Amor Towles – “Aspiration is a very strong aspect of American culture” - Hindustan Times

Amor Towles – “Aspiration is a very strong aspect of American culture”

Jun 08, 2024 02:46 PM IST

On avoiding drawing from his personal life while writing fiction, including the late novelist Paul Auster as a character in one of his short stories, and working with translators

Table for Two is divided into two sections: New York and Los Angeles. Would you say that the American dream looks different in these two cities?

Author Amor Towles (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Amor Towles (Courtesy the publisher)

That’s a great question, and the answer is absolutely yes! A part of the American dream, which is the opportunity to improve one’s life as compared to previous generations, is universal. And that gets particularized around things like owning a house of your own, also sending your children to a good school, and enjoying your freedom as a right.

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Going to California, and Los Angeles or Hollywood in particular, is associated with becoming famous and having a glamorous lifestyle. The weather is warm, there are palm trees, and of course the great Pacific Ocean — the dream presented here is a combination of all these things that make it an almost paradisical setting. This is often juxtaposed against the Midwest, where the weather is terrible. There are hurricanes, tornadoes, dust and famines.

The New York version of the American dream was best captured by Frank Sinatra when he sang “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere”. New York is a place where you go to become the best you can possibly be in business, fashion, art, restaurants, music, theatre. The presence of the skyscraper itself is a metaphor for upward ambition. There is a different kind of glamour associated with New York — the glamour of the penthouse, not palm trees.

Aspiration is a very strong aspect of American culture. This may look slightly different in different parts of the nation but the American dream is what holds the people together.

As a former investment manager on Wall Street, what was it like to create a fictional world set in communist Russia for your short story titled The Line? How were you able to write with so much empathy and insight rather than condescension?

I wrote fiction while studying at Yale and Stanford, much before I became an investment manager. None of my friends in college were surprised that I was writing fiction. For them, my going to Wall Street was the diversion; fiction was always a part of my life. I belong to a generation of writers who were asked to write short stories from as many different perspectives as possible in order to master the craft. This practice sharpens the imagination.

Some writers take their own circle of life and delve into it deeply. They write about their own family and their own community. My training was a bit different; because of that, I am constantly putting myself in the shoes of people whose life is different from mine. I have been honing the ability to imagine the life of other human beings. One is not simply trying to see what another person might see but also feel how they might feel in their situation.

With the character of Pushkin in The Line, I was interested in exploring the life of someone who was not good at very much in the eyes of society but he was good at standing in lines. Russia in the 1920s and 1930s was full of various kinds of lines. With the Great Depression in America in 1929, we too had lines — lines to get work, and lines to get money from banks. I thought it would be interesting to write a story around lines in Moscow and in New York.

Suddenly, these two very different societies had something in common. Lines usually signal some kind of stress but what’s interesting about them is that there is a stranger in front of you and a stranger behind you. Everyone is on an equal footing. There is something beautiful about that, and I wanted to write about the humanity that could be discovered in such lines.

464pp, ₹545; Penguin
464pp, ₹545; Penguin

People love standing next to Pushkin when they are in a line because he is cheerful, interested in their lives, and always willing to help. While conceptualizing this character, were you thinking of any strangers you have met while standing in lines?

I tend not to draw much from personal life but there are some exceptions. One short story in Table for Two is based on a real-life incident. I am referring to The Bootlegger, where a man attending a concert at Carnegie Hall has the nerve to record it. This really happened when I was attending a classical concert with my wife in my early thirties. I was so mad at the old man in a raincoat sitting beside us and recording it. He was breaking the law and betraying the piano player. Evgeny Kissin, the famous pianist, was on stage that night but I could not pay attention to the music because I was so furious. This part is autobiographical but the rest of the short story isn’t. I did not call security that night. Of course, I really wanted to. This story is my fantasy of what could have happened if I had chosen to report him.

In I Will Survive, another story in Table for Two, I write about a grown man who spends his Saturday afternoons on roller skates. This idea came from one of my walks through Central Park in New York. There is an area where roller skaters gather and perform with music. I stopped by to watch and listen, and was quite surprised by the sight of this old aristocratic gentleman among all the younger skaters. He was perhaps in his sixties, and certainly one of the best. His presence in that setting seemed unusual, so I got thinking about whether his family and colleagues might be aware of this part of his life. That was the starting point of the story, and everything else is my imagination.

The Didomenico Fragment unfolds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What kind of research went into making this setting come alive for your readers? Did you go on guided tours of the museum, or explore it on your own?

I have not done any research for any of my short stories. I have been living in New York for 35 years and know many of the nooks within the Met.

