A conversation with Amor Towles on writing, success, and what's next

Chris Schluep on January 28, 2020

Amor.jpgAmor Towles first came to Amazon at the end of 2011, when his debut novel The Rules of Civility was published. When I interviewed him back then, I remember being surprised that he still had a day job. He had such an authorial presence, even that early, that I couldn't imagine he didn't write full-time. Well, Amor Towles is writing full-time now, and the most recent result is 2016's A Gentleman in Moscow, which turned out to be one of the biggest books of the decade.

Towles recently came to Seattle to do a talk at Seattle Arts & Lectures, so I took the opportunity to meet up with him for coffee and a chat. Here is part of our conversation:

Chris Schluep: So you got your MFA but you started out in finance?

Amor Towles: I got an MA. It's a small distinction, but for me an important one because—having written since I was a kid—I have learned more from reading closely than I have from workshop environments.

When I went to Stanford to get my master’s, I was one of the Stegner Fellow workshop guys. But my deal was that I also got to get a Master’s in Literature by doing coursework with the graduate school in criticism. Studying Walt Whitman and Italo Calvino and that kind of stuff. So I was doing both, but for me—and it’s not a crack against the workshop environment, or my fellow writers—it's just that I learned so much more just from, you know, reading six books of Joseph Conrad and thinking about them and talking about them.

So I got an MA at Stanford and moved to New York to write fiction. I began writing fiction in an East Village walk-up. I was 25, and I was a little… I wasn't prepared to be in my apartment by myself all day at that age. And then my father was like, how are you gonna make money? So, I’d made a friend and he'd started an investment firm by himself, and I joined him. And 21 years later we were still side-by-side. I was his first employee, and at the end there were over 110 people there. So it was great fun, and very satisfying, but for the first ten years in the firm I stopped writing fiction.

You stopped?

Yeah, you know, you've been in that kind of environment: you're trying to perfect your craft, you’re trying to recruit, you’re trying to get clients, you're trying to build out systems. All that kind of stuff. We were entrepreneurs. So I stopped writing fiction. But when I did that, I was sort of like, if I don't come back to it and write a book that I care about by the time I'm 50, I will probably end up bitter and a drinker. I’d be driving the car right off a cliff. So after not writing fiction for 10 years—and I had begun writing fiction at around the age of eleven, kind of as soon as I started reading—for me, writing and reading went in lockstep. Read something new, write something new. Oh, sci-fi! Write some sci-fi. Oh, mystery! Write a mystery. So after ten years in the firm not writing fiction, I said I’ve got to do something. So I wrote a book.

Was it Rules of Civility?

No. I spent seven years on it, and at the end of the book I didn’t like it. So I set it aside, and retooled, as it were—I tried to learn from that experience and determine what worked well and what didn't. I'd written a lot of fiction but I’d never written a novel. And the novel is different than the short story in profound ways. So it was an educational experience. I took everything I learned from that, set out to write something new, and Rules of Civility was the product of that. And then when that did well and became a best-seller, that's when I turned to my partners and said, I think I'm going to step down and write full-time.

What was that experience like? Because I remember we did see each other out in Seattle. So you toured—and that's pretty unusual for a first time author, right?

The way it works in the publishing arena, and you witnessed this firsthand, is that if a book is being well-received, they are prepared to send you anywhere. If the book is not being well-received then they don't want to send you, and if you're invited you probably shouldn’t go.

Because there will be four people there.

Exactly right. And as a wise editor once said to me, it's not really like they're worried about wasting the money to send you to a reading with four people. The problem is that it's dispiriting to everybody involved. The fans look around and say maybe this guy isn't as good as I thought. The bookstore thinks that. And the author thinks that. So stay home.

