BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
It’s a drizzly day in east London and I’m outside James Meek’s flat. He comes out to join me and we wander over to Victoria Park. Ducks are floating on the glossy surface of the lake as we head into the cafeteria and order breakfast. There is steamy clatter, clusters of breakfasters. It is too damp outside, so we perch on stools at the window instead, sipping on coffee.
Born in London and raised in Scotland, James Meek is perhaps one of the most talented, thoughtful writers in contemporary Britain. As a contributing editor of the London Review of Books, he has produced fascinating pieces, bringing a novelistic vibrancy to complex subjects, such as European postal services and their privatisation. But The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent is first and foremost a novelist, having authored five, including The People’s Act of Love which won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize, and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent.
I ask him when he knew he first wanted to write. “I never had the sense that I didn’t,” he replies. “I suppose it’s more why – why did I always want to write? And I’m not really sure what the answer is. People sometimes think that writers of fiction are being deluded egomaniacs – and there is something in that. The implication in that, I suppose, is that you have some god-like desire, but I think it’s not so much that you want to be god as that you want to be one of the apostles. So it’s very modest, really,” he says with a wry grin.
“You want to take the world and try and make a story out of it, try and find some pattern that is both beautiful and pleasing and real,” he says. In sharing his writing, he wants to share the understanding he has of what he’s writing about.
Meek’s most recent novel, The Heart Broke In, was published in late 2012 and shortlisted for the Costa Prize. It is a fat, tangled saga, with complex, finely drawn characters: a villainous tabloid editor, Val Oatman; his gentle former fiancé, Bec; her brother, the deviously lewd TV producer, Richie; and Bec’s lover, Alex, a scientist obsessed with his part in evolution and the continuation of family. The book’s themes are varied, powerful, important for today – the media’s power, faith, religious fundamentalism, mortality, the ethics of medicine. But while the themes are broad and deep, the novel’s core is driven by family – the way our links with relatives, partners and offspring shape our trajectories, as well as their own.
Meek says the book originated when he was wondering why religious families seemed to have more children than non-religious families. A character emerged inside his head “who was upset by this idea, who found it provocative”. This character was obsessed with evolution, believing he needed to be a part of it and that to do so, and to “counter the believers”, he needed to have children. “Immortality is one of the themes, and the different ways that one might achieve it,” says Meek. For Alex, it’s “a chain of existence” – perpetuating genes by bearing children; for his Uncle Harry, the terminally ill head of a cancer research institute, it is “literal immortality” and “immortality by your works”.
The book bears some interesting parallels to real life – Richie has an affair with an under-age contestant on his reality TV show (and is threatened with exposure by Oatman) – an eerie foreshadowing of the revelations around Jimmy Savile that exploded into the media not long after the book’s release. Meek notes that some people were sceptical about Alex’s niece abandoning her family’s intense Christian faith in favour of Islam — and yet in May last year an Islamic fanatic who had come from a fundamentalist Christian family was responsible for killing a soldier in Woolwich. To Meek this was not surprising: changing faiths, as opposed to simply forsaking your own, is “an entirely plausible act of rebellion for the next generation”.
“This is that strange moment where you remember that what the novelist is simply doing what everyone does, in the sense of projecting yourself forward into the future,” he says. “The only difference between the novelist and anyone else is that with other people, the fictional character is themselves in the future. The novelist does that, writes it down, projects everything from their persona onto other personas.” According to Meek, the duo who murdered the soldier in Woolwich “imagined all that before it happened. Unfortunately they enacted it, rather than writing a story about it.”
I ask if there are any scenarios a novelist writes about that aren’t related to future versions of themselves, but are rather things they understand but can’t necessarily identify with. Surely the sleazy Richie, for example, isn’t a form of James Meek?
Meek laughs. “You would be amazed. No he is. They’re all forms of me. Richie is me, allowing my darkest, most twisted thoughts – I’m following them. There are always many paths that we could take and you simply walk up those paths without actually being them.”
I ask him if following those paths can be frightening. “Yes, you can frighten yourself and you can move yourself and you can sadden yourself, he replies. “I think people tend to think of the novel as perceiving something in life and then writing a version of it but it can happen that you simply follow the paths of possibilities in your head and receive an emotional impulse that way which you then describe. So in a way you’re kind of putting it out into the world, rather than the other way round. There’s always a shadow of something real in everything that you think.”
