My guest today is debut novelist Paul Tudor Owen. Paul is a Guardian journalist and his literary crime novel, The Weighing of the Heart is out now from Obliterati Press.
We discuss Paul’s path to publication, how to fit writing around a day job, and the benefits of joining a writing group.
You can find out more about Paul and his book at Paul Tudor Owen.
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I’m still working on the third Crow Investigations book, but July was mostly taken up with family holiday stuff and conferences!
I went to the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association) annual conference in Lancaster University and the 50BooksEdinburgh publishing conference.
I did a talk at the RNA conference (all about overcoming fear, self-doubt and procrastination) and I was appropriately ‘on brand’ ie. TERRIFIED. It was a wonderful experience, though, and I met so many kindred spirits and lovely writers.
The 50BooksEdinburgh conference was a life-changing, mindset-altering, incredible, overwhelming, inspiring event. I’m going to take a few weeks to sort through my thoughts and impressions, and will give a proper overview in the next episode.
At both events, I got to meet listeners of this podcast, which felt amazing. If you said ‘hi’, please let me take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ (again!). It was lovely to meet you!
IN THE INTERVIEW
I’m still trialling the full transcript of the interviews (see below). I want to make the podcast more accessible for those who prefer (or need) to read, rather than listen. I would love to hear what you think! Do you like the full transcript or do you miss the ‘selected highlights’ of the old format?
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TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH PAUL TUDOR OWEN
Sarah [00:00:01] My guest today is Guardian journalist and debut author Paul Tudor Owen. Paul’s first novel The Weighing Of The Heart is literary crime fiction and was released in March 2019 by Obliteratti Press. Welcome to the show Paul and thank you so much for joining us.
Paul [00:00:18] Thanks very much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Sarah [00:00:22] Well just to get started I was hoping that you could tell us a wee bit about your debut novel. Did you always intend to write literary crime fiction and am I describing it correctly?
Paul [00:00:33] Yes. The novel is set in New York. It’s about a young British guy living in New York and he splits up with his girlfriend and moves in as a lodger with two elderly ladies in an opulent apartment on the Upper East Side. And there are all these priceless works of art on the walls all over the apartment. And he and the young woman who lives next door steal one of the works of art. It’s an ancient Egyptian scene and after the theft, the stress of it begins to work on him and the imagery of ancient Egypt, the imagery from the picture starts to come to life around him and it’s not clear to the reader whether that’s really happening or whether that’s that’s just in his head. So it’s literary fiction and there’s a crime at the heart of it. I think that, you know, I don’t know whether the author is always the right person to say what genre a book is. And I’m quite happy for the reader to make that come to that conclusion. And I’m also really aware that people like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan always really annoy everybody when they write a book that’s blatantly science fiction and then they claim in every interview that it’s not science fiction at all. So what I’d say is that any readers of crime fiction please read it. I think you’ll enjoy it. Readers of literary fiction. Go for it. People who like books about New York ancient Egypt arts basically the more the merrier.
Sarah [00:02:22] Absolutely. As you say, genres are kind of labels so that people know where to put things on the bookshelf and in the store. They are a marketing construct and convenience.
But congratulations on becoming a published author. That’s great.
Paul [00:02:51] Thank you. Thanks very much.
Sarah [00:02:53] And it’s it’s a long and twisty path for most of us so I would love to hear your path to publication story.
