Amor Towles on How Peter Matthiessen Inspired Him To Write
In Conversation with Mitchell Kaplan on The Literary Life Podcast
On today’s episode of The Literary Life, Mitchell Kaplan talks to Amor Towles about his latest novel, The Lincoln Highway, out now from Viking.
From the episode:
Amor Towles: Probably the most important mentor in my writing life was the great author Peter Matthiessen, who was both a novelist and a naturalist and an essayist and founded the Paris Review with George Plimpton back in the 50s. But he came to teach for a semester while I was at Yale, and he taught a fiction writing seminar that you had to apply to get into.
Before I get to that, I should start by saying that I think it’s true for young artists in any field, when you are ten or twelve or fourteen or sixteen, and you want to be an artist, you want to write, or you want to make music or act, or whatever your art form is… there is this sort of combination at that age of belief in yourself, that you can do this. I’ve read books, I’ve begun to practice myself and I think I can do this. You know, you have this confidence. But on the other side of yourself is this sense that maybe this is a delusion, you know? And those two parts of yourself are constantly at war. … The suspicion that this is a total delusion, [that] I’m not any better at this than anybody else. And in your teen years, you keep progressing: doing your work and reading and comparing your work to the writers who are famous or not famous. But there’s no real external opportunity to measure your confidence in yourself because your mother doesn’t count. You know she may love your work, but that doesn’t count.
So what happened at Yale is, after I applied to get in the seminar and we were submitting a short story every week … but at the end of the third or fourth week, [Matthiessen] said, Hey, listen, can you stay for a minute after class? And everybody left, and he said, Listen, I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, or why you’re here or what you want to do. But having read your three stories, I think there’s a possibility you may be gifted at this. And so I’m going to take your time very seriously here in this seminar, and I hope that you’re going to take your time in the seminar very seriously, too, for the same reasons. And that was a major turning point for me as a young artist, right at the age of nineteen or twenty, where suddenly you go out of this realm of “I think I can do this, I think I can do this, but not really” to suddenly having someone who you respect as a seasoned craftsperson and judging your work.
I like to say to young people that that is an enormously powerful thing in the life of a young artist. You do not need it to happen every year … but you need it to happen like once every 15 years. I lived off that for a long time.
Amor Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The two novels have collectively sold more than four million copies and have been translated into more than thirty languages. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.