Is Tom Rachman pulling some sort of con?
It seems a reasonable assumption. Before you meet him, you watch an interview from January 2011, when Rachman was visiting Canada to promote the paperback edition of his bestselling debut novel, The Imperfectionists, and you notice that he was possessed of a lilting British accent. That part makes sense: He had lived in England until age 7, when his family moved to Vancouver, and he returned to London in his early 30s.
But then things get odd. Rachman, now 39, still lives in London, yet when he drops into Toronto to discuss his new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, he has a very proper Canadian accent. (Odder still: When he did a radio interview in Washington, D.C., just before this Toronto stop, it was with the British lilt.)
Perhaps it’s just an enigmatic marketing ploy for Rise & Fall. The book, after all, centres on Matilda (“Tooly”) Zylberberg, a 30-something owner of an ailing Welsh bookshop who has an extraordinary backstory and an inbred recognition that people’s characters are situational. As a child, Tooly was spirited from one place to another by an anxious male guardian; entering each new school, Tooly would take the opportunity to reinvent herself.
At age 10, in what seems an abduction, she lands under the care of three other adults, including a charismatic grifter (a Canadian!) who drafts her for the occasional con.
Like Tooly, Rachman is a world traveller whose character seems to shift depending on the context. When The Imperfectionists was published in 2010, he admits, he wasn’t entirely certain who he was. After working as a journalist for about 10 years, he was still navigating how to answer questions instead of ask them.
“I had had no experience in doing this sort of thing at all,” he recalls, seated at a corner table on a quiet late-June morning at the restaurant Mercatto. He takes a sip of orange pekoe tea, leans back, and spreads his arms wide.
“Everything was completely new. I was coming into it uncertain of how to be, and I had this sort of imposter syndrome at the start. With The Imperfectionists, I had this panic that people were going to ask me the name of a character and I wouldn’t remember it, and they’d think I didn’t write it.”
With reviews for Rise & Fall largely mirroring the raves for his debut, Rachman seems wholly comfortable now in the role of bestselling, critically acclaimed author, if not exactly at ease. (It turns out that his slippery British accent appears when he is in the spotlight – for an onstage reading, say, or during a TV or radio interview.) Asked a question, he’ll unpack a comprehensive response that spills out in a steady stream of words – paragraphs, really – leaving little room for interjections from others.
At one point, he notes that giving interviews can be difficult for writers “who are wary of having their own story defined and out of their control, when they’re in the habit of trying to do exactly that, themselves.”
His manner of speaking echoes the highly controlled structure of his fiction. In Rise & Fall, Rachman takes what might have been a relatively simple story if told chronologically and transforms it into a mystery that is both intimate and globe-straddling. In 2011, when the novel opens, Tooly is living quietly in Wales when she receives a message from an old friend that sends her from one country to another in a quest to understand her own past. As the story toggles between that time period and both 1988 and the turn of the millennium, Rachman sets Tooly’s unusual narrative against the enormous changes that reshaped the world over the past quarter of a century.
“When we live through these things – the difference between you at 15 and you at 35 – it’s all so incrementally slow that it’s very, very hard to [track],” he notes. “You feel like you’re the same guy, yet in fundamental ways you barely remember that person, you’re not quite that person anymore. You share the same organs with them, but your mind has changed, so much of your experience has changed the essence of you. It’s hard to detect these changes, and the same goes for the society that’s living it. These changes are so gradual that one misses the extraordinary differences in periods.”
Rachman seems well-placed to track these changes: He calls himself an “internationally fractured person,” and admits it took a long time before he felt comfortable claiming any one particular identity. “When I was younger, I felt it was a weakness. I thought: I don’t know what group I fit into,” he says.
“Then, once I realized I was never going to have a single group that was really mine and would really define me, it was liberating. Because I suddenly thought: I have this amazing possibility – as does everybody – to pick and choose and to explore the world, and find features that seem rich and valuable, and add them to my life, rather than having to set down a certain restricted way of being.”
He is now working on his third novel. And while he no longer needs journalism to support his book-writing aspirations, he says he hopes to continue doing it for the way it feeds his imagination. He aspires to the model of George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and others who practised journalism as well as wrote fiction.
“There’s a danger with fiction writers, that the point at which you’re able to do it full-time, you’ve realized this long-held hope,” Rachman says. “And you hole yourself up in that garret and you sit around and you write away and, over the course of the decades that follow, your new experiences are fairly limited, you know? You’ve got your friendships, maybe your kids, your divorces, your teaching, creative writing – whatever it is – but you may find much of your work revolves around the first 35 years of your life, and you write that over and over and over and over.
“I think the great asset I gained, having worked in journalism, is that I’m able to go out and do these sorts of stories that will really put me in a completely different setting, will introduce me to people I never would have met, who have no idea that what I like to do most of my time is write fiction. I’m just another reporter turning up, and I love that. It gives me hope that I can not just have an interesting life, but hopefully infuse my fiction over time with aspects of the living world as it’s going on and progressing and changing.”