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

City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong

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Werewolves, witches, and omens….are exactly what you won’t find in the newest series by supernatural queen Kelley Armstrong. She is best known for series’ such as Otherworld and Cainsville but with City of the Lost she takes a hard turn away from her signature style and ventures into murder mystery completely based in the human realm. This series is also referred to as the Rockton series or the Casey Duncan series in reference to the central locale and character.

Rockton is a town of last resorts and only accepts a select few. You won’t find it on any map or website and to become a resident you must apply to town council for approval, and even that comes with a limited term for your stay there. Imagine walking away from everything and everyone you know and disappearing into the Yukon to live without any luxuries or conveniences of modern urban life. It is supposed to be a safe haven for those with nowhere else to run – but recently the town has experienced its first murder. Enter Casey Duncan, a homicide detective with a secretive past and every reason to go off the grid. She arrives with her best friend who carries her own fair share of secrets and soon the action really gets going.

This should definitely be on your spring reading list – even if you haven’t been an Armstrong fan in the past but enjoy thrillers and murder mysteries.

Review: The Wealthy Barber vs. The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton

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About a year and a half ago, I realized how ignorant I was with regards to money and started to educate myself in matters of personal finance in order to resolve my ignorance. Since then, I have read a number of books and articles, significantly improved my spending, started living below my means, and started saving. As I began my journey to becoming financially literate, one book that I was always recommended was The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton (1989). The book being nearly 3 decades old, I was hesitant to read it since I know financial matters are time sensitive. What I decided to do instead, was read The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton (2011) first, then go back and read Chilton’s first book.

I’ve actually read The Wealthy Barber Returns twice. The first time was in January 2016. The second time was just last month to get a refresher before starting his first book. I credit Wealthy Barber Returns with kicking my butt into gear and getting me to save at least 10% of my income, and opening up a RRSP. The illustration that caused me to do so was the following from this book: twins open up RRSPs. Each of them contributes $4,000 a year at 8% rate of return compounded annually. Hank opens up his RRSP and makes these contributions starting at age 25 for 10 years. Simon contributes starting at age 35 for 30 years. Because of the “magic” of compound interest, at 65, Hank’s RRSP is worth $629,741 and Simon’s $489,383. In spite of the fact that Hank saved for a third less time, he comes out $140k ahead by starting early. After reading this, I knew that even if could only contribute a few hundred dollars a year to start out, it was worth starting in my young 20s to get the compound interest ball rolling.

Besides a 10% fund, I also appreciated the various advice found in The Wealthy Barber Returns. Some of his advice is very simple (If shopping is your weakness and causes you to waste money, avoid the malls) while other advice is more complicated and situational, such as his banter on TFSAs vs. RRSPs and renting vs. owning. Although I agreed with the majority of what Chilton had to say, I did disagree with him on a few points-the main one that sticks out is his dislike of emergency funds (he claims that although great in theory, they don’t work out in practice). Regardless, I still believe The Wealthy Barber Returns is still a good introductory book for finance for Canadians- it certainly helped me better my finances.

Now onto Chilton’s first book- The Wealthy Barber. The first thing that surprised me when I started the book was the fact it was put in story format and didn’t discuss finances until Chapter 4. The narrative format has been praised as helpful to get the average reader engaged in a topic they otherwise wouldn’t have touched, but for me, knowing that the characters are fictional I was bored and ready to get to the heart of the book. I hate to say it, but if the useless banter between fictional characters were removed, the book would have been under 100 pages. However, I did get a refresher on things I already knew and learned a few things as well. The main point of the book is “save 10%- pay yourself first” which is an excellent reminder and cannot be emphasized enough. Chilton also talks about trying to evaluate your possible retirement needs and save in an RRSP, which is so crucial in this day of fewer pensions.

Nonetheless, I have to admit this book is dated. It started with the characters referencing VCRs several times, and more concerning, outdated financial advice. For example, when referring to RRSPs, the characters never mentioned the Home Buyers’ Plan (HBP) which allows you to withdraw up to $25,000 from your RRSPs to buy or build a home. Same with TFSAs- they came about in 2009 (20 years after the publication of this book) and they are a great way for Canadians to save, so someone starting with this publication would miss that valuable info. Also, a few weeks ago the government announced they will be doing away with the Canada Savings Bond program which was mentioned numerous times throughout this book as an option for saving. And when it comes to investing or buying a home, the characters referenced making 13% on a mutual fund annually, buying a home for $57,000 (at an 18% interest rate!), and buying a condo for $80,000. Any Canadian who gets their percentage figures from this book is going to be really surprised when s/he looks online for modern prices.

