Amor Towles on his new book, The Lincoln Highway
AMor Towles had never actually been under the vaulted ceiling of a house on Adirondack Lake when he described his debut in 2011, the bestseller Rules of civility. He could only imagine the allure of such an exalted common space – “that big room where the family gathers” – until, as he bought a second home with the money from that book, he found himself visiting a property an hour and a half north of Manhattan. “I was like, that’s it!” Towles said, throwing his arms up to a 30 footer. ceiling which, like the sparkling lake outside, now belongs entirely to him. “It was this weird thing where I was sort of buying the living room I wrote about,” he says. “Which, in a Stephen King novel, would end badly.”
In the storybook life of Amor Towles, however, the new owner lays thick oriental rugs (thicker still where they overlap), sets his laptop on a long oval table by picture windows, and – with his wife, son, daughter and nephew within earshot – is emerging from a pandemic by writing a new book.
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Lincoln Highway for the most part moved away from the bourgeois milieu of Rules of civility, who follows the ambitions of a winning young woman in 1930s New York City, and the biggest success of 2016 A gentleman in Moscow, in which an aristocrat is condemned to live in a luxury hotel. The new novel, released on October 5, begins with a farm boy named Emmett who is escorted home through Nebraska in 1954 by the principal of a reform school. He spent time for accidentally killing a tyrant, and while he was gone, Emmett’s father died and the local bank seized the family farm. It may sound dark, but adventure awaits. There are stowaways in the trunk of the manager’s car who want to take the story one way. Emmett’s little brother, Billy, pulls him into another, who stumbled upon a cache of postcards their mother sent after they had disappeared from their lives years earlier.
Towles searched for old postcards from specific towns after realizing they would form a trail in the new book.
Courtesy of Amor Towles
“These are the postcards,” Towles said, spreading out a stack of old cards on the table that he began to search after the idea came to him. The top one represents a motel in Ogallala, the mother’s first stop after leaving her family. Towles then takes the British Army officer’s wristwatch that appears in two of his novels out of a drawer.
The author can situate his stories in a precise past, but he considers the story only as suggestive, as the backdrop of an opera. The foreground, on the other hand, must be as concrete as the artifacts that connect the worlds it creates. “If it’s a Chekhov play, and they’re sitting around the table, and there’s tea on the table, that stuff can’t seem wrong,” he says. he. “When someone slams the cup, it must look like porcelain hitting the table.”
In many ways, Towles writes what he knows. The education outside of Boston which he calls “middle class” involved private school, then Yale and Stanford. “My great-grandparents,” he admits, “would have been very comfortable in Edith Wharton’s novels.
Towles began writing in first grade, and years later at a Yale seminar was taken aside by Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, who saw a talent that the two made a pact to cultivate. So when Towles announced that to please his father, a banker, he was going to work in finance, his mentor was “furious.” America’s financial industry is known to fry some of the brightest minds in all fields. “The people I’ve seen going to Wall Street aren’t coming back,” recalls Matthiessen, saying. “So you have to assume that at this point you have turned your back on writing for the rest of your life.”
While making his first fortune as a partner in a boutique investment firm, Towles occasionally saw Matthiessen. “He was the Jacob Marley of my life. The chains slammed outside the door. After a decade, convinced that if he did not resume writing he would turn 50 “bitter and drinker”, he found more than seven years’ time to write a novel which he finally concluded was bad. . But recognizing that the best writing had been done in the first year, he devised a solution: spend as much time as needed to describe a story, but only 12 months writing the first draft.
The idea was “to try to capture the freshness of the imaginative moment, where everything is exciting and interesting and reveals itself,” he says. The detailed plan is crucial. This allows him to get his bearings when he surfaces wherever he goes to produce the curvy and often charming prose that, like Towles, can be described as cosmopolitan. “For me, it’s a lot about this thread of language, and how it unfolds and refers to itself as it goes,” he says.
The author’s home in Garrison, NY, once a gentleman’s hunting lodge, came with the lake.
Isabel Magowan for TIME
He took the time to heart. Rules of civility covers one calendar year, which is precisely the time it took to write it, starting January 1, 2006. He determined that Lincoln Highway should run over 10 days, although at 600 pages the first draft took 18 months, as did A gentleman in Moscow.
The title of the new book, referring to the country’s first transcontinental highway, seems to promise a road trip. “It’s fairer to say it’s a travel book,” says Towles. Emmett and the stowaways – a quick-spoken thug known as the Duchess and her hapless companion, Woolly – are all 18, the age at which, Towles notes, after receiving advice from all sides, a youngster begins to make decisions about their own life.
Lake sparkling in the September morning light, the tour continues. Behind the main house, on the wall of his underused office, hangs a framed map of Yoknapatawpha County, invented by William Faulkner and populated by characters who could appear in any of his books. Joyce employs the same trick, as does spy writer Alan Furst, whose best book offers Towles-like satisfactions – invoking eras we think of in black and white, in part evoking the films of the period (including some in the book), while offering the singular pleasures of literary fiction.
Before publishing his first bestseller, Towles was a partner in a Wall Street company.
Isabel Magowan for TIME
Woolly turns out to be Wolcott’s abbreviation; his uncle was in Rules of civility. Towles, the lively type, visibly lights up as he remembers the moment it occurred to him that the nephew would be the second boy to come out of the trunk of the Headmaster’s car.
“No reader needs to notice it to be happy about it,” he says. “You have a story and all of a sudden the appearance of a person opens the door to that other story. Or, as the case may be, in a large room.