It wasn’t one particular course (though many were superb) that set my path, so much as the creative ferment I discovered among my wonderfully open and bright fellow students

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: a conversation with alumnus Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman is currently celebrating the release of his second novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, which tells an intriguing time machine story of identity crises, travel and a mystery through a character searching for her beginnings.

It was at the University of Toronto where Tom Rachman’s love affair with literature began. The then-cinema studies student began writing short stories in his last year of school, but to no published avail. His passion for telling stories took a run through the Columbia University’s journalism program and then onto jobs for the Associated Press in New York City, New Dehli, Sri Lanka and Rome. But the never-ending lifestyle was too much.

By age 30, the need to write a novel returned, from which came the bestseller The Imperfectionists. Fast forward two years, and Rachman has found another success. (Read The Boston Globe review; read the Globe and Mail review.)

Rachman spoke with Arts & Science writer Jessica Lewis about the new novel and his U of T experience.

Give us a briefing — what’s your new novel about?
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers begins in a dusty bookshop. What follows is an abduction, heated political debate, glimpses into strangers’ homes and travel around the globe. In childhood, Tooly Zylberberg was spirited away from home and raised around Asia, Europe and North America by a group of peculiar adults. They taught her, fed her — and then disappeared. And she has never understood why. Years later, a message reaches her at the bookstore she runs in the Welsh countryside, prompting Tooly — a lifelong reader of stories — to piece together the story of her own life.

Do you draw inspiration from your surroundings or experiences? If so, how?
The danger for a writer is that you find a peaceful study and disappear into it for 60 years, writing book after book about your early past, with scant exposure to the shifting world outside. I’m fascinated by life today, and want to remain alert to its changes; I aim to keep traveling, to keep reading, to meet new people, in order that my life, and my fiction, be constantly enriched.

What was your experience at U of T like? What were some defining moments?
I count those years among my happiest. Suddenly, I was free of the restrictions of high school, suddenly able to choose from this stunning course syllabus, able to surround myself with whom I wished, not merely those who’d been assigned to my class. It was formative, and I tried to capture a little of that vibrant, sometimes silly, always intense, university period in the scenes in my new novel set among a group of students.

How did your U of T experience contribute to where you are now?
The most obvious contribution was in leading me to fiction. I did cinema studies at U of T, and had grown up intending to be filmmaker. But while in Toronto, I fell for literature, talking about books with fellow students and even trying my hand at short stories for the first time. It wasn’t one particular course (though many were superb) that set my path, so much as the creative ferment I discovered among my wonderfully open and bright fellow students.

What have you learned from your journalism experience?
How to take notes, observe telling details, conduct an interview, research settings, structure a story. Perhaps what serves me most is the awareness of readers — that writing mustn’t be just you pontificating, but that you must strive to capture your readers, to merit their attention, to hold it.

Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Read the greats, of course, take notes on what you see and think, and write lots — ready to fail but not condemning yourself for it. Also, pursue all interests. If you focus too much on writing alone, you risk breathing in the air you’re exhaling. All experiences — even (especially) the hardest ones — will help you write more insightfully. Finally, revise until exhaustion. Good writing becomes that way because the writer has laboured. Your joy may come in the instants of creation. But the readers’ joy derives from your dedicated toil.

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