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 finds that the other is not quite who they seem.
– When and where do you prefer to write?
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.
So I wrote a lot The Weighing of the Heart at my kitchen table or 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 of me 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 WeWork each time, which was great because I really got to explore the city and work in lots of different places, and it was brilliant 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 office in Midtown that I really liked with a great view right into the forest of skyscrapers. At another one in Tribeca, I came downstairs once at about 5pm and the other WeWorkers were having a rave on the ground floor.
Now that I’m back in London 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.
Before starting I try to get as many of my chores, responsibilities and tasks out of the way 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 give myself 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.
– What is your favourite book?
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 impact 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 novel 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.
– Do you consider writing a different genre in the future?
I like sci-fi films and books set in dystopian future-worlds, and I’ve sometimes thought about writing something in that field one day. I know some sci-fi fans despair when literary authors wade into their genre, don’t bother to try to explain any of the science properly, and then insist in every interview that their book isn’t even sci-fi anyway. Unfortunately that’s exactly what they’d get from me…
– Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?
I think you always base characters on aspects of people you know, or aspects of yourself. 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…”
Aside from that, 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.
– Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?
I used to when I first started writing. It was easy to do it because I was working as a local newspaper reporter, so I always had a notepad and a pen on me. But I quickly graduated to using my phone to take notes, and I still do that; I probably jot something down every day. You’ve got to write it down when it comes to you – you’ll never remember it otherwise. The most dangerous moment is when you’re just falling asleep. If you don’t roll over and catch that thought it’ll be gone for good.
– Which genre do you not like at all?
I have never been into fantasy, but Game of Thrones (the TV show rather than the books) steamrollered over all my doubts, like it did for many people, I’m sure. It’s a cliché now to say it’s not about dragons and zombies, it’s about politics and human relationships, but it really is, and in the first few seasons especially the characters are brilliantly rounded and compelling. You can be watching, say, Jaime Lannister interact with his sister Cersei and hate him, and then a couple of scenes later see him in a different context with Brianne or Catelyn and view him in a completely different light. The writing was fantastic. I got so obsessed with it at one stage that I even wrote a short song about the popular fan theory that Bran Stark was going to turn into the villain, the Night King.
As everyone agrees, the show got worse and worse as the writers were forced to strike out alone after exhausting George RR Martin’s novels, and by the end of the final season I could tell that my obsession had almost completely disappeared. It was like a fever breaking. It was almost a relief.
– If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
I can’t think of too many great books written collaboratively, and I wonder if a good novel has to have such a singular vision that it would make it difficult to join forces with another author. Ezra Pound’s notes for TS Eliot on The Waste Land – for which Eliot famously credited him as “the better craftsman” – might be as close as you can reasonably get. The only other one that springs to mind is Wordsworth and Coleridge’s joint volume Lyrical Ballads, but that’s really like Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/Love Below – they didn’t really collaborate, they just wrote half each.
That said 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 that 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 should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you chose and why?
I’ve been travelling back and forth to the US, especially New York, for most of my adult life, since I spent my year abroad during my degree at the University of Pittsburgh. And consciously and unconsciously those visits have been research trips for my novels, including The Weighing of the Heart. I feel like in terms of my writing New York is like a stage for me, a stage I feel confident moving my characters around on. Perhaps it’s because I know it well but not too well – it might stymie my imagination if I knew it inside out, if I’d grown up there or lived there for decades. I’ll probably test that theory one day when I write something set in London or Manchester.
Thank you, Paul Tudor Owen and Love Books Group Tours.
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.