The Imperfect Journalist

Author Tom Rachman on how news writing trained him for fiction

At a reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn on Sunday night, Tom Rachman seemed humbled by the success his book, The Imperfectionists, has received. His debut novel, a collection of intertwined short stories, is set in and around the newsroom of an English-language newspaper for travelers and ex-pats in Italy, at the time of the paper’s steep decline. The book is darkly comic and incredibly moving, with characters so fully realized that you’d swear you’ve met them all in real life. Rachman worked for many years as a foreign correspondent, which he said gave him both the skills and the material to tell the stories in his book.

“I never felt like a perfect journalist,” he said on Sunday, by way of introducing an excerpt he was about to read. He chose a chapter about a particularly imperfect character, Arthur Gopal, a late-career obituary writer who strives each day to do as little work as possible without his editors noticing.

“Arthur’s cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty,” the chapter begins. “So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is a consolation.”

In the chapter, Arthur takes a trip to interview an aged intellectual for her forthcoming obituary (always a delicate process), and then an unexpected event throws into sharp contrast the novel’s ubiquitous themes of love, ambition, and lost time.

Before he read, though, Rachman gave a little background into his life and career. Born in London but raised in Toronto, he always knew he wanted to write, but when he was in his early twenties, he felt bereft of material and life experience. He was devoted to writers like George Orwell, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Dostoyevsky—all of whom, he said, “had lives so much more dramatic than my own, which to that point had been unfortunately pleasant…with no particular tragedies.”

Rather than pursue an MFA in creative writing, he decided to try to become “more worldly,” travel, and practice the craft of writing, which he planned to do by training as a journalist. So he “launched [his career] with a backwards intention,” starting out at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After he graduated, he worked as a foreign correspondent: in Sri Lanka, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and Rome—the latter of which would become the location for The Imperfectionists years later.

Rachman said his work in journalism, particularly as a wire service reporter, was enormously helpful for his fiction writing: it exposed him to a wide range of people and experiences, allowed him to read widely, gave him practice structuring creative stories within a strict framework. Above all, he said, it trained him to shape sentences with extreme brevity and precision. Those who have read his book know that he has not lost that skill.

When someone in the audience asked him which writers influenced him most, and particularly whether they were fiction writers or journalists, Rachman pointed out that in decades past, there was not such the clear differentiation between the two that we see now. That is, all of his favorite writers—Orwell, Dickens, Tolstoy, Greene, and Woolf, to name a few that he listed—were journalists or essayists in addition to their work in fiction.

“What influenced me about that double approach to writing was, I was very attracted from the outset to…the idea that you become a writer,” he said, “you don’t become a fiction writer or a journalist, but that you try to apply your knowledge and skills to writing in general.”

Although there is certainly a distinction in the practice of both types of writing, he explained, there was not previously such a marked division in career identifications. After the Second World War, perhaps with the advent of the G.I. Bill and other programs, creative writing and journalism schools became more accessible to Americans, and along with that accessibility came an increase in the professionalization and differentiation of those skills.

“The idea now is that you’re one or the other,” he said, “and each side in a different way looks down on the other side.”

Rachman now continues on his U.S. tour for The Imperfectionists, which was just released in paperback last week.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner