By Joe Tash
Amor Towles was in his 20s when he wrote an idea for a novel on a matchbook cover and threw it into a drawer. Twenty years later, he came across the scrap of paper. “I said, Let’s do this, this is gonna be a good one.”
By that point in his life, Towles was in his 40s and working for an investment firm in New York City that he had helped found. While he found his day job “intellectually stimulating,” he had been writing fiction on and off since he was a child, and so he set to work on a novel based on his idea, which in turn was triggered by the works of renowned photographer Walker Evans.
Towles, now 48, was January’s featured author at the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society luncheon held at the Grand Del Mar Resort, where he spoke about and read from his first published novel, “Rules of Civility,” and told stories about his hometown, New York City. (See photos, page 22.)
In an interview before his appearance, Towles recounted how, as a young man, he had been fascinated by a series of portraits Evans had snapped using a hidden camera while riding the New York City subway in the late 1930s. The idea that occurred to Towles was about a character who saw the photos decades after they were taken, and recognized someone the character had known in his or her youth.
Towles’ novel — published by Viking — tells the story of Katey Kontent, a young woman coming of age in New York in 1938, as the country is struggling to recover from the Great Depression and immediately before the start of World War II.
The book chronicles Katey’s chance encounter with a young banker named Tinker Gray, and her “year-long journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast,” according to the book’s jacket description.
“Rules of Civility” was published in hardback in 2011, and in paperback last year, and remains on the New York Times best seller list.
Although Towles has written numerous short stories and a novel he “didn’t like,” he had published only one short story in Paris Review magazine before “Rules of Civility” came out.
Towles cited many influences on his writing, from jazz music to 1930s films, particularly comedies featuring sharp dialogue and bold women, such as Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. He was also influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper, which he discussed during his talk at the Literary Society luncheon.
But according to his website and past interviews, his influences are even more wide-ranging, and include many writers, musicians and artists, from DaDa to Bob Dylan and Joseph Cornell to Henry David Thoreau. His list of influences even includes such entries as bars, cafés, the Chrysler building, cooking, Paris and pasta.
One reason for such a long list of influences, Towles said, was that he began writing his novel in his 40s, after being a “student of culture” for decades. Young writers just starting out may be motivated by one or two major influences, he said, but, “It’s totally different when you’re 45.”
Towles retired from the investment firm at the beginning of this year, and is now devoting himself full time to writing. He has finished a novella about a character from “Rules of Civility,” which he said he will send to anyone who contacts him at his website, www.amortowles.com. And he’s about to begin writing a new novel on a completely different subject, which he said will take several years.
In the meantime, he sold the film rights for “Rules of Civility” to Lionsgate films, and will consult on the director, cast and screenplay. But he doesn’t plan to be deeply involved with the film.
“I need to go write the next book. That’s my job,” he said.
Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.
The next Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society luncheon will be held on Feb. 21 at the Grand Del Mar and feature author Madeline Miller, discussing her novel, “The Song of Achilles.” For more information, contact chapter leader Gayle Allen at 858-824-1203.