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Intro. [Recording date: July 28, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is July 28th, 2022, and my guest is the novelist Amor Towles. In 2011, at 46, he published his first book, Rules of Civility. It was a big hit. It was followed in 2016 by A Gentleman in Moscow, and then in 2021, The Lincoln Highway.
All three books are very different and extraordinary in their own way. I read them all in about a month, having no time for any of them, but read them anyway, couldn't put them down.
I would say that for me, A Gentleman in Moscow is in a special class and that book is our subject for today. Amor, welcome to EconTalk.
Amor Towles: Thanks for having me, Russ.
Russ Roberts: We're going to avoid serious spoilers, though I do encourage everyone to read the book before listening, and then come back to this after you've read the book.
Russ Roberts: I want to start with the mechanics of writing. Faulkner once described writing a book as getting, quote, "the character in your mind. Once he's in your mind. And, he's right, and he's true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do tread along behind him and put down what he does and what he says."
Does that work for you? I'm not sure it worked for Faulkner, by the way. I think he liked to pull the legs of reporters and students. It may not be an accurate description of how he wrote his books. But, do you write your books that way?
Amor Towles: I think there's an aspect to what Faulkner describes for all writers. And, I often find that writers who speak about that phenomena probably overstate it relative to their own work.
And, the reason I say that is, from my standpoint--we can generalize it from there--but from my standpoint, I am an outliner. And I'm a designer. So, when I come up with an idea for novel, I will spend several years designing the book. Which means that I'll take a premise--the case with Gentleman in Moscow, it's a very simple premise. It's on the cover of the book; I'm not giving anything away.
It's: A man gets trapped in a hotel for a long period of time. That's the notion that I had one day and very quickly I thought to myself, 'Oh, that would be an interesting book. It could be set in Russia. It could be an aristocratic who is sentenced to house arrest in a fancy hotel across the street from the Kremlin. And, it could span from the Revolution to the Cold War.' All that was notions that I had within seconds of the idea of a guy trapped in a hotel.
Now, once I have a notion like that that captures my interest, I will spend a few years imagining it. What happens? Who are these people? What are the settings like? What are the events? What does it sound like? What are the issues at play? What's the minutiae that might be a part of this canvas?
And, that involves not only dwelling on it and thinking about it, imagining it, but ultimately filling notebooks with potential passages for the book once I get around to writing it.
Once I've fully imagined the book after a period of years, then I outline it in some detail, having that knowledge now in hand. To me that outline is 30, 40, 50 pages. So, it's quite detailed.
And, then I begin the process of writing Chapter One. So, this is a long way of saying--and I'm going to talk about what Faulkner says on a shift to that. But, as a starting point, I start with a very comprehensive understanding of the material, the events, the people, the settings, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the novel itself.
That's going to evolve while I write, of course, for a variety of reasons, but it's not as if I wind up the toy and then watch it go, in the way that Faulkner describes it.
Now, having said all that, there's no question that when the work is going well, when you talk about individual characters, you do immerse yourself into their identity; and you fuse with that and they can then guide events, language, conversations, insights.
I think a very specific example of this: When I travel around the country in the United States, or when I receive emails from readers, if you go to amortowles.com and you go to the contact page, it comes to me, the message.
And, people will send me notes saying, 'Listen, this passage in Gentleman in Moscow was particularly insightful to me--or particularly meaningful to me or thought-provoking. And, I shared it with my husband,' or 'I wrote it down and it's on my computer screen right now,' or 'I called my daughter and read it to her.' Ninety-nine percent of the time when someone says that, the passage that they're describing that affected them, that was insightful, is something that I never would've said in the course of my own life. I wouldn't say it to my kids, wife, my friends; it wouldn't occur to me.
And, what's happened is that I have created a person and character with a background that I do not have and a personality I do not have. I have put them in a situation in which I have never been.
And, when that personality with that background confronts that situation as I'm writing sometimes suddenly the character will say, looking around, 'You know, the thing about x is da, da, da, da, da.'
That kind of thing comes very quickly. And, usually at the end of it, I hit the period and say, 'Well done, Count. What a fascinating insight!' Because you would not have it yourself.
So, now Faulkner is obviously talking about this in a broader sense. And that's true, too. You can have a moment where a character changes the course of your plan because it becomes clear even as you're writing it--if the character is, like, saying, 'I would never do this.' And so, you're like, 'Uh-oh.'
In my first novel, Rules of Civility, one of the central characters is a character named Eve who is sort of a troublemaker in New York City in the mid-1930s. She leaves the city after some turmoil.
And, in my outline, after many years of thought, she was going to go home to Indiana and the parents were going to meet her at the train station in Chicago.
And, literally as I'm writing, two-thirds into the novel, the scene where she's arriving the train station, it was the same kind of thing. It was like, Eve would never go home to her parents. She might say she's coming.
And so, what ends up happening is that she just stayed on the train and goes all the way to Hollywood, in 1938. And, the parents end up calling her friends in New York saying, 'What happened? She didn't get off the train.'
And so, yes, that is the personality of the character taking over in a meaningful way. And, I ended up writing six short stories about Eve in Hollywood, because she dragged me into that hemisphere.
Anyway, so yes, I am fundamentally a planner, a designer, an outliner. But, in the best of conditions, when you are in the work, the subconscious takes over, the poetic aspect of yourself takes over. And, you start to invent things on the fly that change the course of your plan.
And, I will make one more point on this Russ, which is that--because I talk a lot about my outlining, people ask about it and I talk about it--what is counterintuitive, I think for many, is that the reason I'm an outliner, a designer, a planner is because by being careful about outlining, when I am writing a chapter, it allows the right side of my brain--the creative, imaginative, dreamlike side of the brain--to take over and influence the writing of the sentences and the paragraphs, the imagery, the language, the word choice that infuses and brings the work to life.
And, the reason that's so critical is because if I don't know what's going to happen in a chapter, then the left side of my brain has to kind of take over the process. Meaning that I have to be thinking about, 'Wait, what's going to happen next? What does this room look like? The character who has just arrived, where are they from? What's their name? What state are they from?'
So, you're suddenly going through this list of mechanical inventions that aren't the spirit of what you're writing, but are critical to what you're writing.
And so, by deciding all that stuff in advance, I can enter the scene and really write it from the perspective of poetry, rather than the perspective of filling in blanks.
Russ Roberts: There's a new book out called The Method, which is about Stanislavski and modern acting, which is very Russian. But, part of what you're talking about is you inhabiting the main character's head. Count Rostov is the main character. And, I'm curious if it ever affected your wife. Did she ever say, like, 'You know, you're starting to sound a lot like Count Rostov'?
Amor Towles: Okay. No, my personality doesn't tend to get shaped by my characters. Nor do my characters get shaped by my personality--I hope.
But of course, there are--I wish I were more like the Count. So, maybe that's a way of answering. My wife wishes I was more like the Count.
So, yes, he's an admirable figure and has a great way about approaching life and a great temperament. And so, maybe the process of writing about him, I'm a little bit more like the Count than I was before I started the process; but I wish it was a bigger leap.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Your memoir will be called Not Quite a Gentleman in New York.
Amor Towles: Yeah, yeah.
