Tom Rachman’s first novel “The Impressionists” earned glowing reviews and topped bestseller lists. It drew on Rachman’s experience as a journalist in Rome, tracking the ambitions and disappointments of a newspaper bureau in Italy. His new novel titled “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” has a similar international appeal. It opens on Tooly Zylerberg’s rural Welsh bookshop. During the course of the novel the ex-pat American with no obvious family ties travels the world seeking answers to questions about her past that have haunted her for years. Guest host Susan Page talks with journalist-turned-novelist Tom Rachman about his latest work of fiction.


  • Tom Rachman Author of "The Imperfectionists"

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from THE RISE & FALL OF GREAT POWERS by Tom Rachman. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Rachman. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Excerpt From Rise&Fall


  • 11:06:53

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. The author of the bestseller "The Imperfectionist" is back with a new novel. At its center is Tooly Zylerberg, a 30-something American expat who owns a used bookstore in rural Wales. Her quiet life is upended by a message from a former boyfriend. It sends her on an international journey to unravel long-ignored secrets of her childhood.

  • 11:07:23

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThe book is titled "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." Author, Tom Rachman joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:31

    MR. TOM RACHMANThanks so much for having me here.

  • 11:07:32

    PAGEWe invite our listeners to join us. Perhaps some of you read his previous book, "The Imperfectionist." You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Okay. The title is "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." That sounds like a book one of the foreign policy experts on the first hour of "The Diane Rehm Show" this morning might have written. Tell us about the title and what it means.

  • 11:08:01

    RACHMANYeah, it does sound a little bit like nonfiction, but it's absolutely a novel. I chose the title for three different reasons. The first is because this is really a story about the changes in the lives of the principle character, Tooly, and many of the others around her. So there's the idea of the ebb and flow of influences, those sorts of powers over the course of one life.

  • 11:08:25

    RACHMANA second meaning of it for me was the idea of the great powers in the sense of the mental and physical strengths that grow and fall in the course of your life so in childhood, you gain competency and knowledge about the world and then in adulthood, you reckon with the limits of your great powers and in old age, those powers decline. And there are main characters in this novel who are facing each of those stages.

  • 11:08:52

    RACHMANAnd then, finally, the meaning of the title is supposed to represent the great powers in traditional sense, so the idea of the empires or the cultural and political forces that sway the world, but that the various characters in this novel look on, wondering quite where they fit in their own times.

  • 11:09:12

    PAGEYou wrote an essay that I read last night about naming books and that you can't, you don't think, start with the title of the book and then write the book. You need to write the book and figure out what the title is meant to be. And you said that you kept a list of potential titles for your book going until you'd settled on the final title, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." What were some of the alternatives?

  • 11:09:38

    RACHMANOh, you know, I'd have to go back and look at that list. I think they've vanished in my memory. I think that it is interesting, though, when you're writing a novel that you have various ideas. You have the story, you have the characters and you introduce one to the other and see what happens. But the themes of the book often only come out once you've really produced, let's say, 300 pages of it.

  • 11:09:58

    RACHMANYou look back over it. You're looking to revise it and you come to recognize that there are certain strong images, ideas that run all the way through. And it's often, in my case anyway, that from picking a title that really fits the book, then you suddenly realize what you wanted to say, what it was all about.

  • 11:10:17

    PAGEYou didn't start with the title in mind, but you did start this book with a scene in mind, a picture that had popped into your head. What was that a scene of?

  • 11:10:28

    RACHMANThat's right. It was an image that came to me. It was a very clear, vivid image and it was of a young child being lead into a room by the hand and the adult who was leading her suddenly disappeared and she was placed in this room, the door closed behind her. And in that room, there were two adults. They weren't especially interested in her. They were getting on with their own things and she found a little corner to sit and wait.

  • 11:10:57

    RACHMANA few minutes passed and then a few hours and increasingly it became clear to all involved that nobody was coming to get her. And so she had to figure out quite what to do, how to ingratiate herself with these grownups and they had to figure out what on earth to do with this little kid. And it's really from that very sharp image that intrigued me that I decided there was a story to tell here. It didn't seem something that would fit a short story.

  • 11:11:21

    RACHMANIt seemed like there was a great deal of material potential there and what I wanted to figure out in the writing of it was quite what had lead this child and who had lead this child to that room and what would become of her.

  • 11:11:32

    PAGEAnd that child is the character, Tooly. And I wonder if you would read, perhaps, a short section of the book that introduces us into this lost child who became the expat owner of a bookstore in Wales.

  • 11:11:49

    RACHMANCertainly. This section is when Tooly is in the present day and she is running this store and over the course of the day, not all that many people turn up at her store so she gets a lot of time to read. But at night, things are a little differently. "That night, after work, Tooly retired to her lodgings above the shop and opened a bottle of wine. After a few glasses, she was tempted and so down the stairs she went, treading tipsily through the darkened shop.

  • 11:12:19

    RACHMANWithin arms' reach, there were so many sublime books, but tonight, it was the computer that lured her. She cradled the keyboard in her lap, giving a little shiver as the machine blinked and whirred, icons populating the desktop, her face lit by the screen. Tooly had long shied away from computers, associating them so strongly with her childhood, and she'd managed to avoid them better than most, living, as she had, disconnected from wires, traveling city to city, job to job, taking positions that required minimal technological skills.

  • 11:12:56

    RACHMANThe longer she'd gone without a computer of her own the more mystifying all the digital hubbub became. But World's End Books, for all its paper, came with a few microchips, too, in the form of this clunky old desktop already a senior citizen at age four. Now, for more than a year, Tooly had remained aloof from that computer. Then, gradually, she explored a little. Eventually, hours vanished there.

  • 11:13:28

    RACHMANLike a black hole, the internet gravitated its own gravity, neither light nor time escaping. Cats playing the piano, breasts and genitals popping out, strangers slandering strangers, the lack of eye contact explained so much of what happened online, including her own habit, prowling through the past. In recent weeks, she had started searching for names, old ones, of lost friends, former schoolteachers, fellow pupils, acquaintances from cities she'd left years before.

  • 11:13:59

    RACHMANThrough the online murk, she spied their lives. All this nostalgic prowling, invariably after a few drinks, promised gratification, yet left unease. It was as if a long spoon had been dipped inside her and stirred. Unlike in books, there was no concluding page on the internet, just a limitless chain that left her tired, tense and up too late. Well, it was time to switch off now, time to go back to bed, look at the rafters and nod off to sleep.

  • 11:14:33

    RACHMANAnd she half stood to do so only to rouse the computer, testing its promise of satisfaction behind each next click. At the top left of the screen appeared a flag, a Facebook friend request. Because of her pseudonym, such requests came only from lurking weirdoes. She clicked it intending to decline, except she recognized this name, Duncan. Tooly walked away from the computer, down the closest aisle tapping nervously on books as she went.

  • 11:15:06

    RACHMANIt had been years since her last contact with Duncan. How had he found her? Mouth dry, she stood with her finger over the mouse button. She read his name again and she clicked yes. Within moments, he had messaged her, 'desperately trying to reach you. Can we talk about your father?' Question mark, question mark, question mark. Tooly clenched her clammy hands, wiped them on her shirt.

  • 11:15:31

    RACHMANHer father, but whom could that mean?"

  • 11:15:37

    PAGEThat's Tom Rachman reading from his new book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," a description of one of the central characters, Tooly Zylerberg. And one of the -- this is at a moment in her life when she's an adult, but the book goes back and forth among three big moment in time. Tell us about those three moments.

  • 11:15:59

    RACHMANYeah, that's exactly right. It's set in three time periods and when you first meet Tooly Zylerberg, she's in the present day and the following chapter, it's 1999 and she's in her 20s walking around New York City. And then, by the third chapter, she's nine years old and she's on a flight that's headed to Thailand. And the way that the book is constructed is that it continues to leap among these different stages of her life and different stages of life of the other characters, too, and progressively as you read it, you come to figure out quite what happened to her.

  • 11:16:36

    RACHMANThere are many aspects of her own life that she doesn't understand. So in the present, she's going on a quest that takes her all around the globe to figure out the clues to the secrets of her past, but she knows as little as does the reader and progressive -- it sort of has an effect, like a collage, but one that you begin by looking at very, very close and each chapter, it's like taking one step further back and progressively you come to see the larger picture. And finally, you get it all.

  • 11:17:02

    RACHMANBut the stages are also -- have relevance beyond the characters' lives. They also are trying to, I wouldn't say comment so much as observe something about the past quarter century in the world at large because the earliest section is set in 1988 so it's poised just before the end of the Cold War. The second period of the book is in 1999 so just around the point of the peak of American dominance and before all of the wobbles that followed.

  • 11:17:31

    RACHMANAnd then, the third section is now, really, so during this stage of digital revolution that we're all living through. And I wanted, by juxtaposing these different periods, to show not just the development of her and the other characters, but also some of the things that we have gained in this past quarter century and some of the things that we've lost as well.

  • 11:17:51

    PAGEIt's a jigsaw puzzle for the reader, also for Tooly.

  • 11:17:56

    RACHMANAbsolutely, absolutely. I think that, hopefully, one of the interests and pleasures of reading this book would be the intrigue that she has and that the reader has, too. So it's a mystery that isn't quite a mystery novel. It's not got a body to -- and it's not got a killer in it, but it does have all sorts of questions, really, about who she was and how she's become who she is now.

  • 11:18:21

    PAGEAnd what is the meaning of family and who can you count on and who can you not? We're going to continue our conversation with Tom Rachman after a short break. We're talking about his new book. It's called "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." We're gonna take your calls. Our phone lines are now open, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at Stay with us.

