In this exclusive cut of the Writer's Digest Interview with novelist Amor Towles, he talks about his book club, promoting novels for an extended period of time while trying to write the next thing, and his upcoming works-in-progress. Read the full WD Interview in the November/December 2019 issue of Writer's Digest.
Literary sensation Amor Towles didn’t one day decide to quit his job in the financial sector to try his hand at novel writing. Quite the opposite, really. He began writing when he was a child and followed that passion to Yale where he studied under visiting professor, novelist Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen encouraged Towles, who realized, “What I've imagined could come true. My dream of being a writer is not just me being crazy. My sense that I could do this well, is not crazy.”
Following his time at Yale, Towles then received a writing fellowship at Stanford where he worked closely with novelist, poet, and literary critic, Gilbert Sorrentino.
But from there, his career path took a hard left turn as he joined a friend who started an investment firm. Towles kept Matthiessen’s dismay in the back of his mind, recalling him saying, “I personally spent time with you, hopefully mentoring you towards becoming a writer, and so it's a personal disappointment." Towles’s fear was “that I would fail to return to fiction.”
Neither Towles nor Matthiessen needn’t have worried. Towles did return to fiction after 10 years, writing two international bestsellers: Rules of Civility (2011) about a single, midwestern woman making her way in New York City in the 1930s, and A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) about Count Alexander Rostov sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest inside the Metropole Hotel in Soviet Russia. These novels are marked by elegant prose, richly drawn descriptions, and layered characters who experience life deeply.
In this exclusive online excerpt from the interview, Towles discusses his book club, promoting his novels, and what he's working on next.
I wanted to ask you about your book club. When I was doing research for this interview, I found your book club to be quite fascinating. I wish I could find something like that! So the question is: how did you find the right people for that group who would actually take it seriously? And how do you think the study of those works has shown up in your writing?
That book group was formed … what ended up happening is I was about to turn 40 and I was frustrated with some of the contemporary fiction I had been reading. I read a book by Harold Bloom talking about the books that really shaped his life and that gave him wisdom specifically. And I was not feeling that the books that I'd been reading were going to do that in any material way. So I was talking to a friend at a cocktail party and saying that I decided that I was going to really take a break from contemporary fiction and reading it and focus on reading proven works of literature, on a thematic basis. In essence, going back to being a student and targeting reading books that I knew that would be fulfilling and interesting if I read them at the age of 20, 40, 60, and 80. Books that merited the return of my attention—close attention—time and again. So when I said that, she said, “Well, what are you going to start with?” And I said, “I'm going to start with Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, seven volumes of it.” Then she was like, "I want to do this. I'm totally sympathetic to what you're trying to do and I want to do with you."
So it was the two of us and we decided it would be small. It would be four people: two men, two women. We were all kind of committed or married to other people at the time, but our spouses were not involved. I was the only person who knew all three of them, so they did not know each other, but we were all seasoned readers. Several people, three out of four, had a degree in literature of one form or another. We were all seasoned readers and serious readers and they all kind of felt similar.
We spent a year plus reading Proust, but that was now 15 years ago. So we'd been together reading for 15 years. We meet on a monthly basis to talk about usually a single book and we do “projects.” So the projects can be—a year ago we read seven novels of Philip Roth in a row. We mostly read dead people. Occasionally we've read living authors—Toni Morrison and Philip Roth being two of the only exceptions. We've done extended reading on the American Renaissance period: Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau, Melville, and it went from that to reading a bunch of Twain's novels, five Twain novels and six Faulkner novels and over the course of the year really doing an examination of the American voice, as it were.
One of my favorite projects was, we read back-to-back Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, James's Portrait of a Lady and George Eliot's Middlemarch. We called it "19th century wives under pressure." Four different countries really, four writers from four different countries, stories set in four different countries, but all written within about a 50-year time frame of each other, and so very much in sympathy in terms of looking at how was the role of women changing society, how was the role of the church changing in society, how's the role of commerce [changing], and the rise of the middle class, the end of the aristocracy. And all of these themes are in all four of those books, even though one is in France, one is in Russia, one is in England, and one is in Italy, largely set in Italy, an American writing about American in Italy. So, we would do things like that.
Going to your other part of the question, that's been a great experience, no question about it. We found a lot of new things, and some of what we read is stuff that we've revisited. So we did reread the Russians, we read maybe eight Russian novels in a row and then short stories. That was a great year. And some of those books we had read before, some we had not.
We went out and we read a bunch of Nobel prize winners where we'd never read a word of theirs and we read Mahfouz, the first person to win the Nobel prize in Arabic, and it was an amazing thing to read. His Cairo trilogy—it’s an incredible body of work. We recently just finished the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Four very long detailed novels about the end of the British Empire in India set around the time of the Second World War. None of us had read that and it was incredible reading experience, so has it been fulfilling? Absolutely. Personally for us, for our relationships it's fun.
It's very enriching for my writing and I should say that, I think like a lot of serious fiction writers, I began writing and reading at the exact same time. In first grade just as I was beginning to read, I decided I wanted to be a writer and I've written and read back and forth throughout my life, you know, read something, write something, read something, write something. So using what I read is a constant way of improving my own craft. That is absolutely what my life's been like. I studied literature at Yale, I studied literature at Stanford when I got my master's there, because I didn't get an MFA, I got a Master's in English. And the study of literature has very much been part of me refining my own sense of craft, what it means to make [a novel], write a novel, build a novel or whatever it is. So, yeah, absolutely, the book club has been very productive and healthy in terms of my own writing.
I want to take a hard left turn and ask about how you feel about promoting your work. In your scenario, you've been talking about A Gentleman in Moscow for something like three and a half years now, while you're also probably working on a new project and have moved on mentally. How do you deal with that?
Well, when Rules of Civility came out and then became a bestseller—thank you, readers, and booksellers, you know, who made that possible—my mindset was, if I'm going to spend four years writing a book I should be willing to spend one on the road helping it find its readers, you know?
And as a writer, to have the opportunity to be on the road for a year because there's enough interest of people who want to hear you come speak about the book, that's a luxury. Anybody would agree to that. And even though it's a little less fun, it's part of the job and I saw it as an important part of the job. I knew that if I wrote a book that was not well received, then there's no point in being on the road. You probably should go home and start on the next book. You know what I mean?
That's the nature of that. You can't push a work of fiction up hill, but if the book is being well received and there's an opportunity to help that book find its audience … I'm also not interested in selling a book of mine to somebody who wouldn't like it. I get that. It's not about ringing the cash register. It's that somewhere in San Francisco there are people who I think would really like this book, and so how do I help them find it? So I spend the time.
Now, what happened with A Gentleman in Moscow is that I kind of went into it with kind of the same notion as Rules of Civility. I'd presented on that book for the year and a half. I did a hundred times, you know, a hundred events—
—over the country. What ended up happening is that you know A Gentleman in Moscow was received even better and so I spent more like two years on the road, and then did more events in more states. I have friends in the field, I'm a friend of Ann Patchett's and she's like, “Amor, be very careful. You should be going home and writing your new book.” And she's right, of course. So I have to watch that, too. You don't want to spend your life talking about what you wrote two years ago. Part of what happened there too is the paperback got delayed. Which was great. I was all in favor of that, I was an advocate for that, but it meant that you were pushing out the amount of time you're going to have to spend because you're going to do another round, potentially, when the paperback is released.
You know, why are you interviewing me now? I don't know, maybe because the paperback came out in the spring? In theory we wouldn't be having this conversation but yes, you set aside some time, but it is a luxury. Of course that the book is doing better, the crowds are bigger, at certain point in time you get paid to come and so, I don't have a lot to complain about it. It's all a luxury in the grand scheme of writing to be in this position. It's true. Part of my mindset, and this would be different for different writers, I didn't get my first novel published until I was in my mid-forties. I look at someone like Colson Whitehead, who I have enormous respect for as a writer, as a person, and he's written eight novels or something like that. We're not that far off in age. Or you know, Ann, we're not that different in age, she's written all these books. They've been building their audiences, readers for 30 years. I'm new to the game, but I'm running out of time at the same time.
So that's all the more reason why with A Gentleman in Moscow being well received, it is a chance for me to make connection with readers where they'll go back and read Rules of Civility for instance, and may be more likely to read my next book, which may not be in their sweet spot. That's a part of it, you know? It's part of what you have to be prepared to do, I think.
Right, right. Well you did mention Ann Patchett's advice go home and write and you mentioned that the next book might not be what some people would expect from you. I saw in Publishers Marketplace that it was set to come out in 2020. Is that still the case and can you tell me a little bit about it?
2020 … I would say that's a long shot, but I haven't even talked about it with my publishers so I would say end of 2020 or sometime 2021 for sure. I'm just guessing, but I don't really know. I'm working on the first draft now. I would like to finish the first draft by the end of the year, and I still would have a lot of work ahead of me once that's done. I don't share my first draft with anybody, not even my wife. So I will finish, hopefully by the end of this year, around the end of this year. Then the process begins of thinking about readers and then how is it holding together and what are its strengths and weaknesses, what kind of work does it need? So I still have a lot of work ahead of me.
You know what? I like to think that A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility are very different as books. They are very different as books. And so this book will be very different, too. It'll be a book written by me. People who read my work will recognize that it's my work, but it will be different in tone and shape and pace and theme than the previous two.
You may choose not to answer this if you choose not to, that's fine. You attributed ideas, the spark of ideas, for your first two books to very specific things: a book of subway photos for Rules of Civility, and a business trip that you took to the European hotel where you saw the same people for A Gentleman in Moscow. I wondered, have you had the same spark of inspiration as the jumping off point for your next book?
Well, what I had in all three cases, it's a little different. In all three cases there's a premise, in essence, which I can describe in three sentences. That's where I started in each case, and then the three sentences was enough for me to say, “All right, I can see the whole thing.” Guy gets trapped in hotel for 30 years, add to that, maybe it's a Russian aristocrat [in] Soviet Russia—that's all I needed to know. So this is similar in that way. In two sentences I can tell you where my starting point was, where it all kind of falls from. Was it tied to a specific incident? Frankly, in this case, I don't remember. I don't remember when I had the notion of the starting point in this book ... but I know the notion. That's what I need, and I've been public about that. It's about three 18-year-old boys on their way from Nebraska to New York City in the early fifties. And that's as much as I'll say about it in public.
Okay. I have one last question for you. I saw in an interview you did with Celeste Ng for Politics and Prose—
Where are we talking to each other on stage?
Yeah, that was a delightful interview! You mentioned that you were writing or had written a science fiction short story for an upcoming anthology.
That's true. When I was on the road, I did a lot of short fiction and because I can't write a novel while I'm on the road, but I can write short fiction. I have a short story coming out in Granta in the August issue.
I have a science fiction story that is part of an anthology called Forward and it's going to be released by the Amazon Kindle publishing team. That anthology is edited by Blake Crouch whose Recursion was released this summer, a bestseller from the summer. [The anthology] includes Andy Weir who wrote The Martian and Paul Tremblay who wrote The Cabin at the End of the World. It's six of us and we've each written a story.
And then I have a piece that actually will be released as short fiction by Audible, but that'll be in this later this fall. So kind of a variety of things that will kind of trickle out the course of the next six months to a year.
That gives us something to look forward to!
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