Category Archives: historical

Interview with Amor Towles

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author picture of Amor TowlesAmor Towles was born and raised in the Boston area. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University. An investment professional for more than twenty years, he now devotes himself full time to writing. His first novel, Rules of Civility, was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. You can find him online at amortowles.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest novel, A Gentleman in Moscow?

Amor Towles: Over the two decades that I was in the investment business, I travelled a good deal for my firm. Every year, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities meeting with clients and prospects. In 2009, while arriving at my hotel in Geneva (for the eighth year in a row), I recognized some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars. In the next few days, I sketched out most of the key events of A Gentleman in Moscow; over the next few years, I built a detailed outline; then in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing the book.

A Gentleman in Moscow seems rich in historic details, particularly concerning the Metropol Hotel. What sort of research did you do for the book?

Rather than pursuing research driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as a young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies, and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in Rules of Civility. Similarly, I chose to write A Gentleman in Moscow because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine tune details. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, I gathered firsthand accounts of life in the Metropol from an array of prominent people including John Steinbeck, E. E. Cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts at amortowles.com.

Having researched all of these firsthand accounts, are any of the characters in the novel based on real people?

None of the novel’s central characters are based on historical figures, or on people that I have known. That said, I have pick-pocketed my own life for loose change to include in the book such as these three examples:

The thimble game that the Count plays with Sofia was from my childhood. My great grandmother was a Boston Brahmin who lived until she was a hundred in a stately house. When my cousins and I visited her (in our little blue blazers), she would welcome us into her sitting room. After the appropriate amount of polite conversation, she would inform us that she had hidden several thimbles in the room and that whoever found one would receive a dollar—prompting a good deal of scurrying about.

When I was a boy of ten, I threw a bottle with a note into the Atlantic Ocean near summer’s end. When we got home a few weeks later there was a letter waiting for me on New York Times stationery. It turned out that my bottle had been found by Harrison Salisbury, a managing editor of the Times and the creator of its Op-Ed page. He and I ended up corresponding for many years, and I eventually met him on my first visit to New York when I was seventeen. It so happens that Salisbury was the Moscow bureau chief for the Times from 1949 to 1954. A few colorful details in A Gentleman in Moscow spring from his memoirs; he also makes a cameo late in the novel, and it is his fedora and trench coat that the Count steals to mask his escape.

Finally, the scene in which the tempestuous Anna Urbanova refuses to pick up her clothes, throws them out the window into the street, and then sheepishly sneaks out in the middle of the night to retrieve them, was a scene that played out between my parents shortly after their marriage. Although, it was my mother who wouldn’t pick up her clothes, and my father who threw them out the window. I’ll leave it to you to guess who went out in the middle of the night to pick them back up.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

Initially, I imagined that the central challenge posed by the book was that I was trapping myself, my hero, and my readers in a single building for thirty-two years. But my experience of writing the novel ended up being similar to that of the Count’s experience of house arrest: the hotel kept opening up in front of me to reveal more and more aspects of life.

In the end, a much greater challenge sprang from the novel’s geometry. Essentially, A Gentleman in Moscow takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

When effective, a book like this can provide a lot of unexpected satisfactions to the reader. The problem is that the plethora of elements in the first half can bog readers down making them so frustrated or bored that they abandon the book. So, my challenge was to craft the story, the point of view, and the language in such a way that readers enjoy the first half and feel compelled to continue despite their uncertainty of where things are headed. Whether or not I succeeded in doing so is up to you.

Can you comment a little more on that diamond structure of A Gentleman in Moscow?

From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.

While odd, this accordion structure seems to suit the story well, as we get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.

That’s very true. Why did you decide to write A Gentleman in Moscow as your follow up to Rules of Civility?

When I was deciding what to do after Rules, I picked A Gentleman from among a handful of projects I had been considering. In retrospect, I see that my choice was probably influenced by an unconscious desire for change, because the two novels are a study in contrasts. Where the former takes place over a single year, the latter spans thirty-two. Where the former roves across a city, the latter takes place in one building. Where the former is from the perspective of a young working class woman on the rise, the latter is from the perspective of an aging aristocrat who has lost everything. And where the former is virtually free of children and parents, the latter is very much concerned with generational relationships.

So what are you working on now?

Last year, Viking/Penguin contracted with me to publish my next two novels; now I just have to write them. I like to carefully design my books, beginning the writing process only once I have an extensive outline. I am still in the process of outlining my next book, but I suspect it will follow three eighteen-year-old boys on their way from the Midwest to New York City in the early 1950s…

I’d like to finish up with a couple of quick questions on what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?