  • 11:20:00

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Tom Rachman. He's the author of the bestselling book, "The Imperfectionists." Now, he's written a second novel. It's called, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." Before the break he read a passage that describes one of the central characters in his novel, Tooly. Let's hear about one of the -- another big character in the book, whose name is Humphrey.

  • 11:20:26

    RACHMANYes. Well, before I being reading, I'll just introduce Humphrey very, very briefly. Humphrey is a book curmudgeon of the best kind. He's a man, an elderly man, who has spent most of his life befriending the characters and authors of the books that he's read. He's a little bit of a mentor to Tooly. And when we meet him here it's in 1999. So Tooly is in her 20s. And they're sharing a rather dilapidated apartment in Brooklyn.

  • 11:20:57

    RACHMAN"Blinking to wakefulness, she glanced at her few possessions with estrangement. Corduroys splayed across the floor. Sweater and coat heaped on sneakers. Bra twisted over low rise of books. She pushed open her bedroom door and clumped across the main room toward the toilet. 'Good morning,' Humphrey said in his thick Russian accent.

  • 11:21:21

    RACHMANSeated on the couch holding a book the old man nearly said more, but thought better of it, knowing Tooly to be grumpy at this hour, barely 11:30 a.m. Much as she wanted to impose her mood on the morning, she couldn't resist Humphrey in the waiting for her. He'd probably been there waiting for hours. When she joined him he had a steaming cup of coffee for her on the Ping-Pong table. She collected it, sat at the other end of the couch and frowned, in order to win a few minutes silence.

  • 11:21:54

    RACHMANHe turned a page, pretending to read, though he peeked at her from under his overflowing eyebrows. Raccoon shadows below his eyes, creases around his mouth which kept tightening, ready to pounce on a conversation, then relenting. Humphrey, who was 72, wore baby blue slacks high around his gut, a polyester dress shirt, the small size he's once been, and a loosened paisley tie, all from the thrift shop. Bits of stubble, like toast crumbs adhered around his thin lips and prickled the cords of his throat.

  • 11:22:30

    RACHMANOn ashen sideburn was longer than the other, giving the impression that he might tip over at any minute. 'I'm so tired,' he sighed, 'of being loved for my beautiful body.' Tooly smiled, took a sip of coffee, and plucked the book from his hands. 'The Maxims of Larouche Vuco (sp?).' 'I also have maxim in life,' Humphrey informed her. 'My maxim is never let Tooly Zylerberg take book because it goes and never comes back.' 'If I borrow a book and I like it,' she contended, 'by law it becomes mine.'

  • 11:23:09

    RACHMAN'I overrule this law.' 'Well, I appeal to a higher court where I'm the judge and I uphold the law.' 'System is flawed,' he observed. It was freezing that day, so she reached behind the couch frame to where he dumped his bed covers each morning, and she dragged up his comforter, wrapping herself in it. Humphrey, considering her swaddled in his bedcovers, remarked, 'You look like bear, hyberbating for winter.' 'A bear doing what?' 'Hyperbating.' 'What is hyperbating? Sounds like a bear that can't stop masturbating.'

  • 11:23:49

    RACHMAN'Don't be disgusting pervert.' 'It's a reasonable conclusion, Humph. There aren't that many other words ending in bating.' 'Plenty words end in bating.' 'Like what?' 'Like, like riverbating.' 'What is riverbating?' 'Riverbating is when there is echo and you say, 'It is riverbating.' 'Reverberating,' she corrected him, 'isn't a word that ends in bating.' 'Okay, okay. I get you other.' He paused. 'Here, I have it. Verbating.' 'Verbating?' 'When you speak something and I repeat it back same. Then I'm saying it verbating.' 'Verbatim.' 'Yes, sure.'"

  • 11:24:40

    PAGEThat's Tom Rachman, reading about the character Humphrey in his book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." I have to compliment you on your Russian accent.

  • 11:24:47

    RACHMANThank you.

  • 11:24:49

    PAGEHe's a -- Humphrey is an amazing character, and not entirely what he seems. Lots of international aspects to this book. Tooly spends her childhood in a dozen different countries, and it's set in a couple different ones, in Wales, in New York, in Bangkok, all over the world.

  • 11:25:07

    RACHMANYeah, it is. I think that probably I was inspired to look into those sorts of characters, the characters are a little bit internationally lost, floating around, not sure exactly of their culture for a few reasons. One is that that's somewhat my own experience. That I was born in London, raised in Canada. I went to work in New York and then was sent abroad as a journalist and worked in various different places.

  • 11:25:32

    RACHMANAnd over the course of that, and from an internationally mixed background of my own, then I probably never had a very clear sense of quite where I belonged or where I fit. And so I was interested in those sorts of characters. And when I wrote my first novel, "The Imperfectionists," I found that the people I really wanted to describe and talk about were those who were in a similar sort of international limbo.

