J. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the bestsellers Sutton and The Tender Bar, and co–author of Open by Andre Agassi. Here he speaks with Tom Rachman, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.
J. R. Moehringer: Your new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, is wonderfully Dickensian. There’s a quasi–orphan protagonist thrown in among lovable scoundrels, some of whom become parental surrogates, plus a slew of eccentric minor characters with names like Mr. Priddles and Fogg. And of course there are sly mentions of Nicholas Nickleby sprinkled throughout. Having grown up in a bar called Dickens, I have to ask: How much were you reading Dickens, or thinking of him, while plotting and writing? And is Nickleby your favorite of his novels?
Tom Rachman: I do love Dickens. His characters were among the first to imprint themselves into my imagination when I was little. I remember listening on audiobook during family vacations, while my sister (three years older) raced ahead in print, burning through another huge paperback. The main character in my novel, Tooly, is a bookworm like my sister—-the type who spends daylight in the -company of fictional characters, only to glance up hours later, startled to find a mere room. I wanted to show, as Tooly’s life unfolds, how one’s earliest stories condition how one encounters the world: what one -expects of strangers, whether one counts on justice, whether one veers into cynicism or veers back again. I chose to have Tooly reading Nicholas Nickleby because that book so memorably describes a wretched school—-and the joy of fleeing. All of which informs Tooly’s path in life. Or the path she thinks she’s taking.
JM: Clearly you have issues with the concept of linear time. As do many of your characters. (As do I.) I’m thinking of Gerda Erzberger, in your first novel, The Imperfectionists, railing against the “illusion of continuity” in our lives, lamenting that the past “won’t hold still.” It doesn’t hold still in your plots, either. In both your novels, the past is ever lurking, ebbing and flowing—-particularly for Tooly. Are you instinctively drawn to stories with this fluid and fractured sense of time, or is the choice more deliberate?
TR: I’ve sometimes used a collage effect, placing times side–by–side in a story, to investigate how personalities form, how they change, how they misunderstand one another. In life, we rarely contrast now and then with clarity. I’m thinking, for example, of when you encounter old friends after years apart. You find yourself noting how different they are, or how the facets which defined them are still present yet unexpectedly different in proportion, so that the giggliness has turned into giddiness or the determination has become courage. What you rarely consider is that, if your friends have changed, then surely you have too. Instead, we assume ourselves fixed in nature—-that only the rest of humanity shifts! But maybe we’re all ongoing stories, defined at various stages of life, or whenever people oblige us to declare ourselves. Fiction is marvelous for studying this, allowing the writer and reader to leap decades in a sentence. No other art lets you bend time as much.
JM: It strikes me that nearly every character in Rise & Fall has a powerful longing for home, and each of them has a radically different idea of what home means. Some are never quite sure what it means, though that doesn’t ease their longing. Is this just me projecting some of my own inner drama, or was the deep human desire for home running through your mind while you wrote?
TR: You’re right. In this novel, Tooly travels the world, watching all the stationary citizens, and wondering—-sometimes enviously—-what that life would be like, whether belonging can be attained, whether it’s a fallacy, and if you suffer by having no place. These are all thoughts that have occurred to me. I was born in London, raised in Vancouver, studied in Toronto, worked in New York, Rome, and Paris, and presently live in London again. I have family scattered from Canada to South Africa to China to Switzerland and places beyond. So what is home for me? It depends what one means by “home.” There’s the apartment or house or room that contains one’s bed. Then there’s the neighborhood or city or country that contains one’s identity. The first sense of home I establish easily. The second sense remains elusive to me after thirty–nine years. When I was growing up, this bothered me. I yearned to be from somewhere, and confident of it. But I’ve shifted. Now I prefer to adopt admirable features of the cultures I’ve passed through, without restricting myself to just one.
JM: Because of your background in journalism, and your years working overseas, it was easier for readers to imagine, rightly or wrongly, possible inspirations for certain characters and events in The Imper-fectionists. But I can’t imagine what the spark was for the remarkable character of Tooly, or her odyssey. (Unless maybe The Tempest? She and Humph have a strong Miranda–Prospero vibe about them.) I really want to hear that you met someone like her on a long flight or at a dinner party.
TR: I’m very fond of Tooly, but I’ve never met her. Despite what they say about writing what you know, I’m poor at converting real people into fictional ones—-whenever I’ve tried, they are the least credible parts of the story! My characters start from imagination and gather small traits from actuality as they (and I) go along. If people recognize a real–life feature or anecdote in a character, they might falsely assume that this means the entire character was torn from reality. But mine are hybrids, predominantly fantasy, with a few purloined chromosomes, and a good number of my own in each character. The settings, by contrast, I try to reproduce as authentically as possible. For The Imperfectionists, which is set at an international paper in Rome, I mined my past at various news organizations in various cities. For Rise & Fall, I had to research a lot more—-everything from U.S. embassy security in the 1980s, to international schools in Bangkok, to the look of the Welsh countryside.
JM: I also wish I could go to Tooly’s lovely bookstore, World’s End. Based on your previous answer I’m going to assume it’s not modeled on any real bookstore, alas, but maybe it combines some qualities of your favorite bookstores? And are you the type of person who feels a fierce loyalty to bookstores, who can’t visit this or that city without also visiting its landmark bookstore—-the Strand in New York, Another Country in Berlin, Daunt in London, Tattered Cover in -Denver?
TR: The bookstore in my novel is inspired by many that have given me hours of pleasure over the years—-be they wondrous giants (say, Powell’s in Portland) or cramped establishments that require you to edge sideways past the stock (say, the Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). Another influence was Hay–on–Wye, in Wales, a town devoted to bookstores: It’s just one after the other. When I first went there, I was agog. It’s an amusement park for bibliophiles.
JM: In your first novel, a dying newspaper is the emotional anchor for your characters; in the second novel, it’s a dying bookstore. Is it reasonable to accuse you of chronic nostalgia? Do you perhaps feel that you were born at the wrong moment in history?
TR: I consider myself a realist—-with a sprinkling of nostalgia. I’m fascinated by our times, all these amazing technological and political and cultural changes. And I’m not one of those woebegone fellows yearning for the good old days—-there was too much brutality and drudgery in the past to imagine it was all doilies and Chopin. The era we’re in contains betterment in many respects, and this leads people to assume that all tech–driven change is progress. Not so sure. The value of a smartphone is indisputable—-but who hasn’t felt slightly more harried, slightly more distracted, as a result? I don’t want to -declare contemporary changes either good or bad. I’d rather record a glimpse of them in my fiction, and encourage readers to ponder the torrent of change. Does our epoch define us? Or does one’s unique personality assert itself regardless of the period? In the background, the great powers of the world rise and fall, in politics, tech, everything. But one’s own strengths and influences rise and fall over the course of one’s life. That contrast is at the core of Rise & Fall: a tale of a book–besotted world traveler trying to figure out where and how and when she fits.
Originally published by Salon in June 2014