Amor Towles: 2017 National Book Festival

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Ron Charles: Our
guest this evening, as you know, is Amor Towles. [ Applause ] He told me last night that he was
afraid that being last at the end of the day that nobody would come. Turn around. The room is completely packed. Amor worked for 20 years as
an investment banker until, like so many investment bankers
before him, he began to pine for the financial security
of being a novelist. Don’t laugh. In 2011, his debut novel, Rules
of Civility, was a breakout hit. And his wonderful new novel,
A Gentleman in Moscow, is still on the Washington
Post best seller list, though it was published
last September. [ Applause ] If you’ve read it, you know why. A Gentleman in Moscow is about a Russian aristocrat
count Alexander Rostov. At the start of the novel in 1922, the Bolsheviks declared him a
former person and sentenced him to house arrest in a grand
hotel near the Kremlin where he spends the next 32
years without ever leaving. No spoilers. That plot may sound a bit
constraining, but in Amor’s hands, it is wonderfully expansive because his total is a fascinating
place full of fantastic characters, some coming and going, others
permanent, and, of course, the most wonderful one of all is
the count himself, this elegant, sophisticated, unfailingly
kind and generous man. Like hundreds of thousands
of other readers, I fell in love with the count. He truly knows the rules of
civility, as does his creator. Please join me in welcoming
Amor Towles. [ Applause ]>>Amor Towles: Thank you. I want to thank the
festival for having me here. Ron, thank you for the introduction. But most of all, I really want
to thank all of you for coming out tonight to hear me speak. As most of you know, my relatively
new novel has a rather odd premise, that it opens in 1922 at a
Bolshevik tribunal in the Kremlin where a 30-year-old
aristocrat is being interviewed. And in the course of this brief
interview, it becomes clear that the count wrote a poem as a
young man that was very popular with the revolutionary generation. So he has some friends in the upper
ranks of the party, as it were. But on the other hand,
it’s also clear that he’s an unrepentant aristocrat. And so as something of a
compromise, the tribunal decides that the count can go back to the
hotel where he’s been staying, and if he ever comes out of the
hotel again, he will be shot. And with the snap of a gavel,
he’s marched out of the Kremlin, across Red Square,
and through the doors of the historic Metropol Hotel. And that’s where he
spends the next 32 years. And that’s where I ask you
to spend 32 years with him. Now, where did this
odd premise come from? I began writing fiction as a kid. I wrote it in high school, in
college, in graduate school. But when I was 25 and I moved to
New York, I joined a friend of mine who had started an investment
firm, and 20 years later, we were still working side-by-side. Now, ultimately in my capacity
as a spokesperson for the firm, I would spend a week in any
given year in a hotel in Chicago, a hotel in London, a
hotel in Los Angeles. And one year when I was
arriving at my hotel in Geneva for the eighth year in a row,
as I walked into the hotel, I recognized some of
the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. And I thought to myself, this is
a nice hotel, but can you imagine if you actually had to live in it? In the elevator on the way upstairs,
I thought, that’s actually kind of an interesting idea for a book. A guy gets trapped in a hotel
for a long period of time. So in my hotel room, I took
out the hotel stationary and I began sketching the
outline for this story. Now, right off the bat, I
knew that if I was going to take my protagonist and trap
him in a hotel for 30 years, he shouldn’t be there by preference. He should be there by force. And that made me think of
Russia for some reason. I made this little
imaginative leap there. But as soon as I thought of
Russia, I knew that I wanted to put the story in this
story in the Metropol Hotel. Now, I had visited the Metropol
when I went to Moscow in 1998. I hadn’t stayed there,
but I had visited because it’s quite
famous architecturally. It has a giant dining room with
a hand painted glass ceiling that covers the entire room. So I had gone to admire the
architecture of the building. So I knew something about the hotel. And what it really comes
down to are two key factors. And the first is quite
simply location. Okay, here we go. And I know from the back, it’s
going to be hard to see this. So you’re just going to
have to bear with me. This is a map of central Moscow. Now, if you look in
the middle of this map, there is a little green triangle. And that’s the Kremlin, the great
stone fortress that’s 1,000 years old where the Tsars
lived and ruled Russia until Peter the Great
moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Now, just to the right of that triangle is a
little empty white space. That’s Red Square, which is
just a great paved square with an ancient cathedral
on either end of it. Now, if you went out the top
of Red Square and took a right, at about a half a block, you would
end up in what is shown in the inset of this map, in the lower right-hand
corner, which is a grand plaza with fountains and
plantings in the center around which are five majestic
19th century buildings, all of which are significant
in the history of the city. In the lower left-hand corner,
you have a building that was known as the palace of the nobility. It was the private
club of the nobility in the years before the revolution. It’s where they would gather every
year to celebrate anniversaries, weddings, you know,
that sort of thing. After the revolution, it became
known as the palace of the unions. It’s where Lennon’s body was
first held in state when he died, so the citizens of Moscow could
come pay their respects before they embalmed the body and put it
permanently on Red Square. It’s also where the famous show
trials in the 1930s were held. At the top of the plaza is
the Bolshoi, which, of course, is where the ballet performed then. It’s where it performs still today. In the upper right-hand corner is
