Perhaps you’ve traveled from New York to San Francisco. Maybe you’ve even driven from coast to coast. But have you taken The Lincoln Highway? In this podcast, author Amor Towles joins us to talk about the voices, the characters, and the adventures from his novel by that name. Also, we get a sneak peak at the soon-to-be-released TV series based on his previous book, A Gentleman in Moscow: Ewan McGregor, a cameo denied, and an exclusive Easter egg, just for Fools!
To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool’s free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.
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This video was recorded on August 23, 2023
David Gardner: So far this month our authors in the August series for Rule Breaker Investing has introduced us to an author who walked from Washington, DC to New York City and wrote about it. An entrepreneur who parlayed his skills learned as an army ranger into helping others sell their own businesses the right way. To a mathematical genius that, well, I hope we talked enough about his book, but it was too much fun to go off the rails with Jordan last week as well. And now this week, we get to talk to and learn from a world-class novelist who last joined me on Rule Breaker Investing five years ago, five years ago, this very week. Amor Towles is quite a rule-breaker himself, a man who’s stepped away from a Wall Street research desk in his mid-40s to become a critically acclaimed novelist. In 2011 published Rules of Civility, in 2016, A Gentleman in Moscow, and this has happened every five years. In 2021, it was The Lincoln Highway, the main subject of our podcast this week. Let’s learn from a man who’s sold five-plus million books. Shall we? Only on this week’s Rule Breaker Investing.
Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing it is authors in August. It is Amor Towles. You heard me at the top. I don’t think I need to go to much more into this phenomenal writer. Just delighted to be joined again by Amor. Five years ago to the very week that we talked about his previous novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. Here we are about to talk about The Lincoln Highway. Now, many have not yet read The Lincoln Highway. It did come out in 2021. It’s already been a fantastic best-seller. But the vast majority of people hearing me today, which would be true of almost any audience other than Amor Towles bookclub.com will not actually have read this book yet. Just like last time, I’m not going to spoil his wonderful novel, well, up to a point. We will of course discuss Lincoln Highway and minorly spoil some of it in order to inform, and I would say entice listeners like you who may not have read it yet, but only to inform and entice, not over explain, certainly not spoil or ruin. That’s the one ground rule of what I expect to be a very rich and wide-ranging conversation you’re about to enjoy this week. I’m rubbing my hands together, looking forward to welcoming back Amor Towles to Fooldom. Amor Towles, welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing.
Amor Towles: David, thanks for having me back.
David Gardner: Ralph Waldo Emerson used to hail friends he’d not seen for a long time with the greeting: What’s become clear to you since we last met? Amor, what’s become clear to you since we last met?
Amor Towles: Not enough, first of all. [laughs] I love that Emerson asked that of people, I would definitely want to adopt that as an excellent opening.
David Gardner: Do, I’ve done it.
Amor Towles: But I think one thing is on my mind, I guess, is I recently was on the set of A Gentleman in Moscow, which should be shot in Manchester, England. It’s an eight-hour mini-series starring Ewan McGregor as the Count. This is my second novel being brought to the screen. At any rate, in the course of the last year, I’ve had varied levels of involvement with the production, mostly limited. But going and watching, the team is working to bring this story to life on the screen is humbling and inspiring. As you see, the head of costumes, the head of makeup, the head of set design, the head of prompts, investing themselves in the story and using their craft to try to bring the book to life. Watching them to work together is very impressive. What I now see more clearly than I did in the past is that as it turns out, I am not a collaborator. That’s what I see more clearly. The world of movie-making is so collaborative, intensive, and that no element of it is going to function effectively without everybody’s participation. The vast majority of participants are artists or artisans in some degree, and so are there because they can improve the outcome through artistic decision-making, whether that’s behind the lights or as they say in the set design or in the performances themselves. To survive in that field, you really have to be at all times open to receiving criticism, prepared to give feedback in a good mood despite the fact that the other people are slowing the thing down or doing it the wrong way or whatever things. In novel creation, it is an organization of one, at least in the writing things. I’m trying to say that my personality is better suited to be sitting down by myself and doing the work without interruption, without interference. That’s where I belong. I should say that bringing a book out into the world so that it reaches readers becomes a collaborative process. I’m pretty collaborative on that end. What is the cover going to be? Working with the independent bookstores, responding to readers, there’s a collaborative element in all that that I can handle. It’s the artistic creation itself that I think I’m a one-man show.
David Gardner: Well, it makes a lot of sense as you explain it. It really is the creation of the art that is so fundamentally different. It takes a village to make a movie. It seems like it takes an adult to write a novel, but the creation of the product after the art, maybe it does take a village to make a novel. Well, thank you for that, Amor. I remember when we talked five years ago, it felt as if at the time it was imminent. Was it great finds? I thought that A Gentleman in Moscow was imminent on TV. So there have been some changes over the course of five years. There was something called COVID in the meantime.
Amor Towles: Yes.
David Gardner: What’s a long strange trip it’s been?
Amor Towles: The novel came out in 2016, and it looks like the series will be out next spring, which is just seven-and-a-half years. Actually, that’s about average. It can be a lot longer than seven-and-a-half years to see a book ultimately come to screen. We’re right on track industry-wise. But it is not an industry that moves by leaps and bounds usually.
David Gardner: Well, a lot of us are looking forward to that showtime production next spring. Thank you for that.
Amor Towles: Thank you.
David Gardner: Let’s move to another book that you’ve probably sold movie rights to. That would be your most recent book, The Lincoln Highway. You said last time, when we talk that, “If I had set out to write a best-seller, you would never pick the story of a guy trapped in a hotel for 30 years.” Now, I’m wondering if you’d say the same thing about The Lincoln Highway, a novel about an adventure across the first trans-American highway and yet not necessarily in the direction your reader first thinks. Amor, were you trying to write a best-seller this time? [laughs]
Amor Towles: When I hand it in the manuscript for the Lincoln Highway, I told my publisher and editor, Viking Penguin where I’ve been since the beginning. I said, I think this is great. I’m very happy with it. But certainly, it’s not going to come close to having the reception that A Gentleman in Moscow has had. They said, OK, that’s fine. But my publishing came back afterwards, he said, Amor, I think you’re nuts. I think this could easily have this bigger reception for readers. My hesitation, I wasn’t just being coy about it with him. I think that for those who haven’t read The Lincoln Highway, it’s set in 1954 in America. A young man has just been released from a juvenile prison. He’s being driven home by the warden to the family farm. While our hero Emmett, was doing time, his father has died, the families is in bankruptcy, his mother is long gone, and he’s ready to start his life anew. Getting his eight year old brother and heading West to California. But it turns out two friends from the juvenile prison have hidden in the trunk of the wardens car, and when the wardens drives away, they present themselves and everything starts to go in the wrong direction for our hero. And the story then heads East instead to New York City. [laughs] The whole thing only lasts exactly 10 days.
Now, I say when I would finish it, why did I think it was not going to have the reception of A Gentleman in Moscow or certainly a different one? For one thing, the story is told from eight different perspectives. On individual days you are shifting from perspective to perspective to perspective, which means that it’s in eight voices. Your piecing together the course of events by piecing together the different takes and what is witnessed by the different individuals. You have to maintain a sense of these different personalities. Frankly, I felt that would be off putting for many readers. The pleasure of A Gentleman in Moscow is you’re immersing yourself and the single psychology, and getting to see the world unfold through that lens. This is a very different reading experience as a result. As it turned out, what I thought was going to be a drawback in away for many readers, ended up providing readers different access points to the books, but in a way that I did not anticipate. Where you have readers that comes out, I love that book because Duchess is just the greatest character. I love Duchess. A lot of people are like, I can’t stand Duchess, or Billy is my favorite, or Sally, the world is just like it is like Sally describes it. That quality of having different perspectives, it does change the way readers engage with. I guess the other thing is that there’s a darker component to Lincoln Highway. I won’t give away anything about it, but it certainly has some darker aspects to it, some unhappier aspects to it as a part of the fabric of the lives of these characters. I thought that there were some readers who enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow who turned to this and say, this is a different thing. It’s not as sophisticated. It doesn’t have the elegance of the Aristocrat from the 19th century. It’s a bunch of 18 year olds, [laughs] and they’re making bad choices. I thought that all that would put off, well, as it turned out, people were fine with that too.
David Gardner: I think Viking Penguin’s pretty happy with your sales. I think it’s clocked in already over a million sold, so congratulations. Just two years later, just phenomenal. When did the idea for this book first come to you? Why is the highway so central to the novel that it gets its marquee name up in lights?
Amor Towles: Those are two big questions. I’ll start with the first. I written fiction since I was a kid and I wrote fiction in high school, in college, in graduate school, and over the course of my life, ideas for stories or books have tended to present themselves in very simple form. A sentence. A small conceit. A little notion. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, it was a guy gets trapped in a hotel for a long period of time. That’s suddenly I was thinking about while I was in a hotel myself. In this case, the Lincoln Highway, it’s pretty much built-in when I just described as the opening, which is that I had this idea of, oh yeah, a kid being driven home from juvenile prison and two friends hidden in the trunk of the wardens car. That’s where I started. When I have a notion like that, if it really intrigues me and grabs me, I just can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll start immediately with a very strong sense of a couple of particulars. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, within minutes, I start with a guy trapped in a hotel, but within minutes, I thought, oh yeah, great, it could be in Russia, it could be an Aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in a fancy hotel. The story could span from the revolution to the Cold War.
All that was very quick. Then you go in this process of beginning to imagine in greater and greater detail. The case that Lincoln Highway, yes, it almost instantaneously, I was like in the ’50s, returns to the Midwest, farm in bankruptcy. Ten day story. Two friends from New York. All that was very quick. But then over the course of what will be a couple of years before I start writing, I call it from the design phase, I’ll start feeling notebooks, imagining all the various elements of the story. Where do they go? Who’s there? Who are these people? What are they like? What are their backgrounds? What’s the setting of the scene? What does it look like in great detail? What happens in every chapter? What are people thinking? What are they feeling? What are they saying as a part of it? Over a couple of years I’ve build up to the point where I and know the story pretty intimately from beginning to end, and only at that point would I then outline it and start to write Chapter 1.
David Gardner: Do you have a small coterie of friends? Do you have a spouse or partner? Do kick these things around with people over the course of years, or is this a solitary exercise with your nose and your notebooks?
Amor Towles: I do have friends. I do have a spouse, first of all, for the record. But no, I don’t talk about my work with others. I’m pretty private about the work until I’m done with the first draft. I don’t share my writing until I’m done with first draft with anybody including my wife or agent or editor, I wait till I’m done.
David Gardner: So interesting. The Highway question.
Amor Towles: The Highway part. The irony in this one is that, in these notebooks that I’m keeping over this period of years, the book was originally titled Unfinished Business, which is for those who’ve read the book will recall, it’s something that comes up in the story. Duchess gets very interested in the nature of unfinished business, when you’ve got this debt you owe, or you’ve got a debt you’re going to collect. Either way, it’s unfinished business, and Duchess gets on the track of trying to settle old scores. Whether he owes the debt or whether he’s collecting it. Not necessarily financial, of course. I’m talking about in a moral sense, so it was called Unfinished Business. In the story, while I was designing it, I knew the characters were going to leave the farm on the third day, and take a right to head to New York instead of a left to California. But at no point did I know what road they were going to take during those years. It just said route X, is what they would drive on. But then when I started writing the book, I eventually had to pin down the exact road because that would actually potentially have bearing. Maybe if they went through Chicago, I might want to include a night in Chicago, or are they be going through cornfields or not? I get out the map. I found the road that looks perfect from the middle of Nebraska to New York City.
It starts out as Route 30. But in the map it said in small print, Route 30, formerly known as the Lincoln Highway. I was like, what is the Lincoln Highway? I’d began to do a little delving into the Lincoln Highway, and everything I found out about it amaze me. It’s this incredible thing. I was like, oh my god, not only just an incredible history of this road, but it is in many ways a perfect metaphor for many of the themes, which are now clearly built into the story I’m telling, and so like that, I changed the name to the Lincoln Highway that day. You can go to amortowles.com and there’s a complete history of Lincoln Highway there for those who get interested because it’s not all in the book, certainly not, but there is this fascinates me, but I will give you a couple of the quick highlights. That is that in 1910, as the car was coming of age in the United States, there were no highways really in the modern sense. No roads had been developed to go from one municipality to another municipality far away, say, Boston to Denver. There was no road from Boston to Denver. The trains went from Boston to Denver.
Between Boston and Denver, you would have roads around each town or each city, but once you left the city out into the country, the roads fade out, and then there were no hotels, no gas stations, no restaurants. Cross-country traveling by car in 1915 was very difficult. You had to carry with you water, gas, food, tents, repair parts. They look like polar expeditions. Nineteen fifteen, at that time, only about 150 people would drive across the United States in any given year. A guy who had made a fortune selling a brand new light for the automotive industry named Carl Fisher from Indianapolis. Decided and he had sold his company. He made hundreds of millions of dollars, and he said, you know what? There should be a highway that crosses the United States from C to shining C. The government had no interest in doing it. The federal government was not involved in roads at all, and so he decided to do it himself. He raised money from the public and from famous people and from corporations, and around 1915 he built this road that begins in Times Square New York City, goes all straight across the country, through 12 states, and ends up in Lincoln Park in San Francisco overlooking the Pacific. The road was such an immediate success, in essence, that within five-years, 20,000 Americans a year we’re driving across the country. Now having said that only 150, we’re doing it before the road was built.
David Gardner: It’s phenomenal.
Amor Towles: Yeah, it launched this whole new way in which Americans were seeing the country both as tourists but also obviously had impact for commercial development, for ability for people to move, for jobs, or to visit family, it really had this big impact. It was the most famous road in America by far in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s, and then it was made obsolete when Eisenhower built the highway systems in the 1950s. But you can still drive the Lincoln highway from Times Square to San Francisco, and in many cases it’s a rural road with one lane going in either direction.
David Gardner: It’s a lot more fun.
Amor Towles: Yeah. No, it’s a great way. It’s an old school way to cross the country, when time is not of the essence.
David Gardner: Carl Fisher, a name, to me and he lost in the midst of time, is there a statue of Carl Fisher anywhere in America?
Amor Towles: I think there is, but I’m trying to remember where I’ve seen mentioned of it, but I’ll tell you because Carl Fisher, having invented his lamp on the car, was a 90% of the cars in the United States for a long time. So that was Number 1. He was born in poverty, and at 13, he dropped out of school. Initially he sold newspapers in train stations and things like that. So he builds this great fortunate. Once he sells the company, he gets bored, and the first thing he does is he starts racing cars. He loves racing cars, and he thinks that it’s too unsophisticated in the environment. Everybody’s racing on dirt roads. So he built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
David Gardner: Wow.
Amor Towles: So that started to attract racers from all across the Northeast who would come to race on the track, because it was really the only serious track in the country. Then Fisher says, you know, I bet, now that we’ve got the track and the drivers, if we had a significant prize and we built stands, I bet people would come to watch. So he did that and that’s the Indi 500. He launched Indi 500, and the first year he did it, I think over 50,000 people came to see the race. This is back in, as I said around 1915. Then bored, he starts vacationing in Florida, and he’s there in Miami on the water. But at the time, the City of Miami ended on the edge of the Biscayne Bay, and then you had the Biscayne Bay and there was a barrier Island and then the Atlantic Ocean. Carl Fisher realized, he said, you know what, the barrier island is in better place to spend the winter, because you’ve got the breeze, you got the ocean, you can look back on the Miami skyline. And so he ends up buying, or really controlling, a big chunk of this bare island and he builds a hotel there, and that becomes Miami Beach. And so he makes his third fortunate or whatever. He is an amazing American. Motley Fool listeners will not be surprised to learn that he died penniless. Because that happens in the American dream too. You start with nothing, you build a fortune, build a second fortune, build a third fortune, and then the combination of misguided developments, he tried to recreate Miami Beach in Montauk and it failed, nobody came. He lost a ton of money in the 29 crash, and he had enormous amounts of real estate in Miami and was wiped out in a hurricane. So in an eight-year period, the three of those three events took him from being worth, at the peak, probably a half a billion-dollars in today’s terms, to zero.
