Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner spends a lot of time focused on helping us all invest better, and his not-so-secret goal underneath that is to help us all live better. That's why he began the Rule Breaker Investing podcast's "Authors in August" theme with a couple of top-notch nonfiction writers: entrepreneur and marketing maven Seth Godin and gatherings guru Priya Parker. But sometimes, we all really need a book that transports us rather than teaches us.
So for this episode, David sits down with Amor Towle, author of one of his recent favorites, the enchanting A Gentleman in Moscow. It will be a wide-ranging discussion on the craft of writing, the art of story, the value of setting restrictions on where your creativity can take you, and more. Whether you've read Towle's novel or not -- if not, you may want to snag it for some late-summer beach reading -- you should enjoy their talk.
A full transcript follows the video.
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This video was recorded on Aug. 15, 2018.
David Gardner: And welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing! Well, it is our Authors in August theme, and it's been a delight for me to bring to you some of my favorite authors of some of my recent favorite books.
So far, our Authors in August series for Rule Breaker Investing has introduced us to marketing iconoclast Seth Godin and Gatherings visionary Priya Parker, each of whom, as a fellow Rule Breaker, challenges the conventional wisdom of their fields. Challenges the status quo and shares with us their unconventional and winning wisdoms.
Well, now Rule Breakers Authors in August brings us to another Rule Breaker, a man who stepped away from a Wall Street research desk in his mid 40s and became a critically acclaimed novelist. In 2011, Amor Towles published his debut novel Rules of Civility and he's followed that up most recently with the enchanting A Gentleman in Moscow in 2016.
Now, I doubt this is the case, but A Gentleman in Moscow almost seems like an answer to a bar bet, or a particularly devilish writing prompt. Can you produce a 480-page best-selling novel based on the main character being confined, largely, to a single place for basically the entire novel?
Early in the novel, aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov finds himself on the wrong end of the Russian Revolution and winds up in house arrest for the remainder of his days with that house arrest specifically spent at the grand Metropol hotel in Moscow. Through him we meet the hotel's motley crew of employees and many distinguished guests passing through, and the novel shows off Towles's two superhero powers: to turn delightful phrases and to paint magical pictures.
I love the novel. I read the whole thing aloud to my wife, Margaret, and now a few months later I'm very pleased to be bringing its author, Amor Towles, to Rule Breaker Investing. Amor, welcome!
Amor Towles: Thank you for having me, David! It's a pleasure to be here!
Gardner: Thank you! And the obvious first question is how did you come up with the idea for this novel?
Towles: Like many of my ideas for my work, it's very simple. It comes in a flash. As you mentioned, I was in the investment business for 20 years and I would travel a good deal for the firm spending a week, in any given year, in a hotel in Geneva. A week in a hotel in San Francisco. A week in a hotel in Los Angeles or Chicago.
And one year I was arriving at my hotel in Geneva for the eighth year in a row, and as I walked into the hotel I recognized some of the people hanging in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left the hotel in the interceding year. And in the elevator on the way upstairs I thought, "This is a nice hotel, but can you imagine if you actually had to live in it?"
And then I thought, "Actually, that's kind of an interesting idea for a book. A guy gets trapped in a hotel for a long period of time." So in my room that night I took out the hotel stationery and I rapidly began sketching the outline for this story, immediately sensing that the story should be set in Russia for, I guess, obvious reasons to some degree. It just seemed like the perfect place to have somebody be under house arrest for a long time and that's where the process begins -- in essence with a sentence.
Gardner: I love hearing the creation stories of almost anything but, Amor, you and I did a pre-interview some days ago and one thing I learned from you [and I know that your fans already know this about you, but we're just getting to know each other] is that you were always writing. Just as a kid. Even though you went to work on Wall Street and as a successful businessman had a couple of decades, you've always been writing?
Towles: That's right. I began writing fiction in first or second grade. And I wrote in high school. I wrote fiction in college and graduate school at Stanford. That's always been my passion and when I moved to New York City at the age of 25, I think I arrived in the city assuming that I was beginning a multi-decade effort as a novelist, but I sort of felt at the time that I wasn't enjoying being by myself all day. I wasn't making any money and so, yes, I joined a friend of mine who had started an investment firm and 20 years later, we were still working side by side.
In that first decade as I was working with my partners I stopped writing fiction, as we were refining our craft and gathering clients and colleagues. But I knew that if I didn't go back to writing fiction at some point that I would probably end up bitter and a drinker as an older man. So in my 30s in my spare time, while still on the job, I began writing fiction again, and I spent seven years writing a book I didn't like and set that aside, but I learned a lot from that effort and then most importantly that I had not outlined that effort very carefully.
Different authors are trying to achieve different things in different novels, but generally I am very interested in how a novel can be symphonic. Like a symphony of Mozart's or of Beethoven's, I want my novels to have, as a symphony, movements; where you are going from passage to passage and where different themes are recurring over the course of the symphony. Different instruments are picking up that theme and you're going through different moods as the music is played at different tempos and with different senses of sentiment. But at the end I want that culminating moment where the symphony ends and the audience says, "Ah, yes. That's it. There's the end of the symphony."
And to achieve that in a novel I really discovered you need a lot of planning and thinking in advance, and so I really set out the task of writing a novel where I outlined it in great detail over more than a year so I could really visualize the story from beginning to end before I started Chapter I. And that's what Rules of Civility was. And then when that book became a best-seller, I retired from the firm and wrote A Gentleman in Moscow as a full-time author, which is great fun, too.
There's something you said in the introduction. I wanted to come back to it. I like the way that you pose it as the improbable topic -- the idea that I would find it exciting, suddenly, to write a book about a guy trapped in a hotel for 30 years. There's two things I want to point out about that.
Towles: The first is that if I had set out to write a best-seller, you would never pick that as your topic. There's some merit to, when you're setting out on an artistic project like a novel, of not trying to anticipate the marketplace but trying to find a story that has its own challenges that you think you can fulfill in a compelling fashion, and if you can achieve that, then the book can find its audience.
But the idea -- it seems a little counterintuitive -- for some to say, "Well, if you're going to sit down and write a book, why would you force yourself to put your character in a building for 30 years?" Again, this is this counterintuitive fact which is that in the creative endeavor, adopting some strict rules can be very productive in terms of spurring the imagination and helping organize what is, in essence, a product of invention.
And the most famous example, really, I suppose, is the sonnet, which is, as we all know from school...
Gardner: 14 lines.
Towles: 14 lines.
Gardner: Eight and six.
Towles: That's right, and 10 beats per line. Iambic pentameter. And despite a handful of rhyming schemes you can adopt; but, otherwise following these very strict rules of scape, of meter, and size. And most important poets from Shakespeare to the present, writing in French, Italian, or English, have pursued the sonnet at some time in their career and they'd just keep returning to this very specific shape.
And that's because as a poet you can write about anything in any form, for the most part. So if you decided I'm going to write about the fleetingness of love, or the shortness of life, or the beauty of nature [whatever your topic is that you're interested in tackling], by accepting the rules of the sonnet, it starts to help you shape the creative effort.
You're using words that wouldn't have been the first words to pop up into your mind. This kind of pushes you off your comfort zone. You can't go on as long as you might like. You have to be more concise in that shape. And the nature of the rhyme scheme starts defining the words you're choosing, as well as the meter, of course. So accepting those kinds of rules can be very productive as it both narrows the field, to some degree, but also it starts spurring you to make decisions that you might not have made in a lazier state, as it were.
I like to think of it as Moscow -- it's a very specific rule that I'm adopting. And then the challenge is how can you bring the world into the hotel? And that prompts me, as the artist, to draw on inventions, and ideas, and images, and narrative techniques that I might not have used otherwise, but that ultimately make the story more vibrant than if I'd given myself much more leeway.
Gardner: Yes, and that's such a brilliant point. First of all, I really appreciate your point about the symphonic nature of your creation and thinking through the end to get back to the beginning and taking time to recognize the importance of that. I've never written anything that long, but I can absolutely appreciate that and I do see the symphony and those returning themes coming back in your work.
But then also just that point about not trying to write a best-seller. Often in another context people say, "You know, the best way to be happy is don't try to be happy. Do something meaningful. Add value to somebody else's life and you'll become happy." [As to] the act of not trying to write a best-seller, I don't know if you're a Dorothy Sayers' fan, but Lord Peter Wimsey [is a character] in her series of novels. I always remember his motto was, "Where my whimsy takes me," and it sounds like you let your whimsy take you that day and take all of us into an enchanting place of your creation.
Towles: Well, thanks! That raises a topic I think about a lot, which is going to take your observation and expand it another step. And I love Lord Wimsey, by the way. I love Dorothy Sayers' writing. She's both hilarious and a genius, and I love Wimsey as a character. But I think that if I look back in my own creative education, as an artist through my teens, my 20s [I'm 53], I very much came of age in an era where we as younger artists, or critics, or students were taught that to take into account the audience was the worst thing an artist could do.
Gardner: Ah! Fourth law.
Towles: Yes, right. True art is made with almost intentional indifference to the audience -- James Joyce being the extreme example. And in retrospect, at the age of 50 looking back on my life and looking back on the art that I've studied, or listened to, or read over the course of my life, I realized how crazy, in a way, that notion was of that era, because for hundreds of years no artist would have thought that way at all.
Certainly Michelangelo and Leonardo didn't think that way. They had patrons. They were painting for the Medicis or for the Pope. Certainly Dickens and Tolstoy never would have thought that way. Dickens was writing his books in a serial fashion where the audience was responding as he went. And Tolstoy -- Dostoevsky -- were very concerned about and interested in how the book would live in the world among readers.
So one of the things that I like to think about in my own work is the first draft as being solely for myself for the reasons that we were just talking about a few minutes ago, which is that having said that these artists were thinking about an audience, you can't create your best art by trying to anticipate the audience desires, or trying to get rich, or trying to become famous, or trying to write a best-seller. That's going to spoil everything, in a way.
The way I look at it is I want to start with my first draft being written solely for myself, and I often think about it in the terms you put, which is that I do want to follow my whimsy. Whatever my instincts are, I'll follow them. I'll write paragraphs as long as I want to. As short as I want to. I can become redundant. If I have an obsession I can write about it at length, but anything I'm interested in, in any of my instincts in the writing process in terms of tone or language, I will throw into that first draft.
