Novelist Tom Rachman on the secret to writing a bestseller and selling movie rights to Brad Pitt

Q&A with the former journalist and author of 'The Imperfectionists'

Photograph by Jim Ross

Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, set at an English-language newpaper in Rome, has won him the literary success of which writers dream. The manuscript sparked a six-figure bidding war. Since its April publication, the book has garnered stellar reviews and is now in its 10th printing. Brad Pitt’s production company won the film rights earlier this month. The 35-year-old former journalist, who was born in London, England, and raised in Vancouver, now lives in London where he’s working on his second novel.

Q: You chose to study cinema, not literature.
Yes, I was a film buff. My parents used to rent old movies—my whole childhood is in black and white—and it was my dream to make films. I went to the University of Toronto to study the history and theory of film, in the back of my mind thinking I’d go to NYU film school and see if I could make a career of it.

Q: What changed that plan?
I was falling in love increasingly with fiction. I hadn’t been a particularly precocious reader but everybody else in my family was. I tended to read movie magazines, nothing beyond 40 pages. I also realized that the reality of making films was such that I would spend a great deal of my 20s—if not my 30s—trying to get financing. So I thought that’s not how I want to spend the next few years of my life, begging Hollywood producers to fund my ideas. So I thought I’d like to try to be a writer, and to do that I felt that I needed a wider array of experiences. That’s why I entered journalism.

Q: And you left the country to become a foreign correspondent.
I felt that if I was looking for broad experiences then I should travel as far and wide as I could.

Q: You’ve been hailed as an overnight sensation. But before The Imperfectionists you wrote an unpublished novel.
I don’t talk about that, I’m afraid.

Q: Why not?
Well, I would hesitate to call it a novel. I wrote a manuscript that I hoped would become a novel. Some agents were politely lukewarm, and I lost enthusiasm for it very quickly. I had spent more than a year writing it, and I had spent all of my savings so I had a lot at stake, but then I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t quite right. And I put it in my drawer and dejectedly moved on with my life, worrying that perhaps I never would be able to write at all. But it turned out to be a crucial training exercise.

Q: What did you learn from it?
So much. I learned a great deal about technique, just little things that you never imagine would be important—like how you get a character from one place to another without making it boring. There’s a huge misconception about how one writes—it was my downfall in that first effort—and that was that the writer has innate ability, and it’s just a matter of having enough time to express this font of imaginative creativity. But one of the central parts to writing a successful novel is understanding how it’s done—how you construct a story, the way a character is explained to the reader, the way the backstory is filled in without seeming clunky, and all sorts of things that aren’t instinctive. I had to learn that through failing. It was a painful process, but one that demonstrated that the most important thing for writing is discipline and determination. There’s a great Woody Allen line: “Nine-tenths of success is just showing up.” I believe that. It is just putting in the hundreds and hundreds of hours. That’s what makes somebody a writer.

Q: What made you realize a moribund newspaper could be rich fodder for fiction?
When I was working on ideas for the second book I was a copy editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. I recognized it was on hard times and that my previous experience at the AP [in Paris] had also been more wretched than you imagine international journalism would be. And I realized that these experiences, as well as the expatriate lifestyle, and the state that the news media found itself in, was an extraordinary setting.

Q: Your characters are so varied—lazy, narcissistic, mean—yet there’s great kindness in how they’re presented. Did life inspire art?
It did insofar as there are certain types in the newsroom in the book and the overall setting is very much what I saw, but the stories and people were inventions. But I’m pleased to hear that the characters came off that way, because I found myself thinking many times: “If I were to ever meet somebody like Character X or Y in real life then I would run in the opposite direction.” But when I wrote about them I found that brought out a great deal of sympathy in me. That’s one of the things that I really love in reading fiction: its power to stir your compassion for people in real life you would struggle with.

Q: The female characters in the book are wonderfully rendered. Are you a careful observer of women? Or is that a sexist question?
No, I don’t think it is, but it’s one that I’m pleased to answer because one of the strands in modern fiction that saddens me is the idea that men can write about men and women can write about women and men should read male writers and women female writers. It seems like such a disastrously reductive way to look at fiction. The strength of fiction is not in reading about yourself but in reading about other people. I have certainly watched women. And I like women very much. But I think that fiction just about the writer, identity fiction, is at best one book, because you can’t write the same person’s story over and over again. That’s not the strength of the wonderful books, the Madame Bovaries and Anna Kareninas. So I’m delighted when I hear that, and a little bit saddened that there’s a question about men writing women or women writing men. It should just be part of the trade.

Q: You received a rave review on the front of the New York Times book section, the literary jackpot. What was that like?
My publisher read it to me over the phone. I was breathless. That sounds like a cliché, but I really was.

Q: Do you read your reviews?

Initially I had friends or family read them for me, because I was terrified of things that would somehow disturb me or shift my attitude to the way that I wanted to write. I think that the way that you feel writing often is that you’re balancing between feeling this could be really good and this could be really, really terrible, and it’s the fear of one and hope of the other that propels you forward. I think that if I felt, “Oh, my God, my such-and-such that I try to do is really terrible,” I would be in fits of agony.

Q: What was it like having Brad Pitt buy the film rights?
I wasn’t very closely involved in it. After the New York Times review come out, we started getting a large number of inquiries from film producers. I let [my agents] deal with it, and was happy to keep it that way.

Q: Will you have any creative input?
I don’t expect to. I’m very, very happy for them to make this project their own.

Q: Some novelists might feel that their child is being subjected to cosmetic surgery.
I did a course at U of T on novels and films and it became clear the two are completely different media. The strength of fiction is the interiority of it, and the strengths of film are visual and the dialogue. And you’re going to lose a lot that you have in the book but you’re also going to gain a great deal that that wasn’t possible on the page.

Q: Has the Brad Pitt buzz affected the book?
Any publicity draws more people in, and there’s no doubt people will be doing more searches for Brad Pitt than for my name. So it would hopefully let more people know about the book and make them interested in reading it.

Q: You’ve been catapulted from unknown to very known. What has surprised you?
It’s one of those situations where the fantasy outcome comes true and you find yourself wading through this new situation that isn’t quite as you expected it but is absolutely wonderful. I’m trying to work out how to work on my new fiction while promoting this one. I feel an obligation to my publishers to properly promote it, and also an absolute pleasure to be able to talk about it, and so all of those things couldn’t be more grand. But they also are very time-consuming. And so I’m trying to continue with as rigorous a schedule of writing and reading as I can.

Q: Huge first-novel success can inhibit writers. Is that a pressure?
I can’t worry too terribly much about what people expect. If you are distracted by that then it’s not the next book that you would have written, it’s the book that you think that you should be writing, and that can bring all sorts of disasters your way. There was one line in the New York Times review where [Christopher Buckley] said, “I almost feel sorry for him because the bar is set so high.” He was kidding but I also thought, “Nobody should ever feel sorry for somebody in that situation. I’ll actually have a second book published.” A lot of writers—many of them very good—have the misfortune of getting their book published and then it doesn’t do well for all sorts of reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality, and they find themselves frozen out. The fact that I’ll evade it at least for the second one is just such a great fortune.

Q: So Christopher Buckley’s sympathy is misplaced?
[laughs] Oh, certainly in my case.

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