David Gardner: That is just a remarkable story and I had no idea we were going to geek out on Carl Fisher, but that’s why we do this podcast. That was really well told Amor, thank you for sharing that.
Amor Towles: None of that’s in the book, by the way. That’s a freebie, that’s a bonus.
David Gardner: That’s actually nonfiction.
Amor Towles: Yeah.
David Gardner: But back to the book, this is a ridiculous meta question, but that’s why I like to ask it. The actual title of the book is The Lincoln Highway: A Novel. So a really meta question, I’m seeing you so your body language is like. I was going to ask you why add, a novel, in the official site of your novel because on Amazon it’s The Lincoln Highway colon a novel. On the cover it looks like it’s just a novel by the author of a Gentleman in Moscow.
Amor Towles: The truth is, David, and you can feel free to cut this question and answer. But that’s not me, that’s the industry. So anytime, and actually most novels today, it says a novel on it, and it is from a complete lack of confidence that the average citizen walking to a bookstore, picking up the book, will be able to quickly distinguish between what they’re looking at. That’s particularly true when you have a title like The Lincoln Highway, where someone’s like, it must be a history of The Lincoln highway. So it is an industry thing, not a tolls thing.
David Gardner: Thank you for the explanation, it makes sense. What is the most quintessentially American thing about your novel, The Lincoln Highway, and what is the most un-American thing in The Lincoln Highway?
Amor Towles: That’s a fascinating question.
David Gardner: It’s partly about our country, America, and of course, it feels as if you’ve set us up to think this is a great American novel which it is, but we’re at a time in our country’s history where a lot of people have different views of what America core values are, what we stand for. I’m just curious your viewpoint through your novel.
Amor Towles: An essentially American aspect of the story, I think, is tied to the fact that the mid-fifties were a very interesting time in the United States. The book is set in 54, as I said, and if you think of 1954, what makes it interesting is not so much what was happening, it’s about what was about to happen. So 1954, a few weeks before the story begins, is when you have Brown v the Board of Education, decision of the Supreme Court. Obviously, the civil rights movement has existed in United States since the inception of the country because we’ve had slavery since the inception of the country. So there was cause for a battle of civil rights, whether it was obviously becoming more public and more sophisticated over time. But the modern civil rights movement really begins in 1954 with that decision. Because between the civil war in 1954, in 100-year span, Jim Crow, as we all know, had basically recreated many of the conditions of slavery and codified them as law, such as the whole concept that black citizens and white citizens couldn’t use the same hotels or restaurants, or sit in the same seats on buses. The two-class system had been completely codified into law and had become the standard, and that lasted 100 years.
Brown v. the Board of Education is the case where the Supreme Court finally says, you know what, that does not meet the standards, they are guaranteed by our constitution. Separate is not equal, so you can’t use the separate but equal argument. With that, you then have an acceleration of events. Rosa Parks refusing to give up our seat is within the next 18 months, the rise of Martin Luther King begins within the next 18 months, and a decade later you have the civil rights act. As I say, the modern civil rights movement is really about to take off in 1954. You can say the same thing about the women’s movement. In the aftermath of the second world war. There was a big cultural push to take with an out of the factories, they’d gotten to the factories during the war, and again, back in the home. Partly, there was a government viewpoint on that because they were worried that if they left the women in the workplace, the returning soldiers would not have a job, and that can be very disruptive to society. Setting aside sexist viewpoints, that alone, they thought was a problem. But there was always a sexism there too. So there was this cultural encouragement of women to go back into the home, to raise their children, to take advantage of the new appliances. This locked down version of womanhood, which was very different by the way, than what womanhood looked like in the 1920s and ’30s in the United States. So it was in the ’50s, created a new model for domesticating the woman in the family. So that’s coming out of the second world war. By the mid-fifties, you’re beginning to already see the women who are beginning to fight against it. Early writing about it, the big feminist movement of the ’60s is being launched in the mid-50s.
The sexual revolution is the same thing. That’s going to take off in the ’60s, but it’s getting underway in the mid ’50s. The Kinsey report on female sexuality is published in the mid ’50s. Playboy is launched right before 1954. So all this is happening. Then you have television and rock and roll. Rock and roll is invented basically in 1954, or what we think of as the modern art form of rock and roll. With Rock Around the clock generally being seen as one of the two first songs, rock and roll songs. Then television, which had been launched in the early ’50s but really by 1954 is curving up dramatically, so that by 1950 it’s in 10% of the homes. By 1959, it’s in 99% of the homes or something like that. So all these things are happening or, as we say, are gaining steam in 1954. If you think of those things, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, rock and roll, television, those cultural forces which explode in the ’60s dominate in many ways, our culture for the next half a century and beyond, right up until the launch of the internet. Those are the major cultural movements. Let’s just say that’s just happening.
One of the things that’s interesting about the book in terms of the American context is that this tradition of America, the way it was seen from the ’50s looking back is, and then you have what happens next, the next 100 years, and 1955/’54 is right there on the line. In the store you have a lot of the forces that are going to surface in the ’60s beginning to percolate for the characters. They don’t have the civil rights movement language to articulate why as a Black American they’re unhappy. Sally doesn’t have the feminist’s movements language to articulate her frustrations of her life from home, but the frustrations are there, and the imbalance is there. Anyway, so that’s her part of the story too, and that’s true for all the characters who are wrestling with some ways how to be a modern American and what they deserve and what they’re going to have to fight for and those things.
David Gardner: You’ve just done a fantastic job evoking a time that predates you and me, although not by too much, and Thank you. It’s almost like you studied the era and wrote a book set in that time that you have all the knowledge of all those different forces. Maybe one of the themes to me of the Lincoln Highway, a novel is that it has many different swirling themes, many different voices. You mentioned your eight different characters, such a different approach taken with this book. I’m curious, and you’re mixing first and third-person narration.
Amor Towles: That’s true.
David Gardner: Some of the characters like Duchess, and again, for those who have not read the novel, and if at least a million of us have, that means there are about 300 or so million who haven’t yet.
Amor Towles: That’s true.
David Gardner: Read it. Looked at from that point of view, let’s remember that Duchess is a guy. Most of us, when we hear the name in a random podcast interview, you might be wondering, who is that woman, it’s a man, it allowed you, you wrote that voice in the first-person throughout the book, Amor. To me, it allowed you to rock your inner Damon Runyan. You had a lot of fun with that voice, but that was just one of, again, eight different perspectives. To me, that’s a very innovative approach. I think of you as a risk-taker with your art. Did you intend that from the very beginning? You already referenced that earlier, the extreme contrast with a gentleman in Moscow. I’m especially thinking of the different moral codes that run through these characters. How easy is it to create a different persona and really write within their point of view in a single book?
Amor Towles: Well, thanks. Let me say two things about it. The first thing is that some writers work on a novel and then they’re interested in delving further into that arena, and most genre fiction is built that way. If you’re writing mysteries, if you’re writing suspense stories, you are often taking a character and we’re in a successful story then revisiting that character in another set of circumstances like the Jack Reacher series. John Lake Hurray writing about as George Smiley or what have you. There can be both great satisfaction for the writer and the reader in following that thread from book to book to book, and I am not that writer. I’m from the school who I really enjoy leaving one project, and when I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next, the more ways of that project is different than the last bucket.
David Gardner: I love it.