the most expensive department store in Moscow before the revolution
and after the revolution too. Next, you have the Maly Theater, which is one of the two most
important dramatic these in Russia. And finally, in the
lower right-hand corner, you have the hotel
itself, the Metropol. So as I say, I knew the hotel to
be in a very important location in terms of the history and
the geography of Moscow. But, of course, a primary interest
to me was the hotel itself. Now, everything you see in
this picture is the hotel. The hotel is about the size of a
city block with hundreds of rooms. Now, this is from about– this is shortly after it
opened in 1905, this picture. When it opened in 1905, the
Metropol was, without question, the best hotel in Moscow. It was the best hotel in Russia. Built with the finest materials,
imported marble, imported crystal, French furniture in the bedrooms. It was the first hotel in Russia
to have hot water in the bedrooms. It was the first hotel in Russia
to have telephones in the bedrooms. So it was, without question, the
height of elegance when it opened. Now, while it was relatively unique
in Russia, it was far from unique in the west in that regard because
I want you to keep in mind that 1890 to 1910 roughly, this is the
golden age of the grand hotel. This is when large scale,
fine hotels were being opened in every major city in
Europe and the United States, all along the Mediterranean coast
and along the Florida coast. This is when the Waldorf
Astoria opens in New York. This is when the palace opens in San
Francisco, when the Breakers opens in Palm Beach, and
all the equivalents in Europe at the same time. Now, the grand hotels, they all
tended to be a size of a city block. They all tended to be made
with the best materials. But in addition, they would have
had a card room, a billiard room, multiple ballrooms, a great palm
court where tea would be served, shops on the ground floor that
would go around the circumference of the building that you
could enter from the lobby or from the street outside. Now, the grand hotels, of course,
what they were designed to do, to some degree, was to satisfy the
demands of the great new wealth that came out of the 19th century,
the Vanderbilts and their ilk. But in addition, these hotels
were designed to do something that hotels really hadn’t
been designed to do before. And that was to become an
extension of their city. What I mean by this, the best
way I can put this is if you went to the Metropol in the decade after
it opened on a Saturday night, more than half the
people you saw pass through the lobby would have
been Muscovites, not travelers. It would have been the
local Russians on their way to the coffee house to meet friends
or to go to the fine restaurant, which is the best in the city, or to
dance to one of the live orchestras that played there every night. So as I say, it was a– right from
its opening, it was very much a part of the social fabric of Moscow,
visited on a weekly basis by the aristocracy,
by the intelligentsia and by the upper bourgeoisie. Now, having said that the
Metropol shared many things with the grand hotels
throughout Europe, a distinguishing characteristic
is that 12 years after it opened, it found itself in the middle
of a Proletarian revolution. And it was very much in
the middle of things. As revolutionary activity
was heating up in 1917, a lot of it was centered in St.
Petersburg, where the Tsar was hold up in the Winter Palace,
the Hermitage. But there was a lot of revolutionary
activity occurring in Moscow, and there were protests
often with Theater Square, where the Metropol was located. So the soldiers, who on
permanent guard in the Kremlin, ended up taking over a
portion of the Metropol just in case anything happened. They put snipers in the corner
windows you see just left of center there, looking out over
Theater Square to keep an eye on any revolutionary
type of activity. Now, in response to
this, quite predictably, the Bolsheviks built barricades
across the middle of Theater Square. And they stood behind the barricades
with their weapons, with their backs to the Bolshoi, and you ended up
in sort of a Mexican stand-off. Now, in October, 1917, the
revolutionary activity boils over in St. Petersburg, the revolutionary stormed the
Winter Palace, they seized the tsar and his family, and they are
suddenly in control of the capital. News of this reaches
Moscow 24 hours later. And the Bolsheviks in Theater
Square decide enough is enough, and they bombard the Metropol
hotel with everything they’ve got, breaking every single
window in the hotel. Now, they successfully drive the
soldiers out of the Metropol, back across Red Square
through the Kremlin, and they end up in
control of the Kremlin. Now, we have a very
interesting firsthand account of these events from an American. John Reed, the great
American journalist, whom Warren Beatty
immortalized in the movie Reds, was a great classic
Greenwich Village lefty. He loved revolutionary activity. And when he sensed there might
be a revolution in Russia, he boarded an ocean liner,
crossed the Atlantic, took a train to St. Petersburg,
and he arrived just in time to follow the soldiers
into the Winter Palace as they were seizing the tsar. Now, when he came back out of
the Winter Palace, he decided, I’ve got to go see
what’s going on in Moscow. So he boards an overnight
train filled with soldiers. And he arrives in Moscow shortly
after the battle for Theater Square. And the first thing he does
when he gets there is he goes to the Metropol Hotel because
it’s the only hotel he knows by reputation. And he arrives and goes
straight to the desk. He asks if there’s a room
available for the night. And in this great unflappable
19th century fashion, the desk captain replies,
“we do have a room, provided that the gentleman
doesn’t mind a little fresh air.” Now, with the revolutionaries
in control of St. Petersburg and Moscow, this does not represent
the end of hostilities in Russia. This represents the beginning
of a five-year Civil War. Eight foreign countries
