Feature / Spring 2011
The Debut

How do you write a bestselling first novel? If you’re Tom Rachman, you start by majoring in film


Photo by Derek Shapton

Novelist Tom Rachman is walking down Fulham Road in west London, talking Sex Pistols. We’re in the heart of Chelsea, and he notes that it was here, in the ’70s, that the Punk Movement first reared its anarchical head. (“The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood even owned a clothing store nearby,” he says.) But in a familiar tale of gentrification, the rich waltzed in and the once-gritty Chelsea became posh and proper. As if to underscore his story, we pass a swanky art gallery displaying a photo of Sid and Nancy: both paying homage to, and exploiting, the doomed couple and the neighbourhood’s legendary past.

Rachman’s flat is about 15 minutes away, where the storied Chelsea collides with two other distinctive neighbourhoods: Earl’s Court, which teems with young tourists and hostels, and South Kensington, with its swath of museums and colleges. This mix of cultural geographies is a fitting backdrop for the U of T grad, who has been careering between diverse landscapes his entire life. Rachman lived in London until the age of seven, when his family moved to Vancouver. Later, he studied at U of T, and worked as a journalist everywhere from New York, to New Delhi, to Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s impossible to pinpoint a place he calls home – or, at least, not in the singular, conventional sense. “I’ve always felt exhilarated at discovering new cities,” he says, with a trace of a London accent. “I didn’t quite get the obligations that kept you in one place, and the sense of home and belonging had become mixed up in me. I loved Toronto and Vancouver and London, but I didn’t feel like there was one city where I belonged – and I still don’t.”

Rachman, 36, moved back to London almost a year ago, after the release of his first novel, The Imperfectionists. The book’s setting is an international English-language newspaper in Rome – a city where Rachman worked for three years as an Associated Press reporter. He traces the newspaper’s lifespan from its early halcyon days in the 1950s to 2007, when the broadsheet exhaled its last rattling breath, felled in part by the Internet. It’s against this backdrop that Rachman (BA 1997 Victoria) reveals the lives of the newspaper’s employees, devoting one chapter to each personal story. The characters are, at first glance, stock office types: the ruthlessly strategic editor-in-chief who manipulates people for her own selfish ends; the office lifer who has completely stagnated and bitterly rides the same dull carousel of routine; the hard-working staffer who seems soldered to his chair. But Rachman takes them out of their cubicles, and exposes their complicated inner lives.

Rachman is so very good at conveying complicated interiors and eliciting pathos, accomplishing both in one or two searing sentences. He deftly exposes the vulnerabilities and strengths of his characters. To wit: Lloyd Burko – a 70-year-old stringer in Paris – has spent his life’s energy on his work (and libido), letting his children fall by the wayside. He finds out his Parisian son, Jérôme, lost out on a job because he isn’t fluent in English – because his Englishspeaking father hadn’t been around enough to teach him. Lloyd now offers to help. Rachman brings fatherly failure, a son’s denial and an infirm relationship to the surface in one small moment: “Jérôme flushes. ‘What do you mean? My English is fine, I learned it from you.’” Or the indolent obituary writer who comes fully alive in the presence of his daughter, Pickle – a quirky, smart eight-year-old described as a “wonderful nerd.” Or the imposing careerist who, in the late stages of cancer, pronounces: “Nothing in all civilization has been as productive as ludicrous ambition…. Cathedrals, sonatas, encyclopedias: love of God was not behind them, nor love of life. But the love of man to be worshipped by man.”

Random House published the novel last April, and the book hit a strong chord with both readers and critics. A month after release, The Imperfectionists was lauded on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. (Rachman’s publisher read it to him over the phone. “I was sort of breathless; it was one of those points where you hear the words come in but you can’t process them,” he says.) Eight international editions have been released, with 17 more slated for publication. Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment, has optioned film rights. And Rachman toured North America this January, following the release of the novel in paperback.

Rachman’s parents also explore interior lives, albeit in a different vein: both are psychologists. His father, Jack, was a lecturer at the University of London. The family lived in London’s outer suburbs, and his dad endured a workaday slog, commuting 90 minutes each way – not to mention the challenge of raising children on a lecturer’s salary. When Jack was offered a professorship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the family moved. (Rachman is both a Canadian and British citizen.) His dad – whom Rachman describes as “very driven and hard-working” – specializes in obsessive-compulsive and other anxiety disorders, and has written several books on the topic. (Although now officially retired at 77, he is still conducting research.) Rachman’s mother, Clare, is a therapist who specializes in management of chronic pain. For many years, starting in her 50s, she ran a landscape-gardening company in Vancouver, while also operating a private therapy practice.

