SALT LAKE CITY — Writer Amor Towles wants to make one thing clear: While he too is a fan of the Humphrey Bogart classic "Casablanca," loves a rich bouillabaisse and played word games with his children when they were young, no one should mistake him for Count Alexander Rostov, the titular character of Towles' best-seller "A Gentleman in Moscow."
"I am definitely not the count, (although) my wife wishes I was," Towles, who is coming to Salt Lake's Larimer Center for the Performing Arts on April 2, said in a recent phone interview.
Count Rostov is an elegant courtly gentleman (as the title indicates) sentenced to house arrest at Moscow's glamorous Hotel Metropol in revolutionary Russia for the crime of being an aristocrat. (In a literary nod, it is poetry that saves him from a Siberian gulag or worse.) For the next 30 some years, Rostov finds a career, a family, an enemy — in short, a full life — all within the hotel's walls.
Towles came upon the idea for the book while traveling for his first career as an investment analyst. Each year, he would stay in the same hotel in Switzerland for a conference, and "year after year, I recognized people in the lobby from the year before," he recalled. "And that's where I thought, 'Oh, … it's as if these people never left.'" From there, Towles imagined a scenario where someone didn't — indeed, couldn't — leave a hotel. That idea quickly took him to Russia, which has a long history of placing people under house arrest, and to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and beyond.
As Rostov matured and grew in Towles mind, the writer found that the count's voice became increasingly distinct and, sometimes, even wise. But although Towles shares some commonalities with Rostov, he points out that the character's insights are all his own.
"When (readers) highlight some … human observation from the book that resonated with them — a little bit of philosophy or observation about life — 95 percent of them I never would have had … myself. They never would have occurred to me," Towles said.
In fact, he admitted, he is just as often enlightened by his characters' ideas as are his readers.
"(These thoughts are) almost always the product of imagining I am this person who I am not — the count — and putting him in a situation that I have never been in and then kind of listening," Towles said. "… It kind of comes as this thing that is presented to me by the third party. … So not only am I not the count, I am very conscious of the fact that in taking on the personality of the count or the experiences of the count, … the observations (he) has in that book are really (his) own."
A best-seller when it came out in 2016, "A Gentleman in Moscow" has been described by critics as a "winning, stylish novel that keeps things easy," (NPR) and Rostov a "character so capable, so witty and at ease in the world" (New York Times) that readers might overlook the time period's dangers outside the hotel's gilded doors. With most of the book's narration in third person limited from the count's view-point, Towles decided as he began outlining the story to include a secondary voice to counterbalance Rostov's "intrinsic optimism."
Initially, this second voice provided a window into life outside the hotel — showing readers the "more acute realities of Soviet life, whether that is the risk of arrest, or the shortages, or possible execution. (He detailed the) oppressive governance and all those various elements of Soviet life," Towles said. And unlike the Count, this other character was "more cynical, more sarcastic (and) clearly (had) a more direct experience with some of the worst aspects of the Soviet era," Towles said.
But the deeper Towles got into the story, he found that this secondary voice was becoming problematic — he still needed that voice, but he didn't need another character with a back story. And so that character, with his knowledge of the realities and horrors of the new Soviet world, became the voice of the book's footnotes. Readers of "A Gentleman in Moscow" will recognize his sharp observations and sometimes arch tone, but not his own tale.
While this fictional character ended up being cut down, Towles did have a host of real-life people he could have put in the count's story. The Hotel Metropol, which opened in 1905, saw many of the 20th century's most notable figures pass through its doors. When Towles finally stayed in the Metropol for a week after he had completed the book's first draft, he took with him a stack of first-hand accounts from John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, e. e. cummings and others about their stay in the hotel. They provided him with important details, even if most of these famous people didn't make it into his final story. But there was one real-life person who Towles couldn't help but include.
"As a kid I threw a bottle in the ocean off the coast … of Massachusetts and the managing editor of the New York Times, Harrison Salisbury, found it and we corresponded from the time I was 8 to the time I was 18," Towles said.
Salisbury, who wrote a memoir about his experiences as the Times' Moscow bureau chief from the end of the Second World War through the early years of the Cold War, not only appears in Towles' book, he inadvertently assists the count in an important moment.
"It was kind of fun for me, having this strange personal relationship with Salisbury," he said, "to bring it into the book and to share some of his memories of Moscow at that time through the narrative."
And that is largely what Towles aims to do: Write books that are interesting, well-written and enjoyable for him to work on. He wrote his first book, the 2012 hit "Rules of Civility" in his off hours with none of the pressures attached to writing a best-seller. While he's grateful that book allowed him to turn to writing full time, Towles did his best to pursue his second book with much the same mentality — "as something that I just did for myself," he said.1 comment on this story
"… I certainly didn't (write 'A Gentleman in Moscow') with the assumption that it would become a best-seller because, you know, the premise 'guy gets trapped in hotel in Russia for 30 years' was not an idea that was engineered for popularity."
If you go …
What: Amor Towles' book signing and reading from "A Gentleman in Moscow"
When: April 2, 7 p.m.
Where: Rowland Hall's Larimer Center for the Performing Arts, 843 Lincoln St.
How much: The event is currently sold out, but the King's English website states: There may be a limited number of first-come, first-serve $20.00 seats available the night of the event. Please be in line at Rowland Hall by 6:30 p.m. to be eligible.