Paul [00:03:01] Yeah no absolutely, it’s definitely taken a while for me. I think I first started trying to write fiction when I was in my early 20s and I managed to get an agent at that time and I finished a book. He sent it out and no publishers were interested. And then I was sort of going back and forth and I was working on other ideas and eventually around about sort of 2011 I started writing this current book and I think once I’d written the first couple of chapters I just really felt like, you know, very confident really that what I was writing now was much better than anything that I’d written before. And so I went back to the agent with what I’d written but sort of by this time he’d taken the other book to publishers and they hadn’t been interested and I think he’d sort of lost interest really. So I kind of was faced with a choice you know. You’re usually told as a as an author especially when you’re starting out you really needs an agent and if you have one to do everything you can to keep them. You know I think there’s a lot of truth to that. However I just felt like this was not going to result in this book getting published. So I sort of cut ties with him very amicably and I set about sort of starting to try to find another agent. And it was such a different process by that time because I think when I when I was in my early 20s trying to find an agent I’d been posting things out you know I would have been printing out page after page, stapling these bundles together taking them to the post office just so time consuming. And I remember the night when I just tried to find another agent I just basically after work I went to a secluded spot and I got The Writers And Artists Yearbook and I just started going through from A and emailing it to everybody, and I think that evening I got about halfway through the alphabet and there was a lot of interest. there was a lot of interest quite quickly. So that was that was really great. That felt very heartening. And then so I guess for the next couple of years I was kind of working with a really great agent, Maggie Hanbury, who I’m still working with now. But when she came to to send it out, again we didn’t have much luck with publishers. And one of the reasons was that at the time another book about art theft in New York had just come out. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and it was a massive hit. It was everywhere and a lot of these publishers were saying well we really like your book but it’s just too similar to The Goldfinch. And so once again, the kind of momentum really slowed at that point, and we were talking to one small publisher at this time but around this time I got a job in New York. I worked for The Guardian newspaper and I got a job in their office in New York. And so at the time I was moving now which was March 2015 I was talking to this small publisher and she really didn’t like the ending. And you know not to give anything away but she felt that the ending should conclude in a sort of what I felt was quite a heavy handed manner. And so we went back and forth over this and I don’t know if if you’ve found this but sometimes when somebody points out a problem and you set about… Well first of all you try to figure out whether you agree that it’s a problem. Often it turns up something that even if you didn’t agree with the original problem it turns up some issue that you agree that does need to be solved. So while I was in discussion with this publisher I kind of came up with an alternative ending and I actually really preferred the alternative ending and I thought it was it was it was much better. But by this time the publisher had lost interest. So I’d just moved to New York and started a new job and I think really then for the next year I didn’t do anything on it. Life was just too busy and too complicated and it was only really about a year after moving to New York that I sort of came back to it and I spoke to my agent and they said that they didn’t feel that they could continue to send out because they’d sent it out to a few publishers already. And I just said them ‘Okay I’m just going to send it out to small publishers.’ And so again I went through the writers and artists yearbook and also the one and in the US which is it’s called something like the writers market. And I just started at the beginning and started sending out chapters to all of them, really. All the small publishers and the response was really good. And I think that the writers who are sitting at home waiting for agents to get back to them and thinking that they need to have an agent in order to go that further steps towards publication. I think it’s true if you were if you want to get published by HarperCollins or if you want to get published by Penguin or Faber like it probably is true but to be published by a small publisher I don’t think it is necessarily true. And two or three were interested and we talked to them and in the end I went with Obliterati who are a brilliant small publisher. They set up a couple of years ago. The whole purpose is to get books that they think are brilliant that have not had a chance elsewhere out to the public. It’s two guys running it. I really respect what they’re doing. And yeah. And that’s been a really great process. So that was about, I guess that was about a year and a half ago or a year ago when I signed with them and around the same time my wife and I were talking about whether to stay in New York or come back here and we decided to come back. So that was really exciting time actually because we were coming back and I knew the book was going to come out when we got back to Britain and you know it felt like I was finally going to achieve this ambition and do something that I wanted to do for so long.
Sarah [00:10:05] Well thank you so much for sharing that. As I said at the beginning, most of us have got this twisty path filled with close but no cigar and rejection and things but I’m always so grateful when and other authors are willing to share it because it’s so important that everyone knows that that’s just normal. That is absolutely the usual experience, because when you’re going through it… I mean you had that tenacity, you know, you kept on going you might have a wee break at times because of life will you get a bit too ground down with it. but you come back and you try again. Is there anything that you wish that you could go back and tell yourself? Is there any advice you would give to other people in the same situation or anything you wish you could have known?
Paul [00:10:57] This is a sort of impossible one but it wouldn’t be really it would have really helped me a lot to know that in the end I was going to get there because I think you know there’s definitely periods where you feel like, God I’m putting so much into this I’m putting so much time so much of my sort of creativity into this and maybe it’s just going nowhere and maybe I should really be using that time and effort for something else. So you know if there had been a way to let myself know that you will make it, that would have would have meant a lot. Obviously that’s impossible. I mean advice for other people you know it’s so it’s so different for each person and each person’s set of responsibilities; their job, their family life. So you know I suppose anything I can say, anyone with kids for example would just probably say what you’re saying is impossible. But what I found was that if you want to do it, you have to cut something else out. You have to not do something else in order to do this. Otherwise he’s just not going to get it done. So I think when I when I started off in my 20s like what that meant I guess was not going out at my friends or not watching TV in the evening or whatever. Just making time to do this. And I suppose now it’s more that sometimes I’ll stay behind after work and work on my book for a couple of hours. Quite a lot, I’ll try and spend Saturday and Sunday in the day working and I think that’s it really you just have to carve out that time. And it’s not it’s not easy you know.
