It’s not nearly often enough that authors you adore for their books turn out to be just as likeable in real life. Amor Towles, acclaimed creator of best-sellers such as Rules of Civility (2011) and A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), is undoubtedly among those rare exceptions.
From the word go on our video call, he is thoughtfully voluble, as we talk about his latest novel, The Lincoln Highway (Penguin Random House, ₹699), which releases today in India. Set over 10 days in 1954, this nearly 600-page tome is the most riveting doorstopper you will probably read this year. (It was 24 hours of bliss for me, with constant adrenaline rush.)
“This is a book about momentum,” the 56-year-old Towles says, “it’s a story of rapid decisions having rapid consequences.” The germ of the plot, tightly knit together by a quest motive but also sprawling in its impulse to weave together many disparate yarns, began with one singular image: a young boy coming home from a juvenile facility, driven by the warden, with two other delinquents hiding themselves in the boot of the car.
“The ideas for my books often come to me in the form of a single sentence,” Towles says. “For example: guy gets trapped in a hotel for a long period of time (referring to the plot of A Gentleman in Moscow).” With The Lincoln Highway, right off the bat, he knew it would be “a 10-day kind of story”, set in the American Midwest. There would be a family farm, one rough kid, another a posh New Yorker. And all of it would unfold in the mid-1950s.
“I wanted to home in on the right distance from the end of World War II and beginning of the swinging 1960s,” Towles says, explaining the specific choice of the date. It was also the year his own late father came of age, like Emmett, one of the protagonists, who also shares his birthday with Towles Senior. “We’re reinforced by the decade we come of age in,” says Towles, “But we’re just as intensely shaped by the era in which our parents became adults.” Children born to parents who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, were taught to imbibe values their parents held dear—such as, waste not, want not. And indeed, many great writers have walked a similar path. “Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance, was set in his parents’ time,” Towles adds.
The 1950s were not idyllic by any measure, especially in the US. There was rampant sexism and racism, the civil rights movement still was incipient. But it was a simpler time in some senses—a moment when three 18-year-old boys, along with an eight-year-old, could set off on a wild tour across America, each driven by their individual quests. Their epic journey is echoed by the ones undertaken by a bunch of historic heroes who Billy loves to read about, especially by Homer’s Ulysses, who lends his name to a Black war veteran, one of the many arresting characters in The Lincoln Highway.
For Emmett and his little brother Billy, their Studebaker is the key to a new future, a chance to start afresh in another part of the country after their father, an unsuccessful farmer, dies, leaving them homeless and their mother abandons the family for sunny California. Emmett’s friend Woolly, an heir to a fortune, is keen to retrieve his inheritance. With his fellow inmate Daniel (a.k.a. “Duchess”)—a fast-talking cool cat, abandoned by his father—Woolly flees the correctional facility where they are serving time. Before long, Emmett is coaxed, against his better judgement, into letting his friends join him on his drive along the eponymous Lincoln Highway—a vast road that criss-crosses the country. A journey that was meant to last only a couple of days goes on for over a week, interrupted by crazy characters, a couple of near murders, the police on their tail, a suicide, and a night of romp with pretty performing girls.
If the inexorable flow of events gives the illusion of effortless storytelling, in reality Towles spends several years perfecting the architecture of his plots. “I’m very structure oriented as a writer,” he says. “I start with a specific outline in mind, and it can get rather clinical.” The Lincoln Highway, for instance, was at first conceived as unfolding chronologically, from day one to ten. But halfway into the first draft, Towles hit an impasse. “I was losing my way and until I reversed the order from ten to one, I couldn’t fix it.”
Towles had also started off with only two voices—with Emmett and Duchess telling their stories in alternating chapters—but before he knew it, he had eight perspectives (in first- and third-person voices) come into the narrative. “At the third mark, I realised that having only two points of view was a mistake,” he says. “That the personalities of my characters were expressed in their shifting tones.” As a result, we get beautifully fleshed out portraits of the worldly-wise and idealistic Emmett, the Gatsby-like reckless flamboyance of Duchess, the feisty feminist vibe of Sally, and the fragile and damaged Woolly.
Reading The Lincoln Highway is not merely a burst of unbridled entertainment, but also a masterclass in creating narratives and life-like characters. This is all the more remarkable considering that Towles didn’t publish his first book until he was well into his 40s, although he did read literature at Yale and was mentored by none other than Peter Matthiessen of The Snow Leopard fame.
“As a young artist, you have an interesting mix of confidence and delusion,” Towles says, referring to his college days, when his stories won high praise from his mentor. “In those days, I read my peers as well as the greats, and felt I could do this, too.” But, instead, he went into finance and spent 20 years on Wall Street, much to Matthiessen’s dismay.
In that time, Towles published a story here, a story there, including in The Paris Review, which was co-founded by his mentor. During their annual catchups, Matthiessen never stopped asking Towles about his literary projects or expressing regret over his immense but wasted talent. “Every time we met or spoke, Peter would tell me, you should be aware that in all likelihood your life as an author has ended,” Towles says.
Eventually, Towles had enough of making money and took a plunge in 2011. Rules of Civility, published that year, catapulted the 46-year-old debutante into the best-sellers’ list. Three years later, Matthiessen passed away. “I’m glad I decided to get back to writing to serve my talent and honour Peter’s faith in me,” Towles says. His millions of fans around the world couldn’t agree more.