send soldiers into Russia with their own agendas. The whites, the soldiers who were
loyal to the tsar, are continuing to roam the countryside in small
battalions trying to pick fights with the red guard whenever
they find them in the hopes of turning back the tide of history. The revolutionaries
are not a single force. They are multiple factions who
have been kind of working together, but also elbowing each other
for control of the situation. Pretty early on, the
Bolsheviks are the faction who control St. Petersburg
and Moscow. And actually here we go. This is, of course, the
head of the Bolsheviks, the father of the revolution,
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who was also the first leader of the new Russia once
the tsar had been killed. I like to think of this as
Lenin’s Leonardo DiCaprio in the Titanic pose, you know? Sort of leaning out over
the bow there of his podium. This is Theater Square. That’s the Maly Theater behind him
that I showed you a few minutes ago. Because this is exactly where you
would want to go if you wanted to gather a large group and you
had an important speech to make. This is 1920, so we’re kind of in
the middle of the Civil War here. And what Lenin is doing is he
is speaking to factory workers, and he is trying to convince
them to join the Red Army and go to the Polish frontier. The great fear that the
Bolsheviks had at this point was that a foreign power would
take advantage of the chaos of the Civil War to
launch a major invasion. So they were constantly
recruiting new soldiers to protect the frontier
on the border. Now, this photograph is actually
very famous for another reason. And that is that Lenin, of course,
the father of the revolution, the head of the new
Russia, his number two, his right-hand man
during the revolution and in the new government, was Leon
Trotsky, his old friend and comrade. And as usual, Trotsky is right here at Lenin’s side as
he gives this speech. Now, you needn’t bother
looking for him. Here he is. He’s the guy with the mustache and
the captain’s hat just to the right of the podium, kind of
leaning on it as Lenin speaks. Now, you could tell from
these two photographs, which were taken seconds apart, that Trotsky’s not in
the first photograph. Now, he has not excused
himself to go to the washroom. What’s happened here is
that while Trotsky was one of the first Bolsheviks
to lead the new Russia, he was also the first
one to fall out of favor. He was pretty quickly
kicked out of the politburo, and then he was kicked out
of the communist party. He was sent into exile. And he was eventually assassinated
in Mexico City by Russian agents. And when that happened,
the Bolsheviks went back and this airbrushed him
out of all the photographs because they didn’t want Lenin to
have to share his moments of history with his old comrade who
had fallen from grace. Now, 1922, suffice to say that the
Bolsheviks control the whole show. They have silenced the whites,
they’ve sealed the border, and they’ve consolidated the,
to some degree [inaudible] and they are now in control
of the entire country. And the first thing they do is
they move the capital of Russia from St. Petersburg back to Moscow. Now, this poses a significant
problem for the Bolsheviks. Because Moscow did not
have the infrastructure to support a modern government. You couldn’t use the
Kremlin for that purpose. It’s an old stone building that hadn’t housed government
in hundreds of years. So what they did is they seized
the three best hotels in Moscow, the National, the Savoy
and the Metropol. The Metropol is renamed the
second house of the Soviets. They kick out all the guests. They sweep aside the luxuries. And the first thing they
do is they put the leaders of the new government, many
of them, in the suites, of the grand suites
on the second floor. Because you want to keep
in mind that the leaders of the Russian revolution
and the new government, for the most part,
were not Muscovites. Many of them were not even Russia. So they literally needed
places to stay. So they’re given the
suites in the hotel. But all the other rooms get
emptied to serve as all manner of governmental agencies that
this room can imagine better than almost anybody else. So they’re all filling
in the building. The ballroom is emptied so that they
can have votes and speeches there. The fine dining room is emptied,
and it’s filled with cots so they can keep a
standing battalion of soldiers on site just in case. The first Constitution of the new
Russia is written in suite 217 of the hotel, the Metropol. Now, at this point, the Metropol is
basically the largest bureaucratic building in the new Russia. And that should have represented the
end of its life as a grand hotel. But an interesting thing
happens over the course of 1922. And that is that the major European
powers begin recognizing the Bolsheviks as the legitimate
government in Russia. Now, it takes the United States
more than a decade to come around to that point of view. But the European powers
come to it quite quickly. Because keep in mind, they
just spent, most of them, a couple of last 150 years,
they’ve been deposing kings, cutting off their heads
and establishing some kind of quasi-democratic
governments in their place. So from the standpoint of Europe,
it was time for the tsar to go. And they viewed the Bolsheviks
as the will of the people. So they recognized the
government, and what that meant was that by the end of 1922, ambassadors
start showing up in Moscow. Trade representatives from the
major European governments show up in Moscow. Corporate executives from the
biggest corporations in Europe and the United States show up in
Moscow eager to establish ties and do business with the new regime. And what the Bolsheviks
realized pretty quickly is that if they take these
sophisticated visitors from the west and they put them in
crummy proletarian hotels, the risk they run is that the
visitors would go back to New York and Paris and London with the news
that the revolution is failing. So the Bolsheviks kicked all the
party guys out of the Metropol. And they began restoring the
hotel to its prewar glamour. There were bellhops back in
