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.
What do you think about the future of newspaper journalism? Do you think the type of international newspaper you describe will be able to exist in 20 or 50 years?
The future of traditional newspapers is bleak. The financial model that propelled them for so many years — that made them icons of our culture — has been decimated by technology. News on paper has already dwindled, though probably won't disappear completely. However, the "newspaper" considered more broadly, as a single entity offering fresh and topical information, should remain, drawing on the expertise and judgments of informed journalists. The question — the issue no one can answer now — is what form such a "newspaper" will take. That is a question to be decided by technology that may not even have been invented yet.
What is your own beat? What do you cover as a reporter?
I don't work as a reporter anymore — after I sold this novel toward the end of 2008, I left journalism to write full-time.
Yes, I do plan to write other books. You're right: when I was a reporter, I struggled to do my own writing. In fact, I found it impossible. The way I found time to write The Imperfectionists was that I took work as a copy editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, working full-time for approximately six months, then taking my savings from that and writing full-time, then returning after six months, and so on, until the book was done!