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Amor Towles checked in to the Beverly Hills Hotel to edit new novella

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the very end of Amor Towles' first novel, "Rules Of Civility," his character Evelyn Ross is on a train. The year is 1938. She is pulling out of New York City, having just completely blown up her life there. And she's heading home to Indiana, except she doesn't get off where she's supposed to. All we're told is she has instead extended her ticket all the way to LA. Well, as readers, we're left wondering, why? And did she make it? And what happened next to beautiful, brilliant, damaged Evelyn Ross? Well, it turns out Amor Towles was wondering, too. And so last year the author checked himself into the Beverly Hills Hotel and, as he puts it, finally gave Eve the story she deserved. The result is "Table For Two," a collection of short stories and the novella "Eve In Hollywood." Amor Towles, hi there.

AMOR TOWLES: Hi. Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Is checking oneself into the Beverly Hills Hotel to write a novel as absolutely marvelous as it sounds?

TOWLES: Well, yeah, it's not the suffering artist template.

KELLY: It's not hardship duty.

TOWLES: It's not the template of a suffering artist. No. It was - it's always fun to step into a place like that that you're writing about sort of to instill your writing with sort of a slightly different mood than you would have while being at home.

KELLY: Well, for any IRS auditors listening in, I will note this was a legit business expense.

TOWLES: Yes.

KELLY: You do set most of the novella, like, by the pool and in the bar and in the streets of the Beverly Hills Hotel because your character Eve has checked in. Why?

TOWLES: When I was writing the passage in "Rules Of Civility" in which Eve was going to arrive at the train station in Chicago where her parents were going to pick her up, as I was writing the paragraph, I stopped and thought, she would never get off that train.

KELLY: Oh.

TOWLES: You know, in a way...

KELLY: So she surprised you.

TOWLES: Yeah. She insisted that, really. So then sort of on the spur of the moment, you know, it was like I had to kind of rethink and rewrite what happened to her. And she ends up extending her ticket to Los Angeles, which, I guess, to some degree, is as far away as she could get from her parents without leaving the continental U.S., right? But she's attracted probably to the glamour of it, too, in the back of my mind. She's landing there in 1938, sort of in the golden age of Hollywood. And she - I love Eve as a character, and she's a little bit of a troublemaker. She's pretty willful. She's very independent-minded. And so I kind of always thought, man, she's going to - I wonder what's going to happen to her in California. She's going to cause all kinds of trouble, I'm sure.

KELLY: And she does.

TOWLES: Yeah. And so that was kind of the starting point. So I did all that without doing any applied research, without going to the hotel. I just did it as a work of imagination. I then did - to edit it, I went and moved into the Beverly Hills Hotel for, you know, a less than a week to edit it, and that's very typical...

KELLY: Less than a week. I would have dragged it out for - I don't know - at least two.

TOWLES: Yeah. Well, you know...

KELLY: (Laughter).

TOWLES: You're right. I mean, you know, my wife and my kids were like, what's - you know, Dad, what are you doing? So, you know, you can only get so many days in a row. But it sort of opens the question of why. And different writers approach these things in different ways, but I am a person who does like to write something that I feel comfortable imagining. I'm a fan of Hollywood in the '30s - the movies, the society of it - and including the '40s. So I'd like to take something that I'm familiar with, imagine it fully so that it's not weighed down by sort of the burdens of research. You know, I feel like when I - when you do applied research, you're going to start to feel it in the prose. You know, it starts to be some things that are being clunked down into the narrative as landmarks. And they're not there organically, springing from the lives of the characters, springing from sort of the thematic integrity of the story. And so that's been a very fruitful process for me.

KELLY: Speaking of Hollywood in the golden age of Hollywood, your plot here depends on the quaint notion that a photograph is exactly what it seems, could not be altered - that if, say, you had a compromising photo of a movie star not clothed, that it is exactly what it looks like. Is that - I wondered, as I read, is that part of why you set your novels all in the past? You don't have to deal...

TOWLES: Yeah.

KELLY: ...With, like, pesky modern technology ruining your plot twists.

TOWLES: Yeah. That's interesting. You know, and in "Table For Two," there's six stories. All kind of end up in New York City, but five of them are around the millennium. But even that has become a long time ago - right? - you know, 'cause some of those are 1998. And the world today is so different from then in terms of what you're asking, in terms of what information we can get at our fingertips, how we communicate together. You know, all kinds of things have shifted pretty radically.

And, yes, it is refreshing for me as a writer to move back into a time where there's less of all of that, where there isn't a cellphone readily at hand and there isn't Google and there isn't email, there isn't, you know, big social networks because you can start to narrow it down to the more basic human interactions. And that's very liberating. "The Lincoln Highway," my last novel, is set in 1954. And you really - it's about four 18-year-olds who are friends, in essence. And to bring it back to that time allows you really to see the interactions in the most direct, human-to-human fashion.

KELLY: Well, and allows them to actually get lost on a road trip instead of just...

TOWLES: Well, that's true, too.

KELLY: ...Following the blinking pin on your Google map, etc.

TOWLES: Yeah. If they can't find each other, they can't find each other.

KELLY: Yeah.

TOWLES: You know? Right.

KELLY: Explain the title, "Table For Two."

TOWLES: Well, "Table For Two" - what ended up happening here is I gathered the six New York stories together. I took this brief - this, you know, shorter "Eve In Hollywood" and expanded it into this longer text. I was preparing to hand in the manuscript to my publisher, and I really didn't have a title at that time. So I begin to sort of sift through, having just reread the manuscript multiple times as I'm editing it, sifting through. Is there something there that sort of pulls us together? What really leapt out at me was that in almost every story and in Eve, there are critical moments where there are two central characters sitting across from each other at a small table, often in a kitchen, and hashing out some significant element of their lives which has come to the surface through the events of that particular story. And I sort of thought, oh, that's sort of interesting. And I noticed it, let's say, for two or three stories, and then you kind of say, wait a second. What about - is it elsewhere? And then I realized, oh, my God, it's in every one of them, practically, I think with one exception.

And so then that sort of opens up this sort of notion of - something must have been operating in the back of my mind or subconsciously about that space, about that moment when two people face each other. Something has happened. They have an intricate relationship already. Their relationship may be changing because of this incident that has occurred or something that has happened, and they need to kind of begin to reorient themselves to each other, to themselves as they face whatever the consequences are of this thing that has happened, whatever that thing is. And so that sort of powerful moment that we all can have with our spouse, with a child, with a sibling at that sort of moment of one-on-one conversation across a table - suddenly, I realized that turned out to be a central theme that I wasn't really planning on - and thus the title.

KELLY: Well, and it speaks, again, to that very basic level of human interaction that you can only have face to face and without the intervention of technology.

TOWLES: That's right. And I do like to think - metaphorically, of course - that an aspect of the "Table For Two" is me as the author and you as the reader. You know, the reading of this book is a version of the reader sitting across the table from me and us having a conversation where I do most of the talking but nonetheless, you know, a conversation.

KELLY: Amor Towles. His wonderful new book is "Table For Two." Thank you.

TOWLES: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAY ERLEWINE AND THE WOODY GOSS BAND SONG, "PALM OF MY HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.