the lobby, uniforms doorman out in front, champagne and
caviar in the dining room. And they reassembled
the old orchestra, which began playing American
jazz on a nightly basis. Now, initially, the restored glamour and liberty inside the Metropol
is reserved solely for foreigners. An ordinance is passed
in the City of Moscow, forbidding any Russian
citizen from spending time in a foreign designated
hotel or restaurant of which the Metropol
is example number one. So it’s just the foreigners. But the citizens reclaim
the Metropol. Now, citizens of Moscow
reclaim the Metropol. And this occurs in two waves. The first wave is that the leaders of the communist party start
hanging out in the hotel. They decide, you know what? It’s not such a bad place. The food is pretty good, the liquor
is pretty good, the music is good. So they’re hanging out there,
dining with their proteges, their comrades, their mistresses. Now, I think if you ask many
Americans what percentage of the Russian population were
communists in the 1920s, the 30s, the 40s, right up into the Cold War,
most Americans would say oh, 90%, three quarters, certainly
more than half. In reality, only 10% of the
Russian population were members of the Communist party
throughout that period. Now, this is not because
the other 90% didn’t want to be members of the
Communist party. This is because the other
90% were not allowed to be members of the
Communist party. At the time of the revolution, membership in the Communist party
was a badge of ideological honor. In you were a member of the party, it’s because in the years before
the war, you had organized trade– well, first of all, you
could quote your marks and angles, that’s for sure. You organize trade unions. You printed pamphlets in basements. You’d probably done some time. And this is what has earned
you your place in the party. But in the aftermath of the
revolution, pretty quickly, what ended up happening
is that membership in the party became a
gateway to privilege. In those years, if you were a
member of the Communist party, you had access to special apartment
buildings with larger apartments that you did not have to
share with other families. If you were a member of the party, you would access two
special grocery stores, where not only did they
have bread and milk on a daily basis, they
had delicacies. If you were a member of the party, your children were given
better opportunities. You were generally treated
better by the judicial system. So there was no question about it,
through most of the Soviet era, membership in the Communist
party was a huge advantage to you and your family and the memberships
were doled out very selectively to those individuals
who had paid their dues and proven their loyalty
to the powers that be. So suffice to say that this group
is hanging out in the Metropol, despite the prohibition, because they can basically
do whatever they want. Now, the second wave
is a much bigger wave. And what brings this about
is a financial crisis. What I want you to remember is that
at the time of the first world war, Russia was the most backward of
all the great European nations. At that time, 95% of the
population was illiterate. 85% of the population were
peasants, still plowing fields with wooden plows, oxen, on somebody
else’s land, much in the manner that their great-grandparents
had done as surfs. There was very little
industry in Russia. It was way behind the west. So one of the things the
Bolsheviks wanted to do when they took charge is they
wanted to volt over decades of failed investment and rapidly
modernize Russia to bring it into parity with the
other western powers from an industrial standpoint. This is what the five-year
plans were all about, the rapid industrialization
of Russia. Now, the problem the Bolsheviks
had is that there was not– didn’t have the expertise
or the equipment in Russia to industrialize. The good news was that
the major western powers, including the United
States, were perfectly happy to sell their equipment and
expertise to the Communists. But they didn’t want to
receive the new Russian currency in exchange for these goods. They didn’t want to receive an IOU. What the western powers wanted
in exchange was hard currency. And this means the Swiss
rank, the British pound, the U.S. dollar, or gold. Initially, the Bolsheviks
had a significant warehouse of hard currency, which they
had seized from the aristocracy. But they had begun to run out before
the five-year plans were over. And that was threatening
the completion of the industrialization project. Now, the good news at this point
was that there was still a lot of hard currency in Russia. It’s just that it was under the
mattresses of the civilians. The local population had
realized pretty quickly early on that they didn’t totally
trust the new Russian currency, which was experiencing
incredible inflation, and they could buy what they
needed for their families on the black market very
effectively with foreign currency. So they were hoarding it. So the Bolsheviks came up with
this ingenious compromise. I say, okay, once again, we are going to open the foreign
designated restaurants and hotels in Moscow to the citizens of the
city, provided that when you dine at the Metropol, you pay your
bill in foreign currency. And through this compromise,
the Bolsheviks rake in the hard currency they need to
complete the modernization of Russia and the citizens of Moscow
reclaim the liberty and glamour within inside the walls
of the Metropol hotel. Now, just in case you think I’m
making this up, because I am not above that, by the way, what
I want to do is I want to read to you a very brief passage have
the memoires of Eugene Lyons. Now, Eugene Lyons was the United
Press International Moscow correspondent in the
late 20s and early 30s. And he spent a great deal
of time in the Metropol because from the time the
revolution until the Cold War, the bar at the Metropol
was the watering hole for all American and
British journalists. It’s where they met every night. So in all their memoires
throughout that period, they talk about the
Metropol in some detail. And what I’m going to read
