Investment banker-turned-novelist Amor Towles shares inspiration and insider writing secrets from our brilliant December book – A Gentleman in Moscow...
That difficult second novel? Not something New York-based writer Amor Towles can relate to, thank you very much. Following his critically-acclaimed debut, Rules of Civility (“a smart, witty, charming dry-martini of a novel,” according to David Nicholls), Towles has published A Gentleman in Moscow – and to even louder fanfares. Making the New York Times bestseller list for over 40 weeks? Pretty good going for a man who worked in finance for more than 20 years.
Alighting upon the title’s description as “War and Peace meets the Grand Hotel Budapest,” we wondered whether this might not be the perfect novel for our December box. 50 pages in, we were certain. We quizzed Towles on his research for A Gentleman in Moscow, the novel’s fascinating characters, and the truth behind the real Hotel Metropol…
What was the origin of the idea for A Gentleman in Russia?
Over the two decades that I was in the investment business, I travelled a good deal for my firm. Every year, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities meeting with clients and prospects. In 2009, while arriving at my hotel in Geneva (for the eighth year in a row), I recognized some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars. In the next few days, I sketched out most of the key events of A Gentleman in Moscow; over the next few years, I built a detailed outline; then in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing the book.
What is the nature of your fascination with Russia?
I am hardly a Russologist. I don’t speak the language, I didn’t study the history in school, and I have only been to the country a few times. But in my twenties, I fell in love with the writers of Russia’s golden age: Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Later, I discovered the wild, inventive, and self-assured writing styles of Russia’s early 20th century avant-garde including the poet Mayakovsky, the dancer Nijinsky, the painter Malevich, and the filmmaker Eisenstein. Going through those works, it began to seem like every accomplished artist in Russia had his own manifesto. The deeper I delved into the country’s idiosyncratic psychology, the more fascinated I became.
What sort of research did you do for the book?
Rather than pursuing research driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies, and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in Rules of Civility. Similarly, I chose to write A Gentleman in Moscow because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine tune details. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, I gathered firsthand accounts of life in the Metropol from an array of prominent people including John Steinbeck, e. e. cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts on my website.
Are any of the characters in the novel based on real people?
None of the novel’s central characters are based on historical figures, or on people that I have known. That said, I have pick-pocketed my own life for loose change to include in the book such as these three examples:
The thimble game that the Count plays with Sofia was from my childhood. My great grandmother was a Boston Brahmin who lived until she was a hundred in a stately house. When my cousins and I visited her (in our little blue blazers), she would welcome us into her sitting room. After the appropriate amount of polite conversation, she would inform us that she had hidden several thimbles in the room and that whoever found one would receive a dollar—prompting a good deal of scurrying about.
When I was a boy of ten, I threw a bottle with a note into the Atlantic Ocean near summer’s end. When we got home a few weeks later there was a letter waiting for me on New York Times stationery. It turned out that my bottle had been found by Harrison Salisbury, a managing editor of the Times and the creator of its Op-Ed page. He and I ended up corresponding for many years, and I eventually met him on my first visit to New York when I was seventeen. It so happens that Salisbury was the Moscow bureau chief for the Times from 1949 to 1954. A few colorful details in A Gentleman in Moscow spring from his memoirs; he also makes a cameo late in the novel, and it is his fedora and trench coat that the Count steals to mask his escape.
Finally, the scene in which the tempestuous Anna Urbanova refuses to pick up her clothes, throws them out the window into the street, and then sheepishly sneaks out in the middle of the night to retrieve them, was a scene that played out between my parents shortly after their marriage. Although, it was my mother who wouldn’t pick up her clothes, and my father who threw them out the window. I’ll leave it to you to guess who went out in the middle of the night to pick them back up.
What are you working on now?
Last year, Viking/Penguin contracted with me to publish my next two novels; now I just have to write them. As noted above, I like to carefully design my books, beginning the writing process only once I have an extensive outline. I am still in the process of outlining my next book, but I suspect it will follow three eighteen-year-old boys on their way from the Midwest to New York City in the early 1950s…