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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Discussion Questions

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanFollowing one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years,New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.

Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.

Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.

Use these discussion questions to take your book club’s exploration of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers to the next level…

1. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers opens and closes with the character of Fogg. Why do you think this is? What does seeing Tooly through Fogg’s eyes do for us as readers? What do you imagine lies in their future?

2. Tooly keeps twenty–first–century technology at arm’s length. How do you think her upbringing might influence her relationship to technology?

3. Do you understand Humphrey’s dislike of “made–up stories”? What is the effect of having a character express this opinion within a novel?

4. Tooly wonders what it would have been like to live in “an important era.” Do you agree that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first was an era of “relative calm, after all the proper history had ended”? What do you think makes an era important?

5. Tooly worries that there isn’t a “pure state of Tooly–ness.” Did you find Tooly an exceptionally malleable character? Do you think all people have the capacity to take on new personalities? Have you started anew at any point in your life?

6. Tom Rachman deliberately withholds plot information from the reader through nonlinear storytelling. When did you first begin to piece the story of Tooly’s life together? When were you truly surprised?

7. What are some of the different con games characters play on each other? Can you think of instances when a con was mistaken for love, or love mistaken for a con? Are there any moments when you felt that Tooly crossed a moral line?

8. This book is full of fathers and father figures: Paul, Venn, Humphrey, Duncan. Who do you think is the best father? The worst? How might each man’s own childhood have influenced his ideas about family and duty? Who do you think shaped (or engineered) Tooly the most?

9. In 2011, Duncan and his friends are leading very different lives than Tooly expected them to in 1999. How did their dreams as college students and their realities as adults diverge? Why does this surprise Tooly? In what ways is she unlike them?

10. Venn is described as “a being wrought of his own will, belonging to nothing.” What do you think is most important to Venn? Why do you think he drives Tooly away at the end?

11. Do you agree with Venn that Tooly was in love with him?

12. Humphrey calls Tooly “the favorite person of my life.” What are the limitations and the strengths of their relationship? How would Tooly describe what Humphrey means to her in 1988? In 1999? In 2011?

A Conversation Between J. R. Moehringer and Tom Rachman

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanJ. 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

What’s in a Book Title?

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_Rachman Tom Rachman discusses how he came up with the unique title of his novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers….

Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?

It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years’ battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And . . .

When writing my latest novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (I’ll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines—-plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were all right—-yet not quite right. Others were perfect—-but not for this book. Many were stinkers.

Then a flutter went through me. I had it.

I wrote this one down, hung quotation marks on either side, as if to plump it up for scrutiny. The title of my previous novel, The Imperfectionists, had produced a similar effect, redounding within the book itself, accentuating ideas I’d previously only sketched in. That title and this one guided me during subsequent drafts, identifying which lurking details merited more space and which deserved the snip.

Some books start from a title alone, but I’d guess that these are rare. You’d risk drafting a concept rather than a novel. Better to allow the writing to bolt out at first—-to be gathered and groomed and artfully tamed later. A name is best attached, I think, only once you know the story well.

However, choosing the title is also a matter of fashion. A glance at nineteenth–century classics reveals a propensity for naming books after the protagonist: Madame Bovary or Oliver Twist or Anna Karen-ina. Writers of the twentieth century employed poetry: Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, citing Robbie Burns); A Handful of Dust (Waugh, quoting T. S. Eliot); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, lifting from John Donne). Nowadays, one vogue is for the quirky–lyrical—-titles such as (and I’m making this up) The Strange Tenderness of Mr. Plimpsol’s Songbook. The clunkers are pretentious and vague; the best are intriguing.

Turning to my novel, it is a book about a bookseller, Tooly Zylberberg, who runs a dusty shop in the Welsh countryside, surrounded by millions of pages but few customers. Her past is odd: She grew up around the world, whisked from one country to another by a peculiar trio of adults. They fed her, taught her—-then disappeared. In the years since, she has never understood her own past. Then someone from the old days messages her, prompting Tooly—-a lifelong lover of stories—to piece together the story of herself.

