Recap | Amor Towles at UC Santa Barbara
Acclaimed Novelist is Good on the Page and on the Stage
I’m a sucker for a guy who can speak in complete sentences and tell a damn good story. Case in point: Amor Towles.
First he tantalized me on the page with his prose; then he intrigued me even more in a Zoom interview for the Independent last month. And last week he charmed not just me, but the entire sold-out Campbell Hall crowd, in an Arts & Lectures presentation that covered everything from the random questions (and hilarious corrections) he gets from readers, to his writing and long-incubating project development process. Not to mention some little known American transportation history relating to the real Lincoln Highway, a guy named Carl Fisher (“everything about his life was about motion”) and what really planted the seeds for the development of Miami Beach (yes, Fisher was involved).
He’s three for three with his bestselling novels, Rules of Civility, A Gentleman in Moscow, and The Lincoln Highway, which he was ostensibly in town to promote. I’ve read and would wholeheartedly recommend them all, but his latest, The Lincoln Highway, might actually be my favorite of the three. “It’s a ten-day story,” as Towles explained, and the three key characters, all of whom have their opportunity to narrate the action from their point of view, are 17-18 years old, the time of life for what he described as “an awakening of liberty (i.e. ‘freedom from constantly receiving instruction from school, parents, church, etc.’) and responsibility to decide for myself what kind of person I want to be.”
Despite the historical proclivities of his work so far (he does have a more contemporary work of short stories coming later this year), Towles considers himself a novelist, not a historical novelist. “I am not interested in being timely,” he said of his books. “Hopefully they will become timeless and universal instead.”
He also said he’s much more concerned with creating characters and stories that have a “feeling of truth,” as opposed to having perfectly accurate details of a time period. He painted an evocative picture of his philosophy using a production of The Cherry Orchard play by Anton Chekhov as an example. To summarize: The actors on stage are real, the dining room table is real, you can hear the sound of the real plates and silverware clacking, and the view of the cherry orchard in the background — like the historic details making up the background of his novels — is an impressionistic painting created to give the feeling of a real orchard, rather than the exact details.
I can still see the stage of that play in my head — yet another sign of yet another beautifully told Amor Towles story.
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