Tom Rachman went into journalism to become a novelist.
Neither is among the world’s most secure professions, and Rachman is mildly astonished that his plan succeeded beyond all expectations.
After a decade as an editor and foreign correspondent, Rachman has published his first novel, "The Imperfectionists," a barbed yet humane depiction of the staff of a money-losing English-language newspaper based in Rome.
Its reception is every first-time novelist’s dream. There have been rapturous reviews — "captivating," "beguiling," "magnificent." It was one of the hottest properties at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, has been published to acclaim in North America and Europe, and has settled in the upper half of Amazon’s 100 top-selling titles.
Novelist Christopher Buckley, whose review led The New York Times Book Review, wrote that Rachman’s novel "is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off."
A 35-year-old with a boyish appearance and a serious manner, Rachman is not one to crow publicly about his success, but he does allow himself a note of quiet satisfaction.
"There was a certain irony in it," he says. "I entered journalism in order to get out of it, and then I found myself discovering subject matter in the field itself."
Readers — especially those who are journalists — have delighted in Rachman’s depiction of the news business in all its soiled glory: the eccentric and often egomaniacal staff; the gnawing anxiety of an industry in financial crisis; the perennially filthy newsroom carpets at his fictional, unnamed newspaper.
"The Imperfectionists" is full of such precise observations drawn from personal experience. It is set in Italy, where Rachman spent several years as a correspondent for The Associated Press. He also worked as a copy editor at the Paris-based International Herald Tribune newspaper.
The novel tells stories of 10 newspaper staffers and one reader. There’s the aging Paris correspondent, trying to pitch quirky story ideas and being told the budget will only stretch to "jaw-dropping stuff … terrorism, nuclear Iran, resurgent Russia." There’s the driven editor-in-chief who can’t run her personal life as briskly as she does her office, and the embittered copy editor, nursing resentment at being overlooked. The inexperienced Cairo stringer — steamrollered by a visiting correspondent who crashes at his apartment, steals his computer and hijacks his story.
All struggle to control their lives amid a hail of indignities — some of their own making, some sent by fate, some driven by the pressures of dwindling readership and bewildering technological change.
Susan Kamil, Rachman’s editor at The Dial Press, says that knack for balancing the specific and the universal is key to the book’s success.
"While I felt the setting was fascinating … I soon forgot I was reading a book set in the newsroom," she said. "I got involved in the lives of these characters. It could be any office, or any family — full of dysfunction and full of humor and full of tragedy."
Rachman tells their stories with a deft balance of humor and compassion. His characters are self-centered, shortsighted and often downright odd — but also idealistic and dedicated.
"I didn’t want this to be a cruel book," says Rachman, sipping Darjeeling tea in a bright bookshop cafe in London, where he is working on a new novel.
Rachman, who was born in London and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, can see "tiny bits" of himself in all his characters. But he’s not sure he has what one character calls "the newspapering temperament."
Rachman turned to journalism for pragmatic reasons. After studying cinema at the University of Toronto, he was determined to write fiction, but felt his life wasn’t interesting enough.
"I thought, ‘How can I find a career in which I can write, read and travel, and do so relatively quickly?’ And I thought international journalism would be the trick. … It was a means to an end that I did for the better part of a decade."
His career in journalism showed him both its glamour and its grind. There was a posting to Rome as a foreign correspondent, as well as stints in Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt. He also worked on the AP’s international editing desk in New York.
When he turned 30, Rachman decided to pursue his literary career. He quit journalism, moved to Paris — where he knew no one — and started to write. The result, after more than a year, was a completed novel — nothing to do with journalism — that he rejected as a failure.
"Crestfallen and out of money," he took editing shifts at the Herald Tribune, and eventually started writing again, realizing that he had a gold mine in his own experience.
"I’m sort of stunned that my original plan worked out," Rachman said, "because I had mislaid it along the way."