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An Exclusive Waterstones Q & A with Amor Towles

Posted on 16th February 2017 by Sally Campbell
'It's all too rare to find a fun, glamorous, semi-literary tale to get lost in.’ So said The Guardian of Amor Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility, an assured and evocative account of Manhattanite life in the Thirties. Going on to win the French 2012 Prix Fitzgerald, Towles now returns with his effortlessly urbane A Gentleman in Moscow, the tale of a somewhat singular man - Count Alexander Rostov – who finds himself under house arrest after sentence from a 1922 Bolshevik tribunal. What follows is decades of imprisonment through the most tumultuous decades of Russia’s history and the slow, fascinating rebirth of the Count’s sense of purpose. We caught up with the author to discuss the novel’s genesis and where its fiction met fact.

Image: The Modernism Mosaic of The Metropol Hotel,
Moscow (c) Rostislav Ageev

You have said that you spent a large part of your working life, before becoming a novelist, travelling the world. Was there a specific incident or trip that inspired the writing of this book? 

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.
   

The Russia that exists within your novel is vibrant, detailed and immersive, yet you say you have only visited the country on a few occasions. What was it that drew you to Russia as a setting for the book?

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.

Kazan Cathedral is a perfect symbol of Russia’s mystique for me during the Soviet era. Built in 1636 on Red Square to commemorate both the liberation of Moscow from interlopers and the beginning of the Romanov dynasty, Kazan was among Russia’s oldest and most revered cathedrals. In 1936, the Bolsheviks celebrated the 300th anniversary of its consecration by razing it to the ground. In part, they levelled the cathedral to clear Red Square for military parades, but also to punctuate the end of Christianity in Russia. But Peter Baranovsky, the architect who was directed to oversee the dismantling, secretly drafted detailed drawings of the cathedral and hid them away. More than fifty years later, when Communist rule came to its end, the Russians used Baranovsky’s drawings to rebuild the church stone for stone.

I find every aspect of this history enthralling. The cathedral itself is a reminder of Russia’s heritage—ancient, proud, and devout. Through the holy landmark’s destruction we get a glimpse of how ruthless and unsentimental the Russian people can be. While through the construction of its exact replica, we see their almost quixotic belief that through careful restoration, the actions of the past can effectively be erased. But most importantly, at the heart of this history is a lone individual who at great personal risk carefully documented what he was destroying in the unlikely chance that it might someday be rebuilt. The Soviet era abounds with sweeping cultural changes and with stoic heroes who worked in isolation at odds with the momentum of history towards some brighter future. 

 
The novel is set during the first half of the 20th Century. What was your attitude to writing historical fiction - did you set out to faithfully recreate the era or did you relish the opportunity to embellish the facts?

My interest in writing about the early twentieth century is neither a reflection of a love of history, nor nostalgia for a bygone era. What has attracted me to the period is that it has a proximate distance to the present. It is near enough in time that it seems familiar to most readers, but far enough away that they have no first-hand knowledge of what actually happened. This provides me with the liberty to explore the narrow border between the unbelievably actual and the convincingly imagined.

I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t. In terms of A Gentleman in Moscow, for instance, the launch of the world’s first nuclear power plant in Russia in 1954 is an historical fact, but the assembly of Party leaders to observe the blacking-out of Moscow is an invention. Similarly, the little copper plates on the bottom of antiques designating them as property of the People are a fact, while the wine bottles stripped of their labels are a fiction.

   
Imagination must therefore have played as large a part as research during the writing of this novel?

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. 

  
The finished novel is, as The Times notes, ‘exquisitely propped and styled'; while it was still a work in progress however, what proved to be the most challenging aspects of writing A Gentleman In Moscow?

Initially, I imagined that the central challenge posed by the book was that I was trapping myself, my hero, and my readers in a single building for thirty-two years. But my experience of writing the novel ended up being similar to that of the Count’s experience of house arrest: the hotel kept opening up in front of me to reveal more and more aspects of life.

In the end, a much greater challenge sprang from the novel’s geometry. Essentially, A Gentleman in Moscow takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

When effective, a book like this can provide a lot of unexpected satisfactions to the reader. The problem is that the plethora of elements in the first half can bog readers down making them so frustrated or bored that they abandon the book. So, my challenge was to craft the story, the point of view, and the language in such a way that readers enjoy the first half and feel compelled to continue despite their uncertainty of where things are headed. Whether or not I succeeded in doing so is up to you.

How did your writing process for this novel compare to the writing of your debut, Rules of Civility?

My process for writing A Gentleman in Moscow was very similar to my process for writing Rules of Civility. In both cases, I designed the book over a period of years—ultimately generating a outline which detailed the settings, events, and interactions of characters, as well as the evolution of personalities and themes chapter by chapter. Once I’m ready to start writing, my goal is to complete the first draft in a relatively short period of time. Thus I wrote the first draft of Rules of Civility in a year and the first draft of A Gentleman in Moscow in eighteen months.

While I’m working on my first draft I don’t share my work. But once I’ve completed that draft, I give it to my wife, my editor in New York, my editor in London, my agent, and four friends on the same day, asking that they give me feedback within three weeks. I then use their varied feedback to begin the revision process. For both books, I revised the initial draft three times from beginning to end over three years.

While I work with a very detailed outline, when the writing is going well it provides me with plenty of surprises. I was in the middle of writing the bouillabaisse scene in A Gentleman in Moscow, for instance, when I discovered that Andrey was a juggler. I was in the middle of drafting Sofia’s fitting, when I discovered (alongside the Count) that Marina had designed a dress less dress. And I was in the midst of the second or third draft when I noticed for the first time that moment in Casablanca when Rick sets upright the toppled cocktail glass.

  

The temporal shifts that comprise the novel’s distinctive structure are both highly effective and very unusual; can you explain your decision to write the book this way?

As you may have noted, the book has a somewhat unusual structure. From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.

While odd, this accordion structure seems to suit the story well, as we get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.
  

 

Image: Map of Moscow 1922, from A Gentleman in Moscow (c) Alex Coulter

 

The Metropol, where Rostov is held captive, is undoubtedly a finely drawn character in its own right and a place many readers will no doubt long to visit. Whereas Jay Gatsby’s mansion or Wes Anderson’ Grand Budapest Hotel exist only in the imagination, the Metropol is not entirely fictional, is it?

The Metropol is a real hotel which was built in the center of Moscow in 1905 and which is still welcoming guests today. Contrary to what you might expect, the hotel was a genuine oasis of liberty and luxury during the Soviet era despite being around the corner from the Kremlin and a few blocks from the headquarters of the secret police.

Because the Metropol was one of the few fine hotels in Moscow at the time, almost anyone famous who visited the city either drank at, dined at, or slept at the Metropol. As a result, we have an array of firsthand accounts of life in the hotel from prominent Americans including John Steinbeck, e. e. cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts and read a short history of the hotel at The Metropol section of this web site.
  

The novel is populated with rich and intriguing characters. Did any real-life figures find their way into the book?

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 colourful 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, 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.

 

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