WHEN JAMES MEEK excused himself to take a quick call before our interview and began speaking Russian, I was reminded of our introduction in 2006. He was touring independent bookstores across the United States to promote The People’s Act of Love, a bitter, wintry tale set in Siberia in the midst of a tumultuous revolutionary Russia, and I was a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, helping with the event. After the reading, he signed a book to me — in Russian. To this day, I can only make out my name, the location, and the date.
Fast-forward seven years and two novels later, when James and I met for dinner near Piccadilly Circus earlier this autumn. The former war correspondent and Guardian Bureau Chief seems to have taken a post on the front lines on matters of the heart these days. His latest book The Heart Broke In was just released in the United Kingdom with a forthcoming publication date abroad. In a few weeks, he would set off for a similar book tour, only this time I wouldn’t be in Mississippi to hand-sell his book. We toasted to the passing of time, which seemed appropriate.
The Heart Broke In is both a nuanced meditation on time and its supremacy in all things, as well as on morality, and the fundamental role it plays in the story of humanity. Both themes come to life through a few chosen people, among them: scientists, fading celebrities, an assassin, and a media magnate. The result is a novel that recalls the presence of time that Meeks’s writing is known for, and reaffirms his place in the world of arts and letters as a writer sensitive to his characters, especially his female protagonists who often find themselves in impossible dilemmas and transformative journeys.
MARY WARNER: You can’t miss the role that time plays in a thematic way in The Heart Broke In. From emphasizing the characters’ ages to a comment from Alex, a scientist who desperately wants to have a child that “he wants to belong to time,” not to mention the passage of time between scenes, you make it a part of the story, but in a nuanced way.
JAMES MEEK: Our sense of time is the fourth dimension and our sixth sense. It’s an exciting journey for a writer to make and to launch out on work that spans several years and to try to deal with this compression and expansion of time. You zoom into something where every single moment is dramatized and then you stretch out to the telling of a story over months and years. I did something like this in my last book We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, but this is much more ambitious.
In this particular book, what was interesting for me was putting all that passage of time in a number of characters over a few years into the context of a longer lifetime growing from the death of Bec and Ritchie’s father in the 1980s, to the present day in the early 21st century, and then putting that in the context of all human existence, and then all life on earth in the context of the billion years of evolution of the organism. So that was difficult, but because it was difficult it was enjoyable. It was a challenge.
MW: The structure of this book is different than your preceding novels. Tell me what’s different.
JM: I hope that I’m a better writer than I was 10 years ago, but I’m sure that I’m a better reader than I was 10 years ago. In my reading as I was writing this book, and beforehand, I was paying particular attention to the way that the writers I admire deal with questions of time. I’ve come to believe that time is that actual raw material that you use as a novelist and the one way that you express time, even on the level of the sentence, is the crucial thing that makes the difference between a good writer and a not-so-good writer. It’s as true as it is for somebody who’s trying to write a thriller or a science fiction book. I began to realize how powerful apparently small words relating to time can affect a narrative. Once you start thinking this way you begin to notice all kinds of strange ticks. I noticed, for example, that I had this tendency to be totally interested in two things happening at the same time. I realized that this was not necessary. You do not need to spread the consciousness around in more than one direction at once. And if you do that, it’s just one of the ways in which you can weaken the structure. So yes, I was thinking big, I was thinking small at the same time.
MW: The Heart Broke In is heavy on morality, which is brought to life through Val Oatman’s Moral Foundation. Tell me more about this organization’s genesis.
JM: The Moral Foundation, which Val sets up after he leaves the newspaper he works for, is a pun. When his girlfriend Bec breaks up with him she talks about how “if there was a Moral Foundation then [she] would have something to stand on.” Val, in his bitter and twisted way, takes this phrase and actually sets up a moral foundation to expose the moral failings of the powerful, and also get his revenge on Bec.
In the wider sense, Bec is representative of that rare somebody who’s thinking about questions of right and wrong, inspired by a sense that her father was a great moral hero, and yet she’s not one of these nonbelievers who is terribly smug about being a nonbeliever. It sometimes seems in this kind of northern European, northern American, post-Catholic world, you are either religious, in which case you are probably smug about having a moral code that has been given to you by God, by the Bible, or even the Koran, or you’re smug about not believing in that. But there’s a gap there, because if you are one of these nonbelievers, or almost-nonbelievers — agnostics, I suppose — then are you really just going to define yourself as somebody who doesn’t believe?
That’s not enough. I don’t believe myself, but I believe that the believers have a very good point when they say to the nonbelievers: Okay, you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe that Moses went up Mt. Sinai and broke the 10 Commandments, so what do you believe? Or where are you getting your sense of right and wrong from? And it’s never seemed more evident in my country, and I think it’s very much true in America, as well, that it’s as if everything else has fallen away and the real moral constraint now is the 11th commandment, as it’s jokingly called, which is “Don’t get found out.”
In all these scandals that we’ve had recently — whether it’s bankers rigging a key interest rate or the scandals involving care homes for the elderly where nurses treated the patients very badly, or the Jimmy Savile scandal — it’s as if the people who do it and the people who are trying to stop it happening again are all focusing on procedures and rules to make sure that people are found out. And that’s fine, that’s good, but it’s not enough. I don’t have a clear answer as to what that other way might be, but some of the characters in the book, especially Bec, do come to feel that that alternative is other people and that the real root of right and wrong is the needs of others.