to you is this brief passage where Lyons is describing
what’s going on inside the hotel in the early 30s, this one moment. And I want you to keep in mind
that means this is a few years after the great Ukrainian
famine when millions died, a time of terrible
shortages in Russia. And it’s a few years before
the Great Purges ramp-up. So in essence, in a very dark
decade for the Soviet citizenry, this is what’s going
on inside the hotel. The Metropol was the new social
center of the bourgeois colony. Its main restaurant was
a Russian peasant’s dream of of capitalist splendors, immense
candelabra, oversized lights, heavy furniture, a jazz band of
symphony orchestra proportions. The chief pride of the restaurant,
its ultra bourgeois touch, was a great circular
pool where lights and rather proletarian
looking fishes played. On grand occasions, the chef in cap
and apron emerged from his sanctum with a net over his
shoulder and captured a fish for special customers
bearing foreign currency. The dancing couples rotated
around the pool, and sometimes an on study customer joined the fishes to the great delight
of the assembled crowd. Actually, will this pop up again? Oh, yeah, there’s the dining room. This is a picture. You’re seeing about 60% of the room because of the position
of where I was standing. That’s the great hand painted glass
ceiling that I mentioned earlier that you can see at the top. These are the giant lights
that Lyons is describing. That’s the fountain where the
chef would come to get the fish. That’s the bandstand in
the back of the room. The only thing different
in a period photograph is that there would have been about
three or four times as many tables, with everybody in there elbow to
elbow having a grand old time. Now, what I love about that
Eugene Lyons passage is that it could easily have
come from a memoire of someone in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s circle
describing what was going on at the Plaza Hotel in the 1920s. It is crazy that this is what
was going on inside the Metropol across the street from the
Kremlin and around the corner from the headquarters
of the secret police at the height of the Soviet era. And this, of course,
is what interests me in the hotel, this paradox. Now, for those of you who
have not read the book, most of what I just said isn’t
in the book, is not in the book. This is the kind of stuff
that’s helpful to me as kind of a background to think about. Because the book is
not a Wikipedia entry. It’s not a work of history. It’s a novel. And so appropriately, at the
center of it are individuals. And most significantly is the figure
of the count himself, who at the age of 30, is sentenced
to life in the hotel. And he’s lost all his possessions. He’s lost his family. He’s lost his social standing. In a way, more profoundly,
he’s watching as everything that he values in Russian life
is systematically being uprooted by the new regime. This is how he begins
his internment. And over the course of his 30
years in the hotel, he must find– he must establish new relationships. He must find new causes for
happiness, however small. And he ultimately must find
a new sense of purpose. This is really what
the book is about. Having said all that, I would be
happy to answer your questions. And if you don’t have
questions, I will ask them myself. Oh, yes.>>Characteristics I really enjoyed that the count possessed was
his adaptability and his humor. Can you talk about how
those two served him well?>>Amor Towles: Yeah, his
adaptability and the– can you all hear the question? So let’s talk about
those in separate– we’ll take them in two parts. Adaptability. There’s no question about it,
that early on in the crafting of this novel, first
of all, I should say, I outline everything in advance. But when I sit down to write Chapter
1 of a book, I know every chapter, every event, every character,
every setting, their backgrounds, all major events, some of the ideas,
some of the poetry, so the outline for me is about 50
pages long when I start. But now, yes, I knew very
early on that the count in his internment had two
things really going for him. And the first was that this notion
that his grandmother gives him as a young boy, which is described
early in the book, which is that, you know, he loses a Checkers game
and he throws a tantrum in essence, and his grandmother says, you
know, listen, losing isn’t fun, there’s nothing good about losing. But why would you have given
your opponent the satisfaction of seeing you act that
way in essence? And he sort of has that
throughout his life. You know, why would you ever give
your opponent the satisfaction of showing that you’ve
been, you know, unsettled by what they’ve done? But secondly, he’s a born optimist. He’s one of these people
who just imagines from birth that most things are probably
going to work out for the best and most people are
probably good at heart. And these are the sort of things
that he has carrying with him that make a big difference
in his life in the hotel. And yes, I think that humor became
a very important component of that that I did not anticipate. So if I went back and said, if I
looked at the 50 pages of outline, first of all, there’s not a
lot of humor in an outline. That’s the nature of an outline. It’s not funny. So, you know, if I went back
and looked at the outline, the outline doesn’t suggest that there was going to
be humor in the book. And that was something
that kept growing over the course of the crafting. And you get to a point
where you’re like, you’re writing a scene
that’s particularly comic, and you kind of have to ask
yourself, am I off the rails, you know, this humor, am
I taking this into farce, is this no longer the book
I thought I was writing? And, you know, you have to
sort of go through that. And there was a certain point
where I was like, you know what, I’m going to go with this. This aspect of the humor, I
think, is true to the count, and it’s true to the
life of the book. But yes, go ahead, please.>>Hi. That’s a lot of feedback. Both of your books
are very different, and written in a similar format
that totally envelopes me. Sorry. Written in a format
