Story By Bill Daley
4:17 PM PDT, September 21, 2012
Every novel worth reading has a line or two that hooks the reader in good. For Roberta Rubin, owner of The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka, those words were found on page 16 of "Rules of Civility." The narrator is describing her roommate, a young woman named Eve, raised in Indiana and newly on the prowl in 1930s New York City. "On the occasional rainy Wednesday, when Bendel's was crowded with the wives of the well-to-do, Eve would put on her best skirt and jacket, ride the elevator to the second floor and stuff silk stockings into her panties," Rubin read aloud to the more than 80 customers gathered recently to meet the author, Amor Towles. "And when we were late with the rent, she did her part: She stood at Mrs. Martingale's door and shed the unsalted tears of the Great Lakes."
Rubin beamed when she got to the "unsalted tears" part. "These lines really did me in," she said, turning toward Towles. "She was a Midwesterner and not a New Yorker. And you nailed it."
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With "Rules of Civility" sales moving along at a fast clip — some 170,000 copies sold in paperback alone since its release in that format on June 26, according to a Viking publicist — it's clear Towles has nailed this, his first novel, for countless readers.
"Rules of Civility" is the story of Katey Kontent, a clear-eyed 25-year-old who has hopped the East River from Brooklyn ready to take on whatever 1938 has to offer in a Manhattan that is alternatively glamorous and gritty. Through the people she meets, like Eve and the handsome but mysterious Tinker Grey, and the situations she encounters, Towles marvelously evokes the looks, the sounds and the vibe of that era when a second world war was in the future and the Great Depression held sway.
Now, Towles is poised to revisit the world he created in the book. He is working on a short story about Eve, last seen in "Rules of Civility" having what seems to be a grand old time in Los Angeles.
"I wrote the Eve story because I thought it would be fun for me and for some of my readers," he explained. "I had no desire to write further on the lives of Katey and Tinker. I felt all you should know about them was in the book. But what was Eve doing in Hollywood? I was wondering."
Fans are wondering, too. Indeed, the first question posed to Towles by one of The Book Stall crowd was just when this tale would be made public.
Towles said he acted on a whim by posting word of the story on his website (amortowles.com) and inviting readers to send him their names and email addresses for a copy. He had originally hoped to have the story finished and dispatched via email by Jan. 1. That date was pushed back to the summer and now to some point this fall.
The work is almost finished, he said, with four of the five segments ready to go. Towles plans to issue the story in five e-mail installments to the several thousand people who've signed up for it.
Towles is mum about the plot except to describe Eve as a "troublemaker" and that the actress Olivia de Havilland, with whom Eve is spotted entering the Tropicana on Sunset in "Rules of Civility," may make an appearance.
In the meantime, there's talk of Viking issuing the short story as an e-book. That intrigues Towles, who wonders if e-books can help short stories find an audience in a way that historically the form has not.
"You used to feel lucky if you could get a short story into a journal nobody read," he said. "Ten years later, if you were lucky, it would get wrapped into an anthology."
E-books might not only be a more immediate way to get a short story out, but Towles wonders if the format will provoke a "narrative interaction" with readers, especially in between novels. The short story, he added, could serve the novelist much as a sketch helps a painter.
"My next book is five years away," predicted Towles, who after 20 successful years in the New York City investment world said he's now "rebalancing" his life to make time for more fiction writing.
"I want to write 10 books," Towles told The Book Stall crowd, and he plans to start the next one on Jan. 1. "It will be in a different time and place, and I think it will be fun."
To begin writing on New Year's Day is exactly what Towles did with "Rules of Civility." He started on Jan. 1, 2006, and finished it exactly one year later. The idea for the book had been born years before, in the 1980s, and tucked away in a folder. Six months of crafting an outline and developing characters took place before the writing began. Once he started to write, he worked on each chapter for two weeks — writing one week, editing the other — which is why "Rules of Civility" has 26 chapters, he said. Then, of course, came three years of revising and polishing before "Rules of Civility" was picked up by Viking in 2010 and published.
The book as finished didn't quite hew to his outline.
"Eve going to Hollywood is a classic example," Towles said. "She was supposed to go to Chicago but didn't get off the train. I was writing along and realized she wasn't getting off until she got to Hollywood."
Towles seems open to revisiting other characters from the novel in future works, noting that authors like Faulkner, Joyce and Conrad did so as well.
"It's fun building out a universe of related narratives," he said. "I will not go so far as to say you will never see a character again, but there will not be a sequel or a prequel."
Towles is an enthusiastic student of the period from 1900 to 1940. You see that interest vividly displayed on his website, where he offers clips of popular songs, vintage postcard views of Manhattan and a sampler of the writings and paintings of the time. And you hear the passion in his words. In his talk at The Book Stall, he animatedly discussed Edward Hopper's paintings of young women, all of whom look lost in private thoughts in the midst of public spaces.
Much has been made of the urban loneliness of Hopper's work, Towles said, but consider that these women, like Katey Kontent, spent much of their days crowded together with other people at home, at work and on the subway. To sit at an Italian cafe and nurse a cappuccino for hours in silence was a needed respite, he said, while the empty chairs Hopper painted nearby held out the possibility that someone might sit down who would forever change that girl's life.
And, really, it's what "Rules of Civility" is about, a chronicle of the ripples that flowed outward across time when Tinker Grey happened to drape his very expensive coat over a chair next to Kate and Eve in a grimy Greenwich Village jazz joint late one New Year's Eve.
"Life doesn't have to provide you any options at all," Towles has an older and wiser Katey muse as the book closes. "It can easily define your course from the outset and keep you in check through all manner of rough and subtle mechanics. To have even one year when you're presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course — that's by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn't come without a price."
Very soon, Towles' admirers will learn what price his Eve will be willing to pay in Hollywood or whether those "unsalted tears of the Great Lakes" will flow once more.
Bill Daley is a food and features reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
Rules of Civility
By Amor Towles, Viking, 352 pages, $16
Meet Eve Ross
Eve Ross, the subject of an upcoming short story by Amor Towles, first appeared in