But then I start the editing process and for me I usually will revise a book three times from beginning to end before you read it, and I really think of that as being the process that I'm doing that for the reader, whoever that is. I've taken this document which is full of all of my instincts, and whims, and impulses, and weaknesses and my job, now, is to start to refine that for the benefit of the reader. Not to become a best-seller. Not to make a certain amount of money or what have you; but it's more in honor of the covenant between an artist and an audience.
I know that if someone is going to buy this book and take time to read this book, that I owe them a certain amount of investment in ensuring that the book is of the highest quality that I can make it. And that tends to mean things like removing redundancies. Removing passages that go on unnecessarily long. Removing obscurities that sort of satisfy my vanity, but that are not really productive for the work.
And so you start to remove elements and refine elements... again, not to ring the bell on the best-seller list, but in order to make it as a work with a perfect economy where there's no wasted components. I'm not wasting the reader's time. I'm getting it down to where only the essential characters, sentences, words, events are now in place to tell the story. And so I do think of it as this little semi-schizophrenic process. It's really starting with that individual whim, but then being willing to go back and edit it for this theoretical reader and I think that's a very productive sort of cycle.
Gardner: And I really appreciate you sharing your process. I was certainly going to be asking you those questions and now you've already answered them so we can move on to other topics because I love hearing the process by which artists come up. An artist is always a very loose term for me [not in the sense that I'm throwing it around loosely], but I think that we're all creating all the time and I love to hear how people do their craft well, especially in your case economically and in a way that really serves so many people who have been touched by your story.
I wanted to ask you because I can see, Amor, in your work some obvious antecedents in this particular novel like the great Russian novelists. In some ways you seem to be speaking to Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky, or Turgenev. But I also feel like -- help me out, here -- occasionally I'm seeing some P.G. Wodehouse in there. Are you a Wodehouse fan?
Towles: You know, I am a Wodehouse fan, but I never read Wodehouse until after A Gentleman in Moscow.
Gardner: Oh, my God!
Towles: Somebody else like you said, "Have you read this?" I love Wodehouse. I think he's, again, a great, very entertaining author. I love Wodehouse's use of language. I love the central characters of his work. So I am a fan.
Gardner: Well, especially it turns a phrase. A little later in our interview I want to read back some just short selections from your novel and hear you riff on them a little bit, because there's some great turns of phrase that I look forward to sharing. Let me just ask you before we move on to that. Amor, what are some other writers from the past [or the present] who impress you or have influenced you?
Towles: Since I'm 53, and I've read all my life, it's a long list rather than a short list. Over the course of my life I might find an author or find a school of writing and invest a year in reading through that and being influenced by it and enjoying it. So I have many narrative heroes, even now, that sort of accumulated over time.
I am a fan of the Russians: Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, as well as Gogol, and Turgenev, and Chekhov. I'm a fan of the magical realists and, most importantly for me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but certainly Borges. I'm a fan of the Americans of the first half of the 20th century like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and Wharton and James. I'm a fan of Conrad and Faulkner. So I have kind of a broad array of influences.
And the nice thing about narrative is that I'm also very heavily influenced by songwriters and by film, too. Dylan is probably my biggest hero artistically from my youth to the present, but the great filmmakers of the 30s and 40s and into the 60s and 70s. I'm a student of their work, as well.
Gardner: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I praised your ability to turn a phrase, so I want to read some bits or lines, here and there, from A Gentleman in Moscow, first just for the pleasure of sharing, but second mainly to hear your further thoughts on some of the concepts that I see you putting into play. Here they go in no particular order.
Let's start with this line. I wanted to ask you a question about leadership, basically, because in your novel you introduce us to Jozef Halecki and I'll just read a few of your lines about this character. Here I go.
"For Jozef Halecki was one of those rare executives who had mastered the secret of delegation -- that is, having assigned the oversight of the hotel's various functions to capable lieutenants, he made himself scarce. [...] When the manager's lieutenants had no choice but to knock -- due to a fire in the kitchen or a dispute about a bill -- the manager would open his door with an expression of such fatigue, such disappointment, such moral defeat that the interrupters would inevitably feel a surge of sympathy, assure him that they could see to the matter themselves, then apologetically back out the door. As a result, the Metropol ran as flawlessly as any hotel in Europe."
So on the one hand, Halecki is a humorous character who's basically delegated away everything and just sits with his feet propped up on his desk; but, look at the result. So is the character showing us great leadership?
Towles: I don't know. I don't know how sincere I am in the observation of that passage. It did begin, as you kind of imply, as a comic idea for me and, to some degree, out of the Russian tradition; some surrealist comedy in the Russian narrative of Gogol and later of Bulgakov. I love the strain of dark or ironic comedy that runs through parts of Russian literature. It shows up in Dostoevsky , too, to the surprise of some.
And to some degree it's in the Russian experience because they were constantly in risk of censorship -- even in the tsarist times -- or rebuke, or risk of arrest, and certainly in the Soviet era. So they began weaving in these absurdist or comic situations that would befuddle the censors. They weren't explicitly attacking one thing or another, but the jest of it would make the point.
