Amor Towles explores freedom, heroism and road trips in his 1950s epic
Master storyteller Amor Towles talks to Sue de Groot about fictive magic, morals and methods, and the covenant he strikes with his millions of readers.
Sometimes the books that are easiest to read — those that swing you from one pleasure to the next, like being strapped to a zipline through a fragrant forest on a sunny day — are the ones that have taken the most effort to write.
The Lincoln Highway is one of those books. It reads as though it poured in one fresh torrent straight from the author’s mind, but Amor Towles says it was years in the making, because that’s how he writes.
Speaking via Zoom from his study in chilly New York City, Towles explains his process: “I tend to start with a very small notion. With A Gentleman in Moscow I started with the notion: wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody was trapped in a hotel for a long time? When I have a notion that intrigues me I very quickly start making leaps, so in the case of that story, I then went, yeah it’ll be in Russia, he’ll be an aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in a fancy hotel. I’ll build it out from there and once it’s imagined fully, a couple of years later, then I’ll start to actually outline chapters and write the book. But I’ll design it in my head, and on paper, for a couple of years at least.”
In the case of his latest book, already being hailed as an entry into the pantheon of Greatest American Novels, Towles says the starting point was "the notion of a kid coming home from the work camp [juvenile detention facility] from having done some time as a teenager, with the warden saying, start your life fresh, you’ve paid your debt to society, and then the boy discovering that there were two guys who’d escaped by hiding in the trunk of the warden’s car, who have different plans.
“Right off the bat I was like, it’s going to be in the midwest, he’s going to be an honourable young kid, his father will die, the farm’s going to be in foreclosure, he’s got a younger brother, the guy in the trunk is from New York and a troublemaker, and it’s in the 1950s, and it’s going to be 10 days. All that stuff was first-hour kind of instincts.
“Then there is that multi-year process of imagining the various layers of storytelling. I had the notion, for instance, that on the train Billy would encounter a dangerous minister and be saved by an African-American veteran, and pretty quickly I thought, oh yeah, his name will be Ulysses. So, as I say, it just sort of builds on itself.”
Towles says he always begins with the characters and the events build themselves around these engaging humans. As frequently happens, one of the most flawed heroes — in some ways the villain of this piece — is also one of the most loveable. Towles says of this young miscreant, nicknamed Duchess: “Somewhere along the way I became very conscious that the various characters would have different things which were informing their tone, their world view. Where Billy has his book, Duchess has grown up in an environment surrounded by has-beens and losers and con-men, but he would have heard his father give 10 Shakespearean monologues a thousand times.
“So I thought, wouldn’t that be an interesting thing, to imagine a young person being formed by this snapshot of Shakespeare, where he’s picked up some of the language, some of the high drama and philosophy, but not knowing the full context or anything else about the plays?
“Each character has his or her own chain of information that has come to them. In Duchess’s case it is the heard monologues. In Billy’s case the mythic book. In Sally’s case it’s probably more the Bible”
The Lincoln Highway could be called a morality tale, as was Towles’s previous bestseller, A Gentleman in Moscow. He says the moral questions do intrigue him but are not the driving force of the stories.
“It’s not like I would only write books about ethics, but I think morality is a very central human theme for any novel, because ultimately novels deal with human behaviour and the implications of human behaviour and whether someone is doing something right or wrong in the context of public or private morality.
“In the case of The Lincoln Highway, that gets elevated because of the moment in time that the book is dealing with. Emmett and Duchess are about 18; Woolly says he’s 18 but he’s 20; Sally is 19, they’re all in that zone, and the thing about that age, I think for all of us, is that between the ages of zero and 16 we are receiving a steady flow of input — from our parents, from school, from church, from our community at large — and those inputs are very much intended to shape us. We are being told how to behave, who we should become, what we should aspire to, what is right and wrong. This is what we are learning, in a passive but profound way.
“Then, at 17, 18 or 19, the compass turns on us, and suddenly we become self-conscious of the fact that we can actually decide things for ourselves, we are actually in charge of deciding who we are, what we’re capable of, and what we think is right or wrong.
“When that turn occurs, that revolution, consciously or unconsciously we look back on all that stuff that we’ve received. Some of it we will accept and amplify in our own vision, but some of it we will reject.
“In addition, the young person at 18 is drawing cues from their peers, from their own experience and instincts. So all that is happening at this moment in time for Woolly, Emmett, Duchess and Sally — and I think in that moment morality is not the only factor, but it is important because it’s tied to: ‘What am I willing to do to achieve my goals, and how do I behave towards others?’ And these are elements of morality.”
While the book is thematically an exploration of all the many and varied elements that affect young people heading into adulthood and crafting for themselves the landscape of who they will become, it is also a cracking good adventure story. Towles says his process involves writing for himself as well as an audience, which is not always the norm in modern literature.
“When I was at Yale in the 80s, it was received wisdom for my generation that great art should never be made with an audience in mind. The more convoluted and obscure and challenging, the better. Great literature should confuse the reader.
“In retrospect, that’s a crazy notion. For 500 years before that, no serious artist in any medium would have worked without considering the audience. Mozart did, Bach did, Shakespeare, the Renaissance painters, Tolstoy ... even Dostoevsky did, for Christ’s sake. They could consider their audience, whether that was the Pope, a patron or the public, while still in some way subverting the art form.
