Swallowed By The Times And The Fate Of 'Great Powers'

Tom Rachman has written a book for book lovers in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. The best-selling novelist talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the difference between reading and literature.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What's a young American woman named Tooly - that's taken from Matilda - Zylberberg doing running a tumbledown bookshop in a Welsh village called - maybe the author can help us out here.

TOM RACHMAN: Caergenog.

SIMON: That's the author, Tom Rachman. Tooly, at a young age, is spirited away from home and raised by a curious collection of people around the world. So her unconventional story ranges through New York, Bangkok, Brooklyn, Lisbon, Chicago, Brussels, Australia and Seville before she even reaches Wales. The book is set in three distinct periods beginning in 2011, ending in 1988.

Tooly Zylberberg's suspenseful story unravels and winds back together, finally for us, in Tom Rachman's new novel, "The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers." Tom Rachman, whose first novel, "The Imperfectionists," was a huge international bestseller, joins us from the studios at the CBC in Vancouver. Thanks so much for being with us.

RACHMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand what puts her on the run, almost in installments, with a collection of characters.

RACHMAN: Well, she, as a child, is living this life from country to country. The reader doesn't entirely understand why, nor does Tooly, until she gets a message from someone who knew her in the old days and is drawn back into the story of her own past. So as a kid she was a big reader. She spent most of her childhood with her nose between the pages of one novel or another and then would sort of put it down and look around and realize with astonishment that there was a room and not these crazy characters that she'd been reading about. Until, all of a sudden, she encounters some characters quite like those she might have met in her books, and her life changes forever.

SIMON: Does Tooly find a kind of refuge in literature?

RACHMAN: Definitely. She's the - sort of bookworm, the sort of kid who discovers the world for the first time not by her own experience, but through words. And I think that people who grew up that way find that their vision of the world is strongly determined by the stories that they read. So their sense of whether to expect justice from the world or whether to be a cynic and all the sorts of attitudes that you take with you into grown-up life, are often formed by the stories that we learned.

SIMON: One of my favorite characters is a man who works in the bookshop with Tooly - Fogg, F-O-G-G, who, because she's an adult when you meet Fogg - let me see if I get this straight. It's in the early part of the book - not as you may think, in the later part of the book. And he has the habit of issuing sweeping pronouncements on everything. Where does this character come from?

RACHMAN: Well I'm fond of Fogg. He's a funny sort of guy. He's Tooly's assistant in the shop and he's lived his whole life in this small Welsh village, but he has this fantasy-life of himself as a guy who's worldly. And he loves to pick up the newspapers and read the news of the day and give, as you said, these great pronouncements on the world. And I suppose that I wanted a character like that, in part, because one of the interests for me in this book is this juxtaposition of the human - the personal, intimate and the big issues of the day.

And the way that through the course of life, we're living in a particular era with all sorts of mass events going on, but so often they're a backdrop to the personal stories that are really driving our life. And many people, including a character like Fogg, find themselves on the margins of the world, looking in and wondering quite what place they have in their own times.

SIMON: And so Tooly is the one who tells people you can't blame yourself for being swallowed by your times.

RACHMAN: Yeah, I think so. I think that that's the - one of the questions that weaves in and out of this book is how much you define yourself and how much, if at all, you're defined by your times.

SIMON: I closed your book, and I thought, you know, people are reading stuff all day these days. In fact, I daresay people are listening to us. A significant percentage of the audience is probably reading something too, on a screen device. But I closed your book and thought, there's a difference between reading and literature.

RACHMAN: Yeah, I think that literature holds a special place, I think, in our culture and one that is worth recognizing and thinking about in its particularities. My previous book was set in the world of news and struggling news media stories that many of us know about. And therefore, when I wrote one that begins in a bookshop, then I couldn't help but think about the contrast between those two. On the one hand, newspapers, on the other hand, books. Newspapers have always been a disposable and timely medium, and as a result when the Internet came along, it gobbled all of that up.

Books, however, have a different place. They aspire to longevity. They're not something that we just consume and then dump. My books I hold so dearly that they're the first thing I think about moving whenever I change city, and the first thing I want to set up when I arrive. Books are the same. The text you have never changes, but the person does - you change. So when you look back at your old books, it's sort of like finding a little record of yourself.

SIMON: Tom Rachman. His new novel, "The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers." Thanks so much for being with us.

RACHMAN: Thank you so much for having me on, Scott.

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