And so in the spirit of that I did have this notion that at some point the count was going to be called in by the manager. And in sort of imagining who the manager of this fancy hotel would be, it felt like [as I say, in the strain of Russian comedy] the manager of the hotel had never been seen. That was kind of the idea. And that's where it started. They say, "The manager wants to see you," and he's shocked, because, "Oh, my God, in seven years in the hotel I don't think I've seen him more than once." And then what would be the manager of a fine hotel that would never be seen? That led me to this idea of supreme delegation -- he kind of lying in his couch and dreading interaction with people, but about being the perfect hands-off manager in a fine hotel.
Gardner: Yes, "ran as flawlessly as any hotel in Europe."
Towles: After the fact. This is one of the fun things in fiction is I started with that jest [the manager who's never seen], which leads me to the reason he's never seen is because he's kind of a misanthrope and he's going to let the whole thing run by itself. But then what happens is in the course of writing the novel, only later did it occur to me that he's a counterpoint to one of the problems of the Soviet era, of course, which is this top-down management of all details. It was one of the most vexing aspects in Soviet life for the average Soviet citizen or employee.
And so what you have is eventually the bishop becomes the manager and he's the opposite guy. He's the guy who says, "Well, we're going to institute a new form of paperwork in the restaurant."
And what you end up with is the different sort of Russian comic scene, but this one is actually based on a real event in history. The setup is that when the waiter takes an order, he has to go to the controller at the front of the restaurant, submit the order, get it stamped, have a copy made, bring that to the kitchen; and only once the chef has seen that it's been stamped by the man at the front he then has to stamp it to say it's received by the thing and then it goes on to the next thing. And by the time the food gets to the table, it's been through five rounds of paperwork.
And even though it sounds like Gogol or Bulgakov, it's kind of a comic idea. They genuinely did this in many of the fine hotels in the Soviet Union in the 40s. So as I say, you start with this kind of instinct of comedy [oh, the guy does nothing], but then that becomes a counterpoint thematically to this other thing which is happening.
And that's one of the fun things about the fiction-writing process, is you can't plan. Some of your best thematic images are the ones that you do not plan. They're the ones that sort of pop up through the process.
Gardner: Love it. The next one is on fate. This is a simple line. "But fate would not have the reputation it has if it simply did what it seemed it would do."
Towles: Yes, right. That's coming direct from sort of the consciousness of the count. Of course, most of the story is told from his perspective, or about 90% of it, but that fits very well with the way that fate sees things. On the one hand, he's imagined sort of this world in which fate is playing a role; but, on the other hand, he's also acknowledging that fate's constantly pulling the rug out from under you. Just when you think you know the way things should play, there's going to be something which turns everything upside down on you and that's where the reputation of fate comes from.
One point I'd make about that sentence -- thank you for calling attention to it [as] I like that sentence -- is that 90% of the time when a reader [as I tour the country speaking about the book or when I receive emails from readers from my website], says, "This is a passage that meant a lot to me, or this was so well-put, or I've written this down, or underlined it, or shared it with my child or my spouse or what have you." Almost all the time when they say that, I would never have come up with that sentence in my daily life.
It would never have occurred to me to think it. I wouldn't think to say it to my children, or to my colleagues, or to my friends. That's almost always the product of the writing process itself. It's because in the course of writing the novel, I have to get in the head of the count, who's different than me. I am not the count, so I'm adopting a personality which is very different than mine. He has a background which is very different than mine and he's in a situation that I've never been in. And suddenly that personality with that background in that circumstance says something like that.
Remember, that kind of thing pops out in the writing process because it's right from what he would say, and often when I finish a sentence I'll think, "Oh, God, that's well-done, count. What a great observation of yours!" It's almost as if I didn't come up with it at all. It's like I overheard the guy saying it. But that is definitely one of those.
Gardner: Well, this might be another one. My next one for you I'll call "on first impressions," and I love this. "After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we've just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brush stroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory that they deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour." Now, is that more Amor Towles speaking, or is that more Count Rostov or both?
Towles: I mean, I believe that. I mean I do, but it's definitely the count and again, that would be sort of an observation about human nature that came out of the writing process. And [this is] another thing I like about that particular passage. For those of you who've read the book, you'll remember that early on the count, by chance in the lobby of the hotel, runs into a well-known Russian actress who is very full of herself, and the count ends up putting her in her place. Her fine dogs escape from her and the count puts her in her place, infuriating her.
And so she has invited him to her room and offers him dinner and has charmed him [ultimately toward seducing him, in fact], and that's when the count is having this observation. As the meal is being served, he's having drawn this rapid conclusion that this woman was self-involved or arrogant, earlier. He's recalibrating and saying, "Actually, this is a very different person. A quite charming woman who's obviously exhausted by her career. Now you get her alone and you can feel her." And I do believe that's true in human life. That happens all the time.
But part of what I like about that is he doesn't realize he's also being played at that moment, because she seduces him and the minute their intimacy is done, she basically says, "Listen, could you draw the curtains on your way out the door?"
Towles: He's been dismissed. So on the one hand he's kind of excited by being charmed by her and he's drawing this generous conclusion about giving people that second look.
Gardner: It cuts both ways, though.
Towles: Yes. He has not fully understood the circumstance at that moment in time.