Sarah [00:12:51] I’m very impressed that you sometimes work on your writing at the end of a working day, because when I was in journalism I wanted to write fiction desperately but I know that I felt as if I had used up the word part of my brain by the end of the day. So I’m very impressed that you managed to do that.
Paul [00:13:57] I didn’t really feel like that, I felt more like I was in a very productive state of mind at work… And also, the kinds of deadlines that we’re working to, there’s a lot of pressure to work very quickly and it was better if I just carried that on.
Sarah [00:13:57] Yeah that makes a lot of sense. And I’m going to be fair to myself and also say that I was bringing up two small children at the same time, so that’ll be it as well!
Paul [00:14:04] That’s so impressive.
Sarah [00:14:07] Oh well, it took me a wee while, but I wanted to say about the journalism as well… So was non-fiction your first love, or did you always want to write fiction?
Paul [00:14:18] No I always wanted to write fiction and I think I remember actually having a chat with one of my lecturers at university when I was just about to graduate and talking about this, and it was really clear to me, you know, that it would be very very difficult to make a living from writing fiction. And so I was thinking about what what I could do instead that would satisfy some of the same sort of creative impulses. And in the end, they’re not that similar in some ways. I mean for me, anyway. I work in news. Our main task is really to get information across to people as quickly and as clearly as possible. And I think writing fiction you’re doing numerous things at once, you’re building the characters, you’re working on the architecture of the plot, maybe you’re doing something interesting with the structure, you’ve got to think about the dialogue. You’ve got to do all those things simultaneously and you know, sometimes, you don’t want to get information across clearly and quickly to a to a reader. Sometimes you want to do the exact opposite you want to withhold information from a reader and have them gradually realize it or only realize it at the end. And I think in some forms of journalism like a creative non-fiction as they call it in the US or longform magazine journalism I think in those forms of journalism people are using some of those similar techniques but for me, news reporting and news editing which is what I’ve done as a career it’s quite different in those ways to writing fiction.
Sarah [00:15:55] Yeah absolutely. And so were there any resources or books or courses or anything that you used to help you study writing fiction and help you transition from non-fiction?
Paul [00:16:08] I haven’t done any formal creative writing courses. I mean I do remember even sort of as far back as do my A Level English, that I was always thinking about how these authors were doing were creating the effects that they were creating, why they were choosing to do it that way. And I feel like looking back I was trying to teach myself essentially and it was the same at university where I was studying American literature and American history. And so you can see the influence of some of the books that I studied at a level on this book like The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro one of my favourite books has an amazing unreliable narrator.
And I’m definitely doing some of the same things in the Weighing of the Heart, and then the Great Gatsby we also studied, and I think I’m sort of looking at the same idea of the corroded American dream as Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby and I deliberately put in some nods to The Great Gatsby in the text because I thought it was pretty obvious how influenced I was, and I just wanted to make sure that the reader knew I wasn’t trying to like pull the wool over their eyes.
Sarah [00:17:23] It’s like ‘I know, I know I’m influenced by it. Look!’
Paul [00:17:30] But I have been in writing groups where you read to each other and give feedback and I’ve found that very useful, and the most recent one actually was when I was in New York and I hadn’t written anything for about a year and I really wanted to get back into it and I wanted to start a new book. And I joined this group run by an organization called Gotham Writers. The class was was fairly simple. It was basically there were about 15 of you and the facilitator comes up with a word or a phrase and you have 10 or 15 minutes to write basically whatever you like on that subject or based around that subject. And it was just exactly what I needed really because it just forced me to write and it kind of sparked off creative ideas. I really enjoyed it, there was such a variety of work from all the other people. One really stuck in my mind where I think yeah the subject was lemon or lemons. and at these classes a lot of stuff that people read is sort of blatantly autobiographical, and so this one just really came out of the blue. So the guy said that his story was that his narrator was on a date and he kissed this girl and her lips tasted of lemons and it was really disturbing because it reminded him of when he was a baby and his grandma leaned over him when it was in his crib and she was sucking on a lemon cough sweet and it fell off her mouth and it fell into his mouth as a baby. And this is disturbing. So he left the date and as he walked home a truck hit him and killed him. And the truck was full of lemons. Brilliant! A jaw dropping story. So it was really great, hearing everybody else’s stories as well and talking to them, and they gave you a glass of wine and a bite to eat. The whole thing was a total bargain actually that was really good.
