We sat down with New York Times Bestselling author Amor Towles ahead of his OE Spotlight event this Sunday, November 13. We went over some of his artistic motivations and inspirations, his mentor Peter Matthiessen, and being a writer in New York.
On the Path to Becoming a Novelist
My path is unusual but it conforms, too, to what you’d expect. I wrote as a kid, I wrote in high school, in college and grad school. I had a series of short stories published in The Paris Review in 1989 when I was 25. So it’s what I always wanted to do and had been training to do.
But when I moved to New York when I was 25, I also had to make a living. And rather than become a bartender or a fact-checker at the New Yorker or an editorial assistant at Random House—which other friends who wanted to be writers were doing—I opted to look for a research job. A friend of mine had started an investment firm. My office and his were next to each other for twenty years. And it was fun, we had a lot of fun.
So I’d set aside writing for the first 10 years because we’d been building the business. But at about that 10 year mark, I knew I had to get back to writing. I had the mindset that if I didn’t have a novel that I felt good about by the time I was 50, that I would end up very bitter and a big drinker.
So I wrote Rules of Civility while on the job and then retired as I started A Gentleman in Moscow.
On Balancing Career and Creativity
I could see, even then, that my friends who were bartenders or held any job like that, weren’t living this ultra-productive, artistically free life. They were out until 3 in the morning, they were sleeping till noon. And then my friends who worked in publishing or for magazines, they’d get home and all they’d want to do is turn on the TV. They were burnt out and sick of books and words and so writing would, often, be the last thing they wanted to do. So I saw that those routes don’t always offer the freedom or the energy or the intellectual stimulation that you’d expect. They didn’t seem particularly complimentary to artistic endeavor.
My career had no influence on my writing artistically—in the actual practice of writing. It did have influence in my artistic output. By the time I sat down to write Rules of Civility, in my mid-40s, I owned my own home, I had a wife, kids, colleagues, clients—I didn’t have any axe to grind with the book. I wasn’t trying to prove myself to my peers, my parents, my spouse. I wasn’t worried about taking care of my family or putting food on the table. I wasn’t worried about competing with other artists. And that stuff can really get in the way. Now it can absolutely be a driver of effective art, but it can also be a very big impediment.
I knew that I could do it and that I wanted to do it, and so for me it was just about doing the best I could for me and that was incredibly liberating.
On Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen—the great novelist and nature writer and one of the founders of the Paris Review—he became my mentor as a young person. He was one of the people to say, "You’re gifted. You should do this." That provides a huge amount of help internally, of course, to believe in yourself.
Matthiessen’s opinion mattered so much to me. And when I got a job in finance, he was furious. Or disappointed I should say. He told me that every young person he’d ever known with talent that went into that field never came back. For him it was like going to war.
I was haunted by the fact that I was not living up to my potential as he saw it. So that’s one of the reasons that I got back to writing in my mid-30s and knew that I had to.
He was alive when Rules of Civility came out and we were able to sit down and I got to tell him, “I came back.” That was something special.
On Aspiring to Excellence in Art
What Malcolm Gladwell contends—about putting in your 10,000 hours—I think, is generally true if you want to find excellence in any field, art included.
The comparison that I make for people about the novel as a form is this. Andre Agassi did not have a great forehead. He had a hundred great forehands. And Agassi’s training was to master every aspect of every possible shot that any match might require of him to the point where it doesn’t even require conscious thought. In that way, he could direct his attention to the game itself and not to the stroke. And that’s what novel writing requires, too. There are so many elements of craft involved in effective novel writing. Characterization, setting, dialogue, metaphor, allusion, theme, sentiment, detail—you name it. And ideally, you work and train and read and draft until those crafts are all second nature and you can focus on the game at hand.
Of course, innate talent exists. We see it all the time in the musical sphere—we have that friend or young cousin who can pick up a guitar and just instantly understand how it works. But it’s also about that time you spend applying that practice to that foundational talent or interest. As a musician, perhaps you listen to the same song a hundred times and practice and practice until you figure it out. And that’s what you rely on so many years later in order to create your own music—this devotion to and respect for the craft.
On Writing What Fascinates You
At any point, I’ve got nine novels I’d like to write. Sometimes the idea is just an idea, sometimes I’ve got two pages of notes on it, sometimes thirty. What it all tends to have in common is that they draw on fascinations.
I don’t come up with an idea, research it, and then write it. What I do is I come up with an idea that draws on what I’m fascinated by and then I invent it and then when I have to, I go back and do some work at the end to fine tune the details. But I don’t want the research to get in the way of the imaginative process.
I don’t think of human progress as linear. With every element of progress we make, or we collect—economically, artistically, politically, whatever—we, by definition, are giving up components of the way that things used to be done. You shed both limitations and virtues at every step. Each progressive steps comes with all kinds of costs. I’m very interested in that on going dynamic.
In regard to A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a very extreme example of that. You take the most backward nation in Europe at the time of the WWI and with the Bolshevik Revolution, you put in its most progressive government with its most progressive agenda. Now, that doesn’t all come to fruition, but rapid industrialization and an initially classless society does occur. Equal rights for women and immediate advancements in education.
And The Count was representative of the best of what the past had but that so often goes hand in hand with the worst of that time.