Author Amor Towles on Writing Rules of Civility

BlogHer Original Post

The BlogHer Book Club reviewers loved Rules of Civility. We were thrilled to get author Amor Towles to answer a few exclusive questions about his characters, process and muse.

BlogHer: You mention on your website you’ve had only one story published before this book, which has been a great success. Were you submitting other work all along, or did you just bide your time until you wrote Rules of Civility?

Amor Towles: I’ve been writing fiction since I was a kid. From the age of 15 to 25 I probably wrote more than fifty short stories, one of which was published in the Paris Review in 1989. Then in my late thirties & early forties, I wrote a novel set in the farmlands of Stalinist Russia, which I stuck in a drawer. So when I finished the manuscript for Rules of Civility, it was the first thing I had submitted for publication in twenty years.

One reason for the long hiatus is that I have been an investment professional since my mid-twenties. My personal challenge as an artist has been having a day job which is intellectually satisfying and fun -— and thus can easily supplant the desire to make art. But the benefit of having that career has been that I could work without an overwhelming sense of urgency to be published. I could just keep refining my craft until I was convinced I had something worth sharing.

BlogHer: Your quotable observations on your characters and on society are fascinating to our reviewers. Do you talk that way, or are your metaphors and observations carefully culled?

Amor Towles: Wit, wisdom and poetry flow directly from my subconscious into my computer’s central processing unit be means of a specialized form of psychokinesis first developed by Steve Jobs and the Dali Lama in cooperation with the Department of Defense.

Well. It’s sort of like that ...

The seeds of the artful turn of phrase, the apt metaphor, the winning comeback, the social summary are, in fact, often products of a moment’s inspiration – presenting themselves in the midst of the drafting process or while on a walk or while staring into the distance across a plate of spaghetti. But every paragraph in the book has been edited and re-edited in the hopes of bringing a moment’s inspiration into the artistic form that suits it best.

BlogHer: By writing about New York society of the past, you were inviting comparisons with F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Edith Wharton, Truman Capote ... How did you shrug off their ghosts and find your own voice?

Amor Towles: I really didn’t think too much about the great authors of the New York scene while I was writing the book. At the onset, I had my premise from the Walker Evan’s photos (of an individual undergoing transformation in 1938 New York) and my narrator (with her wry, ambitious intellect and sharp moral compass), and I tried to let all else spring essentially from those elements. I suppose I also claimed the period as my own through invention. At www.amortowles.com you will find a map with histories of nine important locations in the book, four of which are factual and five of which are fictional.

Perhaps I didn’t struggle too much with comparison because I am such a lover of collage. Whether it’s the works of the early Dadaists, or the boxes of Joseph Cornell, or sampling in contemporary music, I enjoy experiencing the successful integration of one work of art into another. I have hundreds of influences at this stage of my life, and I am constantly collaging them into my work while still hoping to fashion something new.

A short list of my influences: Woody Allen, aristocrats, bars, Batman, the Beats, bistros, James Bond, Humphrey Bogart, Jorge Louis Borges, cafés, Italo Calvino, cards, Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Chandler, Christmas, the Chrysler building, cooking, Joseph Cornell, DaDa, Charles Darwin, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, the Enlightenment, Existentialism, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Florence, Ford Maddox Ford, Sigmund Freud, Stan Getz, Grandma, Cary Grant, Greenwich Village, Ernest Heminway, Edward Hopper, Franz Kafka, kick-the-can, Captain Kirk, Milan Kundera, late night, Led Zepplin, Edouard Manet, manifestoes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Henri Mattise, Van Morrison, the OED, Oulipo, Paris, pasta, Marcel Proust, John Reed, Jim Rockford, Rock & Roll on vinyl, the Rolling Stones, Russia, the seaside, Frank Sinatra, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, springtime, John Steinbeck, Surrealism, Henry David Thoreau, Toll House cookies, Leo Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, Zen.

BlogHer: You referred to Eve as a woman’s “companion” in your last mention of her. Were we to read that in a friendly or romantic way?

Amor Towles: I am in the process of writing a short story that follows Eve to Hollywood.

BlogHer: You start off Rules of Civility at a Walker Evans photography exhibition. How did you discover his photography and why did you decide to use it in your novel?

Amor Towles: While I began writing Rules of Civility in 2006, the genesis of the book dates back to the early 1990s when I happened upon a copy of Many Are Called -– the collection of portraits that Walker Evans took on the New York City subways in the late 1930s with a hidden camera. At the time, I primarily knew of Evans’s iconic Depression-era photographs of rural America, such as those that appear in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: the tilting clapboard houses, weathered signs, stalwart women in summer dresses ... But this was the first I’d seen of his urban work.

The subway photos weren’t shown publicly until the 1960s, and, as I flipped through the pages, I had the fanciful notion of someone at the exhibit’s opening recognizing the same person in two of portraits. In the manner of such things, I wrote the idea on a matchbook cover and threw it in a box.

One of the reasons the Evans portraits stayed with me all those years is that they are fundamentally haunting -– and, in part, I think this is because they manifest the public/private paradox of the subway ride. On the one hand, these commuters are in the most public of environments –- a crowded subway car in the largest, most racially diverse city in the world. But on the other hand, the anonymity secured by this chance gathering of strangers, by the relative brevity of the ride, and by that start-of-day/end-of-day weariness, all seem to prompt the riders (or allow them) to drop their guard. We, as viewers, thus get a glimpse not simply of social class and ethnicity, but of the individual histories, sentiments, and dreams, that lie just beneath the surface.

Half the time, when I pull a matchbook out of the box, I can’t read my own writing. But when I set out to write a novel in 2006, I happily rediscovered this old idea.

If you haven't already checked out the reviews of Rules of Civility, head on over!

Amor Towles


Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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