Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner makes his first foray into fiction

Matthew Weiner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the setting of his new novel.
Matthew Weiner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the setting of his new novel. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK - After he finished working on the final season of his critically acclaimed drama Mad Men, Matthew Weiner found himself suddenly, alarmingly, unable to write.

A few months passed. Then a year. Nothing came to him. Even his children started teasing him, badgering him about what his next project would be.

"I didn't know what I was going to do next, and I was getting asked all the time," he said. "I was worried I was not going to be able to write again."

Finally, in the summer of 2015, Weiner called his friend, novelist A.M. Homes, for advice. She suggested he seclude himself at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York. A few months later - with some terror, he said - he followed her advice. While there, he began writing an unsettling psychological thriller about a wealthy New York family whose lives intersect with a sociopathic construction worker.

The resulting book, Heather, The Totality, is slim, at just 138 pages. But it's become one of the most anticipated literary debuts of the fall, with a parade of endorsements from prominent novelists, including Zadie Smith, James Ellroy, Claire Messud, Philip Pullman and Michael Chabon, who described the novel in a blurb as a mashup of "Flaubert and Richard Yates, with a deeply twisted twist of Muriel Spark at her darkest".

Other writers compared Heather to works by Patricia Highsmith, Evelyn Waugh and John Cheever, one of Weiner's literary heroes.

It is unusual for a debut author to be showered in such over-the-top accolades and compared to literary masters. But then again, Weiner, 52, has hardly been labouring in obscurity.

In a screenwriting career that spans more than 20 years, he's been a creative force behind some of our era's most revered cable dramas, shows that were credited with reinventing the narrative possibilities of television. He received two Emmys for The Sopranos, which he worked on as a writer and producer, and was the creator, showrunner, head writer, director and executive producer for Mad Men, which aired for seven seasons and won four Golden Globes and 15 Emmys.

Writing fiction has long been a goal of his, but it always felt intimidating.

"I was always hoping I would do it," he said during an interview this autumn over lunch at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, not far from where the novel takes place. "I just didn't know if I could."

Weiner's foray into fiction surprised a lot of Hollywood observers. "Everyone was breaking down his door to do another show, and he goes off and does something that no one was expecting," said Semi Chellas, a writer who worked on Mad Men.

"The contrariness of going off and writing fiction after Mad Men was very Matt."

Heather unfolds in present-day Manhattan, and like so many gripping New York stories, the plot hinges on real estate. The couple at the centre of the story, Mark and Karen Breakstone, lead sheltered, privileged lives, and fawn over their perfect daughter, Heather. Mark, who works in finance, frets about his annual bonus and his status, while Karen stays home to tend to Heather, then becomes resentful when Heather grows up and no longer needs her.

The Breakstones' quiet, simmering dissatisfaction is interwoven with a darker, parallel story about a man named Bobby Klasky, who grew up neglected by his heroin-addicted mother and developed a violent streak. The two narratives collide when Bobby finds work on a construction crew that is renovating the penthouse in the Breakstones' building and becomes obsessed with Heather.

The idea for Heather came from a scene Weiner witnessed when he was walking around the Upper East Side in the autumn of 2015. He saw an attractive teenage girl walking into an apartment building where construction work was being done and noticed one of the workers staring at her with what looked like a mixture of lust and menace. Weiner jotted down his observations in a notebook where he collects ideas and stray bits of dialogue, and was not sure if anything would come of it.

While he was at Yaddo, he kept thinking about the girl and the construction worker, puzzling over what he had seen, and began writing a fictionalised story about the years leading up to the encounter. He wrote 5,000 words during the next 16 days and finished a draft in nine months.

Weiner is now back to writing and producing TV - he's currently working on his new show, The Romanoffs, an anthology series for Amazon that follows people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian imperial Romanov family.

He still seems surprised that he is adding novelist to his resume. He never expected to finish the book, much less publish it.

"It's like someone who goes to the casino for the first time and wins," he said.