Amor Towles' novels, including the bestseller "A Gentleman in Moscow" and his new "The Lincoln Highway," are so distinctive that they read like the works of different writers. In a way, they are.
Towles, who will be at the Fitzgerald Theater on Wednesday as part of the Talking Volumes series, resets each time he starts a new book. He always has several potential novels percolating and, when he begins writing, he enters fully into that world. It's as if most of its elements were there all the time, waiting for him to get busy.
"Long before I write the book, I'll have a pretty complete sense of where it takes place, when it takes place, how long its duration is," said Towles via Zoom from his book-lined study in New York. "When I had the idea of a guy who is trapped in a hotel [that's 'Gentleman'], it came with the idea that it was a 30ish-year span. So when I had the idea of kids hidden in the trunk of a car ['Lincoln'], it came with the idea that it would last about 10 days."
"The Lincoln Highway"counts down from Day 10 to Day 1. Its main characters are an eerily wise child named Billy and his teenage brother, Emmett. The latter returns from a year in juvenile detention as the book opens, only to discover escapee inmates Duchess and Woolly hid in his trunk during the trip home. Emmett and Billy, whose father recently died, agree to follow the titular highway from their Nebraska home to San Francisco, where their mother lives, but their trip is diverted by the stowaways, who involve them in adventures with Manhattan vaudevillians, authors and low-level gangsters.
Towles isn't a big researcher — he does his noodling on the internet after his first draft is done, to fill ingaps and details — but he knew that "Lincoln," which is set in 1954, should seem like a book written then. So he read books of the time, including Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," to get a handle on American culture right before rock and roll transformed it.
All of his novels have been historical fiction but Towles is much more interested in the "fiction" than the "historical" part. He likens the process of creating a setting that's convincing, if not entirely faithful, to theatrical magic:
"If it's 'The Cherry Orchard,' at the very back of the stage is a painted backdrop that is the orchard in the distance, painted in an impressionistic style or whatever, using the tricks of Renaissance painters to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. In front of that are bookcases made out of plywood but painted to look like mahogany and, then, in front of that is an actual table and chairs, and an actual tea set on the table."
In his book, history is that backdrop, which at least hints at reality. But it's the stuff he puts in front of the backdrop — the sound a guy's fist makes when he slams it on a wooden table, a woman's gesture — that must feel real.
"If I can get the guy at the table right, drinking tea and having a conversation, you will have greater faith in the illusion behind it," said Towles. "It's like if the acting is going well, the fake stuff in back starts to blur in your perception. You think, 'I'm there.'"
So far, readers seem to have no problem immersing themselves in Towles' popular books, which also include "Rules of Civility." But, even though he usually knows what he wants to do with his novels, surprises emerge. Like the highway in "Lincoln Highway."
When Towles started writing, he'd never heard of the United States' first transcontinental road. After completing a draft, he checked the New York Times to see what was happening during the time the book is set and discovered a couple things. There was a "national nuclear simulation," in which cities went dead for 10 minutes; he incorporated that into the story. And he learned of the title thoroughfare, which still exists. Not only was it an ideal route for his characters, since it ends in San Francisco, but it begins in Times Square, where several scenes in "Lincoln" already were set.
"I had never really figured out the route," Towles said. "I would write 'Route X' in paragraphs, so then I got out a detailed map and I was thinking, 'This would make sense,' and suddenly I saw a little parentheses that said, 'This is the Lincoln Highway.' I was like, 'What is the Lincoln Highway?' That was a case where I did do some research."
Towles also likes to use music to help bring characters to life, to the point that he has created playlists for each of his books. For "Lincoln Highway," the list includes Fleet Foxes, Jose Gonzalez and Duluth's own Trampled by Turtles. Unlike previous lists, they're contemporary songs he listened to, to get a sense of the wide-open spaces in his novel, rather than songs the characters would have known.
"They feel very retro. A little sorrowful. Open landscape-y," said Towles. "They feel very much of a piece with the book to me. You can hear the kind of distance in the music."
Trampled by Turtles will still be on tour while Towles is here, so they can't meet him at the Fitzgerald. But after the solitude of writing the book, compounded by the pandemic lockdown, the author is looking forward to meeting the bibliophiles and book groups that flock to his appearances, which he likens to "being a rock star, without the money or fame."
Towles belongs to a book group, too. Its four members, who mostly read classics, are all published writers (the most famous is "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" writer Ann Brashares). So he loves chatting with readers.
"It's nice to send the book out into the world and have a chance to share my thoughts about it and hear readers' thoughts," said Towles, who then chuckled. "Of course, if a book isn't well received, they don't want to send you anywhere, nobody wants you to come and you shouldn't go. If a book isn't well received, you should just go home and write your next book."
That shouldn't be a problem with the reception of "Lincoln Highway," which has earned good early reviews. But whenever he does go home to write the next book, Towles knows he'll have plenty of ideas waiting for him.
Talking Volumes: Amor Towles
When: 7 p.m. Wed.
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
Tickets: $30.50-$32.50, mprevents.org. Season tickets available. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test required for admission.
Next in Talking Volumes: Minnesota author William Kent Krueger on his new Cork O'Connor mystery, "Lightning Strike" (Nov. 3 at the Fitz).
Excerpt from 'The Lincoln Highway' by Amor Towles
— What's that he calls you in the introduction, Billy? Dear Reader? What author wouldn't want to receive a visit from one of his dear readers? I mean, writers must work twice as hard as actors, right? But they don't get any standing ovations, or curtain calls, or people waiting outside the backstage door. Besides, if Professor Abernathe didn't want to receive visits from his readers, why would he have put his address on the first page of his book?
— He probably wouldn't be there at this hour, countered Woolly.
— Maybe he's working late, I countered right back.
As the traffic began to move again, I pulled into the right lane in order to take the uptown exit, thinking myself that if the lobby wasn't open, we were going to climb that building like King Kong.
Having headed west on Thirty-Fifth Street, I took the left onto Fifth Avenue and pulled over in front of the building's entrance. A second later, one of the doormen was on me.
— You can't park there, buddy.
— We're just going to be a minute, I said, slipping him a five. In the meantime, maybe you and President Lincoln can get to know each other.
Now, instead of telling me where I couldn't park, he was opening Woolly's door and ushering us into the building with a tip of the hat. Capitalism, they call it.
©2021 by Cetology, Inc., published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC