The Backstory: Tom Rachman

The setting of Tom Rachman’s “President for Life” fels uncannily familiar—an unnamed country where “when the wealthy meet a human obstacle, they reach for their wallets” and where the government has deemed the pandemic “a question of balls not lungs.”

Rachman, a former international editor for the AP turned fiction writer and author of the acclaimed novel The Imperfectionists, has long been drawn to creating fiction about our current world. “One of the things that struck me was that we’re all experiencing the same pandemic, the same virus, the same nightmare,” he says in our Backstory interview. “But the lived experience is profoundly different . . . Whether you were abroad, whether you were in an affair, whether you were breaking up with a spouse, whether you had kids.”

In Rachman’s version of the nightmare, we have a lonely, bitter adult daughter stuck back at home with her equally domineering dad. There’s sexting . . . kind of. A lot of waiting and anxiety. Too much news and TV. And the kind of impossible decisions that the pandemic has made commonplace.

Does not sound like a fun quarantine. But it does make for an incredibly entertaining story about now.

Below, Rachman discusses how the story came to be, what the pandemic has taught us about government, and the intersection between journalism and fiction.

Tom Rachman

Interviewed by Tyler Cabot. July 21, 2020. London, England

Chronicles of Now: What was the genesis of “President For Life”?

Tom Rachman: I was just hearing all these stories about lockdown and one of the things that struck me was that we’re all experiencing the same pandemic, the same virus, the same nightmare. But the lived experience is profoundly different depending on the way and moment in which it caught you. Whether you were abroad, whether you were in an affair, whether you were breaking up with a spouse, whether you had kids, whether you didn’t have kids, and much of the time I was reading these articles about people saying things like, What You Can Do to Fill Your Time, or How to Bank, and How to Learn New Things.

I was with a young family, desperate just to get about four hours sleep at night. The idea of doing anything but that put a cross through this notion that this lockdown was a unifier. The virus was a unifier, but it was a differentiator at the same time. 

Among the completely different stories that I was hearing was one about somebody who went back to see a parent, an aging parent, and ended up getting roped into staying there. I didn’t hear many more details about the story, but it seeded in my mind the idea for this one—somebody who has escaped the orbit of a very powerful figure in her life and then comes back one last time and circumstances contrive to keep her there.

One of my big regrets about contemporary fiction is that not a lot of it is really rooted in the world that we’re in.

CON: Drima is an incredibly distinct character. Where did she come from?

TR: Well, the name came from my four-year-old son who is always for some reason coming up with strange names of people, and I keep a little list of them because they’re always kind of amusing and weird and original. And this one, originally it was Dreamin Bolish, I wrote that down thinking someday it would go into a story. 

What I wanted was a character who had an unidentifiable, international sounding, or foreign sounding name because I wanted to set the thing in an unidentified, complicated, and troubled country. 

But her personality? I think that that character in particular, it’s hard to know exactly how any aspect of a story generates. I start off with an idea, something that intrigues me, and then I drop something into it, and it sort of begins to affect the story and the story begins to affect the character. At the end of it, by the time you’re revising, you don’t quite know exactly how it got there. But yeah, she feels very clearly defined and strong to me. 

CON: Was her relationship with her father coming from that anecdote you heard or is that a relationship you’ve seen elsewhere? 

TR: I think a bit of both. The idea originated from the story that I’d heard. But I’ve also encountered many cases where people are in some way defined by a very powerful parent, either by trying to defy and avoid that influence or by trying to live up to it in some way. And I think that she encapsulates both in different ways. Part of her has been entirely formed by the influence of this person who she’s also spent a large part of her life trying to escape. 

CON: The title, “President for Life.” I can’t help but think about my current president who some fear will refuse to leave office.

TR: It wasn’t a reference to Trump. It was the idea, a culmination of a few things. Part of it was the idea of a parent who is so dominant and imposing and controlling that they are kind of like that President for Life, the dictatorial, tyrannical person who is going to be there until the very day that they die. In a way, a very despondent parent is just that, they are there for life. 

And then separately I wanted to touch on how the madness of this whole period is unparalleled in my lifetime and maybe ever. A case where you almost have a metric of bad government. Where you can look around—and I know that it’s an imperfect calculation for many reasons, population density and what not—but you can look at certain countries of roughly equal size and see the ones with horrendous outbreaks and horrendous results and terrible tragically high death tolls and others who’ve managed it well. And it seems to correlate pretty directly to the competency of the government. We’re in a period that feels like it should really be about health, but it’s also about governance and the nightmarish mess that so many countries, including yours and mine, have gotten themselves into with inappropriate charlatans taking control. 

CON: So your line, “the government here was among those to deem this virus a question of balls not lungs”—was that at the U.S. or the U.K. or both? 

TR: Both but also Brazil and plenty of others. I think that there’s a different variety of British machismo, because it’s not of the kind that you would expect; it’s not the kind of flexing your muscles. It’s more of the zip-up-our-lip variety. But there’s a kind of old-fashioned lunkheaded machoness to that as well. It’s this idea that we’re just exceptionally tough; it’s kind of British exceptionalism. Oddly, a microscopic virus fails to recognize the grandeur of the British empire.

It should matter to everyone in the world what’s going on in the U.S. because we don’t have a vote, but your votes affect us.

CON: What has the sense been there of what’s going on in the U.S.? Do people talk about it? 

TR: It’s impossible not to look in horror at what’s going on in America, and this seems like the culmination of all of these years of dangerous ineptitude and corruption that have ridden the government there and it’s awful and frightening to see. All of this feels like it’s happened, this collapse, has happened so quickly. It feels really like the America that I grew up watching and, in so many ways, admiring and respecting, has fallen to by far its lowest point in my lifetime, one in which there is less to admire and much to worry about because no matter what one thinks of the country, what one thinks of the leaders, it’s a place with such import and potential sway that it matters to everyone. It should matter to everyone in the world what’s going on in the U.S. because we don’t have a vote, but your votes affect us. They affect whether the WHO is going to continue and whether coalitions to deal with violent dictators are tackled or not. From afar it seems like the chaos in the states is so extreme and frightening that I imagine it’s easy for Americans not be that aware of what’s going on elsewhere, which is always a bit of a risk for such a powerful nation. But I can tell you that it feels awful to be here as well. This is a country that is plummeting really badly. It’s got different problems and it doesn’t have somebody quite as repugnant as Trump, but it does have a group of people who are totally incompetent who are running the country into the ground. Plus, we’ve got a bankrupting Brexit that is around the corner and is totally senseless. And they’re hurtling toward it despite the fact that the country is in worse economic shape because of Covid than any other country in the developed world by some counts. 

CON: Do you like writing about the now? 

TR: Yeah, I love it. I love it. One of my big regrets about contemporary fiction is that not as much of it as I would like is really rooted in the world that we’re in. I set out wanting to become a writer in a sense of doing fiction and nonfiction. And fiction was always my dearest love, but having come up through journalism I was very connected to what was going on in the world and very interested in that. And it feels like such extraordinarily rich material always. And tricky, too, because you don’t want to write something that feels outdated. However, so much fiction was just purely psychological and small rooms with unhappy people, which would describe a lot of the things that I’ve written, so I kind of criticize that trend. But I also am excited by reading fiction that feels really current, contemporary, and connected to what is going on rather than timeless in a way that I fear could make it more marginal than it is.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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