Sarah [00:19:49] That sounds good. And so now that you’re not in a writing group which feeds you wine, what’s your routine or process now? Do you aim for a particular word count per day or writing session? And do you plot books in advance? Or is it too soon to say…
Paul [00:20:08] I work shift work so I often have to work at weekends and what that means is that then I have a day off in lieu in the week and that’s actually pretty good for me really. So for example today I had a day off and I used it for quite a bit of writing. So what I tried to do is get as many of other chores responsibilities and tasks and things out of the way, so that I have as long a block of of time to write as possible because I just find that the more you can immerse yourself in that world the more new ideas will will spark off. And I usually work in the kitchen and try to have as much natural light as possible. The one thing that has really changed my life recently as a writer is you know on your phone you can get it to and to read out anything that’s on the screen. So what I do is when I’ve been working on a chapter and I feel like it’s in quite good shape and then I’m going somewhere else and going to do something then I put on my headphones and have the phone read it back to me. And it’s really brilliant because it really puts that kind of distance between you and the writing so that you are able to appreciate it as I as a reader rather than as the writer. So today for example I was doing some work and then I had to paint the bathroom floor so I loaded up the chapter so that I’d just been working on onto my phone and I just listened to it as I was painting and you really come to view as the reader. But I just oh it’s going to and I was going to play you a bit if if if that’s all right so you can hear what it sounds like because people do think it’s kind of ridiculous when they hear what it sounds like. But anyway it works for me. Oh I’ll play you a bit.
Phone [00:22:26] ‘Sooner or later everybody comes to New York and I was no exception.’
Paul [00:22:45] You can see that they haven’t quite mastered human voice yet but I think that that they’re getting there, and perhaps part of the the way it’s kind of stilted and everything is actually quite good because it’s so clearly not my voice in my mind that I can almost see them as a reader.
Sarah [00:23:06] And of course it’s going to read exactly what is there as well. So I think from a self-editing point of view it’s going to be useful even if it’s just picking up and repeated words so that kind of thing.
Paul [00:23:16] Oh yeah totally.
Sarah [00:23:17] Because you know you’re in when you’re reading your own stuff you read what you expect to see don’t you. Yeah yeah. And that’s a really interesting tip I’ve not heard that one before. So well done, that’s a first. So this is the Worried Writer, so I’m afraid I will delve into any struggles that you’ve ever had. So do you ever suffer from creative block?
Paul [00:23:39] I think one one thing that I do find that’s good from journalism is that if I can usually get from A to B in writing even if I’m so stuck on how to do it or you know not doing it in a particularly beautiful or elegant way. But I can just get from A to B and then move on and come back and improve it later. And I think that probably comes from the sort of pressures of journalism and just having to do it. So that’s really good. But I am very easily distracted and it’s not always great trying to work at home, you know, I’ll go and water the plants to tidy something up or sort my books out or or whatever. There’s that cliche isn’t there about writer’s homes, that they are very tidy because the writer who claimed that they were spending the day writing has actually been sort of pottering about tidying everything up.
Sarah [00:24:39] (Laughs)I can’t possibly comment on that.
Paul [00:24:43] So when I was when in New York we only had a very small flat and so, you know, it would have been pretty antisocial of me to try and take up all the space writing and our office was in this, I dunno if you know this corporation called WeWork, which is this coworking office space company. So basically you you sign up and you can then go to any of the WeWork offices around that city or around the country, whatever you’ve signed up for, and the Guardian’s office was in a We Work office. And what it meant was that if I had booked rooms I could book rooms and in other We Work offices around the city. So what I would do was go to a different one each time, like on a Sunday say book a room in a We Work and and then go in and it was great actually because I really got to explore the city and work in lots of different places and you know the book’s set in New York and the new book I’m working on now is also set in New York. So it was great to feel immersed in New York and to be seeing the sights of New York out of the window as I was working.
Sarah [00:25:57] That sounds perfect. And in terms of the experience of being a debut novelist because as we were saying in the path to publication, it takes an awful lot of grit, and you have to really want it and you work and you get rejected and it’s the dream and then it finally happens and has it been all you hoped for or have there been any sort of unexpected stresses or has it just been joy?
Paul [00:26:24] I mean it’s been brilliant in the sense that this is something that I’ve wanted for so long and I felt so great to have achieved this ambition. The book launch for example I just felt really fantastic to be finally presenting myself as an author and you know people’s responses have been so good both in terms of people who have read it who hadn’t read it before and really really positive and also just you know my friends have been really really supportive and really happy for me and that’s all been absolutely brilliant.
Sarah [00:26:59] That’s great.