Gardner: All right, a few more for you and then I want to ask you about the business of being a novelist, but I have to share a few more. I'm guessing, Amor, that you like wine or at least you like writing about it. Let me share my next quotation. "Whichever wine was within..." This is as Rostov is just handling a bottle and he's just feeling the glass in his hand. He's saying, "Whichever wine was within," he's thinking, "it was decidedly not identical to its neighbors. On the contrary, the contents of the bottle in his hand was the product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In its color, aroma, and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain. But, in addition, it would express all the natural phenomena of its vintage. In a sip it would evoke the timing of that winter's thaw, the extent of that summer's rain, the prevailing winds, and the frequency of clouds. Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself. Yet here it was, cast back into the sea of anonymity, that realm of averages and unknowns."
Can you tell me how long [it took] you to craft that paragraph? Was that first draft straight through pleasing yourself, or were you honing that? It's a beautiful phrase.
Towles: That's got to be hours of work, for sure. And through the background of that passage of the book; again, it's illustrative of something we've been talking about. What's happened -- and this isn't much of a spoiler for those of you who have not read the book -- but...
Gardner: It's one of my favorite sections. Keep going.
Towles: ... it's relatively early in the book. I wanted the count -- who early on sort of imagines in his internment as the Soviets are gaining ground and initiating Communism in Russia -- to slowly have to come to the recognition that his era was gone. That he wasn't going to accept that on the first day, but it would be closing in on him; the reality that the 19th century Russia that he loved so well was gone for good and have to personally accept that his time was over. It would be a moment of recognizing, in essence, the end of his relevance would be kind of the idea.
And I was struggling, having layered in the theories of setbacks for him that would be building toward this notion. What I wanted was a culminating event that would really, finally [be] the straw that broke the camel's back. It would say to him, "OK, yes. You know what? It's over. My Russia is gone."
Gardner: And it is devastating for enophiles. Keep going.
Towles: Yes, exactly. I was going on and on, trying all these different things, and images, and ideas, and events, and encounters that could bring it home and finally I came up with this notion of I know what he's going to do. His nemesis in the hotel is going to arrange it so that all the wine labels are removed from the wine cellar in the hotel on the grounds that the wine, having different labels, different qualities of wine, and different prices is a completely capitalist and aristocratic notion to begin with. In a pure Communist world there should be red and white wine; the same price for everybody and none of this elitism.
And that's the crazy notion that is proposed and so they do it. They remove all the labels from this famous wine cellar. The count is there and this is where he's having this moment of the final straw that's going to make him despondent early in the book.
It took me a while to come up with that image. Once I was like, "Oh the wine labels, perfect," then you start to imagine him going down with the maître d', who he likes, and in the scene the rows and rows of blank bottles. In other words, this is a case of, again, the lucky instance of you follow your instincts into an image like this. Oh yeah, this is perfect. It's kind of hilarious, in a way. It's visually good. And it's just the thing that would piss off the count, and so that's good. He had recommended wine earlier in a way that alienated his nemesis, showing off his knowledge, so that fits.
But then suddenly in the course of writing the passage, or rewriting the passage, really, or section; I knew he was going to be stopping in the aisles, taking out a bottle without its label and dwelling for a moment on what that might mean. And initially it might only have been a sentence or two -- his despair sort of welling up -- and it was really going to be focused on this notion of my time has come and gone.
But as I put myself in his position, that's when this bigger notion came to surface. If you think about that wine bottle like in the passage it's described in, it's about individuality. And I'm not a very sophisticated wine drinker by any means, but as a wine lover, we all know that a hillside in Tuscany you can go a half a mile away to a different hillside. All of the wines are within a mile of each other, [but] they can be extremely different in terms of their taste because of the geology of their particular hillside. Because of whether it's facing toward weather. Away from weather. In the sun. Out of the sun. At 500 feet higher in altitude or not.
Any one of these things starts to change the composition of that wine. But then you add onto that years. We all know that, too. That you can take that exact same acre or even quarter acre of grapes and they will differ year after year after year based on the changes in the weather.
Gardner: It's amazing.
Towles: So I started thinking about that notion and again, this was the final gift that the creative process gives you is that of course, again, that was a perfect thing to talk about in relationship to the Soviet era where, again, one of the shortcomings of the Communist experiment, of course, was the whittling down of individuality. Not allowing individuality -- the advantages of individuality -- to express themselves in society. In fact, viewing them almost as the enemy of the Communist experiment. So suddenly you have this notion where the wine bottle labels is at the perfect moment. It's a great metaphor for the individuality of humanity; but then it serves as a nice counterpoint to the bigger theme of what is happening in Russia.
Gardner: Yes. All right, two more quick ones and then let's get on to a little bit more biz talk. The last two are on history and on life. I'll let you take these in either order, Amor. The first is just the line, "History is the business of identifying momentous events from the comfort of a high-backed chair."
And then the second on life. "Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage, but at the age of 64, he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions: our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate, and our opinions evolve; if not glacially then, at least, gradually such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew."
You've got history on the one hand created by the gray éminences sitting in their high-backed chairs going, "It is that event, now looking backwards." I realized that was their turning point. But then I also loved and wanted to just share your view on life. I know that you and I are right about the same age. It sounds like you're a year older. I'm 52. You're 53. You're talking about a 64-year-old man but is that already kind of your viewpoint? That life unfolds in that way and that the average day is as likely to be transformed as a pinch of pepper in a stew?
