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The Imperfectionists

by

The Imperfectionists Cover

 

 

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.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Teresa Borden, October 25, 2011 (view all comments by Teresa Borden)
I was quickly drawn in to each character's story in the chapters of this chronicle of a newspaper in Rome. Figuring out how they were all interconnected was fascinating, though I was a bit puzzled at first by the backstory in italics. I could not stop reading this book and was a bit disappointed by the last chapter but would recommend it highly to anyone interested in journalism and the human beings who inhabit the newspaper world.
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reading4years, September 30, 2011 (view all comments by reading4years)
"The Imperfectionists" portrays several people who work at an English-language international newspaper based in Rome. Each chapter features a different person. The portraits are intense, some with jaw-dropping denouements. It also chronicles the changes in the fate of printed news over the past 50 years. An excellent book!
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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
lissi, September 6, 2011 (view all comments by lissi)
Totally enjoyed this story of the life of a newspaper and those who made it happen. I can say from my own experience, he got it right, from the top to the bottom.
A crazy, quirky group of characters with largely unresolved stories carry you through this paper's history and keep the pages turning.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780385343671
Author:
Rachman, Tom
Publisher:
Dial Press
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
fiction;rome;journalism;italy;newspapers;newspaper;novel;journalists;contemporary fiction;literature;short stories;relationships;american;europe;literary fiction;contemporary;21st century;media;publishing;canadian;paris;literary;expats;characters;vignette
Subject:
fiction;rome;journalism;italy;newspapers;newspaper;novel;journalists;contemporary fiction;short stories;literature;relationships;american;literary fiction;contemporary;europe;21st century;expats;publishing;media;paris;characters;literary;canadian;vignette
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20110131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
304
Dimensions:
8 x 5.2 x 0.65 in 0.5 lb

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The Imperfectionists Used Trade Paper
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Product details 304 pages Dial Press Trade Paperback - English 9780385343671 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

It really is as good as you've heard it is, and if you haven't heard someone raving about it, let me be that person. A member of that burgeoning category of book that declines to be easily identifiable as either a novel or book of short stories, The Imperfectionists blurs the two forms into something wonderful. Centered around the rise and fall of an English-language daily paper based out of Rome and started on a whim by a wealthy businessman, each chapter of The Imperfectionists focuses on a different character associated with the paper. It's a hard trick to pull off, but the revolving door of protagonists introduces a cast that is fully realized and wholly human, despite the slim page-count devoted to each one. That they drift in and out of one another's stories only serves to add depth to our perception of them. Interspersed with the often hilarious, sometimes gut-wrenching glimpses into the crew's personal lives is the story of how the paper came to be — a story about an inscrutable millionaire of whom Tom Rachman gives us only a hauntingly peripheral view. With its sucker-punch of an ending and it's fizzy blend of humor, despair, love, and hate, The Imperfectionists reads like riding a Vespa top speed through Rome: glimpses of a bigger picture that add up to something beautiful.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Nobody's perfect, but Tom Rachman comes pretty damn close with his debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Through the lives of the eleven main characters (each with their own chapter), Rachman chronicles the rise and fall of a Rome-based international newspaper, which bears a striking resemblance to his former employer, the International Herald Tribune. Gossipy and fun, yet poignant and timely, The Imperfectionists marks the arrival of a wonderful new literary talent.

"Review" by , "Marvelous...a rich, thrilling book...a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader's fun."
"Review" by , "Deftly written and sharply observed....Even if you've never set foot in a newsroom, The Imperfectionists proves a delight....It's impossible not to like — this is masterful stuff."
"Review" by , "Each chapter is so finely wrought that it could stand alone as a memorable short story. Slowly, the separate strands become entwined and the line characters have drawn between their work and home lives is erased....Funny, poignant, occasionally breathtaking."
"Review" by , "The first novel by Tom Rachman...is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off....[H]ilarious and heart-wrenching."
"Review" by , "This acute debut portrays the world of neurotic journalists....Rachman...paints the characters' small dramas and private disappointments with humanity and humor."
"Review" by , "Charming....The print newspaper may be an endangered species, but the newsroom — with its deadlines, quirky characters and investigative crusades — still makes for a good story."
"Review" by , "The Imperfectionists will make you laugh and cry. It's the rare novel that can shift emotional tone effortlessly....Magnificent."
"Review" by , "Laced with humor, irony and compassion....[S]ome of the chapters are absolute gems."
"Review" by , "A very strong debut. Funny, humane and artful."
"Synopsis" by , One 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.
"Synopsis" by , One 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.
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