ONE BOOK: Get to know the ‘Rules of Civility’
It only took one novel for Amor Towles to make an impression.
With his debut title, “Rules of Civility,” Towles has found himself the man behind the One Book, One Mesa County selection for 2012.
A New York City transplant, Towles channeled his love of the city into the book, released in July. Set primarily in late-1930s and 1940s New York City, Towles explored the lives of twentysomethings during a time when money and prestige were things of beauty and joy forever.
Towles, 47, studied English literature and philosophy as an undergraduate at Yale University before moving on to receive his master’s degree in English from Stanford University.
His command of the English language shines through in his first novel.
Although a native of Boston and a lover of language and books, Towles has settled into his life in New York City as a husband and father of two.
When given the opportunity to publish a novel, Towles took the time and effort to complete a book he has wanted to write for decades.
When he’s not writing, Towles is a principal at a Manhattan investment firm.
Stricken recently with the flu, Towles still took time for a phone interview and spoke about his writing process, the inspiration for “Rules of Civility” and when he will visit Colorado.
Melinda Mawdsley: Sorry to hear you’re sick. Thanks for your time. First off, congratulations on being selected as the author of next year’s One Book, One Mesa County pick. Have you been to Colorado before?
Amor Towles: I was there 15 years ago. I’ve been to the Sand Dunes National Park, Boulder and Denver. I’m looking forward to coming to Grand Junction. It’s very nice to have someone reach out and say they want to share the book with the community.
Mawdsley: Speaking of the book. I’m intrigued by your writing process. Where did the idea for “Rules of Civility” come from?
Towles: I’ve written fiction since I was a kid and wrote over 50 short stories in my college years and graduate school. I took a period of time off when I didn’t write fiction and was establishing myself professionally in the investment world. In 2006 ... when I decided to write a book, I was looking through my old ideas, and (this is) what popped out. ... The idea for this book, as you might predict, came from seeing the old photographs described in the preface. I ran across a catalog of Walker Evans photographs when I was in my mid-20s. As I was going through the pictures, I thought, “wouldn’t it be fascinating if someone at the (art) opening of these pictures recognized someone in the photographs?” Even better, I thought, “what if someone had recognized the same person twice?” That’s what I jotted down as an idea when I was 25.
Mawdsley: With the photos as inspiration, how long did it take you write the book?
Towles: Having spent seven years (previously) working on a book I didn’t like and throwing it away, I decided with this process I wanted to change elements of the process to make it more effective. I entered with a much better outline, and decided to tell this story from one strong point of view. I have a job and kids. I don’t have long stretches of time to write. In reviewing that seven-year project, many of my favorite parts in that book, I wrote right away, so I decided to give myself 12 months to write this book. I started in January 2006 and finished on New Year’s Eve 2006.
Mawdsley: You literally finished on New Year’s Eve?
Towles: Pretty much. It has 26 chapters. There are 52 weeks in the year. I wrote one chapter for one week and edited it for one week. After I was done writing, there were still 2 1/2 years ahead of me. I had to rewrite it three times from there. I edit pretty aggressively. The book went from 400 pages to 350 then 300, and I threw out another 150 pages and replaced them. It’s a time-consuming, intensive revising process. There are certainly characters, events, themes and language in the third edition that aren’t in the second or first versions.
Mawdsley: Speaking of the language, which I’m sure you paid special attention to considering you studied English, did the right word often come to you, or did you take time to search for the perfect word in each situation?
Towles: More than half the sentences have been tinkered with. Often, you’ve got the skeleton down. You have a sequence of ideas down, but there might not be one word working for you or the sequence isn’t working. There are times when I know the word I put in was the wrong word, so I flagged it because you want to keep moving.
Mawdsley: Do you write best alone or in the company of others, say at a coffee shop?
Towles: I function best alone from the writing process standpoint. I can write in my library by myself. I didn’t share the manuscript with anyone really for a year-and-a-half. But I will use restaurants and cafes to edit then sketch out what I’ll do.
Mawdsley: You wrote this book from the perspective of a young woman. Why?
Towles: Having described the genesis of the idea, when I decided to write this particularly story I was literally in a cafe and began sketching out the outline and decided it was a man in the photographs and a young woman was looking at the photos. That was my instinct then, and it never veered.
Mawdsley: You speak of 1930s and 1940s New York City with so much detail. Are these places you wrote of fictitious or real?
Towles: The vast majority of the book is invented, but there are parts that are historical locations. The 21 Club exists. The Statue of Atlas is there in Rockefeller Center. The Beresford apartment complex is a real place. Most of it is an invented landscape, but there are real places in spirit like those written. The photographs are obviously historical fact. Actually, my grandma lived to 100. She was a very glamorous type. I got to know her in my 20s, and she had come of age in the 1920 and ‘30s and gave me insight into the idea that (her generation) was less Victorian than my parents’ generation in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Mawdsley: On page 28 you wrote, “Our fellow New Yorkers ushered past showing seasoned indifference.” That was in 1938 New York in your book. Is it like that now?
Towles: There is still seasoned indifference, but that’s a big city. You get quite used to seeing thousands of people a day. If you walk down the street, go to a cafe, go to the office, you get used to seeing it all, or think you’ve seen it all. Outlandish behavior does not stop you in your tracks. You get used to the fact it’s a melting pot of human behavior. It’s part of the fun of being in New York.
Mawdsley: Do you long for the New York of the 1930s, or do you prefer New York now?
Towles: I do love New York. I could live in other parts of America, but I do love it here. I think we all want to go back and live in different times. It’s hard not to be nostalgic about it.
Mawdsley: The title of the book is “Rules of Civility.” Compare the civility and mannerisms of New York in 1938 to now.
Towles: The whole country is different now. Before the second world war, there were social classes and ethnicities and pretty bright lines dividing them. Same with religion, gender or race. The rules of civility still exist but it’s different. The middle class was invented after the second world war. People worth $1 million or $30,000 are in the middle class and behave a lot alike. They are drinking and eating the same thing. They are watching the same sports. In the first half of the 20th century, those lines were more brightly drawn. To be upwardly mobile then, you had to have a good ear for civility, mannerisms, expressions because if you sat down and used the wrong fork, for example, it would be clear who you were.
Mawdsley: The book has some plot surprises. Did you write chronologically, or did you know the ending and write the story backward?
Towles: I wrote pretty chronologically. I wrote in the order of the chapters and changed the order of some later. I certainly knew where the book was going even if I didn’t know all the events. There are surprises in the writing process. The characters surprise you. Their actions surprise you. That’s part of the fun of it, even if you outline in advance.
Mawdsley: There is so much character development from the peripheral characters such as Eve, Wallace or even Tinker. Yet, there wasn’t as much roller coaster with the protagonist, Katey. Why?
Towles: I’ve never thought about it that way, but that’s fair. She’s a level-headed observer, but she also has a will of her own. She’s a sharp observer, but she often draws the wrong conclusions. You are looking at the world through her eyes, so the book is not focused on what she’s doing. She withholds information from you. She’s an enigma.
Mawdsley: Enigma. That’s a great word for her. Do you have plans for a second book?
Towles: I’m starting a new book in January, but I’m afraid to say I can’t say what it is.
Mawdsley: One final question, and actually, it’s the first question I thought of when I saw the cover of the book. Is Amor Towles your real name?
Mawdsley: Thanks again for your time. I look forward to meeting you when you travel to Grand Junction next year as part of the One Book, One Mesa County events.
Towles: Thank you.