But if the book is being well-received it’s the opposite, which is that you're asked to go more places, and they're prepared to send you more places than you can handle. They’d love you to go to every city in America at that point. So yeah, for Rules of Civility I ended up on the road for a year. Now, I had the job then. It just so happened that my job required me to be on the road, because I was meeting with clients and prospects around the country. So I kind of said to Viking, line it up: I'm going to be in Denver; I’m going to be in Chicago; I'm going to be in LA; I’m going to be in San Francisco; I’m going to be in Seattle. And so I would take meetings from 9:00 to 5:00 in Seattle, let's say, and then I would do a reading at night. That was kind of my life, and that’s part of the reason I retired.

Yeah, you were dressed differently back then.

It's true. It's true.

Was the first book along the same lines of Rules of Civility?

No, the first book was a saga. It was set in Russia. So, clearly that’s an old obsession of mine. No material from that book was in Gentleman in Moscow. It’s a rural story. So yeah, it was a completely different thing. But having a job, kids, one of the things that I learned from that project was—because I was only getting a chance to write for a couple hours on the weekends—I really needed to know where I was the minute I sat down to work. And the book that didn't work was told from six points of view and spanned a significant amount of time—so I was constantly trying to remember, wait, where am I? So Rules of Civility… it's a year in a life, partly for that reason. Because I was like, okay, it's told from one perspective, it's her voice, it’s one year. That way I could always kind of know where I was.

With A Gentleman in Moscow I was writing full-time, so the idea of writing a 30-year book was less intimidating. 

So with A Gentleman in Moscow, what was your first thought on that? Did you imagine him? A hotel?

It was a hotel. And it’s because I would travel for the firm. I was arriving at a hotel in Geneva, which I had gone to every year for eight years, and I recognized people in the lobby from the year before. So, literally, I went to my room that night, and I thought that's an interesting idea for a book: someone who's in a hotel for a long period of time. What tends to happen with me—and this is true in the case of Rules of Civility, too—is that I'll have a notion that interests me, and in both cases, I wrote the key elements of the book in the first 72 hours. So let’s say eight pieces of paper, handwritten, rapid sketch of it's going to be a Russian count, it's going to be 30 years, it's going to start in the early 1920s. He's going to become a waiter. He's going to meet a young girl. There’s going to be an actress. It comes very fast. And then I sit on that, and dwell on it, and I basically build an outline from that initial scaffold. And that takes me about a year to two years, where I just start thinking through every element: the settings, the scenes, the individuals, the events. And so by the time I write chapter one, I have most of the book sketched out.

So you don’t write chapter one until a year into it?

Definitely not. And in some cases, like the book I'm writing now, which hopefully will be a 2021 release—I’ll hopefully finish it next spring. I’ll finish the first draft soon. I had the idea for that book maybe eight years ago, and I have a notebook for that idea. And over time I add to it. So by the time I sat down to write that book at the beginning of this year, I had a lot of detailed material, having dwelled on it for a long time. So, yeah, I kind of work that way.

Why do you think Gentleman resonated so much?

Yeah, and you're right, you know Rules of Civility was a best seller, but Gentleman in Moscow was received kind of a magnitude above Rules of Civility, for which I'm greatly appreciative.

The reason why, I think, is that the book is very humane at the end of the day. And it concerns itself with an individual, but it's very focused on the relationships that individual develops over time. And it focuses on sort of the everyday aspects of a challenging life. And whether its food, or music, or reading, companionship, fatherhood—the book has the benefit of the spanning 30 years, so you get to see those aspects of everyday life evolve for the individual. He evolves, the world around him evolves, the relationships evolve. I think the nature of that is it allows very different people to enter the book and to be in harmony with the book’s story in some way.

And, as you know, a major factor in the success of a novel from a literary fiction arena is does somebody hand it to somebody else? Do you finish it and say to yourself, oh, I want to share this with somebody. And that's a very powerful force in literary fiction. Sometimes that can can be powerful but narrow—which is it's a 17-year-old kid who finishes the sci-fi book, and he can't wait to tell another 17-year-old boy all about it. But in the case of Gentleman in Moscow, what we saw happening was mothers gave it to sons, and husbands read it out loud to wives, and gave it to parents who were in the hospital. And because of that sort of sprawling inter-connectivity of the humanity of it, you could kind of pass it in different directions and talk about it. Share the experience. I think that's what it is. I but I don't know for sure.

