Book Talk: Tom Rachman on identity, writing and finding success

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[July 17, 2014]  By Ngozi Kemjika

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Best-selling author Tom Rachman plays with identity in his latest novel, “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” which follows the life of a woman taken from her home as a young girl and left to wander the world with an unusual cast of characters.

The book, which comes four years after Rachman's widely acclaimed debut novel "The Imperfectionists," focuses on Tooly Zylberberg, the owner of an isolated bookstore in Wales. A message from an ex-boyfriend sends her on a journey of self-discovery.

Written in reverse chronological order and set around the world, her past is slowly unraveled. Rachman uses muddy time lines and historical events to explore what makes us who we are.

Rachman talked with Reuters about identity, success and how life has inspired his work.

Q: “The Imperfectionists” was a huge success. How did you continue the momentum with this book?

A: You have got to trust your judgment and hope the features that made your past writing interesting and appealing will continue to do that for the new book. It’s not about what people want but it’s about what is right and what interests you. It has to grab you and excite you and that’s what this new book did.

Q: You have worked as a journalist and have traveled the world. How has this influenced you as a writer?

A: I have always been interested in seeing the world and meeting different people or encountering different situations. I wanted to turn my thoughts into fiction and use those experiences to broaden what I write.

Q: Why did you give up journalism and start writing novels?

A: The question should be why did I stop writing novels and start journalism. I entered journalism because I thought I needed to get some experience and see the world. I thought I should read and write more before writing stories of my own. When I got towards the age of 30 I decided to move to Paris and give up journalism and I’ve been writing novels ever since.

Q: How do you make your stories entertaining?

A: You have to pay attention to writing your story and ask yourself are the tales intriguing to you as a reader or else why should they listen. You want your story to be rich with content but you also want people to keep reading. It doesn’t matter if a story is at times complicated or even demands something of the reader, it needs to be a great story and that’s what I aim for.

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Q: What was the inspiration behind this story?

A: Having lived in several different places and coming from a family that’s been scattered around the world, for a long time I never grew up feeling like I was part of any particular culture. I felt like I had bits of different things in me. If you do have a strong identity, then you draw part of your sense from the culture that you’re in. If not, it poses the question, ‘If I am not made of one particular culture, do I invent myself, do I change over time?’

Part of the reason I chose to juxtapose the different sections of the book and different time periods was because I wanted to have the sharp contrast to think about how people change and how the times change.

Q: Why did you write about a woman like Tooly Zylberberg?

A: I loved spending time with her, as a character. I don’t like to limit myself with characters. You need to let your readers experience matters through different experiences than their own. So I decided to write about my imagined version of another person; that person was Tooly.

Q: What do you want readers to get from the book?

A: I hope they get the pleasure of reading and I hope they are left with some of the characters and the ideas. In the background of the story is the story of our own times, so I hope it’ll be intriguing to people but will also encourage them to think about how life is now.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jonathan Oatis)

[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.]

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