I began writing when I began reading in first grade. Since then, the two practices have proceeded in parallel. Read, Write, Repeat. That said, probably my three favorite novels are Moby Dick, War & Peace, and 100 Years of Solitude.

And what are you currently reading?

For the last thirteen years, three friends and I have met monthly to discuss a novel over dinner. We generally work on projects over many months. Right now, we are in the process of reading 8 Philip Roth novels focused on those involving his alter ego, Zuckerman.

book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow

Stalin’s Englishman: the lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie

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The story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, or the Magnifivent Five as they were dubbed by the media, continues to be of interest, long after the Cold War ended. How did this group of young, wealthy, Cambridge University students fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union during the 1930s? The reality is that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, all brilliant young men, were very willing recruits because, in the polarised politics of the time, they saw it as a simple choice between Fascism or Communism, and they chose the latter.

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of the Cambridge Spies. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. And he did all of this in plain sight while drawing attention to himself via a disolute and promiscuous lifestyle. There was no security vetting in those days. The only entry requirements were that you went to Eton and Oxbridge and came from a ‘good family’. It was all about the connections which tied the ruling class together.

Burgess lost his father at an early age and some have speculated that this may have influenced his later direction in life. He was devoted to his mother and was an outstanding Cambridge undergraduate. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society and came into contact with other rich young men who were attracted to Marxism and how it was being implemented in the Soviet Union. His comrades included John Cornford, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and James Klugmann, who went on to become a skilled organiser within the Communist Party of Britain.

This is Andrew Lownie’s first full biography and he draws a rich picture of Guy Burgess’s lives, both personal and political. He shows how Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. But it was the exposure of Donald Maclean which led to Burgess’s exile in Russia. Maclean was tipped off by Kim Philby and had to be smuggled out of the country. Burgess was instructed to escort Maclean to Europe, where we would be taken care of by his Soviet handlers. Burgess did not realise that he had been given a one way ticket and that he would become a fellow defector with Maclean in Moscow.

Burgess and Maclean left England in 1951 and disappeared for the next five years. Their mystery was solved when Tom Driberg visited them in Moscow and published Guy Burgess: a portrait with background in 1956. Burgess was not happy in Moscow and missed his mother, friends and London life. When he died in 1963 his ashes were sent back to England and placed in the family plot besides those of his father. Guy Burgess had finally had his wish and returned home.

Through interviews with over a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, Stalin’s Englishman brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colourful, tragic-comic reality.

Review by John Pateman -Chief Librarian/CEO Thunder Bay Public Library

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie is one of the world’s bestselling novelists thanks to her 66 detective novels. According to her website, she has only been outsold by Shakespeare and the bible. Having never read an Agatha Christie novel before, I decided to read And Then There Were None, which is considered to be one of her best books. This is not just hearsay: And Then There Were None is listed on the Wikipedia List of Best Selling Books; it has an estimated $100 million in sales since it was published in 1939, and it remains in print today, with a new hardcover copy  having been published in the fall.

And Then There Were None is the story of ten strangers with vastly different backgrounds who are all invited to stay at an island. After arriving, the guests are informed that their host and hostess are delayed; it’s around that point that they realize they were all invited under differing and rather mysterious circumstances. Then the guests start dying one by one. The first death can be explained as a suicide. But by the third death, there can be only one explanation: murder. After a thorough search of the island, the guests realize that they are the only ones present, which means one of their party is the murderer! How will the innocent guests figure out who the culprit is before they’re all dead?
While And Then There Were None is a little bit dated in its writing style, I can easily see why it remains the world’s best selling mystery novel. It is a bit light on the characterization, but I found that doesn’t really matter because And Then There Were None is all about the plot. It is an excellent mystery that will keep you guessing right to the end!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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In the follow-up to his debut novel, Rules of Civility, author Amor Towles has written another fascinating and lyrical historical novel that captures the essence of a not so distant past.  This novel follows the story of Count Alexander Rostov , one of the last remaining members of the aristocracy left in Russia following the Revolution.  Rostov, a man of wit, charm and education who has never worked a day in his life is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal as being an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol, which sits across the street from the Kremlin.  Instead of a large palace or a luxury suite, he is stripped of his possessions and forced to live in a small attic room for over 30 years.

Rostov is not crushed by the change in his circumstances,  and instead develops close relationships with the staff and the regular guests at the hotel.  Against the backdrop of world events, Rostov observes the world and engages the interest and the friendship of a precocious nine-year-old named Nina.  As the years pass, it is Rostov’s charm and friendships that keep him safe from the purges that plague the outside world, despite a close relationship with the American ambassador Richard Wilshire.