For all these reasons, I would much rather recommend The Wealthy Barber Returns over Chilton’s original publication. Finances are a time sensitive thing: prices and percentages change, new products are introduced and old products are done away with. Even though The Wealthy Barber is encouraging in some ways, it’s too out of date as a beginner’s guide to personal finance. My recommendation is to stay within the past decade for anything to do with personal finance; possibly less if it’s about a specific product.

 

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

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

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The world has changed much in 30 years: today, we have access to more information than we’ll ever need in 100 lifetimes through a device that fits in our pocket. We can communicate face to face to relatives across the world in real time through a screen. These are just a couple of the many differences found in early 21st century society, so one would think that a book written about technology in 1985 would be irrelevant to today’s technology users. Ironically, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is even more important today than 3 decades ago. To be certain, there are some laughable anecdotes: near the end of the last chapter, Postman claims that computers are “a vastly overrated technology” which couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Nonetheless, so much of what he says in Amusing Ourselves is spot on and even truer today.

Postman compares Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  People are always concerned about  a real life “Big Brother”government control, censorship and spying to name a few. While these concerns have been a reality found in recent history, Postman claims North American society is much closer to Brave New World than 1984. Postman claims that there will always be opposition to totalitarian control and censorship as it is very identifiable and a clear infringement on a society’s rights. It is Huxley’s theory of an entertainment culture- one too absorbed to care about oppression- that is the greatest threat to our society. North American society has come to adore their amusing technological oppression.

Postman looks at the print society of the enlightenment years- schooling was few and far between, yet books couldn’t be printed fast enough to satisfy society’s thirst for knowledge. Postman cites the debates Abraham Lincoln had with Stephen A. Douglas: Douglas would first be given an hour to speak, Lincoln an hour and a half, then Douglas again for an hour and a half reply. These debates were shorter than what they were accustomed too, and yet common men and women would attend them as an informing, yet restful event. The attention span of today’s average Joe would not be able to handle such a long, complex activity. As a comparison, Postman especially criticizes television news for this reason: each news story is given minutes (if that) to be presented before it is quickly switched out for the following story. The viewer barely has time to think about what s/he just saw before being pummeled with more information. I recall a few months back watching television news with family (I do not have cable in my own home so this is a rarity for myself) and I was shocked to see things like murders, protests, and other devastating issues being given seconds of screen time vs. the ten minutes a feel-good story about an abstract painter was given. Viewers don’t want to end off on a sad note lest they start thinking of implications for their own lives.

Even though Postman focuses on television culture, these observations and even more true today. Distraction culture is more prominent now with smart phones: individuals can barely make it through an hour without checking their updates, replying to a text or scrolling through the web. When groups of people go out to eat or to other social activities, most of the time is now spent looking at phones instead of conversing. We are more interconnected than ever before, yet lonelier than ever because we have lost the art of meaningful conversation and appreciation for enjoying activities that don’t revolve around a screen.

If Postman were alive today, I would be very interested to hear what he’d say about today’s entertainment culture. I know for myself his book had a profound influence for me and I have begun to examine myself when I am spending excess time on social media or other wasteful forms of entertainment. I have been spending more time doing more meaningful activities that are still restful, and I have been appreciating the fruits that come from that. I recommend everyone to evaluate themselves using Amusing Ourselves, and to make positive changes in their lives.

 

 

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L Cline

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Up until recently, I didn’t really think about where my clothes originated from. I usually bought $5 shirts from Wal-Mart or other similar outlets, always looking for the best deals and not considering the longevity of my clothes. In short, I was your typical consumer. In Overdressed, Elizabeth L. Cline investigates how the current age of “fast fashion”-clothing that is in one week and falls apart the next- and its origins and what that means for the economy.

Cline described herself as being a typical consumer-not knowing much about fashion. She often frequented H&M, Forever 21, and other stores commonly found in North American shopping malls. She found our current state of fast fashion so perplexing it led her to going so far as to visiting China and Bangladesh in order to see just how our duds are made. She found it is quite a shift from two generations ago- in 1950, the average American household made $4237 annually and spent $437 on clothing (and much of it was still homemade). Nowadays, it is cheaper to buy ready-made clothing than to buy the raw materials and make them ourselves-a skill long lost with the boom of fast fashion.

Besides economic impact, Cline also looks at the environmental impact our clothing has. The textile industry is cited as the second most polluting industry in the world, yet it is not one that gets the most publicity. In many cities where fabrics are produced, the water is tinted various colours due to the lack of filtration. Commonly used fabrics like polyester are manufactured from oil, and take hundreds of years to break down in landfills. With the rise of fast-fashion, second hand clothing stores have an influx of clothing that they can barely keep up with, leading many of them to discard clothing that isn’t sold within a number of weeks.