“At some point in my 30s that really sunk in, and it has particularly influenced my editing process. I will write the first draft for myself. I’ll take a topic I’m obsessed by, I don’t care what anyone else thinks of it. I’ll imagine it in a way that suits me, and when I’m writing it I will fill it with all the vanities and misjudgements and boring parts and cliches and whatever else, all that junk, and that doesn’t bother me. It’s a fulfilment of what I think it should be, without consideration of an external force of any kind.
“Then I turn it around when I start to revise. Then I start to think, OK, well, now I’ve got all this stuff that satisfies me, what does the reader deserve to get from this? I think of it as a covenant: when a reader picks up a book of mine, they may have to pay for it, they are going to invest time in it, they have to select it out of all the other books and all the other things they do with their time, and so as part of that covenant they deserve that I have gone through this massive, vain experiment and brought it together.
"That means limiting the cliches, getting rid of redundancies, unnecessary diversions, making the language precise and making sure the story engages. You’re trying to convince someone to go the distance, you must hold them. That has been necessary ever since the novel began evolving as a serial form in the 19th century. You had to keep people coming back.
“So I try to make the book as economical as possible, so all that remains between the covers are the essential elements of the story itself. But that editing process does not necessarily make a book easier to read. In some cases it might make it harder because I’m taking out explanations that would bog the story down, and the reader should be able to draw their own conclusions anyway. At that point it’s about having faith in the reader: I know they are going to keep up.
“The reader should feel as though each page is delivering something to them that is advancing the story, or their feelings about the story, or a surprise in the way the language is used, or an insight. So the reading should never feel slow.”
A writer can never feel sure he has achieved what he has set out to do, but the sales of his books, and the joy of his readers, should convince Towles that he has succeeded in these objectives. The Lincoln Highway, if you ask me, is 576 pages of pure speed.
A GENTLEMAN OF LETTERS
Amor Towles has written two novels prior to The Lincoln Highway — The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. Together these have sold more than 4-million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages.
THE HEROIC QUEST
In The Lincoln Highway, eight-year-old prodigy Billy Watson carries with him a big red book which he has read 24 times: Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. Some of these stories mirror the tasks and missions undertaken by the four unlikely musketeers who star in Towles's novel, but they also stand for themselves as examples of those who did extraordinary things.
Towles says the content of this book-within-a-book took up much of his imagination.
“Pretty early on I had this idea that young Billy would have a book that he was obsessed with, a boy’s adventure book, with 26 heroes according to the 26 letters of the alphabet. So for years, when I was alone in a bar, I’d be thinking, OK, who is A? Who is B?”
The final lineup includes Napoleon, Ulysses, Hercules, Theseus, Jason, Galileo, Edison and da Vinci, a mixed bag of the famous and fabulous.
Emmett Watson, the hero of Towles’s story, has mixed feelings about the tales that have captivated his little brother. At one point he muses: “What good could possibly come from mixing the lives of these men [real-life inventors and explorers] with stories of mythical heroes setting sail on fabled waters to battle fantastical beasts?
"By tossing them together, it seemed to Emmett, Abernathe was encouraging a boy to believe that the great scientific discoverers were not exactly real and the heroes of legend not exactly imagined. That shoulder to shoulder they traveled through the realms of the known and unknown making the most of their intelligence and courage, yes, but also of sorcery and enchantment and the occasional intervention of the gods.”
That passage, in a way, describes the spirit of The Lincoln Highway. In the fictional book of heroes, chapter 25 is a set of blank pages, possibly because neither the imaginary Professor Abernathe nor the real Towles could think of a hero whose name started with a “Y”, so instead this chapter is headed “You”, with space for the reader to record his or her own adventures.
I challenge anyone who reads The Lincoln Highway not to want to pack up sticks and jump on a freight train the minute they finish the last page.
FREEDOM AND MOVEMENT
The four male characters in The Lincoln Highway are aided, exhorted and challenged by a young woman called Sally Ransom. A practical but independent-minded individual, Sally reflects on the “mystery of our will to move” in a way that infuses much of the novel:
“Every bit of evidence would suggest that the will to be moving is as old as mankind … Any child of ten can tell you that getting-up-and-going is topic number one in the record of man’s endeavours. Take that big red book that Billy is always lugging around. It’s got twenty-six stories in it that have come down through the ages and almost every one of them is about some man going somewhere … So, if the will to move is as old as mankind and every child can tell you so, what happens to a man like my father? What switch is flicked in the hallway of his mind that takes the God-given will for motion and transforms it into the will for staying put?”
Towles says the will to move, that began to infect many more young people around the world in the 1950s, has become less vigorous, partly because of our ability to explore anything and everywhere while sitting down and looking at a handheld screen.
“Prior to the 1950s, the assumption in the US Midwest was that you would spend your life on the family farm and die there, but then the world changed, migration happened, awareness of the world and the ability to move and travel happened.
“In the 2020s, this [he holds up his cellphone] is the problem. It’s a crazy thing — here is this window on the entire universe, and yet it’s encouraging you to sit in your chair.”