Both of his novels are a joy to read, and the author’s love of language and wordplay is evident, as is his ability to illustrate overwhelmingly complicated situations with the use of quiet observation.  Rostov would be what my mother called a “charmer”, with the innate ability to understand human nature and gently manipulate situations to his advantage.  While the novel covers decades of fictional time, I was saddened to close the final page and look foward to any further works by Towles.

hotelmetropolLobby of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, built in 1905.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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Everyone’s familiar with the fate of the Titanic, but very few have heard of the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the greatest maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost on a single vessel. As the Red Army advanced through Prussia in 1945, the desperate Germans planned a naval evacuation of refugees and personnel across the Baltic Sea. Thousands of desperate citizens swarmed the ship and the estimated final count on board is 10,500. Five thousand of those were youth and children. The conditions were unimaginably overcrowded and dangerously cramped, but being on board was seen as the only hope for survival.

The Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945 and an estimated 9,400 of those on board perished. The sinking was not reported by the Third Reich in order to avoid spreading more bad news within the losing regime. It was also underreported in western Allied countries, and the official line in Russia stated (inaccurately) that the ship was transporting armed personnel. Due to these factors and the disinclination of the survivors to discuss the event due to their extreme trauma, the Gustloff largely disappeared from public knowledge.

This tragedy is the inspiration for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Poignant, engrossing, and emotionally intense, we see the horrors of war-time Germany though four different perspectives of Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and German youth. They endure starvation and brutality, but also find moments of hope, joy, and love. Different kinds of bravery and sacrifice are shown throughout the story, highlighting the heroism often found in society during terrible times, and despite the tragedy the book ends with moments of hope. I highly recommend this book to all readers of historical fiction.

The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim by Shane Peacock

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What would you do if all the imaginary horrors of the world weren’t imaginary at all? Such is the world of Edgar Brim. As a young boy, his father told him many tales of the bizarre and the macabre, leading to Edgar’s heighten sense of fear and frequent night terrors. Later when he is sent to a gloomy boarding school in Scotland run by the stern and mysterious Mr. Thorne, life for Edgar turns even darker as he becomes the subject of bullying and ridicule. It is only in the finding of a journal written by his novelist father which helps Edgar develop the courage to fight both his bullies and his fears.

When I picked up the book and read the premise of a gothic horror novel set during the reign of Queen Victoria and featuring Bram Stoker, I knew this was my type of novel.  The book reads much like a classic Victorian novel of mystery, full on dark intrigue, gloomy atmosphere and cryptic clues and the main character of Edgar makes for an interesting foil to the action. Edgar both grows up physically and emotionally in the novel, while keeping a certain distance of personality that makes we wonder what mysteries we will find out about him as the series goes on. Setting the book during the Victorian period adds a whole set of socially acceptable and expected behaviours that feel odd to our modern sensibilites and are really pronounced with Edgar’s friend, Lucy.

I really liked the literary references to the great Victorian writers of the time and can see their influence in the story and in the character of Edgar. The build up in story is slow as it lays out a number of plot threads and takes time introducing Edgar and the world he inhabits but once the action begins the it moves rapidly and ties up a number of ends while leaving some mysteries for further in the series.

 

 

Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

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 This is the tragic story of an Ojibwe boy who runs away from a North Ontario Indian School, not realising just how far away from home he is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.  It is based on the short life of Chanie Wenjack (misnamed Charlie by his teachers) who was born in 1954 at Ogoki Post . He was forcibly removed from his home in 1964, when he was nine years old, and taken to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School over 400 kilometres away in Kenora. He died on 22 October 1966 while trying to walk home along the railroad tracks. Many young victims of the Residential Schools were buried without grave markers. Sometimes their families were not even informed of their death.

Ian Adams wrote ‘The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack’ for Maclean’s magazine not long after Chanie’s death in 1966. One outcome of his death – and countless others – was the first public inquiry into residential schools in Canada. Another longer-term outcome was a multimedia re-telling of Chanie’s story by a group of contemporary authors and musicians.  Joseph Boyden voices two tracks about Chanie on the latest album by A Tribe Called Red, The Halliuci Nation.  Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip teamed up with Jeff Lemire to produce Secret Path, which combines a graphic novel with ten songs, and was also filmed as an animation shown on CBC on the 50th anniversary of Chanie’s death.  Wenjack is a powerful and poignant look into the world of a residential school runaway trying to find his way home.

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John Pateman is CEO of Thunder Bay Public Library.