Towles: I do think that any of us in looking at our lives -- but in reading the papers, in studying the course of history or the evolution of the country politically, or any of these things -- on the one hand we're obsessed with minutiae, the things that are happening today which are kind of meaningless. On the other hand, we're then drawing conclusions about, "OK, this is the big thing." Or that's kind of off mark, too.
So it's kind of look back over time and you say, "All right, there's very big years turning in time and history," and it's not about specific days. It's about the evolution of all these various forces that you realize in retrospect -- cultural forces, political forces, technological forces, and commerce -- and all at once, slowly over time, steering events. But yes, we have that desire to go back and say, "This is the thing. This is the one that really counts. This is the thing that turned it," despite the fact that every time we do it, 60 days later we're proven wrong by that.
If you look back over centuries -- the last four or five centuries of Post-renaissance, the real extended, modern era of human thought and creativity and commerce -- we took cultural creations [books, whether non-fiction works, works of history, of science, novels, symphonies, various forms of creative output] and for most centuries we weren't inundated with them. We would have access to a relatively small universe of either novels, or works of history, or works of science, or works of art and we would dwell on them. And we would consume that creative output and it would nourish us and affect and shape our thinking and our behavior over time.
What's happening more in the modern era is that the flow of information -- if you think of Twitter as being an example -- is coming so fast and it doesn't have much breadth to it...
Gardner: It is voluminous.
Towles: ... but it's voluminous. And the way I think of it is now that flow of information is, instead of us consuming it and being nourished by it. etc., it's consuming us. There's this interesting point at which a human idea -- the expression of a human idea -- if you start shrinking it in terms of its duration, making it increasingly concise, and then shoot it out with rapid fire, you make this transition from where you are consuming it for your benefit and it is consuming you instead. And there's this very natural tension in the modern era that we are experiencing in a way that no generations for hundreds of years ever quite had to grapple with.
Towles: And on the one hand people are going to be addicted to this frequency and the meaningfulness of their engagement is shrinking as they're responding to a comment that is very brief, out of context, and made an hour ago. There's a firestorm around it and 24 hours later we don't even remember it. We're on to the next thing.
News is being delivered that way -- not just in Twitter -- but in the 24-hour news environment and in using, through the internet, the downloading Facebook. All these various conduits are giving us this higher-volume, shorter-duration, less-developed access to human knowledge or a version of human thought and knowledge.
But I think what's nice is that you're seeing some counterpoint to this. While you can get addicted to that and become obsessed with it, on the other hand we're seeing a desire for the opposite at the same time. The novel continues to be read around the country and serious books are being read. Long books are being read and discussed in book groups. People are engaged by books in a serious way.
You see it in long-form television. TV is better today than it was at any time in my life and one reason why is because the narratives are getting longer in television and people love that. They would rather see the 10-hour story, or where the entire season is a single story...
Gardner: The whole book instead of a two-hour abridged version of someone's book.
Towles: Exactly. You go back and watch Mission Impossible or Law & Order. There's a pleasure in watching, yes, that kind of thing where every episode is its own story and it's the same story over and over and over. There's some pleasure to that...
Gardner: Jurassic Park.
Towles: Yes. But on the other hand what we've really seen is that "I want to see The Crown. I want to see The Night Manager. I want to see this thing where it's not every episode is its own story and it's kind of the same. I want to see the thing unfold. The characters change. Events that change. I want it to be slower paced so that there can be a scene where two people are just sitting looking at each other quietly and that's going to mean something to me later and I don't even know what it is, but it's beautiful," and what have you.
So you're seeing that. You see it in podcasts in terms of things like serial, where people are suddenly showing the desire of instead of listening to songs on the radio to listen to a 10-episode investigation where they don't even know the outcome yet. So we are seeing both things. That battle is going on and, in the marketplace, you're seeing the success of both.
But luckily, I think, for us all, the long-form thing has surfaced just when you thought it would never surface. Just when you thought our attention spans are going to get shorter and shorter, and why would you ever print a long book or have a television series that you have to watch 12 hours to see the end? It turned out that's not true. There was a great desire for that.
Gardner: And obviously you're benefiting from that, Amor; you, as a novelist. I wanted to ask you just a couple of questions. For example, does being a novelist pay the bills? Do you have any side gigs? Or just what you were talking about there. Are you tempted to? Have you written for television or longer-form stuff that's not a novel?
Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow is being made into an eight-to-10-hour television series, just like I was talking about. Long-form television. It's starring Sir Kenneth Branagh who is terrific as the count, and that should be shot next summer and hopefully we'll all see it two years from now.
Towles: But I am very little involved in that, other than I was involved in agreeing that Branagh was the right guy. I was involved in the selection of the director. Otherwise it's a pretty hands-off thing for me.
Rules of Civility -- Lionsgate has the option for it and for five years was developing that as a feature-length film. [They] had commissioned a series of screenwriters to tackle that book as a two-hour feature. And basically last year they came back to me and said, "Listen, we're not happy with what we have and we don't do a service to the book, so we're going to actually do a television series for that, as well." That's going to be turned into an eight-to-10-hour television story and I am involved in that.
Towles: So I am writing the pilot for that with Lionsgate and we don't know where the outlet is or who the stars are, but we're confident that it will find its place on screen and that's, again, a much better format for a novel because the characters can evolve over the course of the story as opposed to fitting into the modern three-act, one-hour and 40-minute story or feature structure.