Amor Towles: The reason why, and I appreciate you defining is, is an aspect of risk-taking. Because I think that’s right, that’s part of the attraction, and that’s really because the payoff is that it forces me as a writer, when I shift from one story to another story, it forces me to revisit every aspect of my craft. A gentleman in Moscow, it’s going be 30-year story. It’s a sophisticated guy who is very cultural. It’s going to be set in Russia. You’re never going to leave the hotel. That sort of set of rules. To write that story well, your style, your dialogue, your descriptions of environments, meeting standards, the tone of it, the metaphors that show up, the allegories and illusions that show up, all grow out of fulfilling the shape of that story, the tone of that story, the psychology of that main character. Well, suddenly you shift the story which is all 18-year-old boys in the ’50s and predominantly.
David Gardner: For 10 days.
Amor Towles: And it’s only 10 days, well, that requires that you revisit everything. You have to do dialogue differently, setting differently, a different sense of similes and metaphors. The vocabulary is going to be different. Then you say, well, we’re going to actually do it across a series of different points of view. Each of those points of view is going to have its own tone, its own semantics, its own vocabulary that helps give the reader a sense of the inner life of that character. That’s what’s fun for me, is that it means that I’m not going to get to mind what I’ve tried to master in the last book. I’m up to start from scratch in certain ways and develop new sets of skills to serve this story. In the case of the points of view, when I started the book, and throughout the design phase, it was always going to be a story from two perspectives, Emmett and Duchess. For those of you who read the book, you remember that the first chapter at Day 1, you hear from Emmett, and then you hear from Duchess. The second day you hear from Emmett and you hear from Duchess when they go into town and there’s the fight. That’s the way the whole book was going to be. I got about maybe a third into the first draft. I suddenly felt like I know Willy so well, I know Sally, I know Billy so well, and the reader is never going to have a full understanding of their inner life if we only hear from Duchess and Emmett. Because Duchess and Emmett could describe those friends, but they’ll never really be able to take us right into the heart of those individuals and how they see the world, what makes them happy or sad, etc, and how they think, what they think is right and wrong. I went back to Page 1 and I said, let’s take this existing outline and all the plans and rethink it where we’re going to hear from more than two perspectives.
David Gardner: When you’re doing that Amor, is it frustrating for you that you have to undo or are you excited or somewhere in between?
Amor Towles: Yeah. There is a frustration of that. It’s because usually the moment of revelation comes about in conjunction with feeling like this isn’t working yet, you do have to kind of go through this moment of this is failing. It’s some in central level and that can be very dispiriting, and if you read further till the end of the book the more disappearing it feels, if you don’t yet know how to resolve it, that’s disappearing. It’s a crisis of confidence?
David Gardner: Well, you pressed on, which is, and inherently, and there’s a great Calvin Coolidge to learn about the power of persistence. You may know that one, but you’ve clearly demonstrated that in your art. It’s just the only omnipotent force in the mortal universe anyway, is the power persistence and pressing on. As you pull up all your pegs and restart back at Page 1, that’s what I’m picturing. My favorite of your character is Parker because he’s so dang, precocious and innocent, and wise and endearing is Billy, the eight-year-old brother of the protagonist. Billy has read a certain book focused on heroism. Professor Abacus Abernathy’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. He’s read it over 20 times. He’s an eight-year-old kid. He retells the stories of Ulysses and Theseus and Galileo, and Edison. It sounds like a really inspiring book even though you completely have read the book and its fictional author. Would you discuss the inspiration and thought process behind specifically the creation of Billy in the Lincoln Highway? What do you hope readers take away from his role in the novel?
Amor Towles: From a artistic process standpoint, I think there are a lot of, I think for many writers would say this in some way. As you’re inventing a story, there’s an unconscious dynamic where you’re constantly creating balance without really thinking about it. Meaning, if you create a character who’s very dangerous and angry, and you start to think about the other characters, there’s a subconscious poll as to create someone who is milder, more innocent, more honest, or whatever, as a counterbalance to see how those forces interact, but also to give the reader sense of balance as they read. I don’t think about this mathematically in any way, but it tends to happen and it happens in 1,000 different ways. But having invented the story worth of Harley’s 18-year-old young man and an 18-year-old woman, and in this moment of turmoil, is they’re trying to become adults and taking on responsibility and making decisions and taking risks and making bad choices, and all these things. It just felt so natural to tie Emmett to a brother who was younger, but actually much younger, eight years old, where all of those dynamics of being 18 or you’re as far from them as possible, where the eight-year-old has no responsibilities in the real sense, has not been jaded yet, has not become disappointed with the world or with themselves or with others, and he’s still asking questions and in a wide-eyed all of around them. The invention of Billy going away, guess I see, grows out of this process of thinking about the bigger cast of characters, and that’s who’s needed. Just by the way, that’s what we need in life too, is that kid in the room. Because that young point of view is something that as 18-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 50-year-olds, we remember it, but it’s hard for us to find it within ourselves. But when in the company of an eight-year-old we can feel that come back quite strongly.
David Gardner: It’s such a beautiful dynamic in the novel. The few times I cried. You’re not trying to write a tear-jerker, but when I read your books a lot, which is what I do too with my wife Margaret, occasionally I get emotional as I’m reading and it was really Billy and I think his story that most touched me. I think part of the beauty of eight different viewpoints is people can see themselves in Sally, they can see themselves, God forbid, in some of the other characters, and it really is such an important dynamic to the reading experience. I’m curious about Billy, but actually, do you yourself have an office in the Empire State Building?
Amor Towles: No, because, yeah, Professor Abernathy has an office in the Empire State Building. I do not. It sounds like a good place to have one though.
David Gardner: As I read to Margaret, we were both already saying, Amor hang out in the Empire State Building and hope kids come visit him? Did you intent from the start to have Abernathy not just enter the novel, Willy Wonka asked, but even be one of your voices?
Amor Towles: He would be the last voice. I mean, that may even have been second draft. That often happens where you finish and you’re like, oh, wouldn’t it be great if at this moment we heard from that other person or we had this incremental scene. I love the Abernathy chapter. He only has one and what’s interesting about it, and again, it’s thinking about this balanced dynamic of invention is he’s the one older person we really hear from. We’re hearing from all of this. We all this young energy, young as they say, risk-taking and exploration and raw passion from all these various characters. But Abernathy is at the other end of the, of life and clearly at least in his ’60s. That provides a nice moment. We’re sort of have this, oh, it’s the same world that we’re operating in, but he’s looking at it from the other end. What influences he had on the coming generation through the book that Bill is reading. But then what potential influence could they have on him at that moment, at the very tail end of his life. I find that a very beautiful chapter and maybe that’s because I’m an old guy.
David Gardner: So am I. But that day, that one long day spend in New York is to me the centerpiece of the novel. I think really beautiful to bring the cast of characters together in the way that you did. No spoilers. What’s something Amor in this book that your reviewers and, or interviewers just seem to have rushed over or missed all together that you’d like to point out now so my full readers will not miss by dint of me asking this question, what people are missing still about this book?
Amor Towles: I’ll give you two answers to this. The first one, it’s interesting how reviewers, particularly professionals, professional reviewers, professional editors, professional interviewers, not you, David.
David Gardner: Certainly not.
Amor Towles: But it’s amazing to me in a way, how rarely they will talk about the writing itself. But readers talk about it all the time and so it’s one of the satisfaction of reader goes to amortowles.com, they can send me their comments or their thoughts. You’re putting your time into it, it’s not inventing the story, it’s crafting the individual sentences on the paragraphs and so. But its so funny like of course and I get it. If you’re a review or where you’re reading 300 bucks a year and you’re writing 60 reviews, it’s just like you don’t even pay attention practical. You have this sort of irony where the professionals, in a way, have the least artistic perspective on your work, whereas the readers can have a very profoundly artistic perspective on your work. Thank you for that readers.
David Gardner: You’re welcome and I really love that on behalf of all readers that we do care and where we’re headed next is I have a few of my favorite bits that I’m just going to share back the actual writing and ask you, that we did this five-years ago as well, and just ask you to riff on them. But you had a second answer to my question.