In addition to working on a new novel (set in the Middle Ages), Meek is also writing short stories again after something of a hiatus: “I used to write a lot of short stories; I was young and confident and I can’t write stories like that anymore,” he reveals, describing his early pieces as “magical dirty realism”. “They were quite gritty and tended to be focused on Scotland but there were also these surreal elements. But I can’t and I don’t want to write like that now because I came to feel that the surreal elements in the stories were to some extent a kind of a means of avoidance of getting to grips with characters,” he says. A few, more recent efforts over the past 15 years have been published “but there hasn’t really been one that I’ve been happy with”.
Now it’s different. “The next book I write is going to be so different from anything I’ve written before in terms of style and probably different from anything I’ll write afterwards,” he says. “At the same time I feel I learned a lot in writing the last one. I don’t want to lose the lessons that I learnt in writing The Heart Broke In but I can’t write in that way in the next book.” Writing short stories will therefore allow Meek to “keep on working through some of those techniques”. Meek says he is taking more time to write short stories than before: “In a way perhaps word for word, you should spend twice as much time, three times as much time on a short story than on a novel.” He says the advantage of a short story is that, because it’s a smaller space, “you can see the whole, or you have a chance of seeing the whole in a way that is very difficult with a novel.”
I ask Meek what he learned from The Heart Broke In, and he tells me that the novel has confirmed his sense that “the raw material of fiction was time, not sentences, not beautiful words, but the way the writer handles time” – tense, transitions between scenes, “the relationship between the consecutive, things that simply happen one after the other; and the contingent, things that happened because something else happened”. “I knew a lot of those things instinctively,” he tells me. “But what became more apparent to me in The Heart Broke In was how you could actually transform a page or a paragraph or a chapter with some very small changes in terms of expressions of time and tense and the power of a time adverb like ‘now’ and ‘since’ and ‘after’ and ‘when’ – they’re such tiny little words and you wouldn’t think that one of them could spoil a page but they can — it’s amazing.”
According to Meek, timing is “about the way that you build sequences and pace them and measure them and handle a relationship between a long narrative of months and years and a tight narrative of seconds. You can have a quite badly written book that will still work because the writer can count the time. A book where the sentences are beautiful but there’s no handling of time – well that writer should go back to poetry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he smiles.
He describes the short story as “a form which is practically extinct”, making it a challenge to write in a way “that will really grab people”. “I’m not sentimental about the short story. I’m not of these people who say, ‘Oh, the death of the short story is such a tragedy.’ Well, it’s not like a panda. Anytime we want to recreate the short story all we need is to write it. If people don’t want to read short stories then they’re not going to read them and there’s nothing you can do.”
Meek writes in longhand. “I find that there’s something too smooth about the process of writing on the computer. The words don’t have the same weight. You are taking ink and using to it to mar a piece of paper in such a way that that piece of paper will never be good for anything else again.” There is an “extra responsibility that comes with that. And in the crossings out and insertions that come in as you write, you can see the difficulties and the effort that you’ve made. And that also gives the words more weight. Whereas writing on a computer screen is like writing on water – the surface is always smooth, is always perfect and it doesn’t have any memory, really – I mean literally it does but it doesn’t in the same way that a worked-over piece of paper would.”
After completing several pages, such as a chapter, he’ll type it up. “Once it’s on the computer I will then work on it on the computer and rewrite it. I’m not fetishistic about it.”
Although Meek normally writes from home, he says that “there is something to be said for going away once in a while” to write – he prefers retreats instead of cities as the latter can prove too distracting. The best place to write is in a remote house, without internet access and mobile phone signal, he suggests.
I ask him how he juggles his journalism and fiction. “It’s something I’m still working on – and I think I probably always will but I think in the end as long as you get the balance right, the two activities can support each other,” he says. “There are really vanishingly few writers who live the completely pure life of the full-time writer in a literal sense – that they do nothing else.”
His journalism work helps him to avoid him becoming “too isolated from society”, he says. “It’s just a question of what is the ideal length of time to enclose yourself with the fiction. And I think the answer to that is probably three weeks – long enough to shake off the other project you’ve been doing, long enough to have a good, hard slog at the fiction. I did try doing the pure thing for a while a few years ago and I felt – and I still feel now – that I was actually getting less done, because I felt that I had so much time and I guess it’s my particular personality: I’m always becoming distracted too easily.” A side project gives him more structure, he claims.
Our breakfast now finished, we have to wrap up as Meek needs to go to the London Review of Books for a meeting. But before we leave, I ask him if he has any advice for young writers.
“Read. For god’s sake, read,” he says. “Don’t read the writers where you think ‘I can do better than that’ – throw those writers away. Read writers where you think ‘I can’t do as well as that – and why is that?’ Try and bridge the gap between you and them. Don’t ask yourself why you’re doing it; ask yourself are you doing it or are you simply talking about it?”
Photograph: Sarah Lee