Picture a luxurious hotel in Moscow circa 1922 and a young aristocrat whose “dangerous” tendencies have caused a revolutionary tribunal to condemn him—not to death but to lifetime incarceration in that luxury hotel. Now imagine a novel that takes this situation as its starting point, confining the reader as well as the protagonist to a narrowly focused space, and you will have the beginning of a sense of what Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, Sept.) is about. The book spans 30 years in the life of Count Rostov as he lives out his sentence in a small attic room.
Where did such an idea come from?
“I was in the financial field for about 20 years, and I traveled a great deal,” says Towles. “I was in a hotel in Geneva for a week, and I was recognizing people you’d see in the lobby, these weary figures, and I wondered what it would be like to live in a hotel for a long period of time, for the rest of your life. Russia was a perfect landscape, and I thought of someone under house arrest. That got me started.”
From there, he says, it was just a matter of finding the “voice” for the sentenced man, something which happened almost immediately. “There is a line Rostov says to his guards almost at the beginning, about ‘taking the lift or the stairs.’ I could see him, I could hear him—the exaggerated confidence—all embedded in this little exchange. That opened the door for me, and I got it, what he would think about this or that.”
As in his 2011 bestselling debut novel, Rules of Civility, set in New York City in the 1930s, Towles intertwines in his plot real events and places with those that are totally made up. “I like the border-line between the real and the make-believe,” he says. “I use time past to my advantage. If I can get into a middle ground of 50 or 60 years ago, there’s enough familiarity there, but people don’t know it so well that they can pin anything down.”
The most challenging element in the book is also its most critical: its sense of confinement. “I wanted to give a sense of claustrophobia,” says Towles, “but I didn’t want the reader to feel they are under house arrest. This was the biggest risk in the premise. I wanted to convey the richness of life, but in a single building.”
Today Towles will be at the Library Journal Breakfast at McCormick Place, 7–9 a.m. From 11:30 a.m. to noon, he will be in conversation with Washington Post book editor Ron Charles on the Downtown Stage. From 4 to 5 p.m., he will be signing galleys at the Penguin booth (2433, 2441).
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.