  • 11:25:54

    RACHMANPeople who were, let's say, born in one country, raised in another, married to a person from a third, maybe raising children in a fourth culture. And they, being a bit of an international hodgepodge and uncertain quite where they fit in.

  • 11:26:09

    PAGEAnd "The Imperfectionists," clearly -- which was set in a newspaper bureau in Rome -- clearly drew on your own experiences working for the Associated Press in Rome, working for the International Herald Tribune. In other -- in ways other than being kind of internationally scattered, does this book draw, also, on experiences from your own life?

  • 11:26:28

    RACHMANWell, it does, in so far as there are, you know, I've encountered bookish people like that. I've been a book lover myself. And I think, though, that there are some misconceptions about "The Imperfectionists" that are very understandable, which is that I took it -- drew it from my own experience in the news. And I did, definitely, try to describe the international news world authentically, based on my experiences abroad and also working here in the States.

  • 11:26:55

    RACHMANBut the -- actually the characters and the stories preceded everything else. I had them in mind before I even set it in the news world. And then I had to layer the news world around it. And so I suppose that -- and that, in a way, is really representative also of my path into fiction. That I always wanted to write fiction, and then enter journalism really to gain experiences. So it started with the fiction, in my life, too. And that was true with this novel.

  • 11:27:22

    RACHMANI think that I had characters who came to me. I had ideas that came to me. And then I enjoy trying to enrich the fiction by engaging with other things, by engaging with the times and engaging with places, too.

  • 11:27:34

    PAGEThat's interesting. Because, of course, with "The Imperfectionists," which is a novel that newspaper people like myself really adored, there was kind of a guessing game about what actual character you had worked for or seen, was reflected in the book. But you're saying the characters are there before you met the people.

  • 11:27:52

    RACHMANAbsolutely, yeah. In fact, I've had the funny experience of -- when I toured around to promote "The Imperfectionists" in different countries, people in, say Denmark, would come up to me and say, "I work next to that woman. She sits next to me in the office." So I think that somehow, unintentionally, I hit on some news world archetypes.

  • 11:28:09

    PAGEWhen you wrote that first novel, "The Imperfectionists," which got a lot of acclaim when it came out, was a best seller, were you surprised that it did so well? Because, I've got to say, there are a lot people with debut novels that don't do so well.

  • 11:28:23

    RACHMANI probably was surprised, yeah. I think I was -- I was so busy being elated, that I struggled to be surprised. But I certainly never, never expected anything like that. My fantasy and my long-held dream had been to have a novel published. And so once the publishing house agree to do that, I had already sort of achieved my dream. And everything that came afterwards was amazing. And, you know, it came out. People liked it and that was extraordinary. And, wonderfully, it also allowed me then to work on a new book, this one.

  • 11:28:57

    PAGELet's go to the phones and let our listeners join our conversation. We'll talk first to Rod who's calling us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Rob (sic), you're on the air. Rod, are you there? I'm sorry. I think -- I guess we're not quite ready to go to Rod. So let me -- let me ask you about the difference in writing the second novel from writing the first one. The first one you were elated just to have a publisher agree to publish it. Then when you have a first novel and it's a big success, is there a lot of pressure to show that you can do it a second time?

  • 11:29:34

    RACHMANWell, I suppose that one could look at it that way, but the way I tried to think of it and did think of it, was that it was really an amazing stroke of fortune that there are lots of wonderful first novels that come out and really don't gain the attention that they deserve. And that writer may then not get a second chance. And I was going to. And so I could have sat around and fretted about the terrible pressures on me, the fact that somebody wanted to publish a second book.

  • 11:30:01

    RACHMANBut it didn't feel that way at all. It just felt like a great sort of boosting confidence that people had been interested in the first, and it would give me a chance to keep telling stories.

  • 11:30:09

    PAGEAnd talk about how you go about writing. Do you write on a laptop? Do you write in longhand? How do you do it?

  • 11:30:15

    RACHMANI write mostly on a laptop. I take -- I put down lots of notes on paper. And as I'm organizing the ideas for a story or for a novel. And so my apartment at home in London is just full of these little notes hidden in pockets. And I always have to have a pad next to the bed, since I…

  • 11:30:32

    PAGEAnd they might say -- these notes might say something like what?

  • 11:30:34

    RACHMANWell, they might describe a character. They might come up with a little idea for a twist of the plot. They might be -- they might relate to something I'm already working on or they might be a fresh idea. But I like to always have bits of scraps around so that I can retain everything.

  • 11:30:49

    PAGEAnd when you start writing a book like this, that's reasonably complicated, in terms of the characters and the three different time periods. Do you -- at the beginning, do you have a pretty clear sense of where it's going to be at the end?

