He may be an investment banker, but Amor Towles has been writing all his life. The author of the best-selling novel “Rules of Civility” (Penguin, 324 pages, $16 paper) says he’s written fiction “since I was a kid. It’s always been my primary passion.”
The novel, set in New York City in 1938, follows Katey Kontent, a bright young secretary with the desire to move up both socially and professionally. When she and her roommate encounter a wealthy banker by chance on New Year’s Eve, it’s the start of a year of significant changes in her life. As her aspirations become reality, she’s swept up into another world. Towles’ sparkling writing and vivid characters bring jazz-age New York to life, or at least life as we think it would be based on the movies, while also delving into the ways people invent or re-invent themselves.
Towles came to New York at 25 — after getting a master’s degree in English from Stanford — and got into banking largely by chance.
“All along the way I was always writing fiction,” he said. But he took a decade off and at the age of 35 started writing again. His first attempt, which he spent several years working on, was a novel set in Stalinist Russia from the point of view of five different characters. But it was “sprawling,” he said, and he didn’t map out the plot or the characters in advance. Plus, he said, it was the wrong approach for the time he had available for writing — when he found time to write, he had to figure out where he was in the plot, whose point of view he was on, and by then he hardly had time to start writing.
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So he thought about how to approach a new project and re-engineered his approach — one main character, careful outlines — before starting “Rules of Civility,” and he was determined to finish it in a year. Towles designed the book with 26 chapters specifically to accomplish this goal: write and revise each chapter for two weeks, then move on without looking back to keep the momentum and freshness going. It’s no coincidence that the book starts on a New Year’s Eve, as he started writing it on a New Year’s Day, and it covers the span of one year.
Although “Rules of Civility” is set in the 1930s, Towles said he didn’t do any research. A New York resident, he had no trouble with the landscape, and as a devotee of the 1900-1940 period, he was already familiar with the paintings, music, movies, books — he had “an accumulation of knowledge of that era that I could rely on.”
“One thing about writing a book in your mid-40s,” he said, “is that you have lots of influences — I’ve been a consumer of culture for a long time.”
But he chose to avoid doing any applied research and simply rely on the familiar, toward his goal of freshness in the writing.
“Too much research,” he said, “can start dragging the book down, can make it less authentic too much research can begin to remove the oxygen from the room, undermine the goal of putting yourself in the place of the character in ways that are authentic and unpredictable.”
The book isn’t about history, though — it’s about the story, Towles said, “characters, psychology and metaphor,” and the setting shouldn’t get in the way of those things, but be in service to them.
And the focus in “Rules of Civility” is on the characters — who they are, who they wish to be, who they become, who they can fool, who they can’t.
“In the 1930s,” Towles said, “society had pretty brightly drawn lines, class, education, ethnicity, religion, gender, age often the way that people represented themselves was tied to the boxes they sprang from and the boxes they were trying to step into.”
The boxes may have changed today, but the concept of navigating among them persists, which may explain the enduring popularity of novels of manners. Beautiful prose and an enveloping story, which “Rules of Civility” has in abundance, certainly don’t hurt either.