Brad Pitt is no longer involved, but Vancouver-raised novelist Tom Rachman still has a screen deal for his smash debut effort, The Imperfectionists. Pitt’s production company, Plan B, optioned the rights to the critically heralded story about a group of journalists when it became an international bestseller and made the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list in 2010. Now, as Rachman promotes his equally raved-about second book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, he says Pitt’s company wrote a screenplay for the first novel but “decided it didn’t work as a film.”
“The script that they did, they cut it down to three characters essentially out of all of them, so it just didn’t really have enough of the original in it and so it didn’t go forward,” the 39-year-old said. “But it’s now being worked up as a television series, and it’s being done by BBC Worldwide. The earliest embryonic idea for it is that it would be one episode per chapter so that it would adhere much more strictly to the way that the book unfolded.”
As for the newly released The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Rachman said the film industry hasn’t come knocking yet. But the reviews could change that. The New York Times calls the novel “ingenious,” and the Times of London declares it “mesmerizing” and Vanity Fair says it’s “ingeniously orchestrated.”
The richly layered story moves back and forth in time as it follows Tooly Zylberberg in three stages of her life: as a curious child in Bangkok in 1988, a scheming young woman in New York in 1999 and a 30-something owner of a struggling used bookstore in Wales in 2011.
Tooly’s peripatetic past is a mystery, even to her, but the haze begins to lift after an ex-boyfriend contacts her via Facebook to let her know the man he assumes is her father is ailing.
As she goes to the U.S. to connect with her ex and her supposed dad (a chess/literature enthusiast with a Russian accent), readers learn of other characters from her past, including a con artist from a commune in British Columbia and a charming woman who pops in and out of her life.
Rachman – who was born in London, raised in Vancouver since age seven and has worked as a journalist in several other cities around the world – said his itinerant experiences influenced the themes he wanted to explore as he wrote his “Dickensian-type heroine” who feels detached from her own period.
“I’m interested in people who feel somewhat internationally mixed up, people who are from various different cultures and aren’t really sure exactly where they fit. It’s a sort of maybe modern-day feeling of being an outsider.”
“I think now with more people flung all around the world than ever and so many more relationships where people are with people from different cultures and they have kids in a third culture and so forth, increasingly there are people who … are not really certain where in the world they fit, and that’s an experience that I’ve had at various points,” he added.
All of which raised the question for the London-based scribe with the English/Canadian accent during the writing process: “If you’re not the product in some degree of your context, then what are you the product of? Where do you come from, what makes you?”
“If you’d been born in a different country, would you be the same?” said Rachman, who studied at the University of Toronto and the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.
“Is there a kind of essential you that would exist wherever you were, even if it was a different time period and so forth?”
Like The Imperfectionists captured the struggling state of the newspaper world, the new novel reflects on issues facing the book industry. Rachman said he thinks books have a better future than newspapers because they’re objects readers desire to keep as a record of different points of their lives.
“In this novel all of these characters are constantly changing just as every one of us is, but the book remains for them – and is for me as well – a point of stability, something that both forms you but also remains a constant that you can intersect with at various points in your life.
“You change but the text stays the same.”
Rachman said he started writing The Rise and Fall of Great Powers after the completion of The Imperfectionists but before its publication, so he was never affected by the pressures that sometimes come with crafting a sophomore effort.
And he’s already writing a third novel as he anticipates serving as an executive producer on The Imperfectionists TV project.
“That’s what they’ve said that I would be, and as I understand it that would mean that I would be a consultant and probably look over the scripts and things like that and be in contact with the script writer. But I think that my involvement would be determined by a number of different things, including how much they wanted me to be involved, how much I wanted to be involved, and that’s all to be determined, because it’s quite an early stage.”