JAMES MEEK is telling me how he went about writing his fifth novel, The Heart Broke In. It’s a wildly ambitious family saga, set in our times, and packed to the gunnels with scandals, sex, science, siblings, parasites (of both the insect and human kind), a washed-up rock star, a lunatic tabloid editor, and a dodgy outfit called the Moral Foundation that wants to steal your secrets. It’s a novel about conscience in the most old-fashioned and, you might say, unfashionable sense. And it’s being touted as Meek’s very own 21st century Anna Karenina.
No wonder that the process was as complicated as the result. The Heart Broke In consumed four years of Meek’s life, 60 slender black Muji notebooks, and a whole lot of darting back and forth, appropriately, between the old (pen and paper) and the new (a computer). “This is a very rewritten book,” Meek admits with a doleful smile. “It’s been a very difficult book. The amount of stuff I had to throw away… So much was wrong with it. I had to completely rewrite it once it was finished. After a while I began to keep a file of all the bits I hadn’t used and that file became as long as the novel.”
He scoots backwards on his swivel chair and opens a cupboard stacked with notebooks. “This is the novel,” he says. “I write longhand, then type it into the computer, then rewrite the whole chapter, then print it out and paste it in these.” He pauses for breath, or perhaps to ponder whether anyone will understand his eccentric system. “When you write on a computer it’s just too smooth, like watching a stone drop into water without any ripples. But if you’re spoiling a nice piece of paper, the words have more weight.”
We’re in the study of Meek’s east London flat. Actually, that’s not quite true. Thanks to Skype, Meek is in London, where he’s lived since 1999 after almost a decade in Kiev and Moscow as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian. I’m in Edinburgh, where he also lived throughout the 1980s as a student and then a reporter at The Scotsman. That was until he decided, on a whim, to drive alone from Edinburgh to Kiev in the summer before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had never lived in a foreign country, couldn’t speak Russian, and had no job.
“It all worked out very well,” he says cheerfully. “I changed $100 at the border and got this giant stack of roubles that lasted me for months. It was a very rich time for reflection. I travelled a lot, met interesting people, learnt Russian, watched the Union dying. There was no English language TV and the internet hadn’t got going. It was just me and my books and they were like jewels.”
Like his characters, who are often rootless and always in pursuit of something they can’t quite find (usually love), Meek is a wanderer. He is a citizen of the world, perhaps even a nowhere man. His accent yields no clues as to his Dundee upbringing. His face, with its intense and sometimes lofty expression, gives little away. And he is very eloquent, which makes him a master of subterfuge. You can ask Meek a question and be so charmed by the long, lean, and lyrical answer that you only later realise that he hasn’t really revealed anything about himself at all. This is probably what makes him a brilliant journalist and a confounding interviewee.
This novel, like his most famous one, The People’s Act of Love, was written here, there, and everywhere: London, New York, Istanbul, and his parents’ house in Dundee. Yet The Heart Broke In is, in many ways, a homecoming. The People’s Act of Love, which won Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, the Ondaatje Prize, and was longlisted for the Booker, was set in Siberia, 1919, in the last dark days of the Russian Revolution. Its follow-up, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, jumped between Afghanistan, London and New York and even had a sense of crossing continents in its title. But Meek’s new novel sees the foreign correspondent’s gaze return home to Britain (OK, and Tanzania).
“I’ve always wanted to write a book about my times and about the people of my world,” he says. “And you don’t need to be in difficult times long ago and far away to find extremity. You can see the shadow of it in seemingly quiet, peaceful, civilised modern Britain.”
If The People’s Act of Love was, as Irvine Welsh claimed, a novel set in the past that felt like “the most contemporary fiction you’ll ever read”, The Heart Broke In is a novel set in the present that feels as old as London brick. This is partly because of its 19th-century style, its psychological depth and omniscient narrator. But it’s also because of its preoccupation with morality. “I prefer thinking of this as a book about right and wrong,” he notes. “Most books are in a way. The word ‘moral’ is a bit like ‘honour’. It’s become a bit faded, clapped out, musty, and it smells of old bibles and a church that nobody goes to. We can all talk about right and wrong. Where does it come from? How do we acquire it? How do we invent it?”