that envelopes me and takes me to someplace else, and I
really appreciate that. And also with protagonists
who are actually likeable, which I think is something
that’s missing in literature nowadays,
some literature. What are you working on next? Because they’re so
different, I’m excited to hear if you have something very
different coming up down the line, or similar because I really
love those other ones.>>Amor Towles: I am not writing
a sequel to A Gentleman in Moscow. The future of these
characters are in your hands. But what am I working on next? As I said, I design
books long in advance. So I am well towards completion of
the design phase of my next book. I will start writing in January
when I’m done being on the road. And that book is about three
18-year-old boys who are on their way from Kansas
to New York City in 1952. And that’s about all
I’ll tell you about that.>>Awesome. Can’t wait.>>Amor Towles: But it is different. And it’s true, you
know, it’s a good point. That’s kind of part of my mode. I want to investigate something
new, try something new. I’m very interested in– and
each book I write I think should sound different. If you’re dealing with different
people with different themes, the book itself should
sound different. And that’s part of the joy for me
creatively is to try to do that.>>Thank you.>>Amor Towles: You’re welcome. Left.>>Yeah, Mr. Towles, thanks. That was a great summary
background for the book. Thank you very much.>>Fantastic.>>Amor Towles: Thank you. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>And also the lesson
we never learned, that the profitiers always supply
the rope that will hang them. But more on that later, no doubt. I’m rather intrigued by
your approach to the book, and I wonder if you could say a
little bit more about how you went about selecting the
actual characters. Because as I understand,
they’re very different voices, and I wondered how you modeled them,
you know, where they came from, if you could go a little–>>Amor Towles: You’re talking
about the individual characters in The Gentleman in Moscow?>>Yes. Yeah, and why
you picked them.>>Amor Towles: Yeah, I
appreciate your saying that they seem different. That’s certainly the goal. You know, and I think– well, I’m
going to give a longish answer to this because I think it matters. Well, first, I’ll put it this way. If you look at the major of fine
arts, music, classical music, you know, fine painting, you know,
oil painting of the 19th and 18th, 17th centuries, what have you, of
the novel, if you look at painting, a fine painter of the 19th or
18th century can depict a place and a moment in time so well that
we can see it from across the room. You know, yeah, you see that Hudson
School painting, and you’re like, I know what that– even if I don’t
know exactly where that place is, I know the feeling of it, I know
what it means, and I can imagine it. And with fine music, a capable
cellist can transmit a sense of emotion in about two seconds. You know, the drawing of the strings
across the bow four times, you know, can signal to us a great
sense of sorrow or joy, like instantaneously
in this incredible way. But the novel can give us
a sense of time or place, it can give us a sense, it
can trigger emotions for us in a more cumbersome
fashion than those art forms. But what the novel can do that
the other art forms cannot do is that it can put us in the position of another individual
in a real sense. A well-crafted novel, as readers,
we can begin to live the life of that individual who’s at the
center of the story in particular, such that when that individual
has a setback, we can actually, we can shed a tear literally. When something funny happens to that
person, we laugh out loud about it. When their victories and
their setbacks are felt by us as loss or joy. We get to the point where we
can imagine what they would say in a different circumstance. They travel with us like family. And I think that not even– the other art forms cannot
do this, not even film. So I think anybody who aspires
to write serious narrative as a young person, this
becomes one of the big elements of craft that you try to command. A novel involves many aspects of
craft, dialogue, setting, tone, philosophy, metaphor, the poetry and
the sound of the words themselves, you know, the structure of the book, each of these is its
own art form in a way. But the creation of three-dimensional individuals
is the most important of those. If you think about the books that
have affected you in your life, almost certainly there are
individuals at the center of them that you think of as people. And so that’s what you work on as a
young person, constantly, or I did, constantly adopting a
different personality to write a different story. What would they say? What would they think about? What would they look out
when they entered the room? And try to imagine that
all different people, different ages, races, whatever. And so until it becomes, to
some degree, second nature, and you start to imagine the
story and it populates itself, and you’re like, that’s the
guy, that’s her, that’s him, you know, that’s the way it works. But basically it’s from nothing.>>Not watching too
many Russian films.>>Amor Towles: No. It’s Elkonin. It really is Elkonin.>>Thank you.>>Amor Towles: You’re welcome.>>I really love the
writing and the characters. And I found myself thinking
as I was reading this book, oh, this is so charming. Oh, isn’t this lovely? But what’s the big deal? I mean, it’s just like this story
that’s going on and on and on. And then–>>Amor Towles: You should
have written the blurb on the back of the book.>>No, no, no.>>Amor Towles: On and on and on.>>But then at about 75
pages before the end.>>Amor Towles: No spoilers.>>No, I’m not going to spoil it. But I was on the edge of my seat.>>Amor Towles: Yeah, okay.>>But what you were
just saying before about how you outlined
the book, you know, I listened to other authors here
say, you know, I started this book and I had no idea where
it was going. And so you must have at
the beginning said “aha, they’re just going to think they’re
