I attended an “All About the Books” event in early June – a regional event for booksellers hosted by NEIBA (New England Independent Booksellers Association) and it was here that I first heard Amor Towles speak about Gentleman in Moscow. I had read the book a few weeks prior and had been swept away – even more so that morning after hearing him speak and share real-life anecdotes of inspiration for characters and scenes within this larger-than-life hotel. As the group left for lunch, I was held up and arrived to the dining area late. The only available seat was next to Amor Towles – kismet! (Or blind luck).
After mustering up some courage, I shared my vision for quarterlane and my admiration for his stories and the possibility for this conversation began to take shape. We conducted this interview entirely over email and I am so thrilled to share it with you here on The Edit.
EL: Would you mind sharing that first glimmer of inspiration for Gentleman in Moscow, when the seed of the story took hold – the tale of a Count under “hotel-arrest” in Moscow?
AT: 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 spending a week at a hotel in Geneva, I noticed the same well-dressed and weary people in the lobby every day—and I found myself wondering what life would be like if I had to live there. Upstairs in my room, I began to play 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 as a practice since the time of the Tsars. The following week, I sketched out the story for A Gentleman in Moscow. Then in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing.
EL: The Russia that is depicted beyond the doors of the Metropol stands in itself as a lead character in the novel – so richly described that, even though we as readers are essentially locked in the hotel with Rostov, we have a visceral sense of the upheaval and shifts happening on the streets over those specific decades – what is your relationship to Russia? And can you speak to the challenge of writing about such a turbulent time and relaying this tension from within the walls of one hotel? It was brilliantly done!
AT: 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 Russian literature ranging from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Mayakovsky and Solzhenitsyn. But I also fell in love with the wild, inventive, and self-assured writing styles of the dancer Nijinsky, the painter Malevich, and the filmmaker Eisenstein. Going through those works, it began to seem to me like every accomplished artist in Russia had his own manifesto. And 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. 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 leveled 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. Russian history abounds with sweeping moments of cultural change and with the stoic heroes who work in isolation towards some brighter future.
EL: Count Alexander Rostov is such a distinct and wonderful character – I absolutely adored both his unique point of view and turn of phrase. When did his voice for the novel come to you? Did you have a handle on this character – his tone and his mannerisms – from the start or did his voice evolve?
AT: Ever since I was a young writer, I have been particularly interested in voice and point-of-view. Over time, I have written stories from a wide array of points of view, each with their own particular perspective, prejudices, style, tone and syntax. Within the bounds of narrative writing, I have been drawn to voice (versus setting, plot, characters, and themes) because, on the one hand, it is such a powerful unifying principal. When a voice or point-of-view is well crafted, it makes sense for the reader of everything that is imagined, seen, or heard. The setting, characters, plot, and themes all become subservient to and expressions of that point of view. But an added attraction of the point-of-view priority, is that when you shift from one project to the next, given the new point-of-view, you are forced as a writer to adopt new themes, new attitudes, new tropes, a new vocabulary, etc. The shift from one project to the next requires some artistic reinvention. While Katey Kontent’s voice was very strong and idiosyncratic in RULES, the Count’s voice is no less strong or idiosyncratic in AGIM, but necessitates a very different approach to story telling. Since the voice is so central to the book, it was loud and clear in my imagination before I finished the first chapter.
Obviously the prevailing voice in the novel is that of the Count’s, despite being in the third person. But behind the Count’s voice, is the more cynical and shrewd voice of the meta-narrator. From his commentary, we can sense that, unlike the Count, he is living a Soviet laugh, navigating its obstacles and hypocrisies. This voice initially appears only in footnotes and later surfaces in the introductions to various sections (like 1930, 1938 and 1946). I have left it to this hidden-narrator to provide much of the perspective on the unfolding times, feeling that the Count would not be critiquing the Soviet era too closely, and not wanting to bog down his tale with too much historical information.
EL: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you had a very distinct writing process for The Rules of Civility. What was your writing process for Gentleman?
AT: As a writer, I don’t like to share along the way. Thus, in the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, I wrote the first draft and revised it from beginning to end before showing it to anyone. On a single day last fall I gave it to my American editor, my British editor, my agent, five literary friends, and my wife. I then gather feedback quickly from this small group and begin the next phase of revision with their comments in mind.
EL: I am always so curious by what authors read. What are you reading right now? Which books are you most excited to read in the next few months? Is there one book that you find yourself turning to again and again for inspiration?
AT: I primarily read dead authors… In recent years, I enjoyed revisiting the classics of Russian literature including five of Dostoevsky’s novels, Tolstoy’s major works, Chekov’s, Gogols, Turgenev’s and Bulgakov’s thanks to the extraordinary translations of Volkhonsky and Purvear.
EL: What’s next? Are you working on your next book? Would you be willing to offer a sentence or two for a sneak peak?
AT: Viking Penguin has contracted with me to publish my next two novels. I wont say much about the next project other than it is set in America in the early 1950s…