The book changed him too. “By the time I finished writing it, I had a different way of looking at things,” Meek tells me. “Some of the characters do come to feel that what we call morality is actually other people; the need, love, fear and hostility of others. We may be, technically, alone in the universe but we’re not alone in the world.” He flashes me another sombre smile. “If we were, things would be a lot simpler.”
Meek wrote the book after a period of great change. He divorced his Russian wife, moved house, and left his job to write novels full-time. He now lives alone, yet has written a book about family. There is a palpable yearning for children in The Heart Broke In, a feeling housed in the mind of a brilliant, egotistical, and very romantic scientist called Alex. “Medically speaking, it’s not too late,” he says, when I ask him about this.
And what about love? All his books are about, if not love, then at least the impossibility of it. “I am of course interested in love,” he sighs. “Who isn’t? I’m inspired by Proust who spent all of his huge book dealing with the two contradictory impulses of love – its absolute necessity and its absolute impossibility. That’s the way I look at it. Clearly there are times when it works and there is real love. And it lasts. It can happen.” He sounds as though he doesn’t quite believe it.
Meek was born in London in 1962, the second of four children. His father was a Scot born in India with an English accent. His mother was the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and a journalist who reported on the Second World War. “The connections between me and my grandfather are uncanny,” he says. “Like me, he was a foreign correspondent. Like me, he was a novelist. Like me, he married a woman from eastern Europe.”
By the time he was five, the family had moved to Scotland and by 1970 they were living in Broughty Ferry. Scotland remains the country in which Meek has lived longest, but it’s not as simple as that. “I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I’m not really from anywhere,” he says. “I think the revival of serious talk about Scottish independence has brought this into focus for me. I guess if push came to shove and I had to go for a passport, I hope the Scottish Government would give me one.”
He always wanted to be a writer and, when he was 12, asked his mother for a typewriter in exchange for cleaning the windows. “A very gadget-based approach to art,” he says, with a laugh. It’s an early indication of Meek’s determination and ambition that in years to come would take him to Kiev, Moscow, and finally to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He won awards for his front-line reporting but continues to struggle with his role there.
“You do feel a sense of futility when you’re [out there],” he says. “There were hundreds of journalists in Iraq writing until they were blue in the face that the thing had gone tits up and they just kept on going. There was a real sense of madness on the eve of the  invasion of Iraq. Everyone knew it was going to happen the next day and there you were, standing on a wall of sand on the border between Iraq and Kuwait, looking at this country going about its business. ‘Well’, you thought, ‘there must be some better way than throwing tonnes of explosive at this…’” he trails off.
In the end, Meek poured all his outrage, futility, despair, and hope into his novels. But journalism, in particular war reportage, has a different and much more clear-cut function than fiction. He tells me all he misses about the former is “the clarity of an assignment”, but I wonder whether he ever feels guilty about abandoning it to write fiction full time? He meets my gaze squarely, intently. “I don’t feel guilty at all,” he says. “In fact, I feel less guilty.”
Yet it’s not the journalists of whom Meek disapproves. “It’s the readers,” he says. “It’s the hypocrisy of people who read serious newspapers and believe themselves to be caring, concerned people when it’s just a more sophisticated form of gladiatorial entertainment.” So what can the novelist do under such bleak circumstances? Meek laughs and swivels on the chair in his London study, home at least for now. “The novelist has just as much chance of making people think about the world,” he says with an almost imperceptible smile. “And he has more of a chance of being of some comfort to people. And you know what? Comfort is important too.”
l The Heart Broke In, Canongate, £17.99 hardback. Meek launches the novel at the book festival, on Monday, 6:30pm.
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