What Reading A Gentleman in Moscow Taught Me About Writing

Here are 4 things reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles through the lens of a writer can teach writers about writing.
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Here are 4 things reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles through the lens of a writer can teach writers about writing.

As I was preparing to interview Amor Towles for the November/December 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest, I set my first task as re-reading A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s a book I truly love and can’t stop recommending to others to read (I used to work at Borders Books—once a bookseller, always a bookseller!).

This time reading the book I was reading it with the goal of creating questions to ask the author, but because it was a close, second reading, I also started making observations about what readers of WD—that is, writers—could learn about writing from reading the book. While reading the book for the sheer joy of it is a valuable experience on its own, there’s added depth for writers looking to improve their writing.

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Before I share the 4 things I learned about writing by reading A Gentleman in Moscow, a brief synopsis of the book would be of value for those of you who haven’t read it yet. (You haven’t read it yet!? Stop reading now, put everything else down and grab a copy of the book. You won’t regret it!)

Beginning in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced, by a Bolshevik tribunal, to spend the rest of his life confined to the Metropol hotel in Moscow, seemingly for writing a poem against the state. For a man used to being able to travel and enjoy all that life has to offer a man of his social standing, being confined to one hotel (albeit a grand hotel with several restaurants, a flower shop, a barber shop, and more) isn’t exactly a life one would choose. By the end of the book, several decades have passed and somehow the Count has made an extraordinary life for himself. What other option was there? And it’s that extraordinary life he created that brings us to the 4 things I learned about writing from reading this novel.

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*Note: I’ll try not to spoil anything but seriously, grab a copy of the book and read it, just in case. You’ve been warned…

  1. Regarding Setting

The setting of your book can actually be just one building, and still contain multitudes. You just have to choose the right building. It wouldn’t be enough to pick a Holiday Inn or an office building in an office park in Ohio, but find a multipurpose facility where people come and go with great frequency for all manner of activities and you’re on your way.

In the early parts of AGIM, a bored young girl befriends Rostov and, because she’s an adventurer, shows him the secret inner workings of the hotel. Specifically she shares the parts he never knew existed as a guest because in true grand hotel form, things just happened (Fresh sheets! Heat! Dining delicacies delivered to one’s room!). She introduces him to the version of the hotel that allows him to shift from viewing it as a prison, to a place he can call home, a home that contains his whole world. Which brings us to number 2…

  1. Regarding Details

In a book where the character’s whole world is contained in one building, details make all the difference. Think about it: if you’re stuck in the same place even for a few hours, you start to notice the little things. How many tiles are in the ceiling. How your friend touches her hair every time she says something that she isn’t 100 percent confident in. How the books are arranged, or not, on the shelves. If the picture is tilted slightly to the left. If you’re writing about a character who feels stuck in life, bored, or confined, all these details matter to convey those negative feelings. That’s nothing new.

In AGIM, Towles takes a different approach, though. He uses the details of the mundane things to convey the depth of experience and joy Count Rostov has learned to find in his restricted life. For a character who isn’t allowed to leave to get fresh baked bread, making coffee can be a gloriously satisfying experience. The routine of making it, the aroma as it brews, the steam as the coffee is poured, the first hot sip as one reads the morning paper. In most novels, you likely wouldn’t be able to get away with writing about making a cup of coffee for two full pages, but if there’s a reason why making coffee is a highlight of your character’s day, you can make it work.

  1. Regarding Characters

It’s tempting to want to give your characters the world. To let them take trips to faraway places so you might be able to write-off a “research trip” on your taxes. To let them have experiences you wish you could have. But consider the idea that you might learn more about your characters and you might create more complex characters if you restrict them somehow.

Alexander Rostov is restricted to an extreme degree—decades spent in one building with the threat of death if he steps foot outside, as we’ve noted. How would your character be able to create and maintain relationships when everyone he encounters can go home at the end of the day, or go to the ballet, or get on a train and leave? Would he try to add variety in his day by taking the stairs today and the elevator tomorrow, or would he create a routine that helps him pass the time? How would he find purpose in each day to make his life mean something? Even if your own novel ultimately doesn’t confine your character to such a degree as this, perhaps it would be a good writing exercise to try out so you can see the limits of what your character can take.

  1. Regarding Time Period and Stereotypes

The first time I picked up this novel, it was because of the description that featured phrases like “Bolshevik Tribunal,” “Kremlin,” “tumultuous decades in Russian history,” “sentenced to house arrest.” I’m a sucker for novels that take place in early 20th century Europe and Russia in which the characters are fighting back against repressive or dictatorial governments. The first half of the 20th century was a raucous, unstable time period, and that’s what’s often depicted in books about that time with fast-paced mysteries and thrillers where characters are violently interrogated and make daring escapes. Spies! Death threats! Espionage! Revolution!

Those tropes sell very well at bookstores, but that also could mean a saturated market when trying to find an agent or publisher. So if you want to write about something the Russian Revolution or Europe during World War II, consider taking the approach done in A Gentleman in Moscow. Break the stereotypes of the time period by looking at things through a different lens. When I recommend the book to people I often start with the basics like “It’s about a man in the Russian Revolution sentenced to house arrest." But when I tell people, “but he never leaves the hotel” and you can see the surprise on their faces: It’s not a book about running through the streets and escaping the government spies by hiding in dark alleys? I was as surprised as they were when I read the book, and that’s what I attribute my love of the book to—it surprised and delighted me in ways I didn’t know I wanted. Find the hidden gem of a story that entices readers who love your genre to pick up the book but then confounds their expectations as they turn the pages.

It’s often said that you should read more to write better and if you’re looking for a book that will make you think a little more about the things that matter in life while keeping you entertained and perhaps improve your writing, once again I encourage you to (say it with me this time) pick up a copy of A Gentleman in Moscow and give it a read or two.

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