Navigating the Writer’s Life with Amor Towles
‘The Lincoln Highway’ Author Makes His Way to UCSB
The characters Amor Towles creates, from Count Alexander Rostov (living under grand-hotel-style house arrest in A Gentleman in Moscow) to Emmet and Billy Watson (orphaned brothers in The Lincoln Highway), are so vivid, so specific, and so downright enjoyable to spend time with that I would have sworn they were based on real people.
Turns out, I was wrong.
“All of my characters are invented; none of them in any of my books are based on individuals from life,” said Towles in our Zoom interview last week, before his appearance on February 2 as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series.
“Having written fiction since I was a kid, the invention of people becomes one of the central aspects of craft that you try to master. Because to write story after story after story, book after book, you’re populating them with a whole array of individuals who are representing the diversity of humanity. But for a work of fiction to succeed, the reader has to feel some vibrancy in those characters — that there’s three-dimensionality to them.”
He published his first book, Rules of Civility, in 2011 after working in investments for 20 years and writing diligently in his off hours. That first novel, set in Manhattan in the late 1930s, was every writer’s dream double-hitter out of the gate, earning both critical and commercial success as Towles transitioned to a full-time career as a storyteller.
Though the fabric of those stories are rich in the flavor of their eras (so far all, of his books have been set before he was born), Towles said his novels are firmly rooted in character rather than detailed historic research. Before writing the first chapter, he spends about five or six years thinking about a book, filling notebooks with events and character details about their backgrounds, personalities, tone of voice, emotional state, or psychological state. “But when we start to write the book is when those people really come to life.”
In March, he’ll see some of his characters come to life off the page, when he travels to England to watch the filming of a Showtime miniseries of A Gentleman in Moscow starring Ewan McGregor. “It’ll be fun to go see how that team imagines that story. And without a doubt it will be a different story,” said Towles, who anticipates it will come out in December 2023.
As a fan of classic literature, and the rare writer who seems to appeal equally to both men and women, Towles said he is not interested in targeting a particular audience or message, but instead “shining a light on a group of people, and the universal aspects of what they’re going through as individuals.”
“If you look back on the literature that survives over time — Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Shakespeare — they have created literary universes that don’t feel like a woman writing for a woman or a man writing for a man or someone trying to make a political point or a particular philosophical point…. They’ve successfully created worlds in which an array of individuals are interacting, such that we can come to that work over time from very different angles and be rewarded by reading the work. So that’s kind of the tradition I’m working in,” he smiled.
“Now, whether I achieve that or not is, you know, time will tell. But certainly the ambition is to create a work that will resonate, that is open to all and will resonate with many as the goal.”
“An Evening with Amor Towles” takes place on Thursday, February 2, at 7:30 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.
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