CH@T: Best-selling author of ‘Lincoln Highway’ talks story development, writing process and more

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Author Amor Towles’ most recent novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” was named the number one book on Amazon.com’s list of “books of the year” for 2021, with Amazon editors describing it as “a compassionate, hopeful, and compulsively readable tale that’s full of wonderfully fond characters, trying to do the right things, and in all the wrong ways.”

Towles’ previous books are “Rules of Civility,” published in 2011, and “A Gentleman in Moscow,” which was published in 2016 and was a New York Times bestseller for 104 weeks. Those two books combined to sell more than four million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages.

“The Lincoln Highway” was published last October to great acclaim. It was named a New York Times “Notable Book” and chosen as “best book of the year” by Time, NPR, The Washington Post and Oprah Daily.

This week, we feature a transcript from a portion of an interview with Towles by CN+R Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III. The full interview can be seen on the News + Record’s Facebook page. This excerpt has been edited for clarity and brevity.

People not familiar with your story may not know you spent 20 years working in the investment world before your first book, “Rules of Civility,” became an international best-seller. Can you walk us through the story of that transition from the role of finance to becoming a novelist?

I wrote fiction as a kid, I wrote it in high school and college, and in graduate school. So to my old friends, the surprising thing was that I ended up in the investment business for 20 years. That was the digression, as it were.

During my career I wrote on the side, in my spare time. But I had periods where I didn’t have time to write because we were busy. Eventually I wrote a book I didn’t like and set it aside, and then I wrote another book — and that was “Rules of Civility.” And when that became a best-seller, I then retired from the firm and dedicated myself to writing full time. So it was a long time coming, but a relatively seamless transition, all things considered.

I don’t want to give away the stories of your books, because they really have to be savored and enjoyed. But can you share a little bit about the development of “The Lincoln Highway,” and about how all your books develop within your mind?

I have ideas for stories — long stories, short stories, narratives of different kinds — all the time. And what will happen is a notion will generally present itself to me very quickly, because I see something, or it’s out of the blue. And it often comes in the form of a sentence — you know, “a guy gets trapped in a hotel for a long period of time.” That’s really where “A Gentleman Moscow” began. Then there’s certain things I’ll start to see in that story. So in the case of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I immediately thought, “I’ll set it in Russia. And it’ll be about an aristocrat born in the 19th century who gets into house arrest near the Kremlin … and he’s going to spend 30 years in the hotel” — I knew all that within minutes. Then it’s a multi-year process of actually creating the work that you read.

With “Lincoln Highway,” it was the same kind of thing in that I had this notion of — “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a kid who’s done time on a juvenile work farm is being driven home by the warden, ready to start fresh, and it turns out that two other kids from the juvenile work facility have hidden in the trunk of the warden’s car?”

And that’s kind of where I started. Again, that came very quickly with some instincts: “Oh, it’s gonna be great. The two kids are from New York. And [the main character] he’s from a farm in Nebraska, and the farm is in an in foreclosure and his dad has died. And it’s going to be set in the 1950s. And it’s going to take place over just 10 days” — all that, right away, that’s where I started.

Now, as I say, I have ideas like this all the time. And they have something of a little bit of shape to them, like I’ve just described. But occasionally I’ll just keep dwelling on one over a period of years, just keep imagining another layer of the story, another element of story, going deeper into a setting, deeper into the life of a character, deeper into a series of events until I get to the point where I can kind of visualize the whole thing, or a great deal of it. And at that point I start to outline it. And only when that’s done do I actually sit down to write it.

So with “The Lincoln Highway,” I had the original idea more than 15 years ago. I began filling notebooks of content of the story, dating back to, maybe, 2013, 2014, and then eventually outlined it and wrote it — so it’s a long process of evolution.

I’m curious about a “snapshot” of where you are right now, because “The Lincoln Highway” was just published on the heels of two other phenomenal bestsellers you wrote. And you’ve done a little bit of a book tour, but you’re getting ready to start another stretch of a book tour. So you’re in this little “in between,” where you’re finishing promoting the book, but maybe haven’t quite shifted your focus to your next work. What’s that period like for you?

That’s a good description, Bill, because you’re right, I don’t like to be writing a new novel while I’m still on the road and still talking about the last novel. It’s very hard to do those things at the same time.

So I will use this time to write shorter works, short stories. The design process that I’m talking about for my new book has been going on for years, but I’m moving closer to the culmination of that. So I’m in the process of outlining that next book. I’m in the process of making sure that I’m going to be ready to start writing chapter one, when the light turns green, which will be maybe around July 1 or something like that. So I’m in the process of getting all my ducks in a row before I launch the actual process of writing the book, page by page.

You’ve talked a lot in previous interviews about your writing process, this five-year process that you follow when you write a book. Is there any part of that process that you particularly love, or any part of the process that you particularly dread or don’t like?

