Welcome to my stop on Paul Tudor Owen’s The Weighing Of The Heart blog tour with Love Books Tours!
Many thanks to Kelly @ Love Books Tours for arranging the following guest post by Paul Tudor Owen…..
Paul Tudor Owen, whose debut novel The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press, explains why he chose to set his book in New York City
Like many people, I fell for New York before I’d ever set foot there.
Growing up 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in Manchester, for me New York was the city of impossible possibility described in The Great Gatsby, of underage drinking and comically hard-boiled teenage slang of The Catcher in the Rye, the place packed full of artists and writers and musicians in James Baldwin’s Another Country. It was the grimy, crime-plagued and thrilling grid of traffic depicted in Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, horns honking, neon swimming in the night.
It was the “voices leaking from a sad cafe” in Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street, and “music on Clinton Street all through the evening” in Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. It was the home of Public Enemy and Edward Hopper. “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Every artist, musician, filmmaker or writer I loved from America – and many from much further afield – seemed to have either cut their teeth there or depicted it in their work. David Bowie and John Lennon lived there. It inspired PJ Harvey’s best album. Dylan Thomas died there. Jack Kerouac set off from there in On the Road.
But to me as a teenager, New York was as remote and out of reach as the moon. It was almost a fictional place – a set for some of the greatest works of art and literature of the 20th Century, many of which I was studying at the University of Sheffield.
The third year of my American Studies degree was spent abroad, at the University of Pittsburgh, and in January 2000 I visited New York for the first time.
Even the journey there gave me a sense of moving into a fictional world – my friends Tony and Heidi and I boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh just as 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.
We stepped off the bus at the unlovely Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown. It was cold and grey and the streets were filthy. But we were walking the same sidewalks as the characters in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Don DeLillo’s Underworld; we were stepping straight into a song by Blondie or a scene from a Woody Allen film.
Not everyone in the streets around us was going to become the next Don DeLillo or Debbie Harry – of course not. But it felt to me like if the next Don DeLillo or Debbie Harry existed, they were probably here somewhere, toiling away in obscurity. I wanted to be part of it.
Over the next few years, after returning to the UK, I would try to visit New York as often as I could, and that feeling never wore off. The skyscrapers that are New York’s most potent emblem symbolised the city’s sense of infinite possibility for me – the layers of lives stacked one on top of another; the lateral thinking of just deciding to build straight up; the yearning I felt seeing the skyline from the airport or the rivers or the bridges. I hoovered up books and articles about the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron and the Twin Towers – especially after the horrifying destruction of the latter had made New York the focal point of a terrible geopolitical realignment in 2001.
Eventually, four years ago, just as I was beginning to come to terms with the fact that I would never live there, my girlfriend and I both managed to get jobs there, and in March that year I arrived at JFK airport with three enormous suitcases, and within a week or so had found an apartment on St Marks Place – where Jeff Buckley recorded Live at Sin-é, where William S Borroughs, Leon Trotsky and WH Auden all once lived (not together), where Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground ran their legendary night Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis played at the Five Spot jazz club.
By that time, I had finished the first draft of my novel The Weighing of the Heart, my attempt to set down some of what I felt about New York in writing as I told the story of Nick, a young artist who steals a priceless painting from the wall of his landlords’ home on the Upper East Side. Nick moved to New York long before I did – how he feels about the city is how I imagined I would feel if I ever managed to live there. Life ended up imitating art.
But some things I got wrong. I discovered, embarrassingly behind time, that the city’s cultural centre of gravity had clearly moved from Manhattan across the river to Brooklyn – and had to rewrite scenes and references in the book as I redrafted the manuscript over the next three years. I found that the dome of the Chrysler Building – where I’d claimed there was a restaurant in the book – was actually the unlikely home to a number of dental surgeries, one of which I enthusiastically signed up to as soon as I could, getting six fillings for my trouble along with a spectacular panoramic view as I sat in the chair.
In the book, Nick, British like me, finds himself gradually beginning to feel like an American, but I never did – although I can see some of my friends are on their way along that path. And I found that being forced to reinvent yourself, something Nick embraces unreservedly from page one of The Weighing of the Heart, has downsides as well as upsides.
On the other hand there were one or two moments in the book that I’d invented from whole cloth that ended up playing out in real life – for example the startling sight of a goods train barrelling through our local subway station late one night.
And when Nick describes how “out past the flat roof almost all the skyscrapers had disappeared into mist, just the odd coloured light blinking groggily here and there”, and “feels exultantly what the New Yorkers of a hundred years ago must have felt, two hundred, three hundred, that this island and this city was theirs to create from scratch,” that was how I felt, looking out at “the ragged buildings in front of the park, windows sparkling, plate glass reflecting the last fragments of the sunset, the sheets of offices hanging high above the rushing streets … The enormous country was spread out behind us and New York was leading it like the prow of a ship.”
And there was an echo of my own first sight of New York, arriving on the Greyhound with Tony and Heidi in 2000, in the chapter when Nick describes his plane touching down for the first time at JFK: “the vast wall of skyscrapers like a gateway in the harbour, the Twin Towers its two gigantic gateposts.” It had become my second home.
• Paul Tudor Owen’s debut novel The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press and has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize 2019 and the Not the Booker Prize 2019
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.
happy reading 🙂