Paul [00:27:00] I mean you know Obliterati my publishers are a small publisher. And I think that it’s probably a different experience for me than it is if you are signed to one of the the big publishing houses. You know I think when it comes to marketing and promotion you know, Obliterati are working very hard but they are a small company and I think that one thing that I’ve found and we’ve found is that it’s much more effective for me to do everything personally than for them to do it. They the results are much better and it feels like the personal touch is is what’s needed you know whether that’s contacting podcasts like yours or literary festivals, newspapers, bloggers, bookstagrammers. It all seems to work better if it comes directly from me. And you know what one example is is bookshops getting it in bookshops. So I’ve been you know going around up into almost every bookshop in central London and persuaded them to stock it. And you know it works. It works to turn up, to show them the book, to tell them a bit about yourself. It does work. There’s only one bookshop that hasn’t taken it which is Hatchards in St Pancras. So Hatchards if you’re a regular listener to this podcast please please reconsider.
Sarah [00:28:29] That’s great that that worked so well.
Paul [00:28:31] Well yes. You feel a sense of achievement, but it’s very time consuming. You know it’s hand-to-hand combat to get it stocked everywhere. And I’m doing it. But it’s takes me a while.
Sarah [00:28:48] I was going to ask you about the kind of balancing of and because you’re definitely not alone, regardless of the size of your publisher, in having to do the lion share option. And that was something that I was happy to do and I am still happy to do, but it does have a time attached to it.
[00:29:10] Again I don’t know how you feel but I also had to kind of adjust… As happy as I was to be finally like ‘out there’, as an author, I also kind of had to deal with a wee bit of imposter syndrome and sort of self-doubt, with regards to the marketing and promotion side. Have you struggled with anything like that or are you just very confident and happy to go into bookshops, as this sounds?
Paul [00:29:31] Having spent three years in New York. I sort of channelled my inner American and I just thought how would an American handle this? Just go in and say look here’s my book, it’s brilliant, you won’t regret it.
Sarah [00:29:45] It’s great, put it on the shelf.
Paul [00:29:55] It is sort of going against your nature as a British person. And I think for example I’m like tweeting and putting posts on Instagram like every day. And I think that my friends are probably getting a bit sick of seing it, you know, but I’ve just got to do it because if I don’t do it nobody is going to do it. You know so it’s my only choice really.
Sarah [00:30:21] It’s definitely part of the gig, yeah. in terms of kind of going forward, do you have any strategies in mind for making sure that, I mean you want to do everything you can to make your debut a success which makes perfect sense, but going forward do you have any strategies for kind of making sure that promotion and marketing and kind of the business side don’t totally take over your writing time?
Paul [00:30:48] Yeah I mean that’s that’s totally totally it. Really I think the time that I was using for writing I am now using a lot of it for, like 90 percent of it really, for marketing. I think that I have just kind of resigned myself to maybe for this whole year that’s going to be the case, because when a book comes out you’ve only got a short window to really make it, to make it count really. So I feel like I’ve just got to this year throw myself into that 100 percent. And I’m still you know I’m still making some time for writing the new one and I’m still trying to keep up with sort of making notes and I’m just keeping the idea going in my head. But if at the end of the day I’ve spent this year promoting The Weighing of the Heart and trying my best to to make it as successful as it possibly can be. I think now is the only time that I could do that and I can come back to the new book in the future and the more successful The Weighing of the Heart has been, the stronger the position the new book will be and once it finally gets to that stage.
Sarah [00:32:13] Was it a one book deal with a Obliterati Press or will you be submitting your new book when the time comes?
Paul [00:32:23] It’s a one book deal and they get first refusal on the next one.
Sarah [00:32:28] Yes, okay. So I was going to say what’s next for you but I’m assuming it’s this second, also New York set, book.
Paul [00:32:36] Yeah. That’s right. So that the next one. It’s. It is still set in New York but it’s gonna be set in the 1970s when New York was a sort of crime plagued hell. And I think that that was the kind of New York that I first fell in love with through films like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. New York felt so exciting but also so gritty and I really wanted to sort of you know I really wanted to sort of conjure up that New York in my writing. So it’s set in the mid 70s and it’s about a sort of failing newspaper journalist in New York who it starts looking into conspiracy theories about the moon landings and he starts meeting these conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were faked and as he gets drawn into deeper into the world he sort of finds himself against his better judgment starting to believe some of their paranoia. So that’s the that’s the basic premise.
Sarah [00:33:51] Excellent. Just to finish up, where can listeners find out more about you and your books online?
Paul [00:33:58] Sure. Well if you if you go to the Obliterrati web site then you’ll see all about the book and the other books they publish. Or you can find it on Amazon. My own website is Paul dash Tudor dash Owen dot Tumblr dot com.
Sarah [00:34:38] Well I will put all the links in the show notes. Thank you. Thank you so much for your time. It has been lovely to speak to you.
Paul [00:34:48] It’s been fantastic. Thank you very much for having me on.