Now to my title.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers has three meanings. It refers to the rise and fall of powers over the course of life, as one gains in strength as a kid, reckons with oneself during adulthood, declines in old age—-all of which are stages that key characters confront in this novel. A second meaning is the rise and fall of influences during one’s life, be they relatives whom you once overlooked but later admire or ideas that once enchanted you that now seem preposterous. Finally, “great powers” has the traditional sense too, meaning the empires or forces of political change that sway the world—-and which characters in this book watch, wondering what role if any they hold in their own times.

In The Imperfectionists, I wrote intimate stories with a backdrop of the clash between the digital age and the old ways. In The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, I’m again telling an intimate story at the margins of the world, now with a backdrop of the past quarter–century, from the ’80s, when the Cold War was ending; to the turn of the millennium, during the peak of American dominance; to the radical tech and social changes of today. The story leaps back and forth among these three periods, contrasting where we were and where we’ve ended up.

My editors, very sensibly, asked whether a nonfiction–sounding title risked confusing the reader. And, they noted, it recalled the title of a bestselling 1987 history by Paul Kennedy. What if Web searches caused my novel to vanish behind this twenty–seven–year–old volume on world politics? Was the title—-no matter how resonant for me—-worth the risk?

Even the upstanding George Orwell once changed the name of a novel, The Last Man in Europe, to his publisher’s preference, 1984. Apparently, The Great Gatsby could’ve ended up as Trimalchio in West Egg. And Catch–22 started out as Catch–11, only for the number to be doubled for marketing reasons.

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Wouldn’t To Kill a Mockingbird read as sweet if it were Atticus, as Harper Lee once considered calling it? One grafts names onto objects and people, then experiences the titles as inevitable, just as the name of one’s mother (think of yours now) seems to encapsulate her, though she’d have been the same woman were she Hilda or April or Millie.

But no! Your mother was never Hilda or April or Millie—-she couldn’t have been any name but her own! A book title can feel as indelible.

Nevertheless, upon hearing my editors’ concerns, I turned to my original page of possible titles and reconsidered each in turn. I even mocked–up book jackets with alternatives, to see how they looked.

None other felt right. When people read this novel, I hope some might contemplate its name, perhaps discuss it with friends, possibly perceive extra shades of meaning because this is The Rise & Fall of Great Powers and nothing else.

So I stuck with it. It just seemed like the title. And now it is.

Originally published by The Huffington Post in June 2014

A one-on-one conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Rachman, author of THE IMPERFECTIONISTS

Friday, December 17th, 2010

gladwell_malcolmMalcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with The New Yorker since 1996. He is the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), and Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), all of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, What the Dog Saw (2009), is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. From 1987 to 1996, he was a reporter with The Washington Post. He was born in England, grew up in rural Ontario, and now lives in New York City.

Malcolm Gladwell: You and I, it turns out, have more than a few things in common. We were both born in Britain and moved to Canada as boys. Both our fathers are professors, and our mothers are therapists. We both went to the University of Toronto, and we both moved to the United States after graduation to work in the newspaper business. We’re the same person! Does this mean my love for The Imperfectionists is no more than a kind of displaced narcissism?

rachman_tomTom Rachman: I confess—we are in fact the same person. I hadn’t wanted you to learn this in such a public forum, but I am your double. Doppelgänger or not, I’m delighted you liked the book. And in a fruitless attempt to pretend we’re actually different people, let me ask you something about your early days in newspapers. When I left Toronto and entered journalism in the late 1990s, I had many notions about the news business, nearly all of them wrong, as it turned out. How about you? Was journalism what you expected?

MG: Oh, no. It was a complete surprise. I was stunned by the pace of newspapers: by the fact that something could happen at four o’clock in the afternoon and a reporter could make a dozen phone calls, track down every major player, and write 2,500 words on the subject—all by six o’clock. I spent my first six months at The Washington Post with my jaw open. What was it you found surprising?

