In his review of The Imperfectionists, Christopher Buckley wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is 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 – Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo – could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube. I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high.”
I have little to add to this except to say I agree wholeheartedly – once I started reading The Imperfectionists I didn’t want it to end. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, and some chapters I found to be more heartwrenching than others. But through the course of following several different people who all work at (or have something to do with) the same English-language newspaper in Rome, Rachman doesn’t make a misstep.
Also I would add that Rachman, who now lives in London, was raised in Vancouver, more specifically in Point Grey, and he has a background in journalism (he’s worked for Associated Press in New York and Rome). We met for an interview at Our Town on Broadway at Kingsway in his old hometown, while he was on a book tour for The Imperfectionists. Oh, and apparently Brad Pitt’s production company has bought the movie rights.
SC: To get to the nut of the character you’re exploring to a large extent their love lives – whether it’s with a significant other or a son or a dog. How real are some of the actual stories, if not the characters?
Tom Rachman: The stuff that came from reality was the setting and the context, that is to say the world of international media and what it’s like live in Rome and in Paris and report from these cities. And I wanted very much to have an authentic depiction of that. For those people who haven’t worked in the media, it’s just this term. I thought they might be interested to get a peek into what life is really like in it. In terms of the actual characters and storylines, those are invented. They’re inspired by the situations you could say but not actual things that happened.
And I would broaden what you were saying. I don’t think it’s just the love lives explored – it’s their personal lives beyond the newsroom. You see them in their professional guise, then you watch them as they go home and pursue whatever it might be. It might be sexual, or family, or competition or loneliness. I was very interested in the balance between the professional and the personal.
SC: Was there a lot more written than what made it into the book?
Tom Rachman: Yes. In general that’s how I like to write – to write a lot more than I use and pare it down to what’s essential. I’ll write a huge amount to try to understand as much as I possibly can, but isn’t necessarily something the reader needs to know.
SC: With the title, I get the impression it refers to something in the novel that got edited out?
Tom Rachman: Not really. I chose the title to encompass this ensemble cast, each imperfect in different ways. And it was also to give the idea you have a multiplicity of characters, it’s not one issue or one theme all the way through but a number of them.
SC: You’ve written, or tried to write, novels previously?
Tom Rachman: Yes. I wanted to write fiction for an awfully long time. When I was working as a journalist it was hard to find sufficient time. I didn’t realize exactly how long it would take. Even that estimate would have fallen short. What I type out is hopeless, I type out a lot of it, then I have to really hammer it cut it and work at it until it’s in shape. If I have a strength it’s that I’m quite determined and dogged until it looks like something I can respect. Which means there were an awful lot of failed efforts.
SC: Were there any characters that didn’t make the final cut?
Tom Rachman: Oh yeah. I wrote many more than appear in the novel. It’s not they’re fully realized chapters, they were left way back on the side of the highway, very rudimentary. What I wanted to do was have a patchwork that would amount in its entirety to the newspaper and what would go into it. I considered a sportswriter, someone in charge of the classifieds. They just didn’t feel necessary to the project.
SC: For me the most devastating chapter was Craig Menzies’. Do you get reader reactions where people have more of an emotional connection with one chapter than any other?
Tom Rachman: Absolutely, I get that every time. It’s always fascinating to hear which chapter people like best or which character they related to most. There’s no consistency to it. At first I thought the responses would cluster around one chapter or another, but I’ve come to think it’s more reflective of the reader than the book. I’ve had every single chapter that someone has cited. In each case it’s something in the reader. It’s kind of a pleasure of the book for me.
SC: I notice there are a few references to Frank Sinatra in the book. Are you a fan?
Tom Rachman: I love Frank. I’m just trying to think, don’t tell me, I’m just seeing if I can remember all the Frank references… I know that there’s also a Chet Baker reference. I just like Frank Sinatra. The album that he gives a copy of, to Ruby, is just a great classic album I love, it’s really hard to find.
SC: One of my favourite characters doesn’t even get a chapter to himself, and that’s the crazy egotistical insane reporter–
Tom Rachman: Snyder.
SC: He has to be based on someone.
Tom Rachman: He takes features from a bunch of different correspondents I’ve encountered. There are some fierce and unpleasant and very aggressive types you find in that world. That chapter is done for comic effect, but you’d be surprised, or maybe not surprised, at how many of those things that guy does I’ve seen and witnessed and sometimes been the victim of.
SC: The implication is that it takes that kind of personality to get the story.
Tom Rachman: Quite right. It’s not a necessary requirement, but it is something I observed a lot – being aggressive and pushy and self-centred and ambitious that make you a less than appealing human being can be pretty handy in the world of journalism. People whose work you might really admire, writing perceptive articles, then you meet them and they’re kind of monsters.
SC: Could you ever see him having his own novel?
Tom Rachman: He’s a character I so clearly detest it would be hard… and it’s such a different tone from the rest of the book, it’s a much more antic, comic feel, which I love doing for one chapter but I think comedy is hard to sustain after awhile.
SC: Is your writer’s instinct pushing you to do something entirely different, or can you see yourself writing a book like this again?
Tom Rachman: I could see doing something like this again. I wouldn’t want to do, for my second novel, something that shares the first one’s unusual characteristics. You don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I must say I do like the format of a novel in stories, it’s challenging to do and fun to read. There seems to be a lot of them these days.