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Inside the whimsical life of A Gentleman in Moscow author Amor Towles

Amor Towles checked into the Beverley Hills Hotel to research his upcoming book Table for Two
Amor Towles checked into the Beverley Hills Hotel to research his upcoming book Table for Two

Known for his buttery prose, Anna Moloney finds the A Gentleman in Moscow author has led a life straight from one of his novels

The heroine of Amor Towles’s upcoming novella, Southern belle Evelyn Ross, keeps an important list: things to do before she skedaddles. Churros on the boardwalk, coffee at Chester’s, the Taj Mahal; one by one she dutifully ticks them off in an embrace of her new celebration for lists – which toasts a “thou shalt” rather than a “thou shalt not” sensibility.

As a child I kept a similar list, though I was not nearly as dutiful as Eve and only ever ticked off number one: to send a message in a bottle. Aged 10, I enlisted my father to drive me to Brighton Pier and there I sent it off into the English Channel with the boundless optimism of youth. Naturally, I never heard of it again.

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Not so for Towles himself, however, whose life appears to have been blessed with such a sense of whimsy that one can imagine he may have been delivered by stork. And indeed, young Towles, also aged 10, sent a message in a bottle out into the Atlantic Ocean – but to considerably more success. While he hoped it might have reached China, he instead received a letter from the offices of The New York Times, where then-managing editor Harrison Salisbury wrote to inform him he had found Towles’s dispatch – an extraordinary story that kicked off many years of correspondence between the two. It is also a story journalists now can’t stop bringing up, he tells me, but it’s one that so perfectly frames the world his novels sprang from that it’s impossible to resist.

“But I’ve never told an interviewer this story,” I’m grateful to hear, when I ask him what inspired that sense of joie de vivre in his life. He tells me another childhood tale, when he was “screwing around” in an old barn in his family home in New England and noticed a quirk in the floorboards. “I pulled them out. And it turned out that there was a room underneath this room!” And it was full of treasures, he tells me with childish delight, with him excavating toy fire engines from the 1930s along with an array of other long-forgotten trinkets. “It’s those kinds of experiences that reinforce your belief that everything is possible, if you just pull up the floorboards,” he says.

With that kind of attitude, it may be surprising to learn that Towles, despite always dreaming of being a writer, spent the first 20 years of his career as an investment banker, and a successful one. But, far from seeing this part of his life as discordant with his one as an artist, he tells me it helped him write with more freedom. “Everyone had basically forgotten it was a dream of mine, none of the writers in New York knew who I was, I was just a guy on Wall Street. I really didn’t have to write it for anybody but myself.” The money, he adds, also helped.

Thirteen years later and his career as a novelist has been so successful he’s been able to swap New York trading floors for Paramount film sets, with his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, just given the Hollywood treatment (though Towles admits filming took place in a rainy Manchester, far from the Beverly Hills Hotel where he resided to research his upcoming book).

Complete with stars Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, A Gentleman in Moscow follows the life of Count Rostov, an unrepentant but charming Russian aristocrat, who receives the rather cosy sentence of lifetime imprisonment in Moscow’s Metropole Hotel after the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a story that begged for a TV adaptation, and fans of Towles will be doubly pleased after news last month that his third novel Lincoln Highway is now also set for the screen, led by The Bear creator Christopher Storer.

But for those who just want more of the smooth prose Towles is known for, his upcoming book Table for Two, half short stories and half novella, will be sure to delight. Eve in Hollywood picks up where Rules of Civility left off, while the New York stories are broken down into a series of six tales, starting in Soviet Russia and ending in contemporary Manhattan. While short stories can sometimes feel dissatisfying, Towles’s dry wit and twinkle-in-its-eye prose make these a pleasure to read.