TR: I had pictured journalism as I’d seen it in the most ennobling films, where the reporter battles for the truth, propelled by conviction, and is triumphant. There are journalists who fit that ideal. But in my experience, lesser drives were more commonly the engine: an urgent need for copy and quotes, the terror of enraging one’s irritable bosses, the desire for advancement or for prestigious postings. My own career started in New York at the Associated Press, a fast-paced news agency where we rarely had time for deep reporting. We might be expected to work on a dozen separate subjects in a week without error. One had time to cope, but rarely to excel. And although we were immersed in cataclysmic subjects, one’s day was more likely dominated by the mood of the person seated at the next desk. This was something that struck me from the outset—the contrast between the grand and the human—and it was a theme I tried to explore in this novel.

MG: I have to say that this was part of what I loved about The Imperfectionists. Anytime you read a novel or see a film that is about the world you inhabit, you’re always on your toes. (I know lawyers who roll their eyes at Law & Order, and the only cop show on television that cops ever liked—and I’m not making this up—was Barney Miller.) So I have to admit I was hunting for false notes. In particular, I was bracing myself for the kind of romanticization that inevitably creeps into books or movies about the newspaper business. But it never happened. And now I see why. But here’s what puzzles me. I still found the portrait of the papers—and the journalists—to be incredibly sympathetic on some level. Is that just me? And if not, how did you manage to make a portrait of, as you say, the “lesser drives” of journalism, so generous?

The Imperfectionists TPTR: That’s a paradox I’ve noticed, too: The news business held little romance for me, yet writing about it somehow stirred my affections. This applied to the characters as well. Several are tricky types, the sorts who, had I met them in a newsroom, might have prompted me to run. But on the page, I had fondness for them. It’s writing that did this. To form these characters, I tried to  conceive of their motives, resentments, disappointments; I watched them gazing unhappily into the mirror, or wincing at office slights. Writing (and reading) is a sort of exercise in empathy, I think. In life, when you encounter people, you and they have separate trajectories, each person pushing in a different direction. What’s remarkable about fiction is that it places you in the uncommon position of having no trajectory. You stand aside, motives abandoned for the duration. The characters have the trajectories now, while you just observe. And this stirs compassion that, in real life, is so often obscured by our own motives. What I wonder is whether any of this sympathy for fictional characters translates into greater sympathy for people in life. What do you think? Looking back on novels and stories you’ve loved, do you think they affected how you see people?

MG: Absolutely. In fact, to me this is the great virtue of fiction—well, “good” fiction. One of the most troubling consequences of online communication, for instance, is that it is polarizing. That is, when you deal with someone in such a limited way, it has the result of either making you like them a great deal more than you would otherwise (this is the foundation of Internet dating) or hate them a good deal more than you would otherwise (this is the reason blog comments are so nasty). Because you get such a limited sense of the person on the other end, you fill in the blanks with your prejudices. Fiction is the opposite kind of experience. In a good book we get an intimate and nuanced picture of someone—to the point where our own prejudices are entirely displaced (or almost entirely displaced) by the world created by the author. That’s an extraordinarily important kind of social discipline: It reminds us that an important part of what it means to be human is to replace our snap judgments about people with the actual empirical evidence about themselves that they offer us. I feel that Lloyd, whom you open The Imperfectionists with, is a great example of this. If you were to meet him at a cocktail party, you would almost certain form an instant dislike of him: he’s a narcissistic loser, right? But after being exposed to him over the course of your novel, I developed a real sympathy for him—and I can’t help but think that maybe that will give me a little more sympathy for the Lloyds of this world when I meet them in real life. Here’s my question, though: Does writing about people in that way have the same effect? If reading fiction civilizes us, does writing fiction civilize us even more?