Amor Towles: Well, I think this is fun and I don’t expect readers to pick this up. But for those who haven’t, you may enjoy knowing this. Which is that while writing the Lincoln highway, I’d picked the mid ’50s for the reasons we discussed it’s setting. I picked June because the whole thing has to be moving toward 4th July for very specific reasons. They’re trying to get to a summer house before the family arrives and so they’re they’re running out of time, but they have to be there by the end of June, etc. That set the rules, mid-fifties, 10 days toward the end of June is where it’s culminate. I’m not joking, I’ve written like 80% of the book. Suddenly I was like, wait a second, A Gentleman in Moscow, this 30-year story. It ends in 1954 in June, on June 21st. Suddenly here I am writing the second book which is taking place in June, 1954.
David Gardner: You literally did not at all consciously recognize that until you did 80% of the book.
Amor Towles: Absolutely not. Then it’s because you’re just thinking about it because of course, A Gentleman in Moscow is like it’s a 30-year story and mostly, in a lot of the buildings in the ’20s and the ’30 so I never like to think about the fact that it ends in ’54. Then I’m like, oh, that’s interesting. I nudged things a little bit and now the culminating of event of A Gentleman in Moscow, which is when all the telephones and the hotel Metropol ring occurs at midnight on the June 21st, 1954, culminating moment at the end of the book. In Lincoln highway, the culminating moment is when Billy and Emmett get in a car and drive out of a driveway in the Adirondacks and that happens on June 21st, 1954 as well at 5:00 PM. but given the time change, those things occur at the exact same moment in historical time.
David Gardner: Brilliant.
Amor Towles: Certainly no reviewer ever noticed that. I don’t expect the readers to notice it, but I mean, I don’t frankly even know what it means, but I love the fact that these two totally different stories and at the exact same moment and historical time.
David Gardner: I love that. Thank you for sharing that. That is a true Easter egg that emerged from this conversation. I appreciate that. Amor as I mentioned. Well, last time when we talked through A Gentleman, I had a lot of fun just bending back to you some of my favorite lines of yours. Hearing you riff on how you came up with, let’s play that game again, shall we.
Amor Towles: We have four.
David Gardner: Because last time I said that novel, A Gentleman in Moscow shows off, Towles’ two superhero powers and one of them I have down as, this is just my viewpoint of course, to turn delightful phrases. The second to paint magical pictures, but let’s go to delightful phrase number 1. Here we go. I’m going to quote, “There is nothing so enigmatic as the human will or so the head shrinker is, would have you believe. According to them the motivations of a man are a castle without a key. They form a multi-layered labyrinth from which individual actions often emerge without a readily discernible rhyme or reason. But it’s really not so complicated. If you want to understand a man’s motivations, all you have to do is ask him, what would you do with $50,000?”
Amor Towles: Yes, duchess? The game is I respond.
David Gardner: It really isn’t a game, admittedly, but what it is, it’s an opportunity for me just to put forward some of the insights that you wrap into delightful phrasing. I feel like this is Amor, but he’ll inserted in that character or that one in this, or that novel. I feel like these are your insights that you somehow salt and pepper in and I love sharing and back and hearing you hearing you riff.
Amor Towles: Let me clarify. The most important thing I can say about this right off the bat, which is that, and I probably said this when we, when we last spoke, but 95% of the time when a reader says to me, oh, this passage was so insightful are meant a lot to me. It’s whatever. Ninety five percent of the time, it is something which I would never have thought in the course of my personal life. I wouldn’t say it to my children. I wouldn’t write in a journal, I wouldn’t say it to a friend. What’s happened is that through fiction, I create an individual who I am not, who has a different background and a different psychology and I’m going to put that individual in a circumstance in which I’ve never been. Suddenly while writing that event, while that character with that background is in that moment of time going through this particular experience, they will suddenly say, the thing about it is. And usually when it comes, it’s really fast. I usually like hit period key on the typewriter and say, well done duchess. Wow, that’s a really interesting thought. But that’s the way those things do tend to come. This is a good example, and of course, the insights that duchess have about the world are radically different than the insights that Emmett has the world. Because that’s a part of the whole thing of her personality and of her background. He grew up in a rough part of New York. His father was a drunken charlatan conman actor and he was surrounded by drunken charlatan for foreigners and his view of the world is so extremely different. It’s so natural for him, of course, he wouldn’t take Freudian psychology seriously. Of course, he’s probably ended up in front of psychiatrists at various times in his life against his will and thinks they’re all ridiculous.
David Gardner: Head shrinkers?
Amor Towles: Yes, head shrinkers for Christ sake. I think I had to go back and double-check that that word existed in 1954, but it did. But anyway, you’re inhabiting that personality. Of course, you’re going to look at that. And so then he comes up with this other very simple test. What would you do with 50 grand? Which of course 1954 is a bigger number than it is today. What meaningful? But he has, he said, the people who think about it, you can disregard them because it means they don’t even know the answer yet. Its because they’ve basically live in unexamined life where they’ve accepted their circumstances. It’s the person who’s known all along. That’s where it gets interesting. They wont even necessarily tell you, but you can tell from their expression that they know exactly what they would do with the money. He uses this as a way of dividing people, those who are worthy of his respect and admiration versus those who deserve maybe his disdain, maybe too strong, but his indifference perhaps.
David Gardner: That is a very accurate view of how duchess sees the world. I think that jumped out to me from a Motley Fool context because I think a lot of us in Fooldom do think that money counts for something in this world, it’s not evil or bad, it’s a tool and so asking, pick your number one million-dollars maybe these days to inflation adjusted. Asking anybody what would you do with one million dollars really is a great window of insight. Whether or not they’re telling the truth about what they’re saying, even in their own minds, they may be fooling themselves, but it’s a really fun catalytic question. Let’s go to number 2. Again, just reading straight from the book here quote. “Now in that it seemed to Willy, in the course of your everyday life, you’re likely to be blessed with a notion. Say for instance, it’s the middle of August, which by the way it is, which is part of the reason I’m sharing this. Say for instance, it’s the middle of August and you’re drifting in your rowboat in the middle of the lake with the Dragonfly skimming the water when that suddenly the thought occurs. Why doesn’t summer vacation last until September 21st. After all, this season doesn’t come to its conclusion on labor day weekend, the season of summer lasts until the terminal Equinox. Just as surely is the season of Spring lasts until the Summer Solstice and look at how Carefree everyone feels in the middle of summer vacation. Not only the children, but the grown ups two who takes such pleasure and having a tennis game at 10:00 AM, a swim at 12:00 and agenda and tonic at six o’clock on the dot. It stands to reason that if we all agreed to let summer vacation last until the Equinox, the world would be a much happier place.” Now is that Woolly speaking or is that actually Amor speaking?
Amor Towles: No, that’s Woolly. [laughs] Of course, as you know, what comes next. Woolly is 19 years old and is a lost soul. He was raised in a wealthy family. His father died in the second world war. His mother has remarried and move to Palm Beach. He grew up in a wealthy family where there was a great richness to the family life, where everybody would gather in the summer together and spend time together. That meant a great deal to him. What’s happened as he’s grown from a boy to a young adult is it’s all come unwound. As we say, the father’s died, the mother’s moved to Florida, the great grandfather who sat at the head of the table is gone. But then his sisters have married, and his closest relative, his sister who’s a little older than him, is now pregnant, is going to have a family of her own. Each of these steps is a step taking Woolly farther from the fond memories of his youth, which he loves so much into this world where he doesn’t really feel like he has a place. It’s a tragic dynamic for him. He has this great whimsical way of seeing the world that is his own. He’s not like his parents or he’s not going to go get a job in Wall Street. This brings together a variety of these things. He has a great whimsical notion of leap. Why does summer end on Labor Day? Why wouldn’t it ended on the 21st? It’s in some of the best, why [laughs] we all benefit, not just me, we’d all benefit from summer being a couple of weeks longer. He’s got that. But then what happens and what David doesn’t read, is that he opens by saying you got to be careful when you have these notions, because if you share these notions, what’s going to happen is that someone is going to sit you down and it’s going to be your uncle, your teacher, the headmaster and they’re going to basically explain to you why your idea is not such a good idea. The practicalities of life are going to start to be expressed. That’s the other side of this moment, which is that on the one hand, it’s a chance for Woolly to share this great, generous, whimsical, some insight where we’d all be happier if, but then knowing that on the other side of it is that if you do share this, they’re going to come and squash it. That’s where he is. He has these notions, but he knows that the world is going to tell him that it’s the wrong idea again and again and again.