going along this lovely little street, and then boom, it’s going
to turn into Niagara Falls.”>>Amor Towles: Yeah,
that was the plan. It says really bore them for 100
and– but then, then at page 350, I’m going to let them have it. In all seriousness.>>I wasn’t bored. I just didn’t see why people were
going, oh my gosh, and then I got to that point, and it
was like, oh my gosh.>>Amor Towles: You’re very frank. That’s good. No, you know.>>Now this is going to be
in the Library of Congress.>>Amor Towles: No,
that’s all right. Yeah, exactly. You know, I would just
change the shape of what you’re saying a
little bit for me, which said, I knew that the first 100 pages in
particular were going to be tough in the book because it’s
about a person being trapped in a building and not moving. And you have to go through
an element of claustrophobia and a feeling of depression,
because the book depends upon that. Now, in addition, this is a
book in which a lot of elements in the first 100 to
200 pages show up later in all kinds of interesting ways. And so my challenge was to get you
through this period of the hard part of the internment, but also to
give you a lot of raw material that you don’t notice, but that
you’re not driven crazy by, and that later it will
pay off for you. So hopefully most people
have that experience at page 100 instead of 350.>>It did pay off. Let me say that. Thank you.>>Amor Towles: Thank you. You’re welcome. Oh, sorry, left, yes?>>Well, I don’t know if I’m left.>>Amor Towles: On my left.>>First of all, I do have a
question, but I have to say, my good fellow, that I don’t think
the count would have unbuttoned his collar.>>Amor Towles: You
know, it’s a long day. What can I say? Man, this is tough, tough audience. Is this on C-SPAN? [ Inaudible ] They will be. Thanks a lot. Okay, yeah, sorry.>>I loved, loved on and on. I just thought it was brilliant.>>Amor Towles: Thank you. [ Applause ] And every word you write,
you talked about the craft. Everything you said, I was going
to say about you, how beautifully, I mean, I don’t know
how you can be so smart. It’s beautifully written. It’s a pleasure to read. Your choice of words are just
like, oh my gosh, I love that. And there are surprises, and
there are beautiful surprises. Just your ability to
write is phenomenal.>>Amor Towles: You don’t
have to ask a question. You can keep going. I mean, that’s fine. That’s great. You’re doing great.>>That works for me. But my question is one that you will
not answer because I know you won’t. But I do– I’m going to ask it
in a way that might trick you. And I don’t want to
make it a spoiler deal.>>Amor Towles: Yeah, nothing about
the back half of the book, please.>>No, no, no. But I mean I’m going to couch it. But you must have a point of view,
because I’ve been arguing already with my friends, and our book
club meets in a week on this. Did they stay there?>>Amor Towles: If you’re going to start asking, okay,
wait, wait, wait. No, no. I want you to
grab me afterwards, and I’ll answer your
question very specifically. But I don’t want to give
any suggestions of anything that might matter in the end. And it’s going to be
hard for you to do that. Thank you. Please, find me right after. I will tell you. I will tell you. I don’t want to spoil
it for other people.>>Okay, I just want to know what
your personal inner self hoped. That’s all.>>Amor Towles: Well,
I’ll tell you that too. That’s hard to answer without other
people having finished the book. But the book isn’t– I don’t know.>>Is that an after thing also?>>Amor Towles: Yeah,
that’s an after thing. Sorry.>>Well, anyway, thank
you very much.>>Amor Towles: But thank
you for the compliments. I really appreciate it.>>But beautiful book.>>Amor Towles: Thank you. Go ahead.>>Okay, so this won’t
be a spoiler question. And I actually have a
small question afterwards. But clearly with both of your
novels, you have a central theme of a personal code of ethics. The first one is called
Rules of Civility. So I wanted to hear more about
how you stumbled on that theme. Is that showing up in your next–>>Amor Towles: Yeah, for those
who haven’t read either of my books or my first book, Rules of Civility
and Gentleman in Moscow both, to some degree, deal with these
ideas around civil behavior. And so the first thing I want to
say is my next book has nothing to do with civil behavior. There is no civility
in it whatsoever. But, you know, I think the most
interesting thing I can say about it in regard to A Gentleman in
Moscow is that I think that we, in our modern times in America,
think of civility and elements of etiquette as kind of the nice
frosting on the surface of behavior, kind of shallow in a way. In kindergarten, our kids learn to
say please and thank you and isn’t that nice because it will
impress grandma or whatever, but it’s kind of at that level to
some degree on a blown-up basis. But for the figures like the
Count in the 19th century who would have been raised in
an aristocratic upbringing, and an educated, refined upbringing, they would have viewed
it very differently. In fact, it would go all the way
back to the Stoics and then repeated in the Age of Enlightenment
figures, very much on the mind of the founding fathers as a class. And for them, the notion
of civil behavior, it was in essence an outward
expression of an inward struggle. And the inward struggle was over
the mastery over the seven sins. You know, the notion is, going right
back to the Stoics, was that yes, we were all born with these
impulses to greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, what have you. We all have those impulses. But the Stoics and the Age of
Enlightenment thinkers believe that these– we could master
these impulses, and that to do so required reflection, it
required having role models, and it required having
a code of behavior that you tried to adopt
and to live by. Now, if you think about polite
poly tests, simple polite behavior, in many cases, the whole
role of it is a delay. It’s a little simple delay. So picture a dinner party. And the notion here is that
polite behavior teaches you that before you take that
second helping, you know, before you make a crude joke,
