Q&A with Tom
What is The Imperfectionists about?
Set in Rome, The Imperfectionists is a novel told in linked stories about the private lives of the reporters, editors and executives at an international English-language newspaper as they struggle to keep their publicationâ€”and themselvesâ€”afloat. Kathleen, the tough editor-in-chief, experiments with betrayal in her open marriage. Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a tragedy at home. And Abbey, the besieged financial officer, finds that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in unexpected ways. Out in the field, the veteran Paris reporter goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while an inexperienced new Mideast stringer is seeking terrorists to interview. In the shadows is the isolated young publisher whose actions may determine the future of every employee at the paper. The Imperfectionists touches on the decline of newspapers and the rise of technology, but above all it is about these characters and their peculiar stories.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
The Imperfectionists came to me in stages, starting with the characters, who wandered into my imagination surprisingly well-formed, even down to their eyeglasses and the stains on their shirts. I organized them, placed them in a setting I knew, a news organization, and watched what happened, sometimes nudging them, sometimes nudged by them. The stories took life as I wrote them, the outcomes almost as unexpected to me at times as to any future reader.
You have lived in several different countries. Where is home for you?
That's tricky. I was born in London in 1974, moved to Vancouver at age 7, attended university in Toronto and New York, wrote news stories from India, Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt, composed this book in Paris, and now live in Rome. Yet no place feels exactly like a home. My family, of Eastern European Jewish and British-Welsh descent, has been a mobile, rootless bunch, sometimes out of choice, sometimes out of necessity. These days, I have relations in South Africa, China, France, Israel, the United States, England and Canada. Moving can be liberating: you may adopt what you admire from each culture yet are restricted by none. On the other hand, there is something primal about wanting to possess a piece of land and to feel possessed by it. I sometimes envy those who enjoy easy belonging, but it can't be faked.
How much is the book based on your own experiences?
I worked for most of my professional life in journalism, starting at the foreign desk of the Associated Press in New York and more recently as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. The depiction of journalism in The Imperfectionists is accurate and offers an inside view of how the news is produced. But the characters and stories are all fictional.
What made you want to write a novel, to switch from non-fiction to fiction?
Actually, I set out wanting to write fiction and that led me to journalism, not the other way around. When growing up, I had dreamed of making movies, but in university my enthusiasm for literature moved me to write instead. I believed myself too inexperienced to write a novel right away. Journalism seemed a good way to travel, write and read, while paying my way. So I took that path, with every intention to return to fiction, which I now do full-time.
Your book touches on the problems faced by today's newspapers. Do you think they have a future?
Unfortunately, print publications are in an increasingly dire situation. Their problems are numerous, not least that the Internet has habituated readers to information at no cost. Daily papers, to hold onto their readership, offer most of their work online for free. Yet they must still pay the vast costs of gathering news. This obvious gulf, plus a raft of other problems, is decimating the industry. Nonetheless, readers are more numerous than ever, more educated, more cosmopolitan, and they hunger for trustworthy reports. So the decline of papers cannot kill the news business. We're just not sure how it will look in the future.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I tend to love particular works rather than a writer's entire output. But those I most admire include Tolstoy (War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Illyich), Chekhov (many stories), Dickens (Great Expectations), plus 20th century masters like Graham Greene (The Comedians, The Quiet American and others), Bruce Chatwin (On the Black Hill and Utz), George Orwell (essays), Katherine Mansfield (stories), Isaac Bashevis Singer (Enemies, a Love Story plus short stories), Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse and essays), and Raymond Carver (many stories). Outstanding contemporary writers include William Boyd (Any Human Heart and A Good Man in Africa), V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr. Biswas), ZoĂ« Heller (Notes on a Scandal), Russell Banks (Affliction), and J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace). I know I'm forgetting dozens of other brilliant writers. I expect they'll come to me five minutes too late!