David Gardner: Part of his story is that he gets kicked out of three different prep schools, one of which is one that I went to and graduated from, so that’s extra funny.
Amor Towles: Yes.
David Gardner: I know you and I share our respective prep schools battled on greenfields across many different sports, Noble and Greeno and St. Marks. You chose St. Marks to inject in the novel. Woolly gets kicked out of St. Marks? Why does Noble and Greeno not make a show in this novel?
Amor Towles: That’s a good question.
David Gardner: Is it self-referential?
Amor Towles: Maybe it’s..
David Gardner: School started in 1866. Surely.
Amor Towles: One reason, some of these things are technical, is I did go to a private New England school, but it was not a boarding school.
David Gardner: I had forgotten that.
Amor Towles: Yes, it’s important that Woolly the nephew [inaudible] , will get go to a boarding school. Yes. The trouble he gets into is that by mistake, he burns down the goalposts [laughs] of the football field.
David Gardner: At St. Marks school in Southborough, Massachusetts.
Amor Towles: David and l were talking about this yesterday. Only in that conversation, David yesterday for the first time did it occur to me that the reason this is what Woolly does is because I hated sports in high school. [laughs] This is clearly some passive aggressive thing of me burning down the [inaudible] . Now the other thing that this is true and some of you may know this, l had the good fortune of being on Seth Meyers and we talked about this, but is when a book of mine comes out, usually through my website, people will send me corrections within about seven days of a book coming out.
David Gardner: Seven days.
Amor Towles: I think it was the first correction I received and it was a doozy really, is that the description of Woolly by mistake setting this goalpost on fire he describes when it all the flames are. It’s like a guy with his hands up in the air like shape of a giant Y. It looks like this exorbitant figure and he’s really wowed by it and he thinks it’s a beautiful thing. Yes, as many of your listeners have already [laughs] queued on this. Yes. I received an email saying, excuse me, Mr. Towles, but in 1954 the football goalposts did not look like a Y, it looked like an H.
David Gardner: Yes.
Amor Towles: Yes, that is true historically. From hardcover to paperback, Woolly’s experience shifted.
David Gardner: Oh, my, there’s revision?
Amor Towles: Yes. That has been fixed.
David Gardner: Well, it’s nice to know that you listen to people through your website and you make changes. That’s what we’re all trying to do in life. I’ve got two more of my faves. Of course, there’s so many great passages. Let me share two more. Here’s the third, the clothes make the man or so the saying goes, but all you have to do is look at a row fedoras to know what a bunch of baloney that is. Gathered together are a group of men of every gradation from the powerhouse to the pots, have them tossed their fedoras in a pile. You’ll spend a lifetime trying to figure out who’s was who’s, because it’s the man who makes the fedora not versa vice. Wouldn’t you rather wear the hat worn by Frank Sinatra than the one worn by Sergeant Joe Friday? I should hope so.”
Amor Towles: I can tell you’re a Duchess fan.
David Gardner: I love the Damon Runyan ass. Obviously, you do too. I think that you were a thespian in high school if you weren’t an athlete. Am I right about that?
Amor Towles: No.
David Gardner: You were not?
Amor Towles: No. I was a techie. I even worse.
David Gardner: Love it.
Amor Towles: I was the manager of the girls’ soccer team. That’s true. That was one of my medical requirements. I was also on the croquet team. Yes, my Latin teacher, Mark Harrington, could tell that four of us we just hated sports, so he agreed to launch a croquet team for us, which was good fun.
David Gardner: Fantastic.
Amor Towles: It was a way of obscuring the requirement. In this passage, Duchess is in a wealthy home. Duchess was not wealthy as a child, he’s in Woolly’s sister’s home where she’s married to a Wall Street guy. He’s looking at his closet and that’s where he’s making the assessment. I think one of the things about this passage, I remember seeing a photograph, I think it was in the New York Times from their archive. Say it was the 1940s or ’50s, is in that period. Everyone had gathered in Times Square because they used to do this, because you would wait for news. Let’s say there was a battle in the second world war. The Times would post the news on a giant electric board as it was happening. This could happen in the world series or a major boxing bout before television. This would be people would gather to see the real-time news.
David Gardner: The news.
Amor Towles: I remember seeing this photograph and what really stands out about it is that every single person, and it’s like 1,000 people, 5,000 whatever, is wearing a fedora, every guy. What an amazing moment in time, in American history, every guy. The poor guy, the rich guy, they’re all in a frequent fedora, which is a great look by the way. When we saw Mad Men, Jon Hamm, looks so good in a fedora.
David Gardner: You bet.
Amor Towles: We see that looking in the movies in the ’30s, the film Anwar, with Bogart and those guys, they’re all wearing fedoras. My memory of that, what a wild thing that was. We don’t have anything that’s quite like maybe the baseball cap it’s become that. God [laughs] save us. But anyway. Then I’m imagining him. Again, Duchess is the guy in the room. It’s Duchess’s background. He’s looking at the fedora. That comes from him, suddenly being like wait a second. The frigging had it’s the same. But do you want to be Bogart or you want to be Joe Friday? Which Guy do you want to be? The answer should be obvious. Frank Sinatra.
David Gardner: Well said. I obviously grew up in an era past the fedora. It’s amazing to think about. There’s some aspect of conformity there that obviously was also present in society.
David Gardner: Correct.
Amor Towles: But the notion that everybody was wearing it, every single gentlemen, gentlemen of every gradation, as you wrote, wearing a fedora is amazing. Before we go to my final quote, Mark Twain, great line about clothes making the man. Maybe you know this one. Amor, if you don’t, you’re about to. Mark Twain clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society, [laughs] which continues to be true today. Here’s one more Towles, quote. Shared with Towles, asking Towles for insight. ”When we’re young, so much time is spent teaching us the importance of keeping our vices in check, our anger, our envy, our pride. But when I look around, it seems to me that so many of our lives end up being hampered by a virtue, instead. If you take a trait that by all appearances is a merit, a trait that is praised by pastors and poets, a trait that we’ve come to admire in our friends and hope to foster in our children and you give it to some poor soul in abundance it will almost certainly proven obstacle to their happiness. Just as someone can be too smart for their own good there are those who are two patient for their own good or too hard working.” Sarah is Willie’s older sister. As I said, he this tragic figure and she knows it and she’s a little older than him and so obviously when she was probably 15, he was at the younger boy and she cared for him and that thing and loves him. But she’s got pregnant and she’s about to have our own kitchen. She’s got her husband and Willie gets into trouble and so she can’t control that or fix it. That’s what launches this conversation is she’s thinking or talking about her younger brother. Again, that comes out of writing the scene. That was something that it’s not like you invent that passage.
David Gardner: You didn’t see meditate that.
Amor Towles: No, it’s trying to imagine how would that older sister who’s very gentle person on her own right. How would she talk about her younger brother and the problems that he faces? Of course that’s what she recognizes that he’s too big hearted and she knows this kid is probably pay a terrible price for that eventually. It gets him into trouble and all the time in different ways. That great virtue in abundance proves obstacle to him. If only he were a little bit more practical, a little bit more hard hedged, a little bit more, whatever and of course built into this and the duchess who’s listening. I’m sorry, Emmett is listening, excuse me. Puts this too he consensus is that when she says, well, you can also be too hard working, she’s probably talking about her husband who’s in the city and they haven’t applied in the city and he comes out. He’s working long hours and is not as attentive or compassionate as you would like in a husband or in a person. She is beginning to piece it together herself. She’s looking at her husband and her brother and they both have a virtue which is out-of-control and in a way, and that’s a sad realization.
