Tom Rachman on Journalism, Female Characters, and Brad Pitt

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Dial Press

The Imperfectionists, a tale of American expat-journos at work (or not) in Rome, came out earlier this year mostly to reviews that belie its title. Michael Kinsley, for example, called it "a book about journalists that even a non-journalist can love."

Here, author Tom Rachman, a former AP reporter and copy editor at the International Herald Tribune, talks about his debut novel.

Your novel tells its story through portraits of different characters involved in one newspaper as reporters, editors, managers and readers. Was there a character you started writing who ended up on the cutting room floor (a sports writer or editor, for example)? As your writing went on, did you find yourself going back to change some of your portraits as different characters developed?

Yes, a few characters disappeared, others materialized, the central players shifted about, elbowing for more room or receding to the background. That is my editing process. I write a rough first version, summon my courage, and read it—it's a scary moment. Then I go at it again. And again. And again. Revision is everything for me. My early drafts are a horror show. Gradually, painstakingly, the book appears, in some ways as I had conceived, in others quite unexpected.

How important is Rome to the book? Put another way, how do you think the story would have been different if it had been set in Paris (where you placed one of your characters, and where you worked)?

Rome is important to my novel in the way that, say, one's house is important: you could have lived in another but the particular setting affects you, determines you in myriad small ways. The novel had to take place overseas, but I ruled out Paris because people might have assumed that the fictional paper was a veiled version of the International Herald Tribune, which it isn't. Since Rome is a city I know well, I set the book there. As the drafts piled up, it increasingly seemed that this could have happened nowhere else: like a lived-in home, Rome came to feel inevitable.

Expats can be a notoriously detached and quirky bunch, expat journalists maybe even more so. I'm guessing your primary purpose in writing the book wasn't to spark a debate about the future of news, but do you worry that readers might get a distorted view of journalism through the expat prism?

No, I'm not worried about that. I believe the depiction is accurate, and I have been encouraged by how many journalists have found in the book characters and scenes that recalled their own experiences. My primary aim was to write a novel that would grip readers, full of stories with thought and consequence in them. If, in writing this book, I also offered a peek into the world of news, then I'm very happy to hear it.

You passed my acid test in writing female characters—namely, my wife really liked the book. I'm curious, though, about how women in general have responded to your depiction of Kathleen Solson, the editor-in-chief, who seems kind of scheming, superficial, and self-absorbed.

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James Gibney is a features editor at The Atlantic. He was a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he wrote speeches for Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Bill Clinton.

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