James Meek | "That's the wonder of being a writer of fiction - that you are the watcher and the actor at the same time"

James Meek | "That's the wonder of being a writer of fiction - that you are the watcher and the actor at the same time"

The characters in James Meek's The Heart Broke In (Canongate, August) are each exploring the boundaries of existence, sliding into focus at different points, like cells under a microscope

Sitting in Victoria Park, next door to Meek's east London flat, he says his latest book was triggered by "thinking about what the ideas of science actually mean in terms of having children, and falling in love, and being good, and being bad. What is virtue? Is it something that you inherit, something that you find? Is it something you make, or is it something that's given 
to you?"

It opens with Ritchie, a morally dubious former rock star, now working on "X Factor"-style TV shows. His sister, Bec, is a scientist, working in London and Tanzania on a cure for malaria. The death of their soldier father, killed during the Troubles, is a shadowy presence throughout the novel. Alex Comrie is also a scientist, mapping human cells, and the first character Meek imagined; an old friend of Ritchie's, and a long-time admirer of Bec. He is precoccupied with the idea of evolution, and of legacy, and determines the way to outlast is to have children, but that doesn't come easily.

Meek cites time, family and betrayal as the themes at the centre of the novel, saying: "I think time and family are part of the same thing really; the generation is the actual unit of time by which humanity lives." Two films, "Hidden", directed by Michael Haneke, and "The Lives of Others", set in East Berlin, contributed to his thinking about conscience and goodness, but he sets novels apart from other art forms: "There's a sort of parallel sense of moving through time that a novel creates, its got that scale and that rhythm that the pulse and passage of human time has. That's the feeling you're trying to get in the reader—that a new pattern of time in their life has started up."

The Heart Broke In is the second novel Meek has written since giving up full-time journalism, following We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, though he is a contributing editor on the London Review of Books. Perhaps his most well-known work, The People's Act of Love, set in a cut-off Siberian community at the time of the Russian Revolution, was published in 2005 and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, written while he was still a full-time journalist. He has worked for the Scotsman and the Guardian, reporting from places including Moscow, Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and holding posts at the Guardian including religious affairs editor, and science correspondent.

Meek says this last post influenced The Heart Broke In mainly through informing its representation of how the media reports on science, sensationalising discoveries, with another character, Hal, an editor-in-chief of a paper which one senses would, in the real world, be dragged in to the Leveson Inquiry by now.

Research does not dominate Meek's writing process, though, and he bats away the idea that a journalist might have a greater experience of characters than most, suggesting a barman and a policeman might easily have an equal, or greater, insight. He says: "My novels are not really research based. The research I do is inside."

Meek writes first of all on an A4 Muji manuscript book, writing on the left-hand page and leaving the right-hand side blank for revisions, additions and doodles. He then "uses any means" to upload his handwritten words onto his Mac, and says: "There was probably a good long novel of unused material that I've discarded . . . On the one hand, it's really disheartening, but on the other hand, it makes you feel really strong. You've gone up against the most difficult thing there is and you've come out of it." He estimates he has read the opening page of his novel at least 300 times.

Meek stresses the importance of reading as a writer, and says he is trying to learn from Tolstoy, "what he does with very simple language". He adds: "I hope I am a better writer now than I was 10 years ago but I'm sure I'm a better reader."

Meek does, however, struggle against the scourge of the work-from-homers: the DVD box set. "The Americans now are churning out more good television than I can watch. It's all very well to say the HBO series is the novel of our time but it's not; you are not necessarily going to pick up that many tips about writing a novel from watching three episodes of 'Breaking Bad' back to back."

Meek is conscious of the "1,001 distractions of the great city", too, and Canongate is planning a "comprehensive" PR campaign to pierce the public consciousness, including pieces written by Meek and interviews in the broadsheets, as well as reviews "across the board" and festival appearances. Meek will also do a blogger tour, with guest posts and online interviews. The publisher is also planning to distribute "a high-proportion" of high-quality proofs to the Hay Festival and reading groups.

Despite being born in London, Meek still feels it is a "foreign city", having returned to the capital in 1999 from five years in Moscow, and having grown up largely in Scotland and travelled so extensively for work. "I think I just have to come to terms with the fact that my roots are complex and widespread." This lack of a certain identity can be helpful to a novelist, Meek says, "once you accept it, which is what I'm doing now. And then you can start thinking about it."

The Heart Broke In captures the sense, which Meek says is central to his ideal of a novel, that the characters are on a set path. Like evolution itself, there's a logic to it, and a sense that there is an underpinning purpose, even if no one is quite sure what that is.

Meek says: "I am all the characters. I am Ritchie, I am Alex, I am Bec. You have to be them otherwise it's not going to be believable. You have to follow their thinking in your mind. That's the wonder of being a writer of fiction—that you are the watcher and the actor at the same time."


Book data

Publication date: 30/08/2012
Formats: £17.99 hb/ £12.99 e-book/£16.99 audio digital download
ISBNs: 9780857862907/ 2938/8329
Rights: Seven territories to date
Editor: Francis Bickmore, Canongate
Agent: Natasha Fairweather, A P Watt

Personal file
1962 born in Blackheath, London, moved to Scotland aged five
1980–84 Edinburgh University
1984–85 City University Journalism School, London
1985–88 Reporter for 
the Northampton Chronicle & Echo
1988–91 Reporter for the Scotsman
1991–94 Freelance writer for the Guardian
1994–98 Journalist, the Guardian
1998–99 Moscow 
Bureau Chief, the Guardian
1999–2006 Religious affairs editor, science correspondent and features writer, the Guardian
2006 Full-time writer 
and contributing editor for the London Review 
of Books

Backlist

The People's Act of Love
Canongate, 9781841957067, £8.99
Siberia-set drama. Winner of the 2006 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize.

Books sold: 90,100 since 2005

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent
Canongate, 9781847671158, £8.99
Love story set against the backdrop of the War on Terror.

Books sold: 6,400 since 2008

Drivetime
Canongate, 9781847670298, £8.99
Unemployed man is embroiled in a bizarre case of mistaken identity.

Books sold: 1,300 since 1998

The Museum of Doubt
Canongate, 9781841958088, £8.99
Surreal and unnerving short story collection.

Books sold: 1,200 since 2000