I was surprised to run into Paul Auster in your story titled The Ballad of Timothy Touchett. What made you turn a contemporary author into a character in this book? How did you look back at this choice when he died recently?

I tend to plan all my stories well in advance. I write detailed outlines. Before I start writing, I know the setting very well. I know all my characters and all the events. When I was planning The Ballad of Timothy Touchett, I knew that I was going to write about a man who forges autographs of famous authors and that the story would have one author who spots an autograph and realizes that the signature is not his own. I could have made up a character. But I was already using names of real people, authors like F Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Leo Tolstoy in the story, so I wanted to have a real author as a character.

I have never met Paul Auster. I am a fan, of course, and his work influenced me as a young man. In The New York Trilogy, he turns himself into a character, and also has someone pretending to be Auster. He likes playing with these hazy concepts — mirrors and doppelgangers — so he was the perfect choice for my story. Timothy does not forge signatures of authors who are alive but he convinces himself that Auster would not mind being forged.

I had no idea that Table for Two would come out around the time that Auster was struggling with his life. It was sad and tragic. He had asked to see a copy of the story shortly before he died, and it was sent to him at his request. I don’t think he was well enough to read it. In a way, as a fan, I am glad about the timing of the book because the story is a tribute to him.

If you found out that someone was forging your autographs and fake first editions were being sold at exorbitant prices, how would you react? Would you do what Paul Auster does in the story or would you approach the problem differently?

I am told that the art market is full of forged copies of paintings, so I am sure there are a lot of fake first editions of books too. I think I would react like Auster does in the story.

With the novella Eve in Hollywood in Table for Two, you revisit Eve Ross who first appeared in your novel Rules of Civility (2011) and later in an interlinked series of short stories called Eve in Hollywood: A Penguin Special (2013). What led you to pour so much time and attention into working with this particular character?

In Rules of Civility, Eve says that she is leaving New York and going to Indiana. She carries this feeling of being a failure in New York because her relationship does not work out, she meets with an accident, and her face is scarred. While she is headed home, just before her train arrives at the station, she decides to extend her ticket and go all the way to California. I had this thought that Eve would never go right back to her parents. That would mean defeat. I was fascinated with her as a character so I wrote 60 pages about her meeting different people. When I began working on Table for Two, I wanted to develop her story further and include it in the form of a more extended novella to do justice to her character’s journey. Last year, I checked into the Beverley Hills Hotel, where Eve lives, and turned those 60 pages into 200. I hope that I have finally given her the story that she deserved, and that readers deserve.

Your books have been translated into 35 languages. Have you ever felt like learning a language to read the translations or would it be too much of a vanity project?

That would definitely seem like a vanity project. To learn a language well enough to be able to read literature at an advanced level usually requires years of study. It is just not practical even if I wanted to. I would like to be able to read French because I love the language. Sadly, I read only in English. I learnt Latin as a child but did not put it to much use.

Tell us about your experience of working with translators.

I have great respect for people who are skilled in the art of translation. It involves more than language. Sometimes, I create notes for translators, especially about cultural nuances from American society that they might not be familiar with. Sometimes, if there is a motif running through the book, I might want to bring that to the attention of the translator. If I use the word “looking-glass” in one place, and “mirror” in another, I have reasons behind that choice, and I communicate that to the narrator. If the same object is being described as a knapsack, a backpack and a rucksack by three different narrators in the same work of fiction, as it happens in my novel The Lincoln Highway (2021), I make notes for the translator. I think that spelling out my intentions behind specific word choices might be helpful.

Do you also make notes for people who adapt your novels? To what extent were you involved in the TV adaptation of A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)?

I was not going to write the script. The agreement was that I would be involved in the hiring of the director, the hiring of the head writer, and the casting of the actors in the lead male and female roles. I had a chance to interview people. If I found that they did not understand the book, or their interpretation was going in a direction that I did not like, the producers would move on to the next person. Since I was given an opportunity to talk with these people have a say in hiring them, I had to trust them to do their job and step back.

Recently, you served on the jury for the O Henry Prize for Short Fiction. How was reading to select a winner different from reading only for your pleasure?

It was an honour and a pleasure to judge the O Henry Prize for Short Fiction because the team sorted through 1,000 stories and gave me the best 100 from which I had to choose 20 stories. It was not difficult to find 20 excellent examples of the form.

Do you plan to visit India anytime soon and meet your readers here?

I have never been to India. But I would very much like to come to the Jaipur Literature Festival at some point in the next few years.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer and journalist who is @chintanwriting on Instagram and X.

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