Rachman and his siblings have all followed suit with successful careers: brother Gideon is a journalist at the Financial Times and sister Carla is an art historian who lives outside Geneva and directs a student-abroad program for Boston University. (Both are half-siblings from his dad’s prior marriage.) His sister Emily has worked at a government agency for Afghanistan reconstruction in Washington, D.C.

It was Emily (BA 1994 UC, MA 1995) who encouraged Rachman to attend U of T. He describes his years at the university as an “intellectually and emotionally lively” time. “We were all trying to figure ourselves out in a wonderfully vibrant way,” he says.

It took Rachman five years to graduate because he was intellectually peripatetic – endlessly fascinated by a variety of subjects. He considered history and criminology as majors, and then, dreaming of becoming a filmmaker, finally chose cinema studies. When he found himself drawn to Italian cinema, he decided to minor in Italian.

Rachman’s interest in film led him to his “first and last” leadership position – as president of Victoria College’s film society. During his first year, he had noticed posters soliciting volunteers and thought it would be a good way to meet interesting, like-minded people. He attended the first meeting. As did one other person. The past-president asked, “Well, who wants to be the president?” The woman in attendance said she wasn’t going to do it. Rachman declined, too. An ultimatum was issued: if one of them didn’t accept, the society would end with them. So Rachman, “by default,” found himself in the presidential role.

In his new position, Rachman picked movies for Saturday-night showings at Northrop Frye Hall. Limited to library selections, he would show well-known classics such as Casablanca, Citizen Kane and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The other volunteer served as projectionist. Rachman would introduce the movie to an audience that often numbered under 10 – and talk his way through plenty of technical glitches. “It would be a packed crowd of three people. It was humiliating every time because I was talking in front of nobody,” he says. “Then in the second reel, the film would snap because they were all old prints from the library, and I would have to tell people what happened at the end. It was kind of a weekly fiasco.”

As Rachman progressed at U of T, he grew more passionate about literature and more disillusioned with film. (He particularly disliked the idea of relying on other people to fund a film, as he believed this would impede his autonomy.) In his final year, he decided he wanted to pursue writing. Rachman began trying his hand at short stories, typing them in his College Street apartment – but they were all rejected for publication. (The Imperfectionists is his first published work of fiction.) “I thought, ‘How do I go from wanting to do this to actually doing it – and how do I find satisfactory material to write about?’ I ended up deciding I wanted to become a journalist.”

With only a few months left before graduation from U of T, Rachman decided to apply to Columbia University’s journalism program in New York City. He began writing articles to submit, including a Varsity piece on some colourful eccentrics who hung out playing chess all night at the Annex’s Future Bakery – where Rachman and his friends often frequented. He wrote a piece on Woody Allen and Jewish humour for the U of T Jewish student newspaper Images. He also netted the first interview with Cecilio Ismael Sambra Haber – an author and Cuban dissident who received asylum in Canada after five years as a political prisoner – for the Miami Herald. Partly on the merits of these articles, Columbia accepted him.

After Rachman graduated with an MA in journalism from Columbia, he was hired at the news wire Associated Press. He started out as an editor on the international desk in New York City, then worked for short stints in New Delhi, and Sri Lanka during the Civil War. Eventually, he earned a posting as a reporter in Rome, where he wrote many political pieces on figures such as Silvio Berlusconi, and articles on the Vatican, the Venice Film Festival and the Italian soccer team at the World Cup in Japan. He also reported on the 2003 elections in Turkey, helped provide media coverage in Egypt after the shock of the Iraq invasion, and even toured a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. “Despite the fact that I worked in a lot of different countries, I wasn’t a swashbuckling, brave war correspondent running into all these places. I was just more interested in trying to write well and observe,” he says.

Rachman loved the travel and exposure to foreign places that his job afforded him – he would never have delved as deeply into these cultures as a tourist. But there was much he didn’t like, including the imperative to be aggressive. “Having to call people five times more than they wanted you to call them, and hassle them for a little something extra.… I hated having to stand up at a press conference and ask a question. I liked to sit back and hear what people said, I didn’t like to get involved,” he notes.

