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Amor Towles on his new novel, 'The Lincoln Highway'

Amor Towles, author of 'The Lincoln Highway'
Dmitri Kasterine
Amor Towles, author of 'The Lincoln Highway'

Author Amor Towles worked as an investment professional for over twenty years before he took the literary world by storm with his 2011 bestseller, Rules of Civility. And his 2016 novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, was on the bestseller list for 2 years. Towles' third novel, The Lincoln Highway, was released this week, and KMUW's Beth Golay spoke with the novelist about his work.

Interview Highlights

Okay. So I just want to set up the novel for our listeners. Uh, The Lincoln Highway begins as 18-year-old Emmett Watson is being driven by the warden of a troubled youth farm in Salina, Kansas, back to his farm in Nebraska, where his father had recently passed away. And unbeknownst to either man in the car, two other young men, Duchess and Woolly have stowed away in the trunk of the warden's car. And that's where the adventure begins. And I believe I read, is that where this adventure began for you? Was that the original idea for this book?

Yes. Your description was excellent, first of all. And yes, for me, the starting point was as simple as that: Boy returning from work farm; two friends from the work farm are hidden in the trunk of the warden's car. You know, in the case of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, it was very similar. It was a premise that could fit in a sentence. Like guy gets trapped in hotel for a long period of time. In the case of this, in the case of The Lincoln Highway, similarly, once I had the notion of the two kids hitting the trunk of the car—of the warden's car—I was like, oh, it's going to be in the Midwest. He's going to be returning to the family farm. And, uh, you know, one of the kids is going to be a harder kid from New York City, and the whole story is only gonna be 10 days, you know, a misadventure, as it were, and it's going to be set in the mid fifties. So that kind of rapidly comes into focus, for whatever reason, and my instincts tell me that's where the story is. And then from there, I start to then imagine the various elements and I kind of... I won't sit down to write chapter one until I can visualize almost the entire tale from beginning to end.

So, as you mentioned, the book is set in the mid fifties set in 1954, and it's it's during a pivotal time in American and world history. And I saw on your website that that's precisely why you set it in 1954, because of all of the things that were about to happen?

Yes. So all the things that weren't happening yet. Because you're right. If you think of the trajectory of America in the 20th century, the depression and the second world war, two global events—significantly dislocating events— affected the lives of every American and people around the world. Suddenly the second world war ends, you sort of, we have recovery of the economy in the United States. The boys come home and go to college and then start getting jobs, that sort of is happening. The Korean war starts but winds down by 1954. So what you have in the mid fifties is sort of a moment of quietude, as it were, after this tumultuous 20 years. And further, as you were mentioning, a whole series of major cultural events for America are about to happen. So the mid 1950s is sort of this nice moment where, yes, I can kind of put the lens really on the interaction of a group of 18-year-olds, focusing on their character. There's a sense of these things that are about to come, but they haven't really come over like a tidal wave over these young Americans who were thinking about their future.

As I was reading this, I wondered if it could be classified, like, you know, like as a picaresque novel. And then my producer said that in some ways it felt like a coming-of-age novel, but in other ways it felt more like a returning-to-childhood novel. But then I learned another word from your website: Bildungsroman...

It's a German term.

Of course it is. Because they have a word for everything.

Famously. And let me say, first of all, I like the fact that you and your colleague—'Is it a picaresque? Is it a coming-of-age story? Is it a suspense story?' You know, nothing makes me happier than to think that it's all of these things, and others, too.

Salina, Kansas, features prominently in the book, but since the novel begins in medias res—or in the middle of the thing—the Kansas scenes occur either in memory or off the page...

And, of course, the book opens in Nebraska. In a way, more time spent in Nebraska than in Salina, but I love the fact that Salina, Kansas, and to a lesser degree, the town in Nebraska—which is kind of based on Aurora, but it's renamed Morgen—they're basically in the middle of the country. I mean, Salina is almost dead-center from a north/south standpoint and an east/west standpoint. So it's very natural, kind of, to start a story about America in the pinpoint in the middle, you know, and have these kids be, "Where are we going next?" And any direction is viable, you know, from that center point.

Amor Towles will be in Wichita on Monday, October 11. Watermark Books will host the novelist at the Crown Uptown. Find more information about the event here.

Beth Golay is KMUW's Director of Marketing and Digital Content. She is the host of the KMUW podcast Marginalia and co-host with Suzanne Perez of the Books & Whatnot podcast. You can find her on Wichita Transit in conversation with other riders for En Route, a monthly segment on KMUW's weekly news program The Range.