For me, it was about connectivity. But it wasn’t about the kind that we have now—social media and all that. It slowed you down, and made you realize that people are people and that they can have these slow relationships. And so I felt it was the perfect book for its time in a way.

(laughing) As sort of an antidote.

Did you think of the book that way when you were writing it?

I definitely did not. Certainly I’ve written two books… you know Rules of Civility at this point is 80 years ago. A Gentleman in Moscow opens up 90 years ago. So I am drawn to another era, and I'm very interested in the advantages and disadvantages of another era. But certainly those aspects are appealing to me—of the 20s, the 30s. That sort of slower pace. Or a 19th century viewpoint, which is really what the Count has. He's raised in the 19th century. He's slower, you know. But maybe it was, on a subconscious level, in response to the times. Because I do find Twitter, as an example, vexing.

The way I've come to think about it is, if you look at hundreds and hundreds of years in Western culture—people, artists, thinkers—it would be very time consuming to craft a bit of art or intelligence, for a historian to write a book, or a philosopher, or novelist, or someone to write a symphony. It took a lot of time. And it took a lot of time to consume it. You have to sit down and listen to it, or read it, or take it in. And we were enriched by that process. We've moved on to this world where things are coming faster, with greater volume, with greater frequency, and with a shallower delivery. Whether it's a 24-hour news cycle or it's Twitter. And I think what happens is when you go from this deep slow thing, and you move towards shallower greater frequency—at a certain point you go from the thing nourishing you to consuming you, right? And I feel like Twitter consumes us, it doesn't nourish us. And so I think it is true that an aspect of Gentleman in Moscow is a celebration of that other type of intake of art, culture, and relationships. And I think that people did find some respite by retreating into that.

There was some point where I was reading it—and I had a number of different responses to the book—but one of them was one that I don't normally have: and that was relief. The thought that, you know, this is great. Wow, this is taking me out of my world and to a place where I'm not expected to react to every little thing immediately.

It’s just trying to invite you into its environment and keep you there.

So you basically became a publishing phenomenon. You reached a level that most writers don't reach.

Yeah, with great gratitude.

You did it on the second book. So does that add to the pressure, or take away from it?

I think I would feel much more pressure if I was 28. You know what I mean? I'm 55. I'll speak here tonight in Seattle, then I will speak in Portland in two nights, and then I go home to two teenagers. The greatest leveler of all time is to have two teenagers in the house. They constantly are keeping you humble. They don’t let you take yourself too seriously. So I’ve got that. I‘ve got a whole life that I have to attend to. And so for me writing fiction is a blissful experience. I enjoy getting lost in it, crafting it, letting my imagination take over, and that's what I'm primarily thinking about when I sit down and write a book. It's that experience of the creative process that I enjoy, with my door closed, and I don't think too much about how it's going to be received or what it’s going to do. So as a result of that, I certainly don't look at the next book and say, I’ve got to beat A Gentleman in Moscow. The next book is so different in terms of what it's about, and who it's going to appeal to, and what it sounds like; and I like to do that. I like each book to sound very different, to be different. So it's hard to even make comparisons.

Are you talking about what you are writing?

A little bit. My new novel, which you know, as I say, I hope to finish the first draft in January, is about three 18-year-old boys and an eight-year-old boy on their way from Nebraska to New York City in 1954. And the whole book is only ten days. And so each of those elements is very different from Gentleman in Moscow. The shortness of the of the time span. The 18-year-old-ness of the main characters. So they will not be civil, sophisticated, cultured. But that's part of what draws me to telling that story—it requires a whole different type of storytelling skills. And that's what's fun for me, is to try on that different challenge.

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