MW: I’m glad you brought up Jimmy Savile. Ritchie’s life is similar to that of Savile, the BBC television presenter who posthumously has been accused of taking advantage of young girls.
JM: There are two similarities. The obvious one is that as the book opens, Ritchie is a celebrity and producer of a reality television show, the audience and contestants for which are teenagers, all pretty much under the age of 16. He uses his celebrity, authority, power and money to sleep with one of these girls, which is against the law. So in that sense he’s like Jimmy Savile. The other way that he’s like Savile is that, like him, the people around Ritchie do not want to believe that this is going on and they don’t know it’s going on, but there’s this sense that something is wrong. They know Ritchie is up to something and that he’s having sex with somebody he shouldn’t be, but they sort of invent a better rumor than the bad rumor. So they make up a rumor that he is having an affair with someone else, which of course he shouldn’t be doing, but it’s a better rumor than the right rumor which is that he is having an affair with an underage girl, a fact that would ruin them all. Unlike Jimmy Savile whose M.O. was to have as many young girls as possible in as short as possible time, Ritchie is actually in some kind of relationship with this teenager. It’s not a book that is interested in exploring the dynamics of a relationship between a man in his 40s and a 15-year-old girl. That’s what he did as the book opened and the relationship is ending. The book is about him dealing with the consequences of having done that.
MW: Religion is largely removed from The Heart Broke In, but I couldn’t help but notice the almost religious act of Bec infecting herself with a strain of the malaria virus, then naming it, specifically, after her father.
JM: The business of naming is quite a sentimental gesture on Bec’s part. This is one of these things where you set up a world divided between the believers and the nonbelievers, but the nonbelievers have all kinds of beliefs, too. If we lived in some kind of cold world without art, ornamentation or sentimentality, then we’d just be like robots, and even the most atheistic atheist has more than that. So it is a sentimental gesture, and it is kind of romantic and symbolic — and as you say, quasi-religious — that she’s making this sentimental connection between the actions of the parasites in her bloodstream and her father who worked in special forces, going up rivers into enemy territory and sabotaging the enemy camp. She makes this kind of romantic connection to the river of the human bloodstream and the sort of rivers he would have gone up as a marine.
MW: Bec was one of my favorite characters, determined to have both a family and her work at whatever cost.
JM: In terms of her actual actions, she’s a complex character. She does tend to take these radical steps to solve these big problems, whether it’s the problem of malaria or the personal problem of not being able to give Alex the child that he craves. It’s terribly hard in this modern world to deal with, to actually face up to the question of the choice that a woman makes between children and — I hate to say “career” because it’s such a lame clichéd way to talk about children and career. Obviously it doesn’t have to be a choice — it’s not that simple — but there is still a fork in the road. You can come back to the fork and go up the other way, but it’s never quite the same. It’s different.
To actually embed that whole sequence into a narrative from beginning to end, to take two people, to break them up with their previous partners, to bring them together, and to have them go through the sequence of deciding to have a child together, is fucking difficult. Particularly when the mother-to-be has this mission in life to try and kill malaria. So the complexity of Bec comes very much from me trying to put myself into that situation and imagining that character as a woman who is not only facing that choice, but being in the kind of profession where the actual biological nature of life is coming up at you all the time even as you experience all the emotions that you would invest in the possibility of making another human being. The complexity of her thought process, the way that she transfers her father’s experiences to this parasite in her bloodstream is a sort of echo of the way that she’s thinking about the very business of starting life itself.
MW: Like Bec, Anna Petrovna from The People’s Act of Love was a startlingly complex, if not brazen, character. What have you learned from these women?
JM: It’s hard for me to say because I’m so close to them. You are never quite sure whether the thing that you are learning is about women or your own relationship to women as a man. Or possibly a third thing, which is about the way in which on some level men and women really are potentially the same. It’s an unknown, but one of the things that you do as a writer is that you are a kind of method actor. You are thinking of yourself as somebody in a completely different situation. What a novelist can and should do that perhaps an actor can’t, is to think over a longer period of time about what it would be like if you were a woman and try and get past the superficial details, which tends to lead to deeper things.
MW: Time never ends, but the novel does and it leaves you feeling satisfied yet still thinking about the issues of time and morality. What else?
JM: It does give you a sense of warmth without being too sentimental. One of the themes of the book that we’re not so excited to talk about is that it’s true that science is a story of partial achievements. People never get quite what they want. There is a lot talk about immortality, but nobody’s actually becoming immortal. There’s a lot of talk about curing malaria, but it doesn’t actually happen. So it seems quite fitting that these scientists in the end — in their personal lives — have made an enormous and extraordinary journey literally, but it’s not all happily after, after.
I think that the train of thought that Bec has at the very end is very important and does tie the book together in the light of what we were saying earlier about the needs of other people.
Despite our most ambitious efforts, time is the only thing that persists. Endings are also middles. I think one of the characters says that. If you were to take that moment where you are now and go back 20 years, then go back 20 years more, and then imagine yourself jumping forwards to where you are now, then everyone’s made a journey. It’s quite extraordinary when you fast forward it that way, that you can have a sense of an ending being in the middle of things, but still of a great journey having been made.