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An Interview With Tom Rachman About His Novel The Imperfectionists

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Tom Rachman has written an excellent debut novel about an international newspaper. I first heard about this book when I read this glowing review of it in The New York Times. I take notice when a book is praised by master satirist Christopher Buckley, especially one portraying the humor and trouble of a newspaper and its employees.

So I sent a few emails and was lucky enough to set up an interview with Mr. Rachman.

This interview is the result of that. As he says this book is not flat out satire in the style that Buckley writes or that Stephen Colbert does so much as it points out some of the silly quirks and habits of journalists and journalism. 

As a former journalist myself I got a big kick out of how spot on this caricature of a newspaper is. That said, you do not need to have a background or interest in journalism to enjoy this delightful, fascinating, engaging book. 

Rachman has written for the Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

What was your goal with this book?

To write a novel that would captivate readers, that would convey a little of my perspective, and that would capture an extraordinary period in the media. But, above all, I wanted to produce a great read — something that, whether you love newspapers or couldn't care less about them, contains tales to grip you.

How and why did you choose the title that you did?

The novel is an ensemble of flawed, endearing characters — an imperfect bunch who are captured by an imperfect title. Also, a theme in the book is the shift we make between public work and private life. At work, we usually seek to present a pristine exterior, yet most of us feel far messier inside. I wanted to explore this, to view compassionately the imperfections in these characters. Finally, the newspaper itself is such an imperfect enterprise, yet one whose credibility is staked on appearing flawless. "The Imperfectionists" struck me as a fine fit in this respect, too.

Was it fun creating fake stories and headlines? Since leaving newspaper journalism myself I have particularly enjoyed writing satire because I can finally ignore that old joke about "not letting facts get in the way of a good story. Do you consider this book a bit satiric?

It was great fun creating fake headlines. Journalists who are devoted to strictly factual reporting take particular pleasure from satirical news outlets that have the liberty to laugh and even mock the hypocrisy that reporters and editors must simply observe without comment. The Imperfectionists contains elements of satire and, I hope, humor. But I didn't want to write just a satire, a form that risks becoming tiresome after its initial flare of amusement. So, little flecks of satire, yes, but mostly this is a book that tries to be truthful.

What has it been like to read such praise of this book by the likes of Christopher Buckley and others?

It has been overwhelming. When writing a book, you dream of responses like this but don't allow yourself to indulge too much in imagining them. When the first reviews came out, I had friends read them because I couldn't look. Positive responses, whether in print or directly from readers, continue to be hugely encouraging.

Do you have a favorite book and/or movies about journalism? I remember one editor who used to watch The Paper once a week to cheer himself up.

The Paper is a very good newspaper movie. It does degenerate a little at the end with the inevitable "Stop the presses!" moment, something that almost never happens. That said, I recall its depiction of the newsroom as highly realistic. All the President's Men is also a classic, though grander and more glorious in its conclusion than the experience most journalists know. My favorite depiction of journalism, however, is the novel, Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. This is pure satire and, as such, not strictly realistic. But in a comic tone, it captures so much of the spirit of the business. Not to mention, it's hugely entertaining.

How much does this book draw from your own experiences as a journalist? Put another way, are there situations in the book you have gone through?

I sought to give an accurate view of life inside the international media. To that extent, it draws on my experiences at the Associated Press and, later, at the International Herald Tribune — the newsroom atmosphere and lingo and so forth are based on experience. However, the stories themselves and the characters are all fictional.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott Butki

    Here’s an example of what I love. I can literally, er, completely see this being something an editor would put in a style manual, as this character does:
    “Literally – This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as “literally”
    did not happen at all. As in, “He literally jumped out of his skin.” No, he did not. Though if he literally had, I’d suggest raising the element and proposing hte piece for page one. Inserting “literally” willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom. Eliminate on sight – the usage, not the nitwits. The nitwits need to be captured and placed in the cages I have set up in the subbasement. See also: excessive dashes; exclamation points; and Nitwits.

  • Scott Butki

    This is a great fascinating book

    This novel is #8 on the New York Times best seller list – not bad at all for a debut novel

  • Scott Butki

    This novel has been bought for possible film adaptation by a company owned by Brad Pitt