And not only was the pace incredibly frenetic – it wasn’t unusual to write four or five small stories a day – but the deadlines were ceaseless. Unlike newspapers, which are put to bed every night, a wire service never sleeps. “I wasn’t very well temperamentally suited to it,” he says. “I remember, on some locations, there would be big stories breaking and my immediate gut reaction before I could intellectualize anything was, ‘Oh no, I have to go to Istanbul now because a bomb went off. I really don’t want to.’ When I had a few of those moments I suddenly thought to myself I wasn’t made for this because my colleagues, if a bomb goes off, were like ‘Let’s go, let’s get on the first plane.’”

Even during his first term at Columbia, Rachman knew he was not meant to be a journalist – an opinion that was reinforced throughout his career. But he hoped his experiences might prove useful for writing fiction. On the cusp of turning 30, he decided to quit the Associated Press to work on a novel. His girlfriend (also an Associated Press reporter) and many friends were in Rome. He knew it would be difficult to move in a new direction with them nearby to distract him – so he moved to Paris. Rachman had saved enough to write fiction for one year. He wasn’t motivated by bravery, he says, but fear. “I suddenly saw a future in which I could get stuck in journalism, a career that wasn’t suited to me.”

He did write a manuscript but, according to Rachman, it wasn’t any good. He gave it to a couple of family members to read, and their responses were mixed. He was out of time and out of money. A friend at the International Herald Tribune in Paris was looking for a copy editor. Rachman took the position on a short-term contract. It was not a good moment. He’d spent much of his 20s working toward a goal he hadn’t been able to realize. “I was very depressed. I thought that perhaps I’ve learned that I can’t do this – and that was a terrible recognition.” After several unhappy months at the Tribune, he was determined to try fiction one more time. “I decided I’ve already gambled so much on this that if I stop now, I’ve already lost a lot. It was sort of the gambler’s fallacy: just keep going and eventually maybe you’ll hit the jackpot. I decided that I would try again.”

Rachman started a second novel – working six months at the Tribune, then six months on his book, and back again. He also realized that his first attempt was not in vain, but an important investment in self-education. “I had never taken into account that you have to learn how to write fiction the same way you have to learn to be a journalist, a carpenter, a doctor,” he says. “You may have some skill, you may have some good ideas, but if you don’t have the craft then you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Amid the swirl of literary success that Rachman has enjoyed with The Imperfectionists, one of his great joys has been honouring his family in the acknowledgements. He thanks loved ones, including those who died before the novel’s release – such as his “dear bookish grandmother.” Although Rachman comes from a family of readers, he wasn’t much of one in his youth; by the time he was an avid reader, his grandmother had developed Alzheimer’s. He kept some of her books after she died, including a volume of William Hazlitt’s essays – which still has her homemade pink embroidered bookmark and other notes in it. In a way, he feels that her books have allowed her to continue communicating with him. “I can see which essays of Hazlitt she liked and I can read them,” he says. “You can sort of correspond with each other through books.”

A couple of days after interviewing Rachman, I’m standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s dark classic The Shipwreck in the Tate Gallery in London. Like several of Turner’s works, it is an apocalyptic scene: men, betrayed by a capsized ship, are adrift at sea – their once-solid vessel crushed by larger, more elemental forces. Terror etched on their faces, they struggle on in rowboats, digging into the sea with their slight oars. The Shipwreck also shows up in Rachman’s novel: it is owned by the newspaper’s publisher, and serves as a symbol of the moribund broadsheet – which is ultimately overpowered by a new wave of technology.

Of course, The Shipwreck could also relate to Rachman’s characters, who not only face a dying industry, but battle their own stormy interiors: they struggle with loneliness; to make real connections with those around them; to find meaningful work and meaning in life; to give their love to the right people (and when the right people are there, to return it fairly and well); to deal with life’s random cruelties; to mitigate the pain they’ve imposed on others; to escape self-delusion and self-contempt and the many ways they bring harm onto themselves.

And maybe that’s why Rachman’s book resonates so much, because it captures those central human struggles. His characters do what connects us all: in the face of those massive waves that threaten to submerge us and leave us gasping for air, they keep on. They paddle with frail oars and beat at the water as they aim for shore. With all their imperfections, not one of them stops fighting.

Interview on Urban Rush

Stacey Gibson is U of T Magazine’s managing editor.


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