Amor Towles: ‘Trumpism is absolutely tied to the failure of the American Dream’

The author’s new novel is set in the mid-1950s, when everything seemed possible

Amor Towles: ‘When I sat down to write Rules of Civility I really didn’t have to do it for anybody. I really had no external pressure whatsoever’

Amor Towles: ‘When I sat down to write Rules of Civility I really didn’t have to do it for anybody. I really had no external pressure whatsoever’

 

When Amor Towles published his debut novel, Rules of Civility, in 2011, he was an unlikely latecomer to the world of writing. He had made his career in investment, where he had worked for 21 years, but privately Towles had dreamed of becoming a writer since he was in first grade growing up in Boston.

By the time he got to college, he was on a direct track to achieve that dream, studying English literature at Yale, and then at postgraduate level at Stanford University. After graduating, Towles moved to New York City to try to write a book. He had no money and was living in an illegal sublet, so when a friend approached him about setting up an investment company, Towles didn’t have to think twice about joining him. The rest might have been history had Towles not given his writing a second chance.

“It was easy not to write because the job was very demanding and interesting and entertaining and rewarding financially, and we were researchers so we were learning all the time. I didn’t write for 10 years but then I began to feel if I don’t start writing again I run the risk of being a very bitter, drunk adult, and so I started writing on the weekends.”

He managed to write a book but he set it aside because he didn’t like it. “That took seven years,” he says. But the next thing he wrote was Rules of Civility and that became a bestseller. “And then I retired,” he says. “The success was a clarion call because at that point I was in my mid-40s and you don’t have time to do both jobs.”

He says there is a price for starting late. “The price is I’m five books behind where I would like to be because I did not have books published in that 20-year time, and I have many peers who were very productive in that period of 25 to 40. They’ve got six novels so that’s a little painful for me personally but, on the other side of it, because of the course that I went, because I was middle-aged and already reasonably successful in my career, already had a home, I had children in school, when I sat down to write Rules of Civility I really didn’t have to do it for anybody. I really had no external pressure whatsoever and so that was a gift.”

Rich in detail

Towles says it takes time to write the kind of books he writes, which are rich in detail and character, intricately plotted and paced. Does he feel pressure to move a little faster, like those authors who produce a book a year?

‘Even the very talented ones, many of them, four out of five books you can feel did not receive the full attention of their ability in prose or of their plotting or a variation in theme or whatever it is. It still can be very pleasurable but you can sense that there is something missing. But on the other hand Colson Whitehead is publishing a book every two years and he’s doing incredible work. I’ve been a five-year guy so far. I’d like to be a four-year guy but I’m never going to be a one-year guy. I don’t think I could do what I set out to do in a year. In terms of what I’m trying to achieve I personally cannot be cranking them out.”

While his writing process is lengthy, he says it always starts with a simple, one-sentence idea. “I might spend the next 72 hours thinking about it and usually I will have the majority of the key events figured out in that 72 hours, but it’s just like a scaffolding. Then when I really decide to think about it in greater detail I’ll take a couple of years imagining all the elements until I have a detailed outline that is the whole picture and then I start to write. I call it design work. You’re trying to design a whole story.”

I try not to even think about the current time because I don’t want that influence, I don’t want that to be shaping the book

Towles has just published his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, which tells the story of Emmett, an 18-year-old newly-released convict, who returns home to his foreclosed farm to look after his younger brother. When Emmett realises two of his fellow inmates have stowed away, all four of them embark on a cross-country road trip to New York City.

Seismic

The book is set in 1954, just on the cusp of several seismic cultural changes in America – the sexual revolution of the Sixties, the civil rights movement, rock’n’roll – and it’s hard not to feel nostalgia for certain aspects of that America while reading. Was he thinking about modern America while writing this book?

“I try not to even think about the current time because I don’t want that influence, I don’t want that to be shaping the book.”

Because of the open-road setting and the era, the book strongly evokes the mythology of the American Dream. “I’m a bit shaped by the American Dream and mythology and it’s very much still alive and yes, the book is embracing that, but again, it’s got different versions of American Dream-ism built in by the different characters and where they’re from and what they want from life. They’re sharing the American experience while they’re pursuing these different avenues.”

You’re sending a rocket into space and leaving behind all these people who in a society deserve a better shot at fulfilling themselves

Did he want to draw a contrast between modern America and the promise of the 1950s? “Clearly Trumpian politics is absolutely tied to the failure of the American Dream for a portion of the country who had grown up expecting that society would partner with them in a particular way and there would be particular outcomes as a result and it didn’t occur. And they feel either disappointed or dispirited or angry. The opioid epidemic in the United States is tied to the failure of the American Dream in some ways.

“If you look at the 1 per cent dynamic that’s happening in the US: extraordinary wealth at such a level that people are sending rockets into space – that’s the American Dream gone crazy. And what’s happening is you’re sending a rocket into space and leaving behind all these people who in a society deserve a better shot at fulfilling themselves. The American Dream was very real in the ’50s. The standard of living was very high, there was this great sense of possibility. That’s what’s going on under the surface of the book and what we’re living in is the era of hard recognition that that’s not happening now. So yeah, the modern times in America are off-track relative to the promise of the 50s.”

Less bombastic

Towles’s books are all set in very different historical eras. A Gentleman in Moscow is set in Soviet Russia; Rules of Civility is set in New York in 1938. He says he likes choosing quieter, less bombastic moments in history in which to set his novels.

“I like these moments of time. Like 1938 in New York is not a time that gets a lot of attention. It’s the end of the Depression and the war hasn’t started yet and I like that. It’s territory that I can claim. The mid-50s is similar. It’s not on everybody’s minds so it gives me time to work with this thing which hopefully for the reader feels timeless as a result. If you set a story in the middle of the Depression or the war or the Sixties you’re bringing in all kinds of dramatic influence that has to be wrestled and to me that was taking away from the story that I wanted to tell which was this interaction between these three young men and a woman on the verge of it all.”

While the books couldn’t be more different, Towles delights in creating overlaps between the worlds of his books, even planting deliberate connections. “The way I’ve always thought about the books from the beginning is that I wanted to write books where the sum is larger than the parts. For a reader, you have very different reading experiences, different settings, different times, different tones, and what ties them together are these thematic or poetic aspects or an approach to storytelling.”

So, one character in The Lincoln Highway is the nephew of a character in Rules of Civility and Towles sets scenes in both books in the same building, albeit 16 years apart. “I like that it’s this weird sort of universe,” he says. Likewise he was well into writing The Lincoln Highway when he realised it was ending at almost the same point in history as A Gentleman In Moscow ended, so he adjusted the story by a couple of days so that both books now end at the exact same second on the exact same day in history. “That’s so true to life,” he says. “At any given moment there is this huge variety of human experiences ending and others are beginning at the exact same moment.”

The Lincoln Highway is published by Hutchinson

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