TR: I want to say, “Yes!” But I don’t know that I can. The biographies of writers are so full of misbehavior that it would be hard to correlate writing and morality. What is remarkable is how often writers and other artists produce works of moral depth, yet are accused of having been monstrous in private. Art itself can warp the artist, I think. The process involves a public exposure of what may be deeply private, and criticism can feel like a review not of mere work but of the artist’s inner life. This turns some into egoists or recluses or both. Yet while painters or musicians don’t necessarily have to understand others, writers of fiction must. For some, perhaps writing becomes a repository for their humanity instead of a source. They project a fictional world containing longed-for justice, resolutions that are rare in life, enemies they can punish, friends with whom they’ll never bicker. When such writers leave the manuscript for the evening, all their humanity may be inked on those pages. Yet I must add that creative work surely does affect us in edifying ways. It just feels so humanizing! In a way, this contradiction between a humane creation and an inhumane creator is something I tried to discuss in the book, notably in the Arthur Gopal chapter, when he goes to interview an ailing intellectual, Gerda Erzberger. She argues that it’s not necessarily grand motives that produce grand works, and that sometimes they are the by-products of drives, such as the hunger for status. This comes up again in the form of Rich Snyder, who bullies Winston Cheung, elbows his way through life, and is breathtakingly inconsiderate. Yet he sometimes ends up with amazing stories on subjects that ought to require a caring eye. I witnessed this in journalism: I had instances when I hugely admired a reporter, found his or her prose incredibly perceptive, only to meet a person who was consumed by ambition and seemingly insensitive to the material. Not that those who achieve great things are all villains—far from it. But what role, I wondered, does ambition have in our success stories, and what effect on our happiness? It’s a question I explore throughout The Imperfectionists. And it’s a matter, I believe, that affects so many people trying to balance personal contentedness and professional aspirations, often with difficulty.

MG: I’ll accept that. Yes, there is no necessary connection between the sensitivity that is required of the writer in his craft and whatever grace and sensitivity that he or she may possess as a person. Clearly there are some writers for whom the effect of being perceptive or insightful in their writing leaves little time or energy for that same quality in their own lives. But where does that leave the persistent feeling that readers have that they “know” an author after reading his works? I feel like I know you, for instance (our eerie autobiographical similarities aside), after reading The Imperfectionists. Is that simply an illusion? Or is it that what I think I know about you is your voice—which is, in the end, a very different thing than your character. I don’t think this is a trivial issue. A good part of the reason we read fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) is that, unconsciously or not, we want to satisfy our curiosity about the writer. My editor at The New Yorker always says of Adam Gopnik—whom I think is the gold standard for New Yorker writers—that when he explicitly writes about himself he actually tells you nothing about himself, but when he writes about something entirely different from himself he tells you everything. Hearing that made me go back and read some of my favorite Gopnik pieces again. Of course, it also made me shudder. Good lord: What on earth have I inadvertently given away about myself in my writing?

TR: That’s funny. And you’re right about the feeling that one “knows” writers. It’s their sensibility we’re absorbing, I think. Their humor, curiosities, manner of speech, perspective, even when these are embodied in characters who are radically different from them. This is the case in my book. I’m sometimes asked which of the characters in The Imperfectionists was based on me. None was, yet each contains aspects of me. This might seem impossible, given that the characters are
so different in profile both from me and from each other: a young redheaded woman, a dissolute old cad, extroverts and introverts. There’s not one type. Yet in each there are flickers of me— features that are perhaps tiny in myself but that I magnify in the novel, dropping them into personalities that are sharply at odds with mine, and watching the effects. Only, please don’t ask me which features are mine! You see, I’m a private person. Perhaps like you, I shudder at the thought that my inner life might be on view. On the other hand, presumably this is one reason why people write in the first place: to declare—albeit in ornamented, storified fashion—their prospect on the world. The great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said in an interview, “The truth is if Tolstoy would live across the street, I wouldn’t go to see him. I would rather read what he writes.” As an admirer of Singer, I feel like I know him already. And would I cross the street to see him? Yes, absolutely. But I know what he means: The part of a writer that is available for public viewing is what’s on the page. This is the truest version of themselves. Truer, in a way, than they might appear if you met them. These days, literary events, readings, interviews, and the Internet tend to thrust forward the personality of the writer. I wonder, is this sort of personal exposure a good or bad thing?