  • 11:31:03

    RACHMANI have to have a sense of the ending, yeah. I do. I don't like to detail too much, every single scene and step that is going to happen along the way. I like to just a jot a note for a scene and then write it. I think that one has to be careful to maintain a balance between the two of over -- of planning too much and planning too little. If you do too much, then there's not really much of -- much emotion, much surprise in the piece, because as you're writing it, you're just really typing. But if you've not planned enough, then you can risk spinning off into confusion and uncertainty. So…

  • 11:31:39

    PAGEAnd after the end of this journey for Tooly, in the course of your book, there are some very fundamental things about her life that we don't find out until the very end of the book. But at the very beginning of the book, did you know this who would end up being her story? You had a sense of that?

  • 11:31:56

    RACHMANYeah, I think I did. And also the completed book is, you know, is, you know, the 10th draft of it or something. So it's also in the course of actually writing those early drafts that you really come to figure out what the story is and then, in subsequent ones, I can go back and plant all of the clues along the way.

  • 11:32:14

    PAGEAnd was there anything that Tooly, you thought she was going to do or be, that she -- the character refused to do in your head to change course?

  • 11:32:21

    RACHMANWell, I would say, actually, on the contrary, the great thing about writing a character when you feel that they really come alive, is that they start to act -- I wouldn't quite say independently of you, but they seem to gain their own sort of initiative. And there are certain things that they would or wouldn't do. And it's no longer you entirely in control because you've set the course of this character, defined them in a certain way, and then placed them in situations. And then suddenly, they come to blossom and force the story, one way or another, which is quite exciting to write.

  • 11:32:51

    PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, let's talk about a third character in your book, Venn. And, first of all, I was wondering if Venn referred to a Venn diagram.

  • 11:33:15

    RACHMANNo. He -- it doesn't. It wasn't intended, although, perhaps that adds a strange layer of meaning. Venn, along with Humphrey, were two names that popped into my head with that image that I mentioned before. I don't know why, but those names just came to me. And I kept -- as I was writing early versions, thinking, do I stick with these names? And they just seemed to somehow be those characters.

  • 11:33:33

    PAGEIt's funny, because I read one review that said, "Clearly, a carefully devised name Venn, for the Venn diagram and the overlaying, overlapping characters involved. Well, why don't you read a bit from your book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," about Venn.

  • 11:33:46

    RACHMANCertainly. So, now this is, again, this is 1999 stage of the book. So Tooly is in her 20s. And she is -- she's had a long-standing friendship with Venn who's an extraordinarily charismatic, youngish man. And has been a supporter of hers and ally for many years. And a great influence on her. He has, however, one frustrating weakness, which is that he is always late. So here she is waiting for him.

  • 11:34:20

    RACHMANAh, where was he? She stood at the corner Hester Street, shivering. Minutes passed and she promised herself to leave after just one more. Then that one passed and another began. Tooly looked to the left, to the right, behind her and back again, but he was nowhere to be -- 'Well, well, well,' Venn said, cheeks broadening, as he swept her alongside him in a one-armed hug. 'Why'd you keep me waiting duck? Come on, now.'

  • 11:34:53

    RACHMANWhenever they met, his voice resonated in this way. It was as if he spoke directly inside her. His wild beard was shorn these days, though reddish-brown stubble still bristled on his cheeks when he smiled. Frown lines crinkling around his eyes. Despite the cold, he wore no overcoat, just a navy turtleneck that smelled of cedar. She intended to be furious, but he'd made her laugh already. Anyway, indignation fizzled, when directed at Venn.

  • 11:35:29

    RACHMAN'Can we go indoors immediately?' she asked with mock annoyance. 'Or walk very fast, preferable huddling together? I am seconds from hyperthermia here.' 'Hyperthermia's good for you. Everything goes warm, you moaner. Come on.' He took her hand and threaded it into the crook of his arm, his body dwarfing hers. Venn was a like a devilish older sibling, offering that brotherly combination of wholly unreliable and utterly trustworthy.

  • 11:36:01

    RACHMANHis childhood at the periphery of the world, had implanted a craving for its center. And Venn had moved incessantly in search of vibrant locals. Over the past decade he'd tried Jakarta, Amsterdam, Malta, Cyprus, Athens, Istanbul, Mulan, Budapest, Prague, Hamburg, Marseilles, Barcelona, and now New York. His occupation changed as often as his location, from construction worker to supermarket butcher to club manager. He'd been the driver for a pawn broker, the confidante of an aging Mandarin, an independent contractor, an entrepreneur.

  • 11:36:42

    RACHMANHe had no snobbery and worked lowly jobs if needed. Yet, the trajectory of his occupations charted a steady climb upward, as did the company he kept. When Tooly first met Venn his confederates were charlatans and crooks, drawn to him like worms from damp ground. They had intrigued her once, but criminals only enchant those who haven't known many. Soon she found most of them repellant. These days, Venn's cohorts were young Wall Street professionals, mini masters of the universe playacting like mobsters. He represented an access to an underworld, at least, that was the illusion he sold."

