Why Tom Rachman wanted to explore the art world in his latest novel

The author of The Italian Teacher openly discusses longstanding myths about the arts.
Tom Rachman's latest novel is The Italian Teacher. (Penguin Random House)
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Ego is wedded to art in Tom Rachman's latest novel. The Italian Teacher paints a full colour portrait of a self-absorbed artist, Bear, his artist wife, Natalie, and his son, Pinch, who desperately wants his father's attention. Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, was an international bestseller that went on to be published in 25 languages.

Questioning creative licence

"We've lived for a few centuries with the understanding that artistic creative people are almost a separate breed and they should be allowed separate rules. I wrote The Italian Teacher to look at the many tales of ghastly behaviour and the damage it wreaked on those around the great artists. Around the time of publication, we had so many tales of the most appalling behaviour in the arts. The real world ended up catching up with the questions I had been asking myself about creativity and creative people."

Struggling to change with the times

"A fun part of this book was to set it over a long period of time. It's the single life story of this young man, Pinch, from childhood to old age. I set it in the period that I did — beginning in the 1950s and moving up to the present — because this period had been full of change, revolution and counter-revolution in the art world. Bear begins as a representative hero of this abstract expressionist movement and within a decade he is wondering whether there is a place for him anymore. These decades were extraordinary in the speed of their change."

Recognising talent

"We tend to believe that in the long run, there is a sifting process in art — as time goes on, the greats rise above. I frankly don't believe this. I feel like there are so many stages that will gain somebody access to greatness in the arts; for many people, they're just blocked from the outset. In Natalie's case, she has so many things going against her. She's a woman at a time when the myth of the artist was very male and she's a ceramic artist. I chose that because that illustrates the absurdity of the rules of status in the arts. Natalie has the curse of not having the personality that is expected of an artist, despite the fact that she is supremely talented herself."

Tom Rachman's comments have been edited and condensed