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The Imperfectionistsby Tom Rachman
Author Q & A
A Conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Rachman
Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman's wry, vibrant novel follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it — and themselves — afloat. Publishers Weekly calls The Imperfectionists "a zinger of a debut."
Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of What the Dog Saw, a compilation of essays published in the New Yorker.
* * *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?
Tom 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. Doppelganger 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?
Malcolm: Oh no. It was a complete surprise. I was stunned by the pace of newspapers: 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?
Tom: 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, for prestigious postings. 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.
Malcolm: I have to say that this was part of what I loved about The Imperfectionists. 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. How did you manage to make a portrait of, as you say, the "lesser drives" of journalism, so generous?
Tom: That's a paradox I've noticed, too — that 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; 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?
Malcolm: 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 — who 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 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?
Tom: 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 become 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.
Malcolm: I want 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?
Tom: 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. 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.
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