You know, I like all the elements. So you know, there’s an imaginative process that’s really fun, because the stakes are low. And you know, you can’t make mistakes — you’re just inventing. That’s, of course, a lot of fun.

But I also like the process of beginning to drill down a little bit more carefully. Where is that going to be? And what does it look like? And who’s in the room? And what are they talking about? You know, sort of a more granular part of the imagined process ...

I also like the process of launching the book, where you say, “OK, I’m ready.”

I often think it’s a little bit like training for a boxing match. I’m not a boxer, but I’m a fan of Muhammad Ali. And you go through this incredible training to prepare yourself for the ring. And I’m sure that when Ali was doing that, he gets to a point where he wants to fight tomorrow — a point where he can’t wait to get in the ring, because you feel like you are ready. And so that, for me ... I enjoy getting ready.

And then actually stepping in and beginning to tackle the chapters one at a time …

Editing is a whole other process, and that is very painstaking. It’s very laborious. But experience has shown me that that’s the place where you can dramatically improve work that you’ve already done. By making subtle changes by removing parts, by introducing new elements. You can take something that is, you know, ideally, something that’s a “B+” and turn it into “A” work. But I like that too, even though it’s can be a painstaking process.

Writing a novel is a complex process. You’ve got a story arc, you have characters, you have the structure of the presentation — and what you’re giving to the reader, of course, are the words on the page. You certainly excel in each of those four areas, but I want to ask you about the words that are on the page. How much of that comes naturally to you? And how much of that requires a lot of sweat and effort and hard work? And how much of that comes as a result of your editing?

It’s a combination. I’m an outliner, and so by the time I write chapter one, I know all the chapters — what’s going to happen, the settings, the characters, what the events are. I know a great deal. And the reason I want to be an outliner is because it allows me to free up my subconscious, or the poetic, imaginative aspect of my craft. It maximizes that when I’m writing a chapter. Because if I’m sitting down to write chapter seven, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the book — I don’t know where the character is going, what the setting is, or what the events are; who’s going to come in the room or what their background is — you imagine all the energy your mind is putting into making decisions about that … and trying to figure it out and craft it all in the moment.

The more I know about that in advance, what it really is, the more I don’t have to worry about that.

I can let my imagination take over and say, “What’s the most interesting way to describe this? What’s the most refreshing? Or surprising?” Or, you know, “What is the nuance of what this person is feeling? What is underneath the surface between these two people as they’re talking?”

… I use the outlining to create an environment where my subconscious can really start to express itself. And ideally from that, you’re infusing some of the poetry, some of the energy, some of the emotion, and maybe a little bit of mysticism, into the set, the scene, into the paragraph, or whatever.

And then we shift, and now we’re into the editing mode. The problem with the beautiful poetic mindset that I was describing is that it’s not well-controlled, it’s not perfectly modulated. If it’s coming in a rush, you’re trying to write it down as quickly as possible … you got a lot of sentences you’re not even bothering to finish, you know, because you kind of know that you just want to get through and you know you can go back and fix it later.

Then there’s this job of saying, “OK, how can I take this energy and start to make sure that from the reader’s standpoint, as they’re moving through it, it is fluid, it is sharp, it is concise, it hits the right tone, and the right note, and the right word ...

So you’re kind of at a very fine level pursuing what’s the right word for each individual space ...

As I said, there’s a big imaginary process that is underlying, I think, the unleashing of paragraphs that are worth reading. But then there’s a lot of editing that to goes into making sure those paragraphs live up to their full potential.

What do you like about the book tour experience, and particularly interacting with the readers?

It’s like a like a rock and roll tour without the glamour of the money or the crowds. You get up and have breakfast at a hotel and you go to the airport. And you arrive and you have an hour for yourself in another hotel and then you go and you speak for an hour or longer, and then you go have dinner by yourself and go to bed and get up and do it again — meaning you go back to the next airport.

So it’s not a very glamorous thing to do. But it is a luxury. I don’t mean in the financial sense, but it’s a luxury as an author to have a book reach its audiences in such a way that they would like to come and hear what you have to say. It’s a great luxury, as an author, to be in a position where you could fly into Greensboro and have somebody show up who wants to talk about the book and hear about the book and get their book signed. And because it’s a luxury to be able to go out and interact with those people, I feel very lucky to do it. But then I do have to get back and start the next book as soon as I can.

I’d love to get a peek at your notebooks and maybe give some insight and some of the things you’ve been thinking about. Can you share anything about what’s next?

All I can tell you is it’s going to be different — just in the same way that “Lincoln Highway” was different from “A Gentleman in Moscow,” the next book will be different from “The Lincoln Highway.” That’s all I can tell you.

For more information, go to Towles's website. Towles will appear May 19 at the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival.

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