David Gardner: The whole book in some ways is hung on this difference between 18 and 19 or eight and 28. I’ve felt that in part because I think in high school and we’re talking about high school versus college, 18 versus 19 in high school. I think I was all about the virtues and the vices and a lot of us are raised with, well, what’s the opposite of greed, generosity, and what’s the opposite of courage, cowardice. Virtues and vices but I don’t think until college really that the concept of the Aristotelian golden mean and a little bit more nuanced view of any virtue can be too much or at total absence of it and we’re finding the golden mean. For me, that represents a simple cartoonish way of thinking about my own intellectual progression from high school to college. Maybe I’m just over clocking this point, but I feel as if it’s somewhat captured there as well, this notion that these virtues that we were raised on, we can have too much of them and it can be our undoing.
Amor Towles: For sure and this is very, in the modern era, we look at the challenges that have come out of over parenting. Which again is this thing of well, actually if you let the kid in danger a little bit, maybe that’s to their advantage. That’s a challenging thing to think through. Is that sometimes putting your child at risk is the way that you serve them best as a parent as opposed to protecting them from the risks.
David Gardner: We’re about to play our game Buy-seller-hold did close, but I was thinking about Billy at one point having put the book down, I’m thinking Billy in 2023, eight-year-old kid. He’s on his phone the whole time. This darling view of him with Professor Abacus Abernathy is companion of heroes, adventures and other intrepid travelers. This book that he’s read, I think 24 times, that old school read book. That’s just a phone today and I’m not sitting in judgment of that. I spend as much time on my phone as my eight-year-old kids would have if they were eight, but they’re in 28. But anyway, so it’s just funny to think about taking these characters out of place and reinject them into today’s society and imagine, how would they be rolling now and that’s where I see Billy with his phone.
Amor Towles: I hope not.
David Gardner: Well, before we do play Buy-seller-hold, where I will be asking you about a few different things and say if they were stocks which they’re not, would you be buying, selling, or holding right now, I do have to ask you the perfunctory compulsory question. Is there another book coming anymore?
Amor Towles: Thank you for asking. I have a collection of short stories that comes out in April called Table for two.
David Gardner: Table for two.
Amor Towles: That has six stories, mostly setting relatively contemporary New York city. But then it also has a 200-page novella called Even Hollywood, which is an expanded nourish tail that follows the character from Rules of Civility, Evelyn Ross to Hollywood 1938 and so as you say, that will be out in April and I’m started work on my new novel, but that’ll come to you in a couple of years.
David Gardner: I was doing the math 2011, 2016, 2021. I’m predicting 2026 for your next novel.
Amor Towles: I hope 26 is the latest. I’d love to get out a little faster, but we’ll see.
David Gardner: Well, just don’t get halfway through and decide to pull up the pegs.
Amor Towles: That’s what happens every time.
David Gardner: Buy-seller hold, these are not stocks but they are investments. Number one, these are not stocks, but they are investments Buy-seller-hold, fine art and antiques.
Amor Towles: Wow.
David Gardner: I ask in part because on your Wikipedia page, which I’d like to fact check for well-known people.
Amor Towles: Yes.
David Gardner: It says tolls is a collector of fine art and antiques. First of all, is that true? Second, Buy-seller-hold fine art and antique.
Amor Towles: That’s an overstatement by the press which is fine. Because a lot of our collection, my wife and I is from junk shops, like we love 19th Century paintings bought in furniture stores. Like if you go find an antique furniture store in Paris or whatever. They have oil paintings in the wall from the 19th Century, which they even buy for almost nothing. Because they’re just like decoration to them. But they have all the flavoring character and they could be in the Impressionist style, they could be the pre-impression style, whatever.
David Gardner: Another world.
Amor Towles: A lot of our collecting is of that kind. Well, I would say this, this is not going to come as a surprise to any of your listeners. It’s definitely a hold category. In the sense that to relative to say a stock or a bond, a work of art or piece of furniture is something that actually you get to live with and enjoy. That’s really the whole point. We’re collectors of the kind that everything that we have quote unquote collected is in use, like having something that is velvet roped or in storage or in a vault like that makes no sense to us in this category.
David Gardner: Love it.
Amor Towles: If one of these things turns out to pay for itself down the road, that’s terrific. We do keep a little bit of an eye on that, but mostly it’s about the whole.
David Gardner: Well-said next one, two or five. Number 2, Buy-seller hold the use of quotation marks in dialog in works of fiction of the 22nd Century.
Amor Towles: It’s a self Raymour apparently.
David Gardner: Yeah. Because you wrote the entire book without quotation marks for all of your dialogue and I had to ask you about that because that’s again, somebody reading it allowed fresh. Sometimes I got a little bit tripped up, but I decided, this is a genius. This is an artistic genius who’s made an intentional decision to exclude quotation mark. Why?
Amor Towles: Rule of Civility has no quotation marks. Lincoln Highway is none. Even Hollywood is. It uses the M dash instead. It’s a long dashed indicate that somebody is about to speak or is speaking. By the way, like in the French, don’t use quotation marks. There’s other languages where quotation marks are not the preferred grammatical tool for indicating conversation. But here’s why I ditched them in Rules of Civility and Lincoln Highway.
David Gardner: Please.
Amor Towles: This is the sell, this is part of the salary, which is that the whole point of quotation marks in English. The whole point is so that a narrator can interrupt someone who’s talking and provide some qualification to what they’re saying. That’s the point because it says quotation mark, oh, mother, I would love to stay for dinner. Quotation mark comma, he said, with one eye on the door and thoughts of Murray. Then quotation mark, what time is dinner served? The whole point is that’s what quotation marks refer, so that you can actually stop the conversation in the middle, shove something in the middle as a narrator that tells us what the person was thinking, what they were feeling, what was the expression on their face. Whatever it is to shape the readers impression of that conversation. When I was writing Rules to Civility, it was really bothering me. I felt like the freedom to step in and make these tee tell the reader what was going on was interfering with the pace of the book, with the sharpness of it, with a modernity of it and so I said, you know what, I applaud the quotation marks, use the M dash and then you don’t have the freedom of making those insertions. Certainly not with the same frequency or in the same. You have to be very careful about it. Instead you have to spend a lot of times setting up the scene so that once the conversation starts, the reader knows what they sound like.
David Gardner: I get it.
Amor Towles: Expression wise and it has this internal energy and a little bit of cleanness to it. Almost like in a way that Hemingway might write dialogue without these insertions and provides a high-quality. Anyway, the real cell is on this authorial intrusion.
David Gardner: I get it now.
Amor Towles: Which I think not in all novels, but in some can undermine the sharpness of the artistic quality of the work.
David Gardner: By the 22nd Century enough other people will be gotten this, will be part of your school,.
Amor Towles: Yes.
David Gardner: Sell these things ahead of time quotation marks.
Amor Towles: Very old fashioned
David Gardner: Here I am burnt again for not having read Rules of Civility and I know a lot of fans are going to chastise me for that and your novella and your next book is, in part tied back to your first work, so shame on me for not knowing that the Rules of Civility indeed had no quotation marks, but Lincoln Highway didn’t I was used, of course to Gentleman in Moscow, which you did, but we’ll talk about that another time why you would have done that? Then let’s go to number three, Buy-seller-hold. I have to ask this, it’s the ChatGPT. I have to ask this question of 2023. In our tools buy-seller-hold artificial intelligence being recognized as instrumental in the creation of great fiction in our lifetimes.
Amor Towles: That’s grim. It’s a grim question because it’s one of these things as an investor.
David Gardner: Hey, you buy some grim novels, occasional grip chapters. I can be grim.