  • 11:37:25

    PAGETom Rachman, reading from, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back we'll go to the phones. We'll take your calls and questions. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:59

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Tom Rachman. He's written a new novel "The New Rise & Fall of Great Powers." Let's go to the phones and let our listeners join our conversation. We'll start with Brian. He's calling us from Jacksonville, Fla. Hi, Brian.

  • 11:40:17

    BRIANGood morning now.

  • 11:40:19

    PAGEGood morning.

  • 11:40:19

    RACHMANGood morning.

  • 11:40:21

    BRIANI just have a -- yeah, I would like to get your opinion. I'm 32nd degree Scottish rite Freemason and I want to write a fictional account of kind of the story that you wind through the degrees, the stuff that's not really secret or whatnot. But setting up the backdrop doing a historical lesson on the subject, it's kind of coming out bland or boring. And I was wondering how would you go about kind of spicing that up or keeping it a little less dreary?

  • 11:40:49

    PAGEOkay. Brian, thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:40:51

    RACHMANWell, I think that the key is probably to stop trying to inform people and start concentrating on the stories and the characters. I think that the extra layers that a novel can offer are what can make it a great novel. But I think it's best that they be woven in with great care at a later stage.

  • 11:41:09

    RACHMANIf you start out with the idea of, let's say, you know, declaring -- doing the great American novel about the 21st century, then it's probably going to be incredibly dull and drab. And instead if you try to figure out the great story that's going to grip people, that's always going to be the foundation for any good novel. And you work up some wonderful characters. And then subsequently once you have all that, if you weave in the other ideas that you have. But I think if you're starting from a big idea, it might end up a little bit stodgy and dry.

  • 11:41:42

    BRIANOkay. Thank you.

  • 11:41:43

    PAGEAll right. Brian, thanks so much for your call. Let's talk to Mark. He's calling us from Cleveland, Ohio. Mark, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:41:50

    MARKGood morning. Good morning.

  • 11:41:51

    PAGEGood morning.

  • 11:41:52

    RACHMANGood morning.

  • 11:41:53

    MARKHi. I'm a visual artist, I'm a painter. And I'm even not particularly well read. There's some nice books that I've read, I've really enjoyed them. But then I sometimes didn't have the time. But I was fascinated at hearing artists or writers like you describing a creative process, because it's so similar to the things that I deal with as a painter. The idea of selecting a title, having four or five different working titles with a piece. The idea of having a structure and then fitting detail into it and having to enrich it, and just many, many points. The creative process is just so similar to what I -- I've heard a lot of artists talking. It's the same with a lot of people.

  • 11:42:36

    PAGEMark, what an interesting point. What do you think, Tom?

  • 11:42:38

    RACHMANYeah - no, it is a very interesting one. I've often thought of ways I haven't entirely figured out, that being a visual artist and being a writer do have similarities. I think one thing they have in common is that both are fairly solitary art forms. And some of the others are collaborative.

  • 11:42:53

    RACHMANAnd this is one where you really have to close yourself in a room and work. And I think that that allows the person who's doing that work to come up with something that can be very original, very much their own. But it also puts a great deal of pressure on them. And it can often make you wonder quite where in the contemporary art world your work should fit and whether you should be doing something completely on your own or trying to find a place for yourself in that.

  • 11:43:21

    RACHMANSo I think that maybe some of the challenges of being a painter and being a writer are similar, just as some of the great joys of it are.

  • 11:43:28

    MARKOh, you got that right. The -- especially the idea of spending a lot of time. I mean, there's -- you really need to get out and see people occasionally. I find that...

  • 11:43:38

    RACHMANYeah, I -- sorry.

  • 11:43:40

    MARKSo I'd go into shopping malls just getting out and -- because it takes hours and hours and hours to really make it work. Once you've got your material working for you, there's no substitute from just digging in.

  • 11:43:51

    RACHMANAbsolutely. And I think as well that that's particularly true, what you said about getting out there for a writer. Because there's always the risk that you become a writer at say 35, whatever it is, and that you spend the next 35 odd years of your life writing about the first 35 years in your little study on your own. I think that probably fiction is greatly enriched by making sure that you still go out there and see things.

  • 11:44:16

    RACHMANAnd when I write, I really do try to go and research. I try to meet people, interview people who are in the places that I want to describe. I try to go to those places. And I think in that respect probably my journalistic background is tremendously useful because I can do what is sort of reporting just to get a sense of those scenes and ensure that I'm not continually just doing the same thing of the past, but living an increasingly rich life that hopefully I can then feed into my fiction overtime.

  • 11:44:48

    PAGEMark, thanks so much for your call. Well, you travel, in fact, to several countries to do research for this book. And when you do that and you meet people, do you say, hi I'm doing research for my novel?