All of these issues with fast fashion pose the question of “What are we as North Americans to do?”. Cline interviews various people and businesses who all have a different answer to that question. Some individuals have decided to make nearly all of their clothing themselves. Some companies have put ethical practices, good wages and sustainable fabrics at the heart of their business model. Whatever the answer is, the fact is the current model of fast-fashion is cannot continue: something must change. Overdressed will certainly make that fact very clear and show a new perspective.

 

Interview with Paul Gooding

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picture of Paul GoodingPaul Gooding enjoys poetry from the Victorian to the modern age, especially Tennyson, Frost, and Andrea Cohen. He’s the contact person for the Writers’ Circle, who meet on the last Wednesday of the month in the Waverley Auditorium. For more information on Writers’ Circle, please call him at 807-345-8513.

Shauna Kosoris: How did you get involved with Writers’ Circle?

Paul Gooding: Through a library ad. I was put in touch with Irene Warmenhoven, who edited the first anthology, Voice of Thunder, in 1998. I believe that they had existed prior to the first anthology.

For new members, it doesn’t matter if you’ve written a little or a lot, you can bring what you have and we’ll celebrate and read it. Everyone is welcome. There are no authorities. Everyone has their own thoughts on the piece. Everyone is welcome.

It’s wonderful that Writers’ Circle is so supportive. Other than that support, what is the most positive thing you have gotten out of being a member?

I think it’s the experience of seeing my work in print to a wider audience. To more than just fellow writers. The Writers’ Circle books were placed in the Thunder Bay depot of local works. That was instigated by Ken Boschcoff. I don’t know where it is located but it is the mayor’s collection of books.

That’s very exciting! You were on the editing team for Thunder on the Bay, the Writers’ Circle’s 4th anthology. Who else worked on that with you?

Thunder on the Bay was edited by Joan Baril, Michele Tuomi, and I. Martin Hicks assisted in editing as well (he’s since passed on). L. Keith Johnson was the guiding light to that one. Each time we met he kept a record of who came to the meeting. He was a massive contributor to everything.back cover picture of Thundering

The last anthology, Thundering, has a picture of all our contributors. Keith is third from the right.

Your bio in Thunder on the Bay and Thundering says you started writing after taking a course in Victorian Prose & Poetry. Why did that course inspire you?

It was an era of poetry that appealed to my mother. She got me several Tennyson books. I find the music of the poetry very enticing. I had to imitate it. The professor of that course was Dr. S.R. MacGillvary.

Was that here at Lakehead?

Yes. There’s another teacher, Claude Liman, who also inspired me. He’s since left town.

Have you always written poetry, or have you tried prose, too?

I tried prose in high school. I’ve written several academic papers. But poetry really. I’ve been in several poetry groups besides Writers Circle. My friends and I test each other. It’s lots of fun.

What is your favourite poem form to write and why?

I think variations on sonnet form, 14 lines. But the order of the lines isn’t given much prominence. Whatever I can fit into 14 lines. I’m not a strict follower. It takes a lot of skill. A sonnet is 14 lines, 3 quatrains, and a couplet. I don’t adhere to it strictly.

In terms of interests, I think also in terms of influences: Robert Frost. Andrea Cohen.

Why those poets?

I like their voice. I can feel them speaking to me directly and enjoy sharing their poetry. Sharing common interests.

How long does it take you to write a typical poem?

Probably no more than 30 minutes. I don’t write a lot. I write when I feel like it. Not interrupted. 30-40 minutes generally.

What was your first published poem?

I think the poems in Voice of Thunder. That was back in 1998.

So what are you working on now?

Right now, I’ll be giving a presentation to Writers’ Circle on William Wordsworth sonnets. That will be the last week at Waverley in May.

Good luck with that! Let’s finish up with a few questions about reading. What poet first inspired you to write?

I’d say Tennyson. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He represents an isolated individual speaking for his age. An isolated individual who can remain true to his individual self.

Is there a book you think everyone should read?

Just read anything, really. If you get a copy of Victorian Poetry and Prose, it has major poems and essays.

Stuart Mill -essays
Carlyle -essays
John Henry Newman – essays

Victorian poetry still satisfies. I’ve been writing poetry since 1998 and it still provides challenges, examples, flights of fancy. It’s an escape from the mundane world to a higher reality. It lifts everything up to a higher dimension.

And what are you currently reading?

A book called The Crimes of Paris. It’s about the theft of the Mona Lisa and the criminal underworld of Paris. It’s got larger than life characters. From before Sherlock Holmes.

I also read a book called The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson.

thundering cover