Russ Roberts: But, close maybe. He's an exemplar, which is the reason the title of the book is A Gentleman in Moscow: he's not just a man in Moscow. He is an admirable and enviable person in his character. It's a incredibly impressive performance.
Russ Roberts: Do you have a writing regimen when you're writing a novel? Do you write every day? Do you write a certain number of hours every day, or do you have a plan? Minutes? Pages?
Amor Towles: Yeah. I do have a regimen. I am interrupting my regimen for you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: You're very kind.
Amor Towles: I will tell you that right now.
Russ Roberts: I'm really sad. You're very kind.
Amor Towles: Because of our time change. Because my normal behavior is to be at my desk at 8:00--roughly 8:00, 8:30--and to work up until, say, noon or 12:30, at which point I will go out and have lunch by myself and either edit the morning's work or in notebooks start to imagine or craft tomorrow's, say, new chapter or what have you.
And so, for me, it's really about punching the clock. It's not about a word count. It's not about chapter targets--although some of--it's nice to have in the back of your mind, 'I'd love to get this done in the next year' or two, or whatever your timeframe is, so you don't sort of spin your wheels on a single chapter for two years.
But, basically it's really about punching the clock. And so, that's the way I'll work.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Hours in the chair. I like that.
Stephen King's book on writing--I'm not a big Stephen King fan. He's all right. But his book on writing is quite, I think: thoughtful. And, he similarly works a fixed amount of time.
Hemingway liked to say that you should always stop writing when you know what's going to happen next. Meaning that when you come back the next day, you're not starting from scratch, out of the blue, cold. And that starting at 8, 8:30 each morning can be challenging. Do you follow that rule at any way? Is that meaningful to you?
Amor Towles: Oh, I don't think of that as a rule, but I agree with the merits of his observation. I think we all understand it. But, yes, I will try to have a sense of what I'm going to be working on tomorrow before tomorrow comes.
Because there's nothing worse in punching the clock and not knowing what you're going to do with your time; and that's the most frustrating thing as an artist of all. And, it can turn into depression like that. Sort of wear you down--
Russ Roberts: The blank page--
Amor Towles: Yes. Yeah. So, I do think about what is going to happen tomorrow. I love to end the day with sort of some quick sketches of, 'Oh, right,' as you're describing it, 'the next thing that's going to happen is they're going to do this; they're going to go into this place, have this conversation.' And, maybe I know that from my outline; but I'm beginning to get a better sense of some of the charisma of that moment, let's say, or the language of it; and taking notes for myself to that purpose so that the next day I can go right into it.
Now, another version of this is that, as I mentioned a second ago, at lunch I may either edit the morning's work or begin note-writing by hand about the next day. That's a very productive way to start, too, because the transfer of material I wrote yesterday by hand into a Word document first thing in the morning is a way of getting started. Because, I'm going to start to refashion those paragraphs. So, that's going to take some creative work. But, as I'm doing that, I'm beginning to get a sense of, 'Oh right, what's going to happen right after this is this,' or 'this is going to come a little bit later.' And so, that sends you propulsively forward.
So, as I say, starting the day with a few pages of handwritten notes--not necessarily bullet point notes, but actually stabs at getting the first four paragraphs of the chapter--that's hugely valuable. Because, the transition into the Word document is another way of launching.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I find editing--good writing is often just good editing. And, editing what you wrote the day before or the morning is a powerful way to get your head back into the experience.
Russ Roberts: You are the source, I suspect, of a great deal of envy and unease for people. You wrote your first novel--or published your first novel--at 46 years old. That's very rare.
You were not, at that time, a English professor. You were an investment banker. That's an extraordinary career arc. I don't know if I can think of too many others. Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent. He wrote his poetry at the same time.
But, you investment banked, quit, wrote your first novel, and then became a full-time writer. How much writing were you doing as an investment banker, and how did you pull that off? Rules of Civility is a masterpiece, by the way. You could argue--I hope it becomes under consideration for the Great American Novel. I think that's what you were aiming for. And, you could argue you succeeded. It's an extraordinary book about American mores, personalities, philosophy, and so on. But, you wrote that book--at night? At lunch? How'd you do that?
Amor Towles: Yeah. Well, I should start by saying that I began writing fiction as a kid, and I wrote fiction in high school. I wrote fiction when I was at Yale as an undergraduate. I had a fiction writing grant at Stanford where I wrote fiction there.
I moved to New York at the age of 25 or so and was writing fiction when I arrived, had some stories in the Paris Review at that time. But, I was feeling a little lonely, a little claustrophobic, broke.
And so, I joined a friend of mine who had started an investment firm. I was not an investment banker, although it was often reported that. We were in the investment management business. So, we managed money. It was a research-intensive environment managing money for high net-worth individuals--endowments, foundations, etc.--in a variety of asset classes doing global work.
And that was a fascinating and fun job. When I joined my partner, I was the first employee as it were; and 21 years later, we were still working side by side.
But, in the first 10 years I set aside the writing of fiction, as we were really managing the launch of the effort. Perfecting the craft, in terms of how we approached investing, beginning to recruit both clients and employees, etc.
But eventually I knew that if I didn't get back to writing fiction, it would really leave me very depressed as an older person.
And so, I began writing fiction on the weekends in my 1930s, and I spent seven years writing a book I didn't like and set that aside. And then--but I learned a lot from that.
One of the things I learned from that was that I am an outliner. I should have outlined that first book. And so, I did decide I'm going to do a new book, totally different material, really approach it with an outlining frame of mind so I can achieve what I want to achieve artistically.
That was Rules of Civility. That was published while I was still a partner at the firm. And, when that became a best seller, that's when I retired.
So, yeah, it was a long road to having Rules of Civility, but it was the byproduct of a life of writing and reading.
Russ Roberts: After that first book failed, which is--I don't know if that was your assessment or the outside world's--
Amor Towles: No, it was mine.
Russ Roberts: That's what it sounded like. That's seven years, kind of demoralizing. You said you learned a lot. But, a lot of people would've said, 'What I learned is I'm not a novelist,' and gone home and said, 'I'll make a living. I'll take care of my family. That's enough.'
What happened there? How'd you get the courage or the confidence to believe that you could write a serious novel that would be of interest to other people?
Amor Towles: It's a complicated answer. It requires a complicated answer. The truth of it is that--and I think anybody who had artistic ambitions as a young person probably went through a similar experience as what I'm about to describe. But, I wanted to write fiction in first grade. I wanted to write fiction and poetry. As soon as I could read, I wanted to write.
And, those two things developed side by side, over the course of my life. I would read something, write something, read something, write something, and just kept moving forward. It was always in parity. And, it was always what I wanted to do more than anything else.
And, when you are a young person, and that's your ambition, and you're investing time and effort into the pursuit of that craft--even as a kid or as a young teenager, what have you--there is inevitably this constant shift between confidence that, you know, 'I can do this. I understand this.' And, you would read a peer's story and you'd say, 'No, that's all wrong.' And, so you'd write your own and say, 'This is closer to what it should be.'
And, you'd read someone you admire and say, 'Yeah, I understand what they're doing. I think I can aspire to achieving what Melville's doing,' or what have you. You read a mediocre novel and you're, like, 'I'm definitely doing better work than that.'
So, there's this side of a young person can have that belief in themselves.
