Writing and riding “The Lincoln Highway” - a conversation with Amor Towles
This week, Amor Towles’ third novel The Lincoln Highway went on sale. It will surely be at the top of best seller lists next week, because Towles writes best sellers—if that wasn’t clear after his first novel The Rules of Civility, which was a best seller, it was made quite evident by the blockbuster level success reached by his 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow.
As best-selling writers go, Towles is a rare type. His books take years to write, they don’t come out as part of a series, and the plots aren’t instantly identifiable as best-seller material. A Gentleman in Moscow was about a middle-aged Count living in a hotel that he cannot leave. That doesn’t exactly scream, This book will sell millions—yes, millions—of copies.
But people fall in love with Towles’ characters (a trait that most best-selling books share), and they have fallen in love with the author Amor Towles, too. We caught up with him recently to talk about his new book, why he wrote it, and more.
Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review: The Lincoln Highway is very different from A Gentleman in Moscow. Do you think writing a road novel was a specific reaction to having just written a story where the protagonist literally can’t leave his home?
Amor Towles: When I finish writing a novel, I do find myself wanting to head in a new direction. After spending four years writing a book in which a middle-aged aristocrat stays inside a hotel for three decades, I was happy to follow three eighteen-year-old boys on a journey in 1950s America that lasts only ten days—even if it was something of a misadventure.
I assume there were whole new challenges to sending your characters across the map.
While the shift from being trapped in the Metropol Hotel to being in motion on the Lincoln Highway did pose a certain challenge, narratively speaking, the shift from a time span of thirty years to a span of ten days posed a much bigger one. In the thirty-year narrative of A Gentleman in Moscow, both I, as author, and you, as reader, get to witness the evolution of Count Rostov. We get to watch his acquaintanceships become friendships. We get to watch his combative flirtations with Anna grow into a seasoned romance. We get to watch his perplexity with the five-year-old Sofia grow into full-blown fatherhood. And there is a certain wholistic satisfaction in seeing these developments unfold over time. But in a story that lasts only ten days, the author doesn’t have the chance to portray the evolution of the characters and their relationships in this fashion. Instead, the author must build a sense of the past and its influences, the future and its possibilities into a narrow moment in time.
As an author, you seem attracted to writing in other eras. Why is that? And does it require research?
I don’t pick an era, research it, and then write a book. Rather, I set my stories in eras that I have a longstanding interest in, so that I can fully imagine them while drawing from a reservoir of rough familiarity.
If you look at the set of a stage play, say for a production of Chekhov, at the very back there might be a painted backdrop which shows the cherry orchard through a set of French doors. It’s a two-dimensional depiction which has been painted on canvas to give us the illusion of the greater environment. In front of that backdrop there will be various crafted elements of the set—hollow doors that lead to nowhere and plywood shelves painted to look like they’re made of solid mahogany. But in front of these elements of artifice, there is an actual table surrounded with actual chairs on which sits an actual tea service.
Novels are constructed with the same varying layers of illusion and reality. For me, history is the backdrop at the back of the stage. It should be painted with just enough finesse and detail to serve the illusion, but no more so. In front of that backdrop, there are elements which may appear to be real but which are fashioned from plywood and paint. But when we get to the characters sitting at the table, that has to feel absolutely real. We have to be able to hear a palm being slapped against the surface of the tabletop with urgency, or the clink of a tea cup being set down in its saucer, resignedly. As in the theater, if the characters at the table are compelling, the grander illusion will succeed. If they are not, we’ll find ourselves staring at the exits and thinking about dinner.
Given that, how did you end up in the 1950s?
I tend to start with a very simple premise or notion—like a man gets trapped in a hotel for a long period of time. Then I’ll start to dwell on that notion, imagining the story that might spring from it. Usually, I can see most of the main events of a story within a few days of having had the original idea. (Although, I will ultimately spend several years planning a book before I start writing chapter one.)
In the case of The Lincoln Highway, the notion I had (as you might expect) was of a young man being driven home from a juvenile work farm by the warden ready to start his life anew, only to discover that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the warden’s car. That’s where I began. Almost immediately, my instincts told me that the boy was returning to his family farm in the Midwest, that his mother was long gone, that his father had died, that his younger brother was waiting for him, that the story would take place over ten days and would be set in the mid-1950s.
In retrospect, I think I chose the mid-1950s less for what was happening than for what was about to happen. With the Korean War having concluded in July 1953, America was at peace in 1954; but the country’s entanglement in the Vietnam War was about to begin. The battle for civil rights in America is as old as the Union itself, but in 1954, the modern civil rights movement was about to begin—following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education which ended legal segregation. In 1954, the “sexual revolution” was about to begin. It was in December 1953 that Hugh Heffner published the first issue of Playboy. That same year, the Kinsey Report on female sexuality was released and research was underway to develop “the pill.” And in 1954, the ascendancy of both television and rock & roll were beginning. So, while the great cultural shifts that defined America from 1955 to 1970 were not yet dominating the headlines in 1954, they were simmering just below the surface.
To me, this is a book about growing up and the need to choose the type of person you are going to be. Can you talk a little bit about that (and if I’m wrong, let me know)?
That is definitely a central theme of this work, Chris.
When children are young, the nuclear family is a very tight unit (even when it’s dysfunctional). The relationships between husband and wife, between parents and children, and among siblings are omnipresent, governing habits and behaviors, influencing perspectives and emotions. But when children come of age in their late teens and early twenties, the household begins to unwind naturally, even purposefully. As young adults go off to college, enter careers, and get married, their focus shifts away from the household in which they were raised toward a world that they must shape for themselves.
The Lincoln Highway is certainly about this transition—in a concentrated fashion. Emmett, Duchess, Woolly and Sally are all in the process of moving on from the family structure in which they were raised to some unknown world of their own fashioning—with all the challenges and opportunities, all the insights and illusions that the transition implies.
This is a question I don’t get to ask often: I sometimes wondered, as I was anticipating this new book, if the smashing success of A Gentleman in Moscow added some new pressure to finishing The Lincoln Highway. Is that true, or is finishing a novel difficult enough all by itself?
I really didn’t consider the reception of A Gentleman in Moscow while I was writing The Lincoln Highway. I generally will think about a book for many years, imagining all of its aspects in detail—its settings, characters, and events—before I sit down to write chapter one. So, I was well into the design of Lincoln Highway before A Gentleman was even published. I think this insulates me a little from the type of pressure you’re asking about. By the time the public is weighing in on a book of mine, I have already committed myself to a new story which needs to be realized on its own terms.
Photo credit: Dmitri Kasterine