AVALON — More than 500 people crowded into the gymnasium next to the borough’s Free Public Library on Wednesday, July 10, to hear best-selling author Amor Towles discuss his life and work.
Towles wrote “Rules of Civility,” published in 2011, and “A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel,” published in 2016, ranked as one of the best books of that year by numerous publications. He announced at the Avalon event that the novel is set to be the basis of a TV miniseries.
Towles began the event with a detailed presentation about the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, where his protagonist in the most recent novel spends 30 years under house arrest and delved into the history of the Russian revolution that put the Bolsheviks in power.
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“None of this is in the book,” he says at one point in the often humous presentation.
Towles worked as an investment professional for more than 20 years. He told the crowd in Avalon that he enjoyed that time but wanted to return to his early passion for writing.
“If I did not go back and start writing fiction and write a book that I was proud of by the time I was 50, then I would probably end up bitter and a drinker. And now, I’m just a drinker,” Towles said, drawing a laugh.
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Originally from Boston, Towles now lives in Manhattan with his family. He said he had just returned from London, where details were falling into place to film “A Gentleman in Moscow,” which will star Kenneth Branagh.
In Avalon, Towles spoke about his life, his writing process and how he approaches novels, and his unusual first name, which he said comes from an old New England Puritan tradition of naming children for virtues, in this case, the Latin word for Love.
He said he does extensive research, including staying in the Metropol Hotel, but not until the first draft is completed so that the historic details do not overwhelm the characters in the scene.
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Towles compared novels to other classical art forms, using symphonies and landscape paintings as an example. A cello can spark an emotional response like joy or sadness within a few moments, he said, while a painting may evoke not only a sense of place but also the time of day and the feel of the atmosphere.
“What a novel can do that the other fine arts cannot do is put you in the position of another human being. A novel, at its best, that’s what it does,” he said. In a good novel, the reader celebrates the lead character’s victories, feels the defeats and comes to feel as though this character is a close friend. “The ability to capture a voice is the biggest and most important job of a novelist.”
He tried to write his novels like a composer writes a symphony, he said, with themes repeating and changing as the character evolves and develops through the piece.
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“I want them to slowly work themselves up to this big conclusion where when the last note is struck, you feel like yes, that is the end of that symphony. It should not have been a minute longer or a minute shorter,” Towles said.
He also answered questions from the audience at length and signed books after that. The line to get a book signed stretched the length of the gymnasium.
“We’ve hosted authors here at the library since about 2006. We’ve been fortunate to be able to use the summer season to bring in authors. It’s become a bit of a tradition,” said Erin Brown, the library director. The author series began before she was hired at the municipal library. About once or twice a summer, the library presents a writer well known enough to use the adjacent gymnasium.
She described a lengthy process that includes input from patrons, consideration of which books are being checked out the most frequently and the recommendation of a programming committee made up of library staff and community members. The work on creating a short list starts in earnest for the next year as soon as the summer is over.
“Then we see if they can come to Avalon,” she said. “Of course, it’s a pretty nice place to be in the summer, and year-round.”
The events are free, and advance registration is not required. The authors are compensated. Brown declined to say how much they get paid.
Upcoming authors include novelist Jamie Brenner, whose work includes “The Husband Hour,” “The Wedding Sisters” and the 2019 release “Drawing Home.” She is set to speak 6 p.m. Wednesday July 17. On July 24, it’s Frank Langfitt, the London correspondent for NPR and author of “The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China.”
Meg Donohue, author of “You, Me and the Sea: A Novel” and other works, is set to speak July 31, and there are more speakers scheduled through August.