before you make a pass at a member of the opposite sex, you know,
before you show impatience to the person serving at
the table, what have you, politeness was taught, told you,
that’s inappropriate behavior, and you’d stop for a second. But the notion is that in
that moment when you stop, you then look inward and
you say, you know what, that’s not the right
behavior anyway. And then you turn to
your inward angels and you try to do the opposite. You offer someone a second helping. You say the polite thing. You change the subject before it
gets off color, what have you. This is really what
politeness was about, was about allowing you the
moment to complete the battle as it was over these elements. And so the Count is very
much from that tradition. And so for him, simple
behavior is very much, it’s tied to moral behavior. And part of the interesting aspect of the book is he finds
himself in uncivil times. And I think that, you know, I came
to sort of feel this maybe, well, is that in uncivil times, a civil
act is itself an act of rebellion. And that’s kind of the
life the Count is living. Now, somebody was signaling me. Were you saying that I’m done? Where are we at? What do we have on the clock?>>We’ve got to go.>>Amor Towles: We’ve got to go? Wait, wait, then I’m sorry,
I’m not going to be able to answer your six questions, but I
am going to tell you one more story, because he promised me I was
going to be able to before I go. And that is, you know,
the book is invention. The people are an invention, the
circumstances are inventions. But inevitably, while
you’re writing a novel, aspects of your personal
life will percolate up through the inventive process. And there’s no question about it
that in A Gentleman in Moscow, the single most important
aspect of that, version of that, was in the creation
of Nina and Sophia, the two young girls in the story. The Count meets a 9-year-old
girl at the age– when she’s 30, at the
beginning of his internment, and she has a big impact on him. Much later in his life, he’s asked
to keep an eye on a 5-year-old girl, and she has a big influence on him. And the source of these two girls
really comes down very simply to the fact that when
I came up with the idea for this book, my daughter was 5. And when I finished
writing it, she was 9. And my daughter, at that
time, is really the one who gave me the insight into
how shrewd a little girl can be. They’re very clever. They are not to be
underestimated in any way. You know, just to give you a sensor
to that, give you a sense of that, on New Year’s Day this year, we got
to dinner, me, my wife, my daughter, my son, and I say–
my daughter’s now 11. I say, hey, why don’t we go around
the table and we’ll, you know, share New Year’s resolutions. You know, that would be fun. New Year’s Day. What do you say? And without missing a beat,
my daughter says, “dad, don’t you think”– oh, there she is. Well, that’s a little premature,
but all right, well, there she is. You can imagine. She says, at 11, she says, “dad,
you know, New Year’s resolutions, don’t you think you
should be focused less on New Year’s resolutions and
more on your bucket list?” [ Applause ] That was terrible. Terrible. So I hit her with my cane, which is the only appropriate
response, you know, under those circumstances. Okay, but so, so what I want to
tell you is when my son was 8 and my daughter was 5,
their favorite restaurant in New York was this little
Italian place right down the street from us called Paul & Jimmy’s,
a third generation joint. You know, chicken parm,
veal marsala, you know, real classic stuff,
spaghetti and meatballs. They liked the food. But what they really loved was how
they were treated by the staff. You know, when we would
go, my kids– our kids would run
ahead of me and my wife, and they’d burst throughout
the door of the restaurant, and the staff would say, “oh, Senior Towles [foreign phrase]
you know come in, come in.” And when we got to the restaurant,
they’d be seated at our table, you know, looking like
they own the place, right? They loved it. So when my son turned 9, we
said, “hey, Stokley, you know, for your birthday, where do
you want to go for dinner? We can go anywhere in
the city within reason,” assuming that he’d
say Paul & Jimmy’s. And instead, in this very
wistful way, he says, “oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could
go to Smith & Wollensky’s.” For those of you who don’t know, that’s like a [inaudible]
old steakhouse in upper New York, Upper East Side. I’m like, where does an 8-year-old
boy get an idea of a steakhouse? What are they teaching
in that school? Well, it turned out the year my son
turned 9 was the year they put TVs in the back of taxi
cabs in New York. And the very first ad
was Smith& Wollensky’s. So he’d seen it 100 times. So I said, “Stokley,
if you want to go to Smith & Wollensky’s,
we can do that.” He says, “you mean
it’s in New York?” I’m like, “yes, it’s in New York.” So on his birthday, we
all dress up, go uptown. Now, if any of you have ever been
to this joint, what you know is that the waiters at Smith &
Wollensky’s, they look like– they’re these big old guys
who look like butchers. And in fact, they wear
white butcher’s aprons. That’s what they wear. And so we get seated in our
banquet, and out waiter comes over, and he says, this six foot tall
guy in a butcher’s apron, he says, “all right, welcome to
Smith & Wollensky’s, let’s get down to business. You know, what are you going to
have tonight to drink, ma’am? A martini? Good choice. For you, sir? Another martini, well done. Young man, a Coca Cola,
it’s on its way. And what about for the little baby?” Now, the second he says this, he realizes he’s made
a terrible mistake from the expression
on my daughter’s face. So after a moment of
silence, my daughter says to this six foot tall
guy in a butcher’s apron, he says, “I am not a baby. At the other restaurant,
they call me La Principessa.” Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you for coming out
for the Book Festival. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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