Blog Tour: The inspiration Behind The Weighing of The Heart by Paul Tudor Owen @PaulTOwen @ObliteratiPress@lovebooksgroup

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Following a sudden break-up, Englishman in New York Nick Braeburn takes a room with the elderly Peacock sisters in their lavish Upper East Side apartment, and finds himself increasingly drawn to the priceless piece of Egyptian art on their study wall - and to Lydia, the beautiful Portuguese artist who lives across the roof garden.

But as Nick draws Lydia into a crime he hopes will bring them together, they both begin to unravel, and each find that the other is not quite who they seem.

Paul Tudor Owen's intriguing debut novel brilliantly evokes the New York of Paul Auster and Joseph O'Neill.

Guest Post: The Inspiration


My novel The Weighing of the Heart is about a young British guy living in New York called Nick Braeburn, who moves in with a couple of rich older ladies as a lodger in their opulent apartment on the Upper East Side. He gets together with their other tenant, Lydia, who lives next door, and the two of them steal a priceless work of art from the study wall.

The work of art that Nick and Lydia take is an Ancient Egyptian scene, and as the stress of the theft starts to work on them, the imagery of Ancient Egypt, the imagery in the painting, starts to come to life around them, and it’s intended to be unclear whether this is something that is really happening or whether it’s all in Nick’s head.

Originally the artwork wasn’t an Ancient Egyptian scene at all; it was a 1960s pop art work. But not long after I had started the book I went to a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum called The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which told the story of what the Ancient Egyptians believed happened to you when you die.

As I learnt from the exhibition, the Ancient Egyptians believed in a ceremony called ‘the weighing of the heart’, something in some ways similar to the Christian idea of St Peter standing at the gates of Heaven, deciding whether or not you have lived a worthy enough life to come in.

In the Ancient Egyptian version, Anubis, the god of embalming, presides over a set of weighing scales, with the heart of the dead person on one side and a feather on the other.

If the heart is in balance with the feather, you get to go to Heaven, which they called the Field of Reeds.

But if your heart is heavier than the feather, you get eaten by an appalling monster called the Devourer, who has the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion, and the back legs of a hippopotamus – three of the most dangerous creatures that Ancient Egyptians could encounter.

To the Ancient Egyptians, the heart, rather than the brain, was the home of a person’s mind and conscience and memory, which was why it was the heart they were weighing.

And, intriguingly, one thing they were afraid of was that the heart would actually try to grass you up during this ceremony – sometimes the heart would speak up and reveal your worst sins to Anubis at this crucial moment. You could prevent this from happening by keeping hold of a little ‘heart scarab’.

I was spellbound by this ornate mythology, which had formed over centuries and millennia; I loved the way it was so familiar in its overall concept but so strange and unfamiliar in its details.

And I suddenly realised that the painting Nick and Lydia should steal should be an image of this ceremony, the weighing of the heart. It was so fitting, because the book is essentially about guilt and innocence; it’s about you weighing up as a reader how much you trust Nick as a narrator, and it’s about Nick himself and the people around him weighing up how much they trust him, what they think of him, what they know about him and his character. And without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t read it, I hope that I found a way to knit all that imagery into the book effectively, especially towards the end.

Once I’d settled on this, there were a number of strange coincidences. I found out there was an artist who used to work for the British Museum who had become quite well-known for producing reproductions of Ancient Egyptian scenes. His name is James Puttnam, and I discovered he was going to give a talk at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in Hackney, so I went to see the talk and ended up partly basing the artist in the book on him.

And at one point in The Weighing of the Heart Nick recalls a school trip to the British Museum, and it is suggested he might have stolen one of these heart scarabs that could protect you during the ceremony. I had written this scene but I wanted to get the details right, so I looked through the British Museum’s collection of scarabs on their website and identified the one that best fit the bill, and then I went down to the museum to take a look at it in person.

But when I got there and found the case where this scarab was supposed to be, the space for this scarab was empty. Instead of the object itself there was just a note on the wall that said: ‘Heart scarab (lost).’

It was a strange moment of life imitating art.

• Paul Tudor Owen’s debut novel The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press and has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize 2019 and the Not the Booker Prize 2019

Twitter: @paultowen
Instagram: @paultowen
Website: https://paul-tudor-owen.tumblr.com

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