to New York my colleagues thought I was crazy to want to rent a flat in the East Village – it was so clear that the centre of cultural gravity had moved to Brooklyn. But in my mind I was moving into the East Village of the 1970s – or at least the 1990s, with Jeff Buckley playing a few doors down at the Sin-é Café.
Can you give my readers one teaser from your book, please?
With pleasure… Hope you enjoy it:
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Sooner or later, everybody comes to New York, and I was no exception. For me it was art school that brought me over, and I left behind the brash primary colours of late-90s London gladly and without remorse. Here I could reinvent myself, as others had before me, among the shining slabs of a city that seemed to have scale where others only had size, where history was measured in the minutes rather than the centuries, and where each of its ten million inhabitants began their lives anew each morning when they awoke and pulled up the blinds. After college I did everything I could to remain, winning a job and the work permit that came with it at the Bougainville Gallery in Chelsea, and spending the next few years living in a tiny apartment in Greenpoint with my girlfriend Hannah, working together at the gallery each day and growing gradually further and further apart.
In early spring in 2011, things finally came to a head, and I moved out, for reasons I don’t really want to go into here. I left, and went to stay on the couch of a former colleague in whom I’d increasingly been confiding. His name was not Jeff, but I have to give him a name and Jeff will do as well as any other. Hannah’s name wasn’t really Hannah either.
Jeff had two aunts who lived uptown in one of those huge late-nineteenth-century apartment blocks where wealthy families often take up a whole floor. Their apartment was enormous, sprawling, Jeff said, with an elegant roof garden looking out in a wide panorama over Central Park. But it was also ragged and unloved, and slowly rotting away; his aunts only lived there two days a week, spending the rest of their time at their other home on Long Island. To make sure the place didn’t collapse completely they usually took in a lodger, and as luck would have it, Jeff told me, they needed one right now. Since I was desperate to find somewhere to live, he would take me round to meet them and we could see whether we hit it off.
Far from being desperate to find somewhere to live, I was in fact quite enjoying my evenings in his apartment in Clinton Hill watching reality TV with his witty and outspoken girlfriend Severin, whose parents had named her after the character in the Velvet Underground song Venus in Furs. But I am a very suggestible person, and I must admit that as Jeff and I talked about it more I found myself drifting off into an agreeable fantasy about life in that cavernous apartment a stone’s throw from Central Park – the white whorl of the Guggenheim visible from the living room window, MoMA, the Met – and I began to feel really quite excited about the whole idea. For the five days each week when the Peacock sisters would be away I would have the whole palatial penthouse to myself, and it was pleasant to feel even in a vague and materialistic sense that I would be making some progress in my life after my break-up with Hannah, which I felt had set me back a step as the rest of my friends busied themselves getting married, getting pregnant, getting comfortably settled in for the next stage of life.
So I went up there with Jeff and Severin after work the next Wednesday, Severin boasting during the subway ride that the sisters viewed her as “the daughter they never had”, and they introduced me to Marie and Rose Peacock. We all had a glass of California red, and Marie and Rose took me on a quick whirl around the apartment – including the small bedroom beside the roof garden that would be mine. Then it was time for the Peacocks to leave for the theatre and we all took the lift down to the street. As Jeff flagged them down a cab, Marie Peacock asked me a few questions about my job, tugged thoughtfully at her coat cuffs, peered into my eyes, and abruptly proposed rent of a hundred dollars a week, a sum so minuscule for the Upper East Side she might as well have made it one peppercorn. I couldn’t shake her hand fast enough.
“We’ve been looking for a lodger for a while now,” she told me, as we sheltered from the spring breeze under the building’s awning.
“A year or two, off and on, since the last one,” put in Rose.
“We like to have someone we know…” continued Marie.
“Someone we know, or a friend of a friend…”
“Or a friend of a nephew!” said Marie, waving a gloved hand in Jeff’s direction. “So it often takes us a while to find the right person.”
“The last young man painted the bedroom walls green,” Rose recalled mournfully.
“I think we’ll say no painting the walls this time,” decided Marie. “Is that all right, young man?”
“Of course,” I said.
“You can move in tomorrow if you like,” added Rose, as Jeff held open the cab door.
So I did.
Isn’t that a great reason to pick up this book and to find out more?!
Thanks once again for this lovely interview, Paul Tudor Owen.
The Magic of Wor(l)ds
P.S. Are you an author (or publisher) who also wants a FREE interview like this? You can always contact me via e-mail!