I’m joined today by Paul Tudor Owen whose debut novel The Weighing of the Heart was published earlier this year. He is sharing #TenThings he’d like his readers to know about him. Settle yourself down with a cuppa because this is one in-depth and fascinating #TenThings
I started writing a novel about a Brit in New York and then I moved to New York and life imitated art. I used to walk down the same streets I’d written about wondering if all this was really happening. There is an episode of the 90s sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf in which the lead character, Lister, gets hooked on an immersive video game called Better than Life. Inside the game, he thinks he is living in Bedford Falls, the town from It’s a Wonderful Life, and he loves it there and never wants to leave. Sometimes I wondered whether I was in Better than Life, and whether I’d wake up one day still a teenager reading The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, fantasising about living in New York.
In The Weighing of the Heart, my characters Nick and Lydia steal a priceless work of art from their landladies’ wall, which depicts an Ancient Egyptian scene. I’ve never stolen a priceless work of art, but there was another strange instance of life imitating art while I was writing the book. In a flashback, Nick recalls a school trip to the British Museum, and it is suggested he might have stolen an Ancient Egyptian scarab. 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).’
I studied American literature and American history and I always wanted to be part of this great tradition of depicting New York in writing or music or art. The first time I visited New York I was at university in Pittsburgh and my friends Tony and Heidi and I boarded the Greyhound there just like Paul Simon’s characters do at the start of America. Heidi tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up early the next morning as the coach thundered along the overpass somewhere near Newark and the skyline of Manhattan came into view. I remember the Twin Towers, and the crush of buildings below, beside and around them compressed between the rivers. It seemed simultaneously instantly familiar and strangely unreal. Because New York is a city of immigrants and a melting pot for artists just as it is for everyone else, in my view some of the best writing and art and music about New York often comes from outsiders and newcomers to the city, and I wanted to join them. Fitzgerald was from the Midwest. PJ Harvey is from Dorset. Paul Auster is from Newark. But that said some of my favourite New York writers are from the city itself – Don DeLillo is from the Bronx. James Baldwin was born in Harlem. Simon and Garfunkel are from Queens. So are Public Enemy.
Some of the biggest influences on the book did not really have a New York connection. The tone and pacing of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and a lot of Margaret Atwood had a big impact on me; they are literary authors but they are also not afraid to produce books that are page-turners – I wanted to do the same thing. I also wanted to create an atmosphere of ambiguity in the sense that you’re not quite sure whether or not to believe Nick as the story progresses – and there I was thinking about The Crucible by Arthur Miller and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier – books where you can have two completely opposing interpretations of the events being presented to you, each one equally plausible.
I often get ideas for writing from art exhibitions. 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 suddenly 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.
I’ve learnt a lot about cover design during the publishing process. I was keen for the cover to reflect the prevailing style of artwork for literary fiction – as a debut novelist, I wanted it to send a signal as quickly as possible to the viewer about what sort of book this was. But if you had asked me before this what the cover should look like, I would have probably have said it should be based around a compelling photograph of the New York skyline, fire escapes fighting for space with water towers and skyscrapers. In fact, as I discovered when I went on a reconnaissance mission to the Barnes and Noble bookshop in Manhattan’s Union Square, near where I was living, covers for literary fiction currently looked nothing like this. The style of the moment seemed to be very much influenced by Saul Bass’s 1950s posters for Alfred Hitchcock and others: blocky colours, jagged lines, and not a photograph in sight. Photos might be used on the covers of thrillers, romance novels, or ‘misery memoirs’, it seemed, but not really for literary fiction. So I took pictures of all the covers I liked and noted down who had designed them, and then contacted the designers and asked if they would be interested in working on The Weighing of the Heart. My first choice was Jack Smyth. I had seen his cover for Nick Laird’s Modern Gods and it was just the kind of thing I wanted. He came back quite quickly to say he was interested, and I snapped him up. Jack sent my publishers and me five or six initial designs, each of them quite radically different. One – suggestive of two hanging weights – resembled a stylish 1950s paperback. One – featuring cascading red feathers – looked like the hardback edition of a novel that might win the Booker. Another, which I really loved, was based around the New York street grid. In the end we felt that there were lots of books set in Manhattan that used the iconography of New York on their covers. The Ancient Egyptian theme in The Weighing of the Heart, we concluded, was more unusual and would be more distinctive. We settled on the basic design of the title projected in a large font and three ancient Egyptian symbols or images placed around it. One thing I was very conscious of was that I wanted the cover to be able to stand out in a bookshop, but also as a much smaller image online – since that is where most people are going to see it nowadays. It had to do both, and this design from Jack definitely did that.
My top tip for any writer is to have your phone read your work back to you using the ‘speak screen’ function. OK, the voice is a bit robotic, and 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.
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.
In The Weighing of the Heart, Nick and Lydia go for dinner to the restaurant in the dome of the Chrysler Building. In real life the top floors are in fact home to a number of dental surgeries, one of which I signed up to as soon as I moved there. They gave me six fillings as I looked out at the skyline, and a quick critique of British dentistry.
Having a book published by a small publisher, it’s your own responsibility to do a lot of the marketing, and that kind of relentless self-promotion practically goes against your nature as a British person. So the way I deal with it is just to channel my inner American and think: how would a New Yorker handle this? They would say: here’s my book, it’s brilliant, you should read it. If Instagram had existed in F Scott Fitzgerald’s day, he would have been posting pictures of himself and Zelda reading his novel in the pool at the Ritz complete with a bouncing gif of a shark with books for eyes. If you don’t do it, no one else will…
My thanks to Kelly at Love Books Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press and available in paperback and ebook formats. You can order a copy here: The Weighing of the Heart
From the back of the book
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.
More 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.