Today I have an author interview with Paul Tudor Owen, chatting all about his debut novel "The Weighing of The Heart". Apologies this has taken so long to post but I think you will agree it was worth the wait.
Author Bio from Amazon
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.
About the book, blurb from Amazon
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.
Paul Tudor Owen's intriguing debut novel brilliantly evokes the New York of Paul Auster and Joseph O'Neill.
Available to buy now, treebook and ebook (kindle is only 99p, Amazon UK, at time of posting.
· Tell us what “The Weighing of the Heart” is about?
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.
· What inspired you to write it?
There were a couple of things that inspired it. The first was New York, where my wife and I lived from 2015 to 2018.
I’d had an obsession with New York since being a teenager. It felt like all these great novels and films and songs I loved were set in New York – The Great Gatsby, Mean Streets, Simon and Garfunkel. It felt like a place where anything could happen, it felt like a great crucible of art and culture where anyone who was anyone either came from or had made their name or had depicted it so memorably.
And that led me to study American literature and American history at university, and the third year was a year abroad, and I went to the University of Pittsburgh, and that was when I was able to visit New York for the first time myself.
And walking those streets, all the unmistakeable iconography of New York around you – the fire escapes, the yellow cabs, steam rising from a manhole, the
skyscrapers, the rivers – it just felt like I’d walked into one of those books or films that I’d loved.
And I not only wanted to live there, I wanted to be part of this great tradition of depicting New York and romanticising it.
And when we did move there, I’d already written quite a lot of The Weighing of the Heart, so in some ways it really did feel like life imitating art. I was still working on the ending, and I wrote the final chapters in the public library in Soho, round the corner from where David Bowie lived.
I used to enjoy walking the same streets that Nick and the other characters in the book would walk, visiting the galleries and restaurants and streets that they visit in the book. There’s a real apartment block on the Upper East Side, just across from Central Park, that I used as the model for the Peacock sisters’ apartment block.
I’d wanted to live there for so long that I did sometimes wonder if this was really happening. I remember when I was a kid watching an episode of Red Dwarf, the sci-fi TV sitcom from the 90s, where the lead character, Lister, gets hooked on this immersive virtual-reality computer game called Better Than Life. And in the game he thinks he is living in Bedford Falls, the town from It’s a Wonderful Life, and he loves it and he doesn’t want to leave. And sometimes after moving to the US I got a bit worried that I was in Better Than Life, that I would wake up and I’d be still a teenager in Manchester reading The Catcher in the Rye, fantasising about New York.
The second major source of inspiration came from an exhibition I went to a few years ago 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 the afterlife, 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.
Once I’d settled on this, there were a number of strange coincidences. At one point in The Weighing of the Heart Nick recalls a school trip to the British Museum, and it is suggested he might have stolen one of these heart scarabs that could protect you during the ceremony. I had written this scene but I wanted to get the details right, so I looked through the British Museum’s collection of scarabs on their website and identified the one that best fit the bill, and then I went down to the museum to take a look at it in person.
But when I got there and found the case where this scarab was supposed to be, the space for this scarab was empty. Instead of the object itself there was just a note on the wall that said: ‘Heart scarab (lost).’
It was another strange moment of life imitating art.
· How long did it take?
I think I started the book around 2011, and once I’d written the first couple of chapters I quickly felt quite confident that what I was writing was much better than anything that I’d written before.
I had found an agent after working on a previous book that never found a publisher – looking back at it now it wasn’t up to scratch. So I went to him with the beginning of The Weighing of the Heart, but because of the failure of the first book, he seemed to have more or less lost interest.
So I was faced with a choice. You’re usually told as an author – especially when you’re starting out – that you will never get anywhere without an agent, and that if you have managed to get one you should do everything you can to keep them.
I’m sure there is a lot of truth in that. 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. And luckily that turned out to be a much easier process than it had been in my early 20s.
those days agents had all expected manuscripts to be delivered by post, and I remember every weekend printing out page after page of my chapters, stapling these bundles together, taking them to the post office... It was very time-consuming.
