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Tom Rachman's 'Great Powers'

In 2010, Tom Rachman did the impossible: He made the lives of newspaper employees appear interesting. More than that, he got other people, lots of them, to care about the fate of journalists whose careers were speeding toward obsolescence.

Set at an English-language newspaper in Rome, Rachman's first novel, "The Imperfectionists," became a global bestseller, with publishers translating the book into 25 languages, Brad Pitt buying the film rights, and novelist Christopher Buckley raving in the New York Times that "I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high."

Of course, the success of "The Imperfectionists" had less to do with its setting than it did with Rachman's precise writing, far-reaching empathy and confident storytelling. The assuredness that appears between the book's covers, however, belies the self-doubt and anxiety Rachman says he experienced during the writing process. To devote himself to the novel full-time, the British-Canadian Rachman quit his job as an Associated Press reporter in Rome and moved to Paris, where he produced early drafts he describes as "horror shows."

"I had a lot at stake," Rachman says during a phone call from his home in London. "I was sinking all my savings into it. More important than savings, much more important, it was my life's hope. My fear was, 'If this doesn't work, then what do I do? Because I'm not going to kid myself if I'm no good at this. I'll have to figure out something else.' To do so would have meant many, many years of my life invested on a sort of hopeless excursion. Which I would have accepted if I had to, but it would have been tough."

Rachman felt far less apprehensive while writing his follow-up novel, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," published this week. He'll discuss it Monday, June 16, at Books and Books in Coral Gables.

"This time around, I had an added confidence, because I knew that people had liked the first book, and I had already sold the second book. I knew that it was going to be published, and I knew that people would read it," he says. "That was an added sense of confidence that really helped for those moments when you're looking aghast at this horrendous early draft and thinking, 'What am I doing? Maybe I'm completely incompetent and should never have been doing this in the first place.' And then, you say, 'Hang on — I did go through this before. I did end up getting a book published, and some people liked it. If I just stopped evaluating myself based on unfinished work and just keep trying to improve it, maybe eventually I'll get there.' And that's how it worked."

Where each chapter of "The Imperfectionists" focuses on a different character, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers" centers on one person, Matilda "Tooly" Zylberberg, a young American bookseller who grew up moving from continent to continent in the company of people whose relationship to Tooly remains a mystery for much of the book. The novel shifts back and forth in time, as Rachman braids numerous themes — the meaning of identity, the definition of family, globalism, nationalism, love of literature and the reach of the Internet, among them — to tell a story that, despite its offbeat structure and eccentric characters, is every bit as recognizable as the one found in "The Imperfectionists."

"One of the things that I was interested in in this book, as the title sort of hints at, is contrasting the big, sweeping movements of history and of our own times with the intimate, personal stories of people in them," Rachman says. "That's also something that I was drawn to do in 'The Imperfectionists,' with these people who were, in their book, at the front lines of the events of the day, these headlines rushing past. But really, what they were rushing to was their personal stories at home, outside of the office. And in this [new] book, I wanted to tell the story of the present day by talking about the past quarter century, but to do so through the story of one hopefully interesting, unusual experience in one life, and one slightly mysterious story. I wanted to tell the story of an extraordinary life, but also to tell the story of the times."

Tom Rachman will appear 8 p.m. Monday, June 16, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Call 305- 442-4408 or go to or @jakeflorida

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