The British novelist and journalist, James Meek, wrote his new book, The Heart Broke In, by hand. When the manuscript got too messy, he copied it into a second notebook. Then he typed it into his computer, printed it out, cut it up, pasted it into a third notebook, and wrote around the printout before typing it into the computer again.
“You spoil a piece of paper with your ink in a way that you don’t spoil the screen with your words, so there’s that little bit of extra care and thought that you take when you actually put a word down on paper,” says Meek, sitting in the library of his new American publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Heart Broke In is Meek’s seventh work of fiction. He wrote his first novel at 18, when he’d just started Edinburgh University, but that was “a very poor piece of work, showing my lack of knowledge of everything—including the English language.” He adds, “I really should just burn it!” That one wasn’t published, but it was set in Afghanistan, a country he was destined to visit and report on many years later for the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the invasion. Unlike that first effort, his second Afghan novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008), was published, no surprise given the success of The People’s Act of Love (2005), a novel set in Russia (where he has also lived and worked) that made Meek’s reputation as a bestselling author.
What kind of writer might Meek, 49, be if he hadn’t had all that travel and journalism to inspire him? “There are no rules in writing,” he says. “I recently read A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. He wrote that in his 20s. I think the truth is that there are some people who just live, they don’t get a job necessarily, but they have a particular ability to hear and to see and to feel and to use all their senses and to remember.... And then the final quality, which is to take the words and make them stick to everything they have experienced and even if they’ve been seeming to sit in one place and know nobody other than their family and their friends in their own little locale, they can write something stupendous.” He pauses before offering, “Having said that, we can’t all be Naipaul. Some people need more time, more life, more collisions with strangeness.”
The Heart Broke In is set in Meek’s current locale, present-day London. In the novel, a former terrorist, a family of born-again Christians, an aging rock star, a famous cancer researcher, and a powerful newspaper editor all revolve around Alex, who, as the author puts it, is “a gene therapist, obsessed with his own personal place in evolution,” and Bec, also a scientist, who’s searching for a malaria vaccine, as they try to live ethically in what Meek terms a “post-God world. In some ways,” he says, “the book is an exploration of where the idea of right and wrong comes from... there are a lot of people who’ve moved out of the sphere of a reli-gious code of conduct who haven’t really moved into any other sphere and are just coasting. I don’t need [the British evolutionary biologist and author] Richard Dawkins to tell me that God doesn’t exist; what I want is for him to say, ‘okay, now what, where do we go from here?’ ” Some characters in the novel come to this conclusion: “We might be alone in the universe, but we’re not alone in the world, which is quite heroic and triumphant.”
Having a large cast of characters in The Heart Broke In was a decision that came out of Meek’s interest in 19th-century novelists: “I wanted this to be a multiperspective book. I wanted to go back to the way it used to be when a writer who appears to be focusing on a particular character will suddenly dip into the mind of another one. Well, I haven’t gone quite that far in The Heart Broke In, but it is told from multiple points of view.... One thing I can now do is enjoy a book and analyze it at the same time, and think, why do I like that, what’s the author doing there? I don’t know whether I’m a better writer now than I was 20 years ago, but I do know that I’m a better reader.”
Johanna Lane’s first novel will be published next year by Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur Books.