Gardner: Amor, what is your reflection on writing, maybe, chopped-up episodes of a book that you have fully written as a novelist? Is it fun? Engaging? Challenging? Are you just copying and pasting?
Towles: It is its own challenge. I know the material, so I have a leg up on the person who's taking it from scratch. In the case of Rules of Civility, the dialogue is there. That book is somewhat cinematic, so I know those characters. I know the environments they're in. I know the tone of their voices. And so, it doesn't daunt me as a thing. I think it is going to be fun.
But going back to your question [as to whether] you can make a living as a writer today, I've been very fortunate in that I can; but the cutoff is getting harder and harder. The hurdle is getting higher, if you want to put it that way. That we are in an environment where tens of thousands of books are being published in any given year and a smaller group are finding their way to the public.
That's challenging, so in a way it's easier to get published today than it is to make a living as an author, because you can get published and make very little money. You could spend five years writing a book and get published and it doesn't get broadly read, or it doesn't get supported. And that's partly [not to get bogged down in the business of it all] [because] over decades the publishing industry, for very understandable reasons, has determined that it's hard for them to predict what's going to work and instead kind of adopts a portfolio strategy.
Well, we'll publish 20 novels and we think maybe these four will be the good ones, but we're not really sure, so what we'll do is we'll stand back and wait and see what happens. And if one of them or two of them start to really take off, we're going to put a lot of resources behind helping that continue. That book expand its audience. And if the books don't really catch on; well, too bad. That particularly is true if they can get away with writing a small advance. Many writers are operating off of a small advance. So for them, it's not a big investment.
Gardner: It sounds a lot like the venture capital world.
Towles: Yes. And so that means that by definition they're not expecting all of these books to succeed. They're expecting a small portion of them to succeed. And if the book does not grab the imagination of readers pretty quick, then you run the risk that the publishing house starts to move on to the other things and the book can be left behind regardless of its merits. So it is challenging as an industry today.
Writing comes in many forms as a profession. I am not on this side of it, but you hear about it and read about it all the time. It's getting harder to make a living as a magazine writer as [it is] doing long-form nonfiction. Any of these things. There's more and more outlets that are publishing people in the internet where they basically assume that you're going to write the thing for $100 or $500.
Gardner: And then market it yourself off your blog and your followers.
Towles: Yeah. So the disruption has certainly surfaced throughout the writing world and it is a challenge to make a living, and that's partly because there's a lot of content out there and not all of it is being tied to an economic model.
Gardner: Well, as we move toward conclusion, Amor, let's just look forward a little bit for a minute or two. How do you see the industry changing further? Do you want to make any predictions about the future, whether we're talking about novels, or art, or consumption of media?
Towles: We kind of got a start of that in terms of talking about long-form finding its place. The only thing I can say with any kind of confidence -- because this is probably true of all creative environments -- is the industry will constantly be surprised by what's working next. The ability to anticipate what's working is very limited and because of what I was saying a second ago, which is that the industry backs what's working; you get a lot of herd behavior in film, in publishing just as you do in the equity markets. And that constantly is creating gaps that then get forgotten about, pushed aside, and become next year's success stories.
What I mean by that is, for instance, there was a point somewhere in that zone [of the late '90s or early 2000s] where the publishing industry really thought young people are just not going to read, particularly teenagers. It's a waste. They have to read books for school. They're still going to read The Catcher in the Rye and stuff like that in school, but they're going to be playing video games, and watching TV, and listening to music, and obsessed with whatever; and they have no interest in reading.
A good friend of mine, Ann Brashares, was told that when she submitted her first volume of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants [which is about four teenage girls who share the same pair of blue jeans, and the natural things that happen to them]. And a very senior editor at a major house basically said, "Listen. This is very nice what you've done and I respect your efforts, but to tell you the truth there's no business of teen readers, period." And that went on to sell millions of copies and had four different volumes in total and became two different feature films. And Harry Potter was obviously a version of that.
Gardner: Yes, I've heard of that.
Towles: The same thing. They did not think that there was a marketplace for books and suddenly Harry Potter works. And now the young adult category in fiction is gigantic, it's rapidly growing, and it's terrific. It's filled with amazing work. And the great thing that turned about young people is that they were dying to read [they just didn't have anything that was being written to them], and so much so that when they find something they like, they'll read 10 versions of it in a row.
So not only did you have suddenly books that are succeeding at that age, but you have whole series which are succeeding, and that's going to continue to happen. Where you have the industry think, "Well, there's no interest in that, or it's all going to be this," and the next thing you know the exact thing that they thought wasn't going to be successful is the next thing that everybody's going to be trying to do. I think we'll continue to see that.
Gardner: I have one final question to conclude on, but even before I ask that, really briefly. I see Yale undergrad. I see English literature master's at Stanford, I believe. Big rivalry between those kinds of universities. Amor, looking backward, which has added more value to your life, Yale or Stanford?
Towles: Well, I was very lucky to go to both places. They're both amazing. They're very different, as you said. And for me, what was great was the sequence for me worked out very well in that at the time [this is now 30 years ago], but at the time, Yale in its New Haven environment [a relatively rough city, a poor city], was a very politically active, socially active, artistically active environment; so you had the coursework but you had all these other things going on and that was great fun as an undergraduate.