Now, but, the other part is that you're also saying to yourself all the time, 'I'm deluded. I am totally deluded. This is a figment of my imagination. How could I possibly know whether I can do this?'
So, but, those two aspects of your internal life are very present on an ongoing basis.
And now, along the way, you know, maybe you'd write something in high school and your English teacher would say, 'Oh, that's good,' and whatever--you won a prize in some small way or whatever: You get patted on the back. And that's fine.
What ended up happening to me is I went to Yale, I got into a writing seminar with a guy named Walter Abish, who died recently. He was a great modernist and I did work with him.
And, then when I was a junior, Peter Matthiessen, who was a great American novelist, naturalist, figure in general--cultural figure in general--came to teach for semester at Yale, and he was probably in his 60s at the time. And so, I got into his seminar. You would submit stories to get in. He set it up so every week he would ask a few people to read the story out loud. And then the seminar would talk about what they just heard.
And, early in the semester there were three weeks in a row where I was one of the people he asked me to read my story. And, at the end of the class, he said, 'Hey, listen, could you stay for a minute?'
And so, I stayed and everybody left, and he said, 'Listen, I don't know anything about you. I don't know who you are. I don't know why you're here. I don't know what you want. But, based on the work I've seen, I think you may be gifted at this. And, as a result, I'm going to take your time here very seriously. And, I would hope that you're going to take your time with me very seriously, too.'
And, that was a big turning point, that was a big turning point. Because then you're talking about--it's not your mother saying, 'Oh, what a nice story.' Which means nothing, means nothing. It is someone that you admire. I loved his writing. I loved him as a person, looked up to him immediately, and saying, 'I think that there's something here and that should be taken seriously.'
And in a way, there's a covenant with that, and that's what he's really talking about, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Amor Towles: So, he's saying, 'I am going to invest--I'm going to pay particular attention to the work you're doing and I expect the same in return from you.' So, now that--as I say, in all young artists' lives, there's probably a moment like this. And, it comes from somebody somewhere that takes those--and at that point, more than a decade, we'll call it a decade of both aspiration and concern of delusion--and clears the landscape a little bit; and you say, 'Okay, maybe I am on the right track here.'
And, you don't need someone to say that to you as a young artist all the time. You don't need a lot of people and you don't need it all time. You need, like, one really good person, and you can live off of that for a decade.
And, you can keep returning to it in your mind as a reminder. And, both the encouragement--the objective observation that you think the person's had--but also the covenant aspect, which is that: 'Okay, I'm not going to let Peter down.' And, that kind of gets you going.
So, by the time--and then, as I said, I had stories in the Paris Review, I got into Stanford and the writing program. So, you're getting other benchmarks down the road that reinforce your hope that you can do this at a high level. And, that kind of gives you momentum.
So, when you write the failed book, yeah, you have to draw on all that. You have to say, 'I know I can do this. And, I didn't do a good job this time.' And, 'Am I going to quit? What would Peter say about that?' And, what would I--what would I, myself, after 30 years of investment and time and effort and inspiration--
Russ Roberts: Dreaming, dreaming--
Amor Towles: Yeah. 'I'm going to quit? And then, 20 years from now, what is the older me going to look back and say about that? About the quitting?'
And so, you kind of pick up and you get going.
Now, obviously, it helps a little bit if what you've just been through, you can stop for a second and think about it, and you start to--the fog starts to clear, and you say, 'Oh, right. Here's something that went wrong in this effort. Here's something that went wrong. Here's something wrong.'
Because that starts to--also, you start to get more excited about the next effort, right? Because you can start to see--I know enough about writing at that point that I can solve this puzzle.
Because you're right: the big distinction here was that it's a novel instead of short stories. I had already proven my ability in short stories.
So, the question is, can you take that capability in short form and transfer it, translate it into a longer project? Which is a very different artistic task. And, it should be within your grasp. Right? I mean, it should be.
There are a couple of short story writers who never approach the novel or try it and quit and stick with short stories because they think it's beyond them. But, most novelists have written short stories and started there. So, there's a natural kind of runway between the two art forms.
Russ Roberts: Except most of my favorite short story writers, I don't love their novels. I like them. But, I love their short stories.
And I can't help but think of--it's a tawdry analogy, I apologize--but, there's a story that I think is mostly true: that Fred Smith was having trouble making payroll in the early days of FedEx. And, he went to Chicago to his bankers. He's in Memphis, and he went to Chicago to his bankers for another loan. And they said: No. And, he was going to have to go back to Memphis and tell his employees that, 'You know, it's a lovely idea, but we're out of money. Can't pay you. Go home. Find another job. It's over.'
And, he was sitting in the airport in Chicago and he saw there was a flight leaving soon to Reno; and he got on it and he evidently took some money from his sister's-and-his trust. But, not quite with their permission. There was a lawsuit later. But, he took some of that money and put it on red or 17 or whatever he did and made enough money in Reno to keep his payroll and his team afloat.
And, I often think, 'Well, a lot of people made fun of that idea.' Maybe if he had gone bankrupt, there never would've been overnight FedEx or all the things that we take for granted now.
And, there are plenty of ideas like that. The Newton--the handheld device that didn't make it. But, of course, eventually they come along.
But, I think about you, seven years into that first bad novel that you rejected, and think it very well could have been the case you would've said, 'Oh, well.' And, then the world wouldn't have had the three novels we have so far and whatever else you've come to write.
And, I'm very grateful for your stamina.
And I haven't said it yet, and I apologize for not saying it earlier, but A Gentleman in Moscow is, in my view, it's one of my five favorite novels of all time. It's clearly a masterpiece. Everyone I've talked to loves it. I've given it away to so many people or told them to read it. And, they all like it, I think, almost as much as I do.
So, if you're listening, I would start--I like to do them in order; I didn't. But, I would encourage people to read Rules of Civility first. But, A Gentleman in Moscow is quite special.
And, one of the reasons it's special, and to turn to this now, is on the surface it's a fairytale. And it's a beautiful fairytale. And then somewhere--it doesn't matter where--it becomes somewhat serious. It becomes a book about more than just the man in the hotel, the Russian regime outside his window, responsible for his plight but in theory he's living independently of what's going on in the world outside him--he's in the hotel--starts to intrude. At first it's a small intrusion, then a second, then a sub-theme, then a big theme; and it swells like a symphony by the end of the book.
I assume that was part of the plan. Was it? And, did that change that serious, very, very powerful set of observations about Soviet life that really makes it a real Russia novel and not just a novel set in Russia. How did you plan that?
Amor Towles: Well, I'll start by saying that I'm not a research-driven writer. So, I don't pick a topic, research, and write it. What I do is I pick a topic that is grounded in something I have a deep familiarity with.
Now, I don't speak Russian language. I don't have Russian heritage in my family. I did not study Russian history in college.
But, like those Americans who are interested and are fans of Russian culture, my interest began, like so many, with the 19th century Russian novels: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Turgenev and short stories of Chekhov. This incredible--[?Gogol?]--this incredible group of writers operating within a relatively small window of time, call it 50 years, where they're at least overlapping in that 50 year period and doing this incredible work. And that shapes the way that the art forms are considered in the West--and maybe the world--from then on, right?