Amor Towles: Because maybe it’s a buy in the sense that it’s going to start to have a bigger and bigger influence. It’s hard to imagine it not, but it’s a sell from a spiritual, moral sense. You know what I mean? It’s going to be very interesting to see. A good friend of mine nine months ago as ChatGPT or whatever it’s called was growing in the proper conscious, we’re having a debate at dinner about how effective it is. My friends said, this thing is much more powerful than you think it is. By example, he said, I’ve just put into my phone one of the first three pair and we were in a dinner having fondue. He said, one of the first three paragraphs of Amor Towles’ new novel which takes place during a fondue dinner. Two seconds later, he’s reading these three paragraphs.
David Gardner: That have never existed before.
Amor Towles: Which have never existed that are clearly in the tone. It was interesting. It was clearly the tool had used A Gentleman in Moscow, not Lincoln Highway to craft this. You could tell because it has to pick what the tonality is going to be, what the vocabulary is going to be, style, and it was amazing.
David Gardner: Right.
Amor Towles: Now, it was flawed in many.
David Gardner: Yeah, but in part because it took three seconds.
Amor Towles: Yes.
David Gardner: To insta generate.
Amor Towles: Are there going to be young writers who use this to generate a chapter and then right over it to their own taste or their own style? In the journalism, this is being explored in journalism. Right now, it’s being explored in the law. It’s hard to imagine it not. I have a good friend, Hugh Howey, who write science fiction. He wrote the book which is now Silo, those fans of that Apple TV series. It was originally called Wool, the book he wrote. He’s a buy guy in this category. I’m too afraid to buy the category, but he’s a buyer. We were together in the summer and he said, listen what happened last night. We were in bed, my wife and I, and just to pass the time, we gave a long instruction. He was using a different version of choppy TV.
David Gardner: There are many.
Amor Towles: His preferred one. The instruction was more than it was maybe a page. But the instruction was invent a new religion. Please provide when you do so the origin story in the religion, the ethics of the religion, some of the tenants of the region, some of the parables of the religion, and two seconds later it comes back and it says, here’s like called harmonium. Harmonium is based on the notion that all in existence is in harmony, which we may not be able to see. He said, the origin story is in the beginning there was the cord, and that the cord was a universal sound which spread through the universe, vibrating, and then it builds from the core, to the phrase, to the harmony, to the symphony, and that the universe is the symphony. The morals has five or 10 tenants all based on because all things are in harmony. Number 1 should be that we, as individuals, we must learn to hear the harmony of the universe. I’d appreciate the music.
David Gardner: I can’t buy into that.
Amor Towles: Right. Then it goes down and saying, well, because we are all created from the original harmony, we can find harmony within ourselves. If we fail to, that’s a failing, but we need to find the harmony within each other. He was like, I’d join this religion tomorrow. [laughs] He’s like, it’s the best religion I’ve ever heard. [laughs] It wasn’t giving himself, but he’s giving the machine grow. Smart riders will be using this in generative ways. If he was going to build a futuristic society now, he could totally take the harmonium concept and build it into his novels as a part of the greater thing that he’s creating. Yeah, you can use it as a generative device.
David Gardner: That was one heck of a great answer to a buy-sell-hold question that I had to ask, of course, given who I’m speaking to and when we’re speaking. To More Fourier MO, thank you so much for being generous with your time. Second last one, buy-seller hold Amor Towles, making a hitchcock-like appearance in the showtime series, A Gentleman in Moscow.
Amor Towles: I would’ve loved it in a way and I did not ask. It did not come up. I am not in the series. Now part of what ended up happening is that I was there twice. The second time I was there, which is when that might have happened if I’d asked, is it was very toward the end of shooting. In that week, all the scenes were two or three people. When an author gets to show up in a movie, you have to act.
David Gardner: Twenty or 30 people.
Amor Towles: Yeah. You have to ask on a day like that where there’s a whole bunch people sitting in a restaurant and you do sitting in a corner. I’m not in it.
David Gardner: Well, thank you. I mean, that’s the only spoiler that we’re going to give about the coming television streaming version of your novel.
Amor Towles: Feel free to post your complaints online when the time comes.
David Gardner: Amortowles.com.
Amor Towles: Hashtag Paramount Plus, where the hell is Towles or whatever? [laughs]
David Gardner: All right, last one for you. Buy-seller hold a Towles novel set in the ’20s or ’50s of the future, of the next century instead of, every time Amor, the past buy-seller-hold a futuristic Towles novel.
Amor Towles: As I say, I’m designing stories all the time. I have many stories that I’ve designed but have not written. One of those is a futuristic piece in a futuristic version of New York. I would definitely consider doing that project at some point. It’s a little bit of mystery of why I choose what to do when I do it.
David Gardner: Well, in part you’re choosing, I won’t say that you’re hot dogging because if I were to use that phrase, it’s in only the most positive way. But anybody who sets himself a challenge and then comes at the next one from a completely different angle, I’m not going to predict this, but I could imagine that you might say, why wouldn’t I set one of the future? Now I will say in conclusion that as I thought about what fiction means in the future, and I even had a little conversation with ChatGPT about this, I was like, it seems like everything set in the future would be labeled as science fiction. I mean, by definition, are we in science fiction if we’re writing something set in the future? I was corrected by ChatGPT to be reminded that it’s not all science fiction, per se. There’s a second popular futuristic genre that something might fall into. It’s called dystopian fiction. Then I said, OK, ChatGPT, give me a work of a popular work set in the future of fiction that is neither science fiction nor dystopian fiction, and it was very hard to come up with any examples of that at all. I think that says something about what we humans do with the future. We create fear around it and we think it’s worse, even though so often it’s proved better. I’m not sure if there’s a new genre Amor, but there’s a thought for you.
Amor Towles: Yeah. I think futurist would be the term that we’re going around, which is someone writing about the future, but without it being about robots or spaceships and without it being post-nuclear attack.
David Gardner: Post-apocalyptic, exactly.
Amor Towles: Exactly. The futurist just writing about events in the future where it’s not tech-driven, I think, is certainly a rich area for consideration.
David Gardner: All right, let’s call it right there. Amor, it’s been five years. I hope it won’t be five years again till we next talk. I am already circling 2026 on my calendar knowing that’s the latest it could possibly be. Thank you so much for joining us once again and we send you our foolish best wishes.
Amor Towles: Thanks for having me back, David. Real pleasure.
David Gardner: Wow. All right. Well, next week is mailbag. Now, traditionally the mailbag is there for you to reflect on the month that has been. We’ve covered four books, Neil King Junior’s American Ramble, Sunny Vanderbeck’s Selling Without Selling Out, and then Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong, The Power of Mathematical Thinking. We can add to that mix this week Amor Towles and his book, The Lincoln Highway. If any of these books or interviews stimulated a thought, a question, a challenge, all are welcome. [email protected] is our email just. Were you inspired to think you should make a ramble somewhere? Is math really in your mind, even more powerful as a language than your spoken tongue? Or maybe you’re going to avoid a regret you would’ve had because you’re in the midst of selling your business and Sunny said something that would help you or maybe just maybe you’re thinking of driving from New York City to San Francisco. [email protected], I look forward to our mailbag next week.
Of course, you can tweet us at RBIPodcast on X. In conclusion last time, five years ago, I think I made too much of it, this idea that this Wall Street guy, this banker all of a sudden became a world-class writer. Amor alluded to this lightly this time, but he began writing fiction in first or second grade around the age of his eight-year-old character, his precocious Billy. Yeah, Amor was there purely internally motivated writing fiction. He kept doing so through school, into college, and passed graduate school at Stanford. Becoming a full-time author, which was aided and abetted by Gentleman in Moscow for Amor, has been, as he once said, great fun being a full-time author and you could hear us deep enjoyment and fulfillment from his craft in his voice. As this is an audio-only podcast, that’s all I can share with you through a podcast. But since we do most of our interviews on Zoom and we can see each other, it was a pleasure to see him light up as we shared some of his passages together and some of his reflections on his characters. He’s somebody deeply internally motivated by a love of what he’s doing. It’s something we can all try to match or at least learn from. Fool on