Listen: Amor Towles on writing, motivation and inspiration

Oct. 5, 2023, 3 a.m. ·

Amor Towles  CREDIT Dmitri Kasterine.jpg
Amor Towles (Photo by Dmitri Kasterine)

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New York Times best-selling author Amor Towles is this year’s speaker for the Governor’s Lecture in Humanities Series. Towles, formerly an investment professional on Wall Street, left finance behind to pursue his dream of being a writer. So far, he’s authored three celebrated books: "A Gentleman in Moscow", "Rules of Civility," and most recently "The Lincoln Highway" (last year's One Book One Lincoln selection). The discussion will be held Tuesday, Oct. 10 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and will also be livestreamed. Nebraska Public Media’s William Padmore spoke with him prior to his lecture.

Editor's Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

William Padmore: Could you start by giving me a little bit of background as to how you fell in love with books and writing?

Amor Towles: I knew I wanted to be a writer in first grade. A teacher of mine invited a juvenile poet — in other words, a poet who wrote poems for the young — to our class in first grade in Massachusetts outside Boston. And I just remember being so amazed and impressed with him, with the poems that he had written. He was probably 65 years old. His name was David McCord. And at the end of class, we had a chance to buy his books, to get them signed. I brought them home and immediately began reading them and within a day or two I was writing poems mimicking his style. And that kind of began it for me. From that moment forward, I wanted to be a writer and I would read one thing and then write something in response to it. And it was read, write, read, write from then forward into my adulthood.

William Padmore: What would you say to people who were, like you, in a job that's fine but deep down, they know that there's a story or a passion that they would like to share with the world, but they just don't know how to take those next steps to make it a reality?

Amor Towles: My message is that it can happen, right? I mean, that's what my life is sort of an example of. You can have a job and yet return to or take some of your private time dedicated towards the art that you love. And you can create something that you're proud of. It doesn't need to have a huge audience, you know? The most important thing, the thing that's most satisfying is to have created the work and be like, ‘You know, this fulfills my capabilities and it's a piece of work that I admire.' And then, hopefully, it can find an audience, too, but that can happen at any time in your life.

The important thing is, it's sort of a dark observation, but for me, the love of writing was not enough to get me to do it. It's what I've loved more than anything else my whole life and yet, there I was not writing. And a whole decade went by in my sort of young, virile years, I definitely went by without my writing at all. And so, the love wasn't enough to make me get back and do it. And what it ended up being was the dread of not doing it.

William Padmore: Do you think that you could have written to such a degree in your earlier years? Or do you think that those years you spent not writing were ultimately necessary to get you to the point where you are?

Amor Towles: I don't think, for instance, that I could have written a "Gentleman in Moscow" at the age of 25. That book benefits from my writing that in my 40s and having children at the point, being in a marriage, having had a career, having had colleagues. That book incorporates all of those kinds of relationships in a very intimate way. It looks very closely at the Count, how he becomes a lover, how he becomes a parent, how he becomes a colleague. So, I think it would been harder to do that at the age of 25.

Now, could I have written good books the age of 25? I think I could have. The other tradeoff is that I look at some of my peers who are my age who I admire and who are successful as writers, and they've written eight books by now, 10 books by now, you know? I'm rushing to write my fourth novel. So I've lost that time, in that sense. But the good part, the benefit for me, was that when I sat down to write "Rules of Civility," because I already had a career, I was in the middle of a career that was paying the bills, it was what my identity was wrapped up in, what my friends knew me as, an investment professional, I was unknown to the world of fiction writers. Because of all those things, when I sat down to write "Rules of Civility," I really only had to write it for myself. It was completely an independent project for my own satisfaction and that’s a great liberty for an artist.