How did the idea for The Rise & Fall of Great Powers come about?
Oddly, it came from a single image that popped into my head one day: a young child led into a room, and the door closing behind her. Two grown men sat there. They glanced up, saying nothing at first. Time passed, but nobody collected the child. What happened next? The novel grew from that.
How did you become a writer?
In my teens, I wanted to be a filmmaker. But while studying at the University of Toronto, I became increasingly drawn to fiction, and made attempts at writing short stories. They were awful. But I’d rarely felt as engaged with anything. I fantasized about writing a novel someday. However, the works that I most admired were packed with experiences that seemed far more vivid than any of mine. I resolved to do more before attempting to write more. Journalism was my route to experience. I studied it in New York with the aim of becoming a foreign correspondent, then worked as a journalist in several cities, before moving to Paris to write fiction. Various botched efforts followed before I produced The Imperfectionists, a novel-in-stories set at a struggling English-language newspaper in Rome. I now write full-time.
Did this new novel involve research? How long did it take to write?
I traveled to Thailand, Italy, New York and Wales to research the settings. I spent about three years writing and revising it, plus a year for the final edits. At that pace, it’s equivalent to completing a degree! I hope the book is richer for incorporating the efforts and ideas of several years.
Which writers have influenced you?
Many! But I’m probably affected most by those who affected me first: Dickens, whose works were read to me in childhood (and which are often cited in Rise & Fall); Orwell, whom I came to revere when I was a teenager; Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf and Bruce Chatwin, whom I discovered in university; Tolstoy, Austen, Chekhov, Mansfield, Damon Runyon, who have delighted me for years, along with numerous contemporary writers. A small sampling of books that I’ve particularly admired of late include Stoner by John Williams, The Blue Fox by Sjón, and Man with a Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford.
Your first novel touched on the decline of newspapers. In this book, you’ve turned to the world of books. Could you talk about that?
My hope is to tell intriguing stories about unusual lives. I’m fascinated by how the major issues of any era are often just a background to the intense dramas in any one person’s life. What newspapers and the world of books share is their direct collision with technology, resulting in some of the most abrupt transformations in cultural history. This makes for a fertile and unstable time, both to live in and to write about.
Could you explain the title?
Yes, check out this.