But by the time I came to find a new agent, the world of agents had finally discovered email, and that vastly simplified the whole system. I finished work one day and went to a secluded spot in the office, and started working my way from A to Z through The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which lists all the agents in the UK, sending out my first two chapters to as many agents as I could. I think that first night I got about half way through the alphabet, to about M, and by the next morning, or the morning after that, I was already getting some interest, which was really heartening.
And I eventually started working with a brilliant agent called Maggie Hanbury, who I’m still working with now, and I finished a workable draft of The Weighing of the Heart and we started sending it out.
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. It was everywhere. Again and again I heard from publishers: “We really like your book, but it’s just too similar to The Goldfinch.”
Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, was a big influence on me, especially in its tone and pace, and I actually remember reading the news that she had a new book out on my phone on the way to work one day – a book set in New York, all about the theft of a painting. I distinctly remember thinking: “Oh no, that sounds very similar to my idea. I hope that doesn’t make things difficult for me.”
And then I moved to New York and started a new job and life became extremely busy and complicated, and I don’t do any work on my 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 again I was faced with a choice. I could just leave the manuscript in my metaphorical desk drawer and get on with something else. But I knew that it was a good book and it felt frustrating that it was sitting there, unread.
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.
Signing my publication deal 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.
· What was the research like for it?
The main area of research was Ancient Egypt, which I really enjoyed diving into. I’m very far from an expert but I hope I managed to learn enough to make the theme work in the book. I’m still fascinated by it. Just before the lockdown started, I went to see the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery here in London with my wife and my parents. It was incredible to put yourself in the position of Howard Carter peering into the tomb in 1922. “Can you see anything?” he was asked. “Yes, wonderful things.”
· Art, Egyptian mythology and mental health are 3 of the main themes in the book, what drew you to writing them?
I always take a lot of inspiration from art and museum exhibitions. One of the things I loved when I first moved to London was discovering all the fantastic art galleries here – I remember some amazing exhibitions that really had a big influence on me: Edward Hopper at Tate Modern, Bridget Riley at the National Gallery. I remember a Picasso exhibition a few years ago which explored everyone he’d influenced: the Cubists, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore. It felt like he would invent a style, artists would flood in to imitate it, and then Picasso would just move on. I love that sense of creative restlessness. One of my first jobs at the Guardian was to summarise arts reviews, and that was my education in art – I knew very little about it before that.
The mental health theme was the aspect that worried me the most when the book came out. My presentation of Nick’s mental breakdown is not based on expertise at all – I really just tried to put myself in his position and tried to realistically depict how he might react. The response from readers with more experience than me of mental health problems might have been very critical. But so far it doesn’t seem to have been received badly, so I’m relieved about that.
· Do you think you will revisit the character(s) again?
I don’t think so. The way I think about characters, they exist to fulfil a function in the book, to help express an idea or a theme. So once that has been achieved (hopefully) at the end of the book, they don’t really exist any more. But you never know. If I had an idea that could only be expressed by using an older version of Nick or Lydia, then suddenly it might make sense to revisit them.
· What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a new novel, which is essentially about this current phenomenon of lack of trust in the media, in authority, fake news, conspiracy theories.
It’s set in New York again but it’s going to be set in the 1970s when New York was a sort of crime-plagued hellhole. That that was the kind of New York that I first fell in love with as a kid through films like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets.
To me that was a time when New York felt so exciting but also so gritty and I really wanted to sort of conjure up that New York in my writing. It’s about a failing newspaper journalist who starts looking into conspiracy theories about the moon landings and he starts meeting these conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were faked. And as he gets drawn into deeper into the world he sort of finds himself against his better judgment starting to believe some of their paranoia.
Unfortunately I’ve just missed the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, but hopefully I’ll have it finished in time for the 60th.
· What is next for Paul Tudor Owen?
My wife is just about to have a baby, so that’s going to be the main item on my agenda for quite a while, I think!
· Where can fans find you?
My website: https://paul-tudor-owen.tumblr.com/
Instagram: @paultowen (https://www.instagram.com/paultowen/)
Twitter: @paultowen (https://twitter.com/PaulTOwen)
Paul Tudor Owen’s debut novel The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press and has been shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize 2020 and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize 2019
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