  • 11:45:00

    RACHMANYeah, absolutely. I mean, I always try to be clear and upfront with these things. I don't think it would be fair to deceive somebody in that. But very often these -- the most extraordinarily -- the most extraordinary bits of useful information come up in these conversations. You might go just expecting one thing but you arrive there and you find out that in fact it's completely different.

  • 11:45:21

    RACHMANAnd it's not just for describing the background details of a scene. Sometimes you come to realize that the whole meilleur that you're trying to describe is actually different than you'd imagined it. And it serves to improve and add all sorts of different touches and elements to the story you never expected.

  • 11:45:39

    PAGECan you think of an example of a place that you went that really affected your vision of what that would be in the book?

  • 11:45:45

    RACHMANWell, I suppose that one that comes to mind is I traveled to Bangkok and I went to an international school. And I had a friend who was living there and his kids were at an international school. And one of their friends took me on a tour of the place. And I would have -- I'd never gone to an international school like that but I had a sense of what it might be like. Well, I was wrong. It was an extraordinary complex. It was huge. It just went on and on and on. And it offered the children absolutely everything.

  • 11:46:15

    RACHMANBut I was also struck, in talking to some of those kids, since of course the parts of the book are set where this Tooly is a student of just such a school in Bangkok. And when I spoke to the kids I was amazed to find how -- on the one hand, how grown up they seemed. Because many of them -- you know, they knew Rio de Janeiro, they knew Paris, they spoke all sorts of languages.

  • 11:46:36

    RACHMANBut also there was something a little bit lonely in some of them because they only were ever in a place for 12 months for maybe two years. And so they had all sorts of friends from different periods of their lives that were fading away into the past. And they were very interesting sort of people that enriched the character I was trying to write.

  • 11:46:56

    PAGELet's talk to Michael. He's calling us from Oak Bluffs, Mass. Michael, thanks for holding on.

  • 11:47:01

    MICHAELThank you. I didn't know if I'd be able to hold on. My father was Hiram Haydn, editor-in chief of Random House, teacher at Annenberg School of Communications where he'd bring an author a month. And Tom Rachman's reading was so compelling that it recalled for me -- dad's been gone 41 years -- the fascinating people that I met. And so I look forward to reading this book about Tooly. And think that, you know, there's just a lot of wonderful effort and vivid description to it. It's been very enjoyable.

  • 11:47:43

    RACHMANThank you so much. An extremely kind comment.

  • 11:47:46

    PAGEThank you, Michael. You know, one thing that struck me about both your books is that one is based in the world of newspapers, the other in the world of books, and not really the world of e-books. The book world of real books where they get passed around and notated on the sides and so on. So are you devoted to enterprises that seem to be in their last -- on their last legs?

  • 11:48:10

    RACHMANWell, I certainly hope that neither of those worlds are absolutely on their last legs. But I think that what I'm really fascinated by is the -- this ongoing collision between our culture and our machines and the ways in which things like newspapers and books are hanging, the way that the consumers, that people are changing as well in the way that we approach these.

  • 11:48:33

    RACHMANI think however, that having done "The Imperfectionists" which was all set in the news world, that I found something significantly different in setting this in the book world, excuse me, and that is that newspapers or periodicals generally are timely and disposable. Whereas books really aspire to longevity. And I think that that is a meaningful difference because nobody cares that much about the object of a newspaper that you use it up and you throw it away. And that is perhaps why newspapers have been so susceptible to shift online and all of the effects that came with it.

  • 11:49:15

    RACHMANI think that books, however, have a slightly different role in our lives. I mean, we keep them and we prize them. I certainly prize mine. And whenever I move to a different city, they're absolutely the first and heaviest thing that I move with me. And I think that when I look at them in my study arranged around my house, they -- each one -- each volume, that particular copy, it's as if it contains something of my past. It's like looking at my -- the history of my life in some physical form.

  • 11:49:46

    RACHMANBecause the reading of that particularly copy somehow contains and holds the feeling of having been me at that point, having read that book and loved it or hated it or being bored by it. But still I want to keep those because they're the only remnant of what the past of me was. And I think that's a role that books can have, that you change over the course of your life but the text of that book and that copy stays identical.

  • 11:50:09

    PAGEAnd it's interesting, one of the settings of this book is the World's End Bookstore in Whales with a remarkable character named Fogg who lives there. And in a world in which all the characters are constantly going from country to country, no fixed address, often literally, this is one place where Fogg stays and it is like the pivot for many of the things that happen in the book.

  • 11:50:37

    RACHMANThat's exactly right. Fogg, just to introduce him a little bit, is Tooly's assistant at the bookshop. He's there to help her although pretty much what he's able to help her do is get a sandwich for lunch. He's a very chatty sort of guy, this kind of person who loves to pronounce on the great issues of the day but hasn't really seen many of them. He's hardly left there. And he is, in fact, the counterpoint in a way to Tooly because while she's roamed all around and isn't sure where she should be from, he's always been there and is very, very much rooted to that place, just as those books are sort of anchor over the course of her life.

  • 11:51:14

    PAGELet's talk to Angus. He's calling us from Annapolis, Md. Hi, Angus.

  • 11:51:19

    ANGUSHey. Listen, I read "The Imperfectionists." I kind of stumbled on it and I was quite impressed. It's really well written, but I'm a journalist, my daddy a journalist before me. You know, it's 80 years of it and I left that book with the impression that this guy has a very low opinion of journalism and of journalists in general.

  • 11:51:42

    ANGUSAnd I recognize a brilliant title. And I know that the business I was in is an imperfect business because we have fine constraints that very, very few people have. But we do our best. And I think bottom line that journalists, at least the good ones -- and I was acquainted with a hell of a lot more good ones than bad ones -- work their butts off to get it right. And I had the impression from his book that he felt journalists were lazy and found research to be anathema and basically put it out there, you know, for their own personal gain. I just want to know if I read that right.

  • 11:52:24

    PAGEAngus, thanks so much for calling. As a reporter myself, I want to thank you for standing up for the trade.

  • 11:52:30

    RACHMANNo. I certainly wasn't trying to criticize or attack journalists in that way. Actually although it is interesting to me to hear that because I've also had people say that it seems like a very, very romantic view of the world of journalism. So I suppose it's in a way partly a question of interpretation. But you're certainly right that there are characters in the book who are manipulative and nasty. But there're also very, very kind, good and honorable ones. And that was my experience in the field as well, that there were those who were perhaps capable of the job, perhaps very, very good, but were not exceptionally pleasant human beings.

  • 11:53:08

    RACHMANAnd there were others who were -- who had a different combination of those features. They were extremely good people and wonderful journalists or extremely good and not very good journalists. So I think it just has the whole range of it. I think that I certainly have the greatest of admiration for the -- for quality news and am still a huge reader of it.

  • 11:53:29

    PAGEAngus, thanks for your call. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Dayton, Ohio and talk to Shaka. Shaka, hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:42

    SHAKAOh, thanks for taking my call. Thank you very much. I am a writer myself. I (unintelligible) Genesis of the Bible, which is (unintelligible) published by (word?) House and another book. I kind of relate to the author and I wanted to make a little statement about it. The life of a writer is a very, very lonely life. We don't have friends, a lot of people do not understand us and we are so -- I mean, people think that just trying to be funny.

  • 11:54:16

    PAGEShaka, I'm just -- thank you so much for your call. We're having a little bit of trouble hearing you. I think you're on a cell phone perhaps in a windy place. But Tom, would you have a response or a comment?

  • 11:54:25

    RACHMANWell, only to say that I hope that Shaka does have lots more friends than he claims to have. And, I mean, I know what he means though that with -- when you're writing it is a sort of isolated field. But, you know, as I said earlier, I think that the greatest thing that you can do for your writing is to not let yourself get too isolated, to go out and live in the world and do things and not spend one's time entirely wrapped up just in pages and ink. Or else you'll have limited material and it'll all be yourself.

  • 11:54:53

    RACHMANI think that the most enriching thing that a writer can do is to, you know, travel and do whatever seems to stimulate and excite you and that'll bring people into your life I hope.

  • 11:55:01

    PAGETo the end -- at the end of the book, you talk about the concept of block time, which is not something I had heard about but it's apparently a theory that neutrinos can -- have broken the speed of light so you could send a message faster than light from the present to the past. How does that play into the -- kind of the complicated nature of the three time blocks that you write about?

  • 11:55:23

    RACHMANWell, yeah, I think block time is something slightly different than that. I think that block time is this idea that time as we experience it is continuous. It's going from the past to the future. But that time in an objective sense isn't quite that way. So there's this idea that everything that happened in the past is still there and everything that is going to happen is already there and that time is more akin to a location.

  • 11:55:46

    RACHMANSo it's as if you could -- these things are -- you know, Francis still exists even if we're not there at this present moment. So that's the idea of it. And one of the characters is thinking about this I think to offer some sort of comfort about the loss of people when people die in the course of your life, the idea that in a way that maybe they're still there, that it's a kind of place to -- for the people -- for those who don't have religion to store their lost friends and family in this theory.

  • 11:56:12

    RACHMANAnd I think that in the leaping around of time that goes on in the course of this book then it fits that idea too. Because in a way, whether this theory of block time is true or not, it does exist in this book because you have the past, the present and the future all existing simultaneously and coming together in concert to tell the story of this woman's life.

  • 11:56:33

    PAGETom Rachman, thank you for joining us this hour to talk about your new book "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers."

  • 11:56:38

    RACHMANThank you so much.

  • 11:56:39

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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