And so, that got me very interested starting as a teenager and then in my 20s and 30s in reading around them. That translated into an interest or led to an interest in the avant-garde movements in Russia before the war. Because, in Russia before the First World War, before the Revolution, you have Kandinsky and Malevich reinventing painting. They're basically inventing abstraction--the art form that will dominate the next 100 years almost in terms of high art and painting.
Mayakovsky is reinventing poetry. Nijinsky and Diaghilev are reinventing dance as a form of performance and the music that goes with it.
And so, all this incredible artistic foment in Russia before the Revolution.
And so I was very interested in studying that. And, then I got interested in the Soviet era. And I share with you, Russ, a great love of Solzhenitsyn's work and an awe of Solzhenitsyn's work. A love of his work is in a way a weird way to say it, because the work is so heart-rending--
Russ Roberts: Dark--
Amor Towles: And, he's showing the worst that can happen in humanity--and having experienced it personally in the highest form of inventive, artistic delivery. It's really sort of--dramatic experience.
So, and having lived the challenge of going through the Gulag and carrying--inventing the story and carrying it out.
So, I went through this process: The 19th century novelist, the early 20th avant-gardist's, the writers who were operating under the Soviet regime and sort of fighting for the right to express and the preservation of their own dignity.
And, I was fascinated with the whole thing, the whole picture.
And so, when I had this idea of, 'Oh, I'll write a story about a guy trapped in a hotel.'
That's why I immediately thought, 'Oh, I could set it in Russia.' It wasn't fanciful. It was almost, sort of, 'Now I can take this 30 years or 20 years of digesting this culture and my love and interest in it and the awe I have for it and apply it to a narrative of my own.'
And so, now I knew right off the bat that the biggest challenge was going to be to tie two forces together into the narrative. And, though the first force, the primary force, is the Count and his experience, I knew that I was not going to write a new version of The Gulag Archipelago. I was not going to write a book about a guy in a prison camp. There was no point to that.
In Solzhenitsyn I would never be able to approach what Solzhenitsyn's had achieved in that regard, given his personal involvement in the experience.
So, I wasn't going to do that. And I wasn't really interested in doing that. And so, I had this other notion of: What if an aristocrat born in the 19th century is the one who is sentenced to house arrest?
And that intrigued me, because the Russian Revolution was a switch, in many ways. And, the switch that was turned was that at the time of the First World War, Russia was the most backward of the great European nations. They were a 19th century nation at that point.
Whereas, England and America and France and Italy and Germany had all been moving into the 20th century rapidly from the 1880s to the 1910s. And, industrialization was happening at a rapid pace in those countries, and was not happening in Russia.
And so--if you just look at what everybody was wearing, the Russians were still dressed like it was 1850 or 1780 or whatever. And, in London and the United States, they were wearing suits.
And so, more than 90% of the population in Russia was peasants, peasantry. More than 90% of the population was illiterate in Russia. So, you had this 19th century country, with 19th century political structure, 19th century values in many ways--at the day before the Revolution, that's what Russia was.
And, the day of the Revolution, the new leadership said, 'We are going to jump into the 20th century. We're going to rapidly industrialize. We're going to have equal rights for women. We're going to have forced literacy. We're going to have--,' you know. And, 'Our goal is going to be to become a major world power again.' In essence, an economic powerhouse.
And so, this crazy dynamic happened where you literally were backward-looking 19th-century on one day and 20th-century forward-looking the next.
And, I thought what an interesting thing to have been this aristocrat who was raised in that 19th-century value, but with the highest quality of that value in terms of the elements of nobility that we admire. Not the take-advantage-of-the-peasants, but I mean a sense of dignity, of manners, of gentility, of having an understanding, command of high art--these elements.
And so, what if that person was there when the switch was turned, right? And, they're watching all of that be swept off the table by this new generation who has a very valid ambition, which is: Let's make Russia more fair. Let's make it more modern. Let's make it more part of the future.' But, what a difficult moment to be standing in.
So, that's where I'm starting. And, the challenge, as I was saying, was that I knew I could depict the Count and his 19th century values and his idealism--and, he's living in this luxurious hotel, because he's a hero of the Russian Revolution for reasons you learn in the book, because he wrote a poem that they really admire.
They won't sentence to death. Instead they sentence him to house arrest across the road and he kind of lived in this diminished capacity--which is a part advantage, part humiliation side-by-side; and house arrest has been in Russia forever.
So, anyway--so, I knew that within the walls of the hotel, he was going to live a life very different from Russia and that I could follow the thread of his personality, his education, his sensibility, as it tried to find a new life within the walls of the hotel in a rapidly changing world.
And, as you say, there's a fairytale aspect to that. That's for sure. And, the challenge--going back to the challenge--was going to be: How do we take that and integrate the reality of the Soviet times in the story, if we're not going to go to the Gulag, directly?
And we have this--we're living this life, which is obviously separate from what so many were going through at the time: How do we combine these things?
You don't want the book to be strictly a fairytale where it's as if bad things never happen in Russia. That's a book that has no need to be written or shouldn't deserve to be written.
But, on the other hand, you couldn't preserve the sensibility of the Count and sort of the arc of what he was going to go through, if the book was flooded with the realities of the Soviet times.
So, house arrest served the purposes in a way. I knew that the reality of the world would be fended off to some degree by the life of the hotel where foreigners are coming and where people were living a better life than the common Russian.
But, the--there's this issue of how to bring in the outside world.
So: the solution for me, early on, was in essence there's going to be two narrators of the book. 90% of the book is told in the third person, which is an extension of the Count's reality. It is his tone of voice, his vocabulary, his semantics, his sentiments, his ideals, his foibles: That's all being expressed through the language as, in the third person, his experience is described over 30 years.
However, there's about 10% of the book, which is told by somebody very different. And, originally the voice shows up in footnotes.
And, it's this person who is stepping in to say, 'Well, yeah, the Count's doing that at this time, but it should be pointed out that this is what's going on elsewhere. This is what that meant,' or 'This is what was happening to the average citizen on that day.'
And, you can tell from the tone of those footnotes that this other person has a more direct exposure to the challenges of Soviet life, a more cynical view of the world than the Count does. And, a more sarcastic and more cutting.
And, that voice, which initially shows up as footnotes, then starts showing up in addendums at the end of chapters, telling things that are happening outside the hotel to the characters.
And then it shows up in major introductions to the larger chapters--you know, in 1938, 1946, or whatever it is, the war has just happened.
And, this narrator steps into say, 'Okay, well, here's what happened to the Second World War,' rapidly.
And so, there was this balance; and this was the way that I tried to combine the two things.
Now I knew that the Count's route was going to be philosophical in its own right, because he starts, and to some degree, is a dandy. There's no question about it. But, he is going through--
Russ Roberts: Grows up--
Amor Towles: Yeah, he's growing. It's a book about purpose. He has to rediscover a sense of purpose and rediscover what should his relationships be like? What should his relationship to ideas and art be like? What should his relationship to work be like? Because he's never done any.
All this is a discovery process. And is. So, he goes from being someone who understands philosophy, ideas, and sentiment as a hobby, to one who must study those really as a means of survival and understanding in a greater sense, through a personal interaction.
And, so, I knew that was going to be happening. But, it was very important for that to be happening alongside this growing understanding of what's happening to the average citizen at the same time. And, the Count is eventually going to understand that, too, and be forced to face that.