Stanford is much more secluded. It's on this incredible campus. The weather's terrific. Everybody looks terrific. Everybody's well dressed and polite. It's a very different place. The head of Stanford, when I was there, called it "the Harvard of the West and the Disneyland of the North." He said that.
But that was a great place to be a graduate student, because you come and you know you're doing your work. You know what you want to do. It's less about what's happening in the quad. It's less about what's happening in the dining hall when you're a graduate student; whereas as an undergraduate you want as much craziness in the quad and the dining hall as you can get, as far as I'm concerned. So it was the right sequence for me.
Gardner: And my final question. This is an observation of my wife, Margaret, as I was reading the book to her, but she was talking. And no spoilers. We've tried to go pretty spoiler free with this full podcast. I will mention something that happens in the book, but a lot more happens after that in the book.
But one of the transitions that our aristocrat, Count Rostov, makes is the transition from the non-working class into the working class in the book and in the context of the hotel. And I'm wondering if that was an intentional theme of yours or something that you wanted to talk a little bit about using A Gentleman in Moscow. And then maybe just to close then, further, you're arguably now in the non-working class. Well, I know you work hard, but...
Towles: Great job.
Gardner: ... you walked away from your desk job. So Amor, do you ever see yourself making Rostov's transition back in at any point?
Towles: No, I like where I am now. I like writing by myself and then you go out and talk to the book with readers if you're lucky every couple of years. That's about the right cycle for me. But, yes, A Gentleman in Moscow at its heart is a book about purpose. You have this individual who at the opening of the book is sentenced to house arrest in a hotel. Because of the revolution he's lost his family, his possessions, his social standing. And he's watching as everything that he cares about in Russian life is being systematically undermined or unwound -- uprooted -- by the new regime.
That's how he starts. In the course of his three years at the hotel, he must establish new relationships. He must find new causes for happiness, however small and, ultimately, he must find a new sense of purpose. And so as an aristocrat, at 30 years old he's never worked, he doesn't have children, he hasn't been married, and things have come pretty easily to him. And he's led a rich life in that form -- a life of culture, and food, and cuisine, and relationships, and knowledge of history and everything else.
But there's something, of course, relatively hollow at the same time about that privileged position, and so because of what he's lost he does get a job, partly to pass time, and finds a whole array of satisfactions in the course of the nature of working alongside people to fulfill a job. And he's ultimately introduced to a young girl and asked to keep an eye on her and that has a profound effect on him, which is another sort of layer of purpose that we go through.
So yes, I very self-consciously was thinking about it as how do you take an individual who's had all these wonderful things and feels very satisfied with his life but, yet, he's going to find new layers of richness in life through different types of experiences including one of which is a job.
Gardner: Through working and through parenting, in a sense...
Towles: That's right.
Gardner: ... is a delightful way of thinking about the book. Well, Amor, you've been very generous, not just with your time but with your insights. Thank you very much!
Towles: My pleasure, David! Thank you!
Gardner: I have a feeling that's the kind of interview I'm going to tune back into a year or two from now when I need a little bit more inspiration or thinking more deeply about how we live, who we are, and how we can be our better selves. You know, I really appreciate Amor's points early on in that interview about following your instincts. I was naturally thinking of Lord Peter Wimsey for any fans of Dorothy Sayers's novels ["where my whimsy takes me"] and very much did Amor double underline that sense that you should follow your instincts to discovery and find your whimsy, whatever art form you're practicing or creation you are hatching.
And I also appreciate the separate point -- and they really kind of hang well together -- that he made about rules and putting some ground rules in place. So, yes, it's one thing to follow your whimsy, but it's even better when you have a sonnet form that you're writing to.
Or last week, thinking of Priya Parker talking about pop-up rules that we can give to make our parties better. And you'll remember she suggested to each of us that not a bad simple pop-up rule to have at your next gathering would be you're not allowed to pour yourself a drink at this party. You can only pour drinks for others. And you think about how that changes [the] nature of our gatherings and our interactions when you're looking around trying to see who you can help out by getting them a drink or broaching a conversation with somebody you haven't met so that they can pour you a drink.
So just a fun thought, but that's a ground rule and so are the rules that surround our various artistic forms, whether it's your next party or the sonnet. I really appreciated that thoughtful insight from Amor.
Coming up next week -- yup -- Authors in August continues and Mark Penn is coming to Rule Breaker Investing. Mark, the former chief strategy officer at Microsoft during the Bill Gates golden days and also somebody very politically active in the sense that he ran campaigns for the Clintons and for Tony Blair.
But politics aside, Mark is a deep thinker about trends. He wrote a book 10 years ago called Microtrends and he's just out this year with Microtrends Squared, his follow-up, his sequel 10 years later. Looking at microtrends. Small things he's seeing in the data as somebody who's in charge of Harris polling. Small things he's seeing in the data. Whether it's about how we live our lives, how we love, how we vote, or how we create or do business. Mark Penn is a talented thinker and he's going to be presenting on the podcast next week some of the microtrends you and I should be watching both as investors, businesspeople, and fellow travelers on the path of life.
In the meantime, thank you for listening to this podcast! Thank you to my guest, Amor Towles, and have a great week! Fool on!
As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at RBI.Fool.com.