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Idea For 'Gentleman In Moscow' Came From Many Nights In Luxury Hotels

Amor Towles likes to write about the past, but says he is not driven by historical research. He prefers instead to play in between what is real and what is imagined. His first novel was called <a href="">Rules of Civility</a>.
Courtesy of Amor Towles
Amor Towles likes to write about the past, but says he is not driven by historical research. He prefers instead to play in between what is real and what is imagined. His first novel was called Rules of Civility.

During the two decades he spent working for an investment firm, Amor Towles visited a lot of luxury hotels. One night, he was in Geneva at a hotel where he'd stayed many times before — and he noticed some familiar faces in the lobby. Towles realized they were people who actually lived there and thought to himself, "Oh that's kind of an interesting notion for a book."

That was the beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow, the story of a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks during the revolution to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel. It's Towles' second novel — his first, Rules of Civility, hit the bestseller list in 2011, and he quit his day job to write full time.

For his new book, Towles says he knew from the outset that his main character had to be confined to a hotel against his will — and it had to be Russia keeping him there. "Russia has a history of house arrest over hundreds of years," he says. And a luxury hotel seemed like a "perfect spot" for an individual to be trapped as Moscow changed all around him.

Count Alexander Rostov is in his 30s when he is ordered to live his life at the Metropol. He is moved from his luxury quarters to a dark, tiny room in the attic. It's a long way down for the Count.

"He's a man of manners, he's a man of culture," Towles explains. "He was used to fine things, and days with plenty of empty hours, and people bringing things to him. ... You get to see him go through the transformation of rediscovering life and maybe even getting closer to life as those benefits are behind him."

At first the count's life revolves around eating and drinking. Then he meets a young girl named Nina who is living at the hotel with her father. And like another fictional little girl who grew up in another famous hotel Nina has explored every nook and cranny of the Metropol.

"When I invented Nina I thought: Oh she'll be kind of like the Eloise of the Metropol," Towles says. "She is the daughter of a widowed Bolshevik, and sort of has the run of the hotel and treats the hotel as her personal domain. ... She helps him kind of unlock the hotel — that it can be a universe, a much richer place to live than you'd think."

The book tracks the Count's life from the Revolution to the Cold War — 30 years of tumultuous history taking place on the doorstep of the hotel. Towles had to find a way to bring these events to life from the perspective of someone stuck in a hotel.

"Those who work in the hotel, those who visit the hotel, they are experiencing those forces firsthand ... " he says. "And we can glean some of the pressures they are under from how they behave. ... People lose family members in the course of the war, characters are arrested. This is all happening outside the hotel but it's a part of the life."

Slowly, the count builds a full life within the confines of the hotel. Here's how Towles thinks of it: Imagine a luxurious family banquet table, filled with food. Slowly, the state takes away one luxury after another, until the only thing left on the table is bread and salt.

"There is a will to joy ... " he says. "If I get down to just bread and salt — which is a Russian term for it — the family will still celebrate. ... There will be laughter and love and compassion and problems as well around that table and so the book is kind of an exploration of that."

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.