So, anyway, so yes: this is kind of the notion from a philosophical standpoint of how these two different threads came together in the story.
Russ Roberts: But, I would just add that, if you just picked up the book, you can read it straight through, and a careless reader could not dwell too long on those more realistic intrusions.
Amor Towles: Sure.
Russ Roberts: This is why it's a masterpiece. It's the story of a person in a constrained set of circumstances, but you've embedded him in world events in a way that is quite extraordinary.
Before we go on, two quick things about the Count's straits. Do you remember the Chekhov story, "The Bet"?
Amor Towles: Yes. Go ahead.
Russ Roberts: So, I've mentioned it once I think before in the program, maybe twice. It's about a debate between dinner guests over whether capital punishment is more cruel than life in prison, a lifelong sentence.
And, one of the guests says No. And so--excuse me--one of the guests says, 'Well, life in prison is obviously better than death.' And, the host says, 'Well, death might be a blessing compared to being stuck in one place forever until you die.'
And so, they have a bet. And the bet is the young lawyer says he can stay in a small cottage on the host's property for 15 years without leaving, accepting only food and books through an open window. And, in return, if he manages to stay there, the host will pay him, I think, three million rubles or something. And, I won't spoil what happens in the story--that's the first page.
It's an extraordinary story. It's very un-Chekhovian for me. I find Chekhov quite slow. This is not slow. I've come to like Chekhov from A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders--it's a great book.
But anyway--I didn't think about it until just now--your character is living out that bet. He's stuck in one place. He's under house arrest. It's a slightly bigger place than the cottage of the hero of "The Bet"--or the protagonist of "The Bet." But, it's a book about--and listeners can understand it's book about many things--but in one sense it's a book about the power of constraint.
And I've read you write, read you talking about how constraint helps you as a writer. So, I'd like you to talk about that. You were stuck. You gave yourself a plot device that was a straight jacket--you know? Which seems like a blunder. How could that be a good idea? And of course, your main character is stuck in that same place. Talk about constraint, how it affects your art, and how it affects your life in the case of Count Rostov.
Amor Towles: Yeah. Constraint is an extremely valuable starting point for most art--
Russ Roberts: It's underrated--
Amor Towles: Yeah. If we look at painting, almost no painter starts with a giant canvas, paints, and then cuts it down to, you know, some limitation, right? The painter starts with a canvas size; and that's the way they begin.
And, they start to imagine what's going to fill the canvas within the framework of those very specific--determined--limitations.
And, they don't take a giant piece of canvas and draw a pencil box and start to work it so they can change it later. They stick to that frame.
And, you know, the sonnet is, in writing, the most famous example of a productive constraint, right? Because it's a set rule: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes that are--a couple of variations or a handful of variations that are stuck to. And the sonnet has been pursued by major poets in English, Italian, French, Spanish, from the Renaissance to now.
And so, why is it? Why are all these writers--and who have seen the shape and possibilities of poetry evolve over hundreds of years--why do they keep returning to this set of constraints?
And, it really is because, I think, that the constraints are productive. They're generative. They are in essence--the rules of assignment are what we would call a generative device.
It's a rule that forces you to move a little bit outside your normal instincts and to adapt in a way that, again, unleashes potentially the power of your unconscious--your focus on fulfilling the form lets things happen that it wouldn't otherwise.
So, as an example of a sonnet, you might say, 'Okay, well, I'm going to write about the difficulty of aging. You know: It's from the perspective of someone in their 60s and they're losing their vitality and their hearing, their sight, their stamina, whatever; and it's bittersweet. And, I want to write about that in a poem, in a sonnet.'
Well, that's fine.
But, the rules of the game will start to dictate to some degree how that comes to fruition. Because, the rhymes, the words you're choosing, the rhymes that have to fulfill the iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme mean that you're going to start to pop into your head words that you wouldn't have thought to use in that context that suddenly trigger an emotion or a sentiment that is different.
I'm making this up, but let's say in the end of the second line, the word is trip. And so, you're like, 'Oh, what rhymes with trip?' And, you do 'ship.'
And, you're like, 'Oh, that's so interesting.' Because as we think about aging in the context of going to sea, what does that mean?
And so, that can happen suddenly, where the whole vista opens up for the poet. And they're, like, 'Yes, this is what aging is.' Maybe like in Tennyson, it's the last--so, Odysseus on his final voyage, whatever it is.
It little profits that an idle king,
I was going to use that--
Amor Towles: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I was going to use that to let listeners know that's iambic pentameter, in case they don't know. But, we have a great coincidence here. Carry on.
Amor Towles: Yes. So, Tennyson's great, great work of "Ulysses."
So, at any rate, that's the point of the constraint. My point here.
Now in the novelist's work or short story writers' work, these can come in many forms and some of it's very extreme; and would leave most readers cold. Because they seem like a game and the outcome of the game is maybe not as satisfying as reading Jane Austen or Tolstoy or whatever.
Like, such as Georges Perec--French writer, who was a member of Oulipo, who were very interested in constraints and generative devices. He wrote a novel--quite a long novel--in which the letter 'e' never appears.
Now, the letter of 'e' is the most common letter in the French language, much as it is in the English language.
And so, to remove that from your alphabet means that you're getting rid of very high percentage of words and whole classes of verbs and adjectives and adverbs, that use the past tense--relies on the letter 'e' significantly in the United States--in English. Because '-ed' at the end of a verb.
So, anyway, this is a challenge: Can I write a novel without using words that have the letter 'e' in them?
And, that immediately forces him to write in a slightly different style than he would have otherwise, and for events and objects and personality traits to be limited to these words without the letter 'e'; and so that becomes a thing.
Now, as I say, sometimes, ideally the generative[?] device is invisible to the reader and that it reads as if it never happened. And, you're like, at the end of it you're, like, 'What? He did what?' That's the ideal.
The less ideal is where you can kind of feel that it's not quite right. That the limitation is interfering with the narrative in a way that you can tell the trade is not productive for you as the reader. So, both things can happen.
So, anyway, in A Gentleman in Moscow, there are two major constraints, I guess. The first is the hotel itself. Right? You say, 'Well, I'm going to write the book where for the vast majority of it--basically the entire book the Count is not going to leave the hotel.'
And, I know that going in, basically as a reader, you get that from the day one; and we're going to have to go through that together.
And, that's an easy constraint for me. I'd never had a second thought about that. I wasn't anxious about it. It brings a lot of advantage to me as the writer, because I don't have to write about all of Moscow over 30 years. I can focus on how the world is changing through the microcosm as the furniture gets shabby, or as the type of guests change, or the economic decisions outside influence internal events.
When, for instance, suddenly they had rules that no Russians were allowed to go in foreign restaurants or hotels for a significant period of the early phase of the Russian--Soviet era. It was against the law. You couldn't go in.
But, then the Russian government--so the government was running out of money and they needed foreign currency to buy things in the global market because nobody in the world would take the ruble.
And so, what they did is they changed the law in Russia, which said that anybody can go into a foreign restaurant or hotel--any Russian citizen--provided that they buy the services in foreign currency--
Russ Roberts: Aha--
Amor Towles: Because the government had realized that a lot of the citizens had foreign currency, and they were hiding it and using it in the black market, effectively, and they were keeping it to themselves.