MG: You are being a tease, Tom. Just give us one little example of something of yourself that you buried in a character!

TR: I guess I opened myself up for that question! Well, the Winston Cheung character shares not only my fascination with primates but also how shipwrecked I sometimes felt in journalism, when I realized how unprepared I was for an assignment and how much was expected of me. It’s a feeling you often have at a new job, I think, and you hang on till you gain competence. But if you’re a reporter, the fear is particularly acute since you may be expected to write knowledgeably about something you know little about, and are expected to be correct in every detail and to be so in public for anyone to check and critique, publicize your errors, even sue you if you mess up. It’s a fearful position for a young, inexperienced journalist. That fear of impending disaster was seared into me, and something I depicted in a comic key with the Winston character. Other traits of mine in the characters are harder to tease out. For example, the affection that Arthur Gopal has for his daughter—I feel that’s my affection for her, and yet I have no children. Or the loneliness of Ruby Zaga—I feel that’s mine without it having been mine, without her life or her personality or her responses or situations having been mine. What happens, I think, is that you separate off a potential in yourself—perhaps even just an emotion—and place it in the petri dish of this other character and watch what becomes of it. That’s why these characters feel like parts of me, though they’re not in any recognizable sense me.

MG: That wasn’t so hard, was it? Although I realize that it is the question that novelists always get, so I feel a little sheepish about having forced you into it. Thankfully, those of us who write nonfiction never have to answer that one (although we have our own version: Where do you get your ideas?). I sense we are close to the end, Tom, but I wanted to ask you one more question, which might sound a little odd. But do you consider The Imperfectionists to be a success? I don’t mean a financial or even critical success. I mean that now, when a significant amount of time has passed since you wrote it and that you have heard from all kinds of readers and that you have, no doubt, moved on to write something new, do you look back on this book and feel content? Or is there some sense in which you wish you could do it—or at least parts of it—over again? I’m guessing that the answer to that question has as much to do with your personality as it does with the book itself. (And I’ll let you guess which of the two positions—the remorseful or triumphant—I tend to take.)

TR: I’m a fairly self-critical person, so I’d expect to have regrets about the book. But I’m satisfied with The Imperfectionists. It’s the book I intended to write, and that is all I could hope for. Writing can so easily take the upper hand over the writer, I think, gaining its own shape and momentum, and pulling in unintended directions. That can be good; at its best, it’s creativity. But if it derives from laziness or laxness, then it’s a disaster. It means that the words only approximate what your mind contained. And what could be worse for a writer! I battled with this book, worked on it until I was exhausted. Finally, it was as close to what I had conceived as I was able to produce at that point in my life. Certainly, The Imperfectionists must contain many imperfections. But they are the best imperfections I had in me at the time! For that, I am contented.

The Imperfectionists will be available in paperback on January 4th, 2011.

Win a paperback of Tom Rachman’s THE IMPERFECTIONISTS!

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks to all who entered!

The Imperfectionists TPOne of most acclaimed books of the year, Tom Rachman’s debut novel follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters and editors of an English-language newspaper in Rome.

“So good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young . . . could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching.”—Christopher Buckley, The New York Times Book Review

Coming to paperback January 4th, 2011!

The Best Books of 2010

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Major Pettigrew TP cover smallWith only one month left in 2010, critics have lately been facing the task of choosing the year’s bestThe Imperfectionists TP books. Among Janet Maslin’s picks for the New York Times are two of our very own amazing debut novels: Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (out now in paperback) and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (coming to paperback January 4th). If you or your book club missed them before, check them out for 2011!

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