FROM NOW ON 7 - spoiler alert

by Susan Weber

There had to be a hundred-fifty, two hundred Amor Towles fans, most of them women of a certain ageless beauty, packed into the meeting room of a county library. Another bevy of patrons in the next room watched the live stream. The author took the stage looking every bit the protagonist of his new book, A Gentleman in Moscow. Debonair in a tailored suit, graying at the temples, hairline receding as though brains and savior faire pushed at his brow from within, he cracked a joke. Pointing out the niceness of the weather we were all missing to be indoors, he transformed himself into a slender Tom Hanks, thanking us for choosing literary pleasures.

Lucky for me and others who haven't read the book yet, he promised us the talk would be scrupulously spoiler-free. He then launched a forty minute primer on the Russian Revolution followed by Q & A. He described interlocking details of the Bolsheviks, the Czarists, the countless foreign visitors who occupied the lavish suites and dining halls of the Metropol Hotel, the setting for his latest fiction. Did we have any questions?

A man in a sky blue polo shirt asked whether writing is for Mr. Towles a compulsion. The author, who’s been writing since his first grade teacher acquainted him with a local poet, said he would call it more a passion than compulsion. As a young man, Amor Towles set himself to writing a hundred short stories, each from a different point of view. His learn-by-practice approach is a hallmark of his career. Throughout his time at Yale and later Stanford, where he earned an M.A. in English, he kept his pen moving through invented stories.

Upon graduation he switched gears to work on Wall Street. A decade or two into that career, he decided to write a novel. After seven years of writing he rejected the manuscript for failing to live up to his standards. He says a novel, like a symphony, needs to have consistent motifs throughout, phrases and tones which evolve and recur. He resolved to infuse his next attempt with symphonic elements by means of careful planning. The outline has become his modus operandi.

His fifty-page plan for A Gentleman in Moscow detailed structure, scenes, and characters. He spent a year fleshing out his first draft, writing a chapter in one week, editing that chapter the following week. He gave this draft to his readers — his wife, editors in New York and London, and some others. He considered their feedback when writing second, third, and fourth drafts, each revision taking an entire year. His daughter was five when he started writing the book. Now she is nine. After a book is published, he enjoys talking with readers, but he also feels the pull to write again. He never starts the next book before the current book's tour has ended.

Asked about writer’s block, he acknowledged he encounters it — but. Compared to his former career in finance, the work of writing brings him enormous satisfaction.

A woman with excellent posture and white polyester slacks wondered how much research he does before beginning to write. Mr. Towles explained that because he writes about places and events with which he’s had a long-time fascination, he does research only after his first draft is done, fine-tuning details here and there. He thinks research-heavy novels can get in the way of a timeless glimpse of the human condition our literary giants have achieved.

"Can we assume your facts are accurate?" asked a bosomy woman in the second row. Nowadays, said the author, we expect our fiction writers to be more factually accurate than the president of the United States. Isn’t that a curious state of affairs?

His reading circle of four women and four men, all married though not to each other, discuss a novel over dinner once a month. Only one in a dozen authors they read are still alive. Why favor Tolstoy, Flaubert, Faulkner, and Twain over writers of our day? There is so much literature, he says. We don’t always know the best use of our reading time, but "history sheds that which is weak.” He did mention having interviewed Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Elizabeth Strout. Then he briefly forgot the name of an Ann Patchett book he would recommend to us. Readers in attendance called out Ms. Patchett's latest title as if they were naming names of beloved grandchildren.

As though he had not already thoroughly charmed his audience, he began to describe how novels fit into the universe of art. With orchestral composition, he explained, we know within a few deft strokes of a bow if we’re dealing here with sorrow or joy. A masterful painting evokes immediate awareness of place and time of day. The novel is unique — even films fall short — in putting us in the place of another person. We see the world from her perspective, experience his feelings close at hand. We often know ahead of time what they will likely say and do. The number one job of a novelist is to create three dimensional figures to whom a reader feels connected.

By the time we were filing out, some to the book signing table, others to our cars, my program guide was scribbled with notes. There had not been a single spoiler in his wide-ranging talk. But his eager followers, my how we’d been spoiled.

Photo by NVO CC BY-SA 2.5