So, this way, by opening the hotels to them in exchange for foreign currency rather than prosecuting them and trying to find the money, they gathered the money that way, and they used that to fund the Soviet government.
So anyway, so as I say, you can imagine: that's a major change and a fascinating one in the political economic trajectory of the Soviet Union. And, it had very specific implications, when you go from one chapter to the next, of who is in the restaurant?
So, as I say, so I didn't worry about that constraint. I thought that was going to be fun and interesting and serve both me and the reader.
The other constraint, which is a little bit more like Georges Perec or the sonnet, is the time sequence of the book.
So, this is going to sound crazy or boring--I apologize. But, anyway, A Gentleman in Moscow has a very specific time structure to it, which is that as you're reading the book, the first thing that happens is the Count gets sentenced to house arrest. The book then tells you what happens to the Count in the hotel one day later, two days later, five days later, 10 days later, three weeks later, six weeks, three months, six months, one year later to the day.
Then it tells you what happens two years later to that day, four years later to that day, eight years later, 16 years later to the day--from 1922 to 1938.
And, then it reverses itself. So, from there you learn out what happens eight years later to the day, four years, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, 10 days, five days, two days to the exciting conclusion.
So, this sort of accordion structure is in the book. I had decided many, many years ago it would be an interesting way to design a book. As soon as I had the notion of telling the Count's story--and I mean, like, you can see it, it's on my very first page of notes. I was like, 'Oh, I'll use the accordion structure. It's perfect for this story.'
And, now hopefully--and I know this is true from having talked to thousands of readers, it's invisible to you. Most people--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I missed it, I missed it.
Amor Towles: Yeah. You would.
Russ Roberts: It just works. It's making the poignant French cafe music, anyway.
Amor Towles: Yeah. So, and that's a generative device. And it has advantages to me--and to the reader--because you want the granular insight at the beginning of his internment: What is happening every day? But, if I went and told you every day for 30 years you'd shoot me.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Amor Towles: You'd shoot me. So, but, you'd want to start to leap ahead and see, 'Well, what happened in the Second World War?' Or, 'What happened to when the crackdown in 1938 came?'
Or as the bigger changes are occurring and society is modernizing and Stalin is aging, whatever, you kind of want to do these leaps and get a new window on it.
But, as you move towards the end, you crave that granularity again, for very specific reasons that I will not go into.
So, yes, so I'm very interested in these kinds of constraints. And, I think they can be very productive.
As you know, my new novel The Lincoln Highway, which came out in fall, is a story about, really, a few boys on their way from Nebraska to New York City in 1954. And, the whole story is only 10 days. And, the book is the identical length to A Gentleman in Moscow from a word-count standpoint. You know, one is a 30-year saga; one is 10-day story--and that's its own constraint of a different kind.
Russ Roberts: Sure, sure.
Amor Towles: One of duration as opposed to space.
Russ Roberts: I would just say this: I can't remember whether I read this as a review on Amazon or a friend--probably an ex-friend now--said to me, 'Oh, I didn't like that book, A Gentleman in Moscow. Nothing happens.' And I thought, 'What? Nothing happens?' On a certain level, nothing happens. The guy is stuck in a hotel for a long time. Okay. But a lot happens, both internally and externally to the Count. But, that's fascinating.
I want to say a little bit more about constraint. You have a line in the book--which I love. You could think of luxury as a lack of constraint and poverty is an example of constraint.
There are many things we adopt in life as constraints. I'm an observant Jew. People find that puzzling: How could you choose to restrict yourself on Sabbath for 25 hours? But, at one point Count Rostov talks about the conveniences of his life--what are basically luxuries. And, he says, 'But, in the end it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.' So, my question is--and that's an example of constraint, right? An inconvenience is a constraint. It's something that could have been: 'Just throw money at that.' No, you can't, it turns out. Okay, now what?
Is that true for you in your personal life? Or is that just one of Count Rostov's thoughts?
Amor Towles: Like I said before, when Count Rostov has some of these thoughts, I'm like, 'Oh my God, that's so ingenious. That's so true.'
And, the full context of that passage is he's with a lover in bed, basically. And, she's admiring things that she doesn't have that the Americans have.
And, he says, 'Well, they're conveniences.' And, he says, 'I'll tell you what's convenient, is arriving late. It's going to one party and having the carriage wait outside to go to the next party. It's postponing marriage. It's not having children. These are conveniences.'
And, then in retrospect, it's theinconveniences that have mattered. And, this is later in the story. And so, the young aristocrat who at the age of 32 goes into the hotel and has had the ultimate access to conveniences--part of his life, he's gone--is to go through and rediscover what is important, what is meaningful, what matters to him most. And, that happens in array of ways in the story.
And, so, yes, I think that there's a very natural transition to go from these things that we prize and love that we have access to. And then you go through a transformation where you might take on something that it's less clear what it's value to you is. It's more difficult to achieve and yet suddenly you have this moment where you're like, 'Oh my God, this is better than that easy, lovely thing I used to admire so much.'
Children, of course, is the greatest example of all. For any of us who have children, it is nothing but an inconvenience, right?
But yet, people are obsessed with their children, and they fill them with joy and anxiety and all these different things and make them feel fuller as adults.
And, it's okay to not have children, too. I don't mean to suggest that being--parenthood is the be all and end all. But we've all witnessed this. The trials of being a parent of young children in human nature--and of course, the species depends upon this. We have evolved in this way. If you did not at some deep level get satisfaction from caring for an infant, you would put them on the stoop and leave them for the wolves.
Russ Roberts: Oh, for sure.
Amor Towles: Because they drive you crazy, otherwise. But, of course, this is a part of why[?], as I say: some challenge is almost always essential to feeling a greater sense of fulfillment. Both in the casual sense and in the deeper sense through learning and through self-awareness and through your connection to others and all these things that make the human experience so magnificent.
And so, some challenge is not an impediment to the realization of those things. It's almost an essential element to the realization of those things.
So, yeah, I think that young people can have this viewpoint, too, but certainly as you go through life, I think you gain a better understanding of this.
And so, yes, the Count going through that discovery of a very particular kind, I think it's probably shared by many.
And, when I say that a character says something, I'm like, 'Oh, that's great, Count,' very often what that means is you can sense, hopefully, a certain universality to what the character has just said or observed.
If it was just true to the Count, it wouldn't resonate with me in the same way. And so, suddenly if the Count says this thing that I wouldn't thought of, it resonates with me, then you're[?] like, 'Oh, other people might tune into that too and really connect with that.' And, that's always an interesting part of the puzzle.
Russ Roberts: In my new book, Wild Problems, which I think--yeah, it will be out when this airs--I talk about the fact that if you think of your decision to have children as a utilitarian one, it's very possible that for most parents, the number of good days is vastly outweighed by the number of bad days.
And, you could even say that about, I think for many people, marriage is that. There's lots of challenging days. There's lots of challenging days as a parent, certainly.
And, that's not why you do it. The day-to-day calculus that economists use, typically, of pleasure versus pain and what we call utility I think is missing something; and good economists realize that.
But, incorporating that into the models is very difficult and I'm intrigued by that question.
And, psychologists also disagree about whether--I quote Daniel Gilbert in my book: 'All that matters is the sum of pleasure versus pain.'
I don't think so. Unless you want to say: But, the overarching pleasure of having the identity and experience of a purposeful life from, say, parenting or something else--art, whatever it is that speaks deeply to you--it's hard to include that in the day-to-day summation.
It's not a majority rule thing, for me anyway. It's just the number of good days versus bad days. Terrible way to think about life.
Amor Towles: This to say it's the sum of a pleasure or pain is pithy in a way that's not really productive. Because, as we both know, and I come from a Puritan background, meaning hundreds of years ago. But, the tradition in New England kind of gets handed down; and it shares certain things, I think, with the Jewish tradition in terms of a respect for sacrifice and respect for a lack of abundance and for a lack of showiness and a lack of excess. And, it turns out that that whole community found great satisfaction through denial.
Russ Roberts: Correct. And, there's some of that Judaism. Judaism doesn't have that as richly as some strains of other religions, but there's a strain like that.
Amor Towles: Yeah. Yeah. But, anyway, but yeah, it's not as simple as to say pleasure and pain. Because, those things can be very much tied together, or access and sacrifice can be tied together in different ways.
Russ Roberts: [SPOILER ALERT!] So, this is the closest that we'll get to a spoiler and if you want to shut this conversation off, you may.
But, there's a scene in the book where--the Count is a man of extremely good taste--as I suspect Amor Towles is. He knows a lot. He knows the way around a kitchen, or at least a restaurant, and a wine list. And, the Count has got superb and very demanding taste for both food and wine.
And, at one point it's discovered that, through a decree, all the magnificent wine cellar of the Metropol has been stripped of its labels.
So, when the Count orders a particular kind of wine he wants with his ossobuco or whatever dish it is, the waiter tells him, 'Well, it's simple. It's red or white. Which one do you want?'
Even though--and this is the part that's spectacular--a red could be anything. There's some of the greatest wines of all time are down there, and then there's some not so great wines down there. But, they're all called 'red' now.
And, I enjoyed that as an example of Soviet malfeasance, but I didn't appreciate it until I prepared for this interview to think about that as a metaphor for the Soviet view of humanity, which I'm sure you had in mind.
There's a beautiful passage where you talk about each wine being distinctive, having its own heritage, its own history, its own strengths, its own weaknesses. It goes with some things but not others.
And, of course, the worst part to my mind of the Soviet experiment was egalitarianism--which is a virtue in certain dimensions--taken to this extreme.
And, in a way it's a harmless one in this case. Really, who cares? In fact, it's nice. A person who doesn't have much money, happens to get a magnificent vintage. Whereas, a rich person is stuck with rot gut.
But, when you think it in the human context, it's a little different. So, talk about that if you're willing to.
Amor Towles: So, this is another one of these cases of the writing providing its own gifts, in that the Count is going through, in the early part of the novel, a sequence of humiliations--an open-ended sequence of humiliations.
He starts with the house arrest, but then he gets moved to a smaller room immediately. It's one thing after another. It's the new world cutting into whatever the old world for him used to be.
And, I kind of was looking for almost a straw that would break the camel's back. And, what would be the thing that the Soviets would do that would just finally almost break him?
And so, I thought about [?] different things; and then suddenly, I was like, 'Oh, I know. So, perfect. What's going to happen is he's going to go to the restaurant and he's going to say, I'll have the Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1918, whatever.'
And, him saying, 'Oh no, sorry, sir, it's only red and white.' And, he's like, 'Get the maitre d''--he's become friendly with the maitre d'. And, the maitre d' takes him down to the cellar and there, by decree, all the wine labels have been removed. Because, of course--
Russ Roberts: It's unfair.
Amor Towles: Yeah. In the extreme sense, pricing wine at different levels is not very communistic in an economic sense. It is almost built-in privilege, and putting something out of reach of one, and the best out of reach of the many, and the worst in the reach of all, kind of thing.
So, I kind of came up with this notion of that would be hilarious and in a way fitting with some of the crazy bureaucratic decisions that were made in the spirit of true communism and also would be so crushing to the Count who's a foodie, in essence.
And so, I kind of know that; and in my notes, I said, 'Okay, that's what's going to happen. He's going refuse the wine, and the waiter who brings the wine is his nemesis. And so, that's great. And, maybe even the guy who brought the waiter, who announced it, is the guy who came up with the idea in the first place.'
And so, there's all this kind of stuff like, that's fitting. And, I know he's going to go down the stairs with the maitre d', see the wreckage, this giant wine cellar.
And, I kind of had, early on, this idea that the maitre d', who's a very honorable Frenchman who's living in Russia, sort of stopping at the staircase and allowing the Count to walk down through the rows of delabeled bottles.
And, I always thought of it as in essence the lieutenant stopping as the General is walking through the hospital after a battle--lieutenant with his hands behind his back, because the General is walking and seeing the carnage.
And so, I kind of did that, and I knew that the Count was going to stop, take a bottle from rack and, like, hold it in his hand, like Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick. That's why I had this vision.
But, I really didn't know what he was going to say. But, I was like, 'Oh, this is going to be great.' So, anyway, you write the thing. He comes down the stairs, and the maitre d' stops, and he continues down the aisle, and he takes the bottle in his hand.
And, it was really what I was writing right up till that moment where suddenly it all came tumbling out--where the Count is thinking about the individuality of wines, and that that's really the loss of the labels.
And, he's thinking about the fact that the nature of wine--and I know more about food than I know about wine--but, of course, the most basic scientific fact about wine is that it is the expression of a very small acreage.
So, whether the particular acre is north facing, south facing, whether it's exposed to wind or not, the fog or not the fog, the number of days of sun, the number of days of rain, the minerality of the soil--these are the things that ultimately lead a wine to have a particular flavor, or however you want to put that in a more sophisticated sense. And, then of course you can take that on[?] extra--so, literally one acre on Napa versus another acre that is a 100 yards away, versus another acre that's a 100 yards away versus a 100 yards away--they all are totally different in terms of the potential wine composition that comes out of them, given all these factors.
But, then you can add to that, of course, by saying, 'Well, in any given year, it's different as well.' So, yes, the one that's from this acre will be related to any vintage from that acre over time, but in a year with more sun or more rain, that vintage will be different.
And so, this is all going through the Count's head. And as I'm writing this, I'm like, 'Oh, my God, this is it.' This is to your point. It was not planned. It was a discovery in the writing process that this is the whole Soviet mess: the stripping down of individuality that makes human nature so extraordinary. And, where in human nature it is this combination of the acre where we're growing up in and the weather that we're going through, that turns us into very specific individuals with some relationship to those around us, but yet unique attributes.
And, that that's of course what we're ultimately going to bemoan in the evolution of the Soviet experiment. And, this is of[?] relatively early in the book, and he knows it's going in that direction.
And, that's what's really going to break his--you know, it's not the--yes, the loss of the wine is a disappointment. But, it's a small disappointment compared to the recognition that we're going in a direction where individuality could be stamped out, human individuality.
But, yes, that's the fun about the writing process. As I said, if I know what's going on, then these things can present themselves in the course of the work itself.
Russ Roberts: When I send a book to my editor, which is very painful for me, because I'm [?] reviser and I'm sending it for the last time, and it's over, I'm done, I've made all the changes I'm going to be able to make, and it's coming out.
I never look at it again. Very rarely. Very rarely do I reread a book of mine. Have you read A Gentleman in Moscow since 2016?
You know it very well. I just read it about six weeks ago and when I went through it quickly this afternoon to get ready for this. And, often when I interview authors about their books, I know it better than they do because I just read it and they wrote it years ago, sometimes. I don't always interview authors when their books are new. Have you read it recently?
Amor Towles: No. But, it takes me five years to write a book and I've only written three. And, I remember novels that I read in high school, that I didn't write.
So, I think, like a lot of reader-writers, I have a very good narrative memory--
Russ Roberts: It's impressive--
Amor Towles: It's an advantage--
Russ Roberts: It's extraordinary--
Amor Towles: And, it's very different--I have many peers who are friends who are writing a book a year. And so, 10 years goes by and they've written 10 books; and that's very hard.
And, that book has made a very different impression on them and will probably make a very different impression on the reader, too.
And, the author and the reader are both comfortable with that difference. And, I am--you know, I read mystery novels in the summer. I love it, reading suspense novels. And, some of the great writers of those were cranking them out once a year.
And, after I read four, I get--can't remember in which one was the butler the one who did it? And, in which one was it the mistress? [?] I don't know--because it all starts merge together. But that's fine. It doesn't take away from the pleasure of reading it.
But, I'm sure that for the author, it is a very different experience than where I'm living it with a greater long period of time and rereading it over and over the years as I edit it. And, that changes the way you think about it.
Russ Roberts: You recently wrote on Twitter that you're reading all the books of Georges Simenon, the French mystery writer. What else do you read now for either pleasure or profit besides mysteries?
Amor Towles: Well--and I just do that in the summer. I'll take a suspense or mystery writer and read them chronologically. And, kind of, year to year I'll change it up. And that's part of a gift to myself in the summer.
But, normally I read with three friends. We've been reading together for almost 20 years. And, we meet on a monthly basis to discuss a novel. And, we read projects. So, we will take an author and read five, six, seven of their novels chronologically, or we'll take a region or a time period or a theme. And, we'll do multiple books from that place, that time, that theme, whatever it is, generally chronologically, working chronologically over a half a year. And, then we'll shift gears and do something new. And so, we've been doing that, as I say, for almost 20 years. And, that's the serious reading.
Russ Roberts: Who do you love from that 20-year passage of time? Who are some of the favorites?
Amor Towles: Yah. Like, for instance, we did a period where we took a year and we read a handful of Nobel Prize winners who had not written in English and where we were not familiar with their work.
So, we did sort of a series of those. And all of us--and the four of us were all very different--we sort of, we're tending to read classic literature. We're not sifting through the contemporary pile. And so the hit rate is very high. Because you're reading things that time has filtered out as excellent. But, nonetheless, even then you can have moments where there's unanimity of, 'Oh, that was amazing.'
And, one of those was the works of reading Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo trilogy, where none of us had read Mahfouz. He's the first Nobel Prize winner to write in Arabic.nThe novel was not a part of the Arabic tradition at all up until the 20th century. And, he was a great lover of the French and British and Russian novels and brought that sensibility to describe--excuse me--the life of a family, multi-generational experience in a single building in Cairo. Over three books.
And, it's just terrific and amazing work. All kind of set in pre-Second World War Cairo, for the most part--
Russ Roberts: So cool--
Amor Towles: But, it was just a great discovery. You kind of go into a new world. The three of us--we did Thomas Mann for a period. And, this book I'm talking about, the Cairo trilogy, is very reminiscent in a way of Buddenbrooks, which none of us had read--and we love, we all love.
Russ Roberts: Really? Wow. Okay. Maybe I need to give it another shot.
Russ Roberts: Your main character, Count Rostov, is a gentleman by description. In Yiddish we would call him a mensch--a person who knows the right thing to do and manages to do it.
A friend of mine says that the Count is 'the embodiment of the life well-lived'--albeit one in a very constrained way. But, still do you agree? What might we learn from him?
Amor Towles: Well, you know, I think that--hopefully, a well-written novel can be a font of discovery for all of us. Right? So, I'm not trying to create the Count as an exemplar. I'm not trying to create the Gentleman in Moscow as a tool for better living.
So, let me just sort of talk about what I'm trying to do, and then we can tie it to the specific aspect of your question. Which is that I'm very interested in the fact that the novel at its best is in essence a machine for meaning.
If you think about the composition of a novel, what it is, is it's literally a thousand elements of craft that are being brought together.
And, those elements of craft include elements of plot, of setting, of characterization, of sequences of dialogue, of the expression of sentiments and ideas. There's allusion and allegory and all kinds of poetic elements that are a part of it.
These are all elements of craft, of the structure--like we've talked about. And, then you have word choice itself, and phrasing, and point of view and cadence and the poetry of the language.
All of these are elements of craft. And a novelist--literally thousands of individual choices from the elements of craft to create this work.
Now in its best--at its best--the novel, having been this assembly of elements, is entertaining to readers of all different types, engaging for them.
But, the loose array of all these different elements, which are operating in harmony in a well-executed novel, is such that people from different backgrounds, different ages, different personalities can come in and be entertained and walk away with a very different perspective of what it means, right?
Because, as they're reading, they're making their own selection, consciously or unconsciously, of these different components. And, by bringing these components into the forward of their mind, they're saying, 'Ah, this book is really about personal freedom.'
And, I can actually show you that. Because, this happens; and this image and the recurrence of birds, and blah da, da, da, da, da. And, then that's really what this book is about.
And, the person who you're sitting across from at dinner can say, 'Wait, no, wait, no. What this book is really about'--and then they'll go through their version of it. Because, as they're reading it, they're making their own associations, drawing their own connections, highlighting different components of the book in a different way.
And so, and this of course is why, when it is done effectively, a book can survive hundreds of years in the interests of contemporary readership. Right?
You know, we read Tolstoy today with great pleasure. We read--Shakespeare being the extreme example because that's like 500 years of survival. But, it's because of this dynamic that the book is entertaining.
And yet, the loose--the disarray of elements held together in this harmony allow for an invite, a constant reinterpretation of what the text means.
And, this also allows people from different races and genders and social classes to enjoy the work over different periods of time. And for the same person to read the book at the age of 20, 40, and 60 to enjoy it each time and yet walk away with a very different perspective of what it meant to them. You know?
So, this is really the goal. And, whether I achieve it or not, time tells. But, so, you create A Gentleman in Moscow with this as the goal and you hope that different people are coming to it and discovering different things. The personality of the Count and his ethos is one element. And, you hope that the richness of the book will serve and engender different insights for different people--many of which are beyond the scope of even my understanding. That's the ideal.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm very grateful that--I don't know whether I should be happy or sad but you can tell me, as to whether we've delayed the next Amor Towles novel this morning. And, if so, are you willing to give us a hint as to what that is?
Amor Towles: My new novel, coincidentally or maybe not coincidentally, it does start in Cairo in the 1940s. I read the Mahfouz half a decade ago. But, my new book starts in Cairo in the mid-1940s for a very different reason and ends in New York in 1999. But, that's all I'll tell you about it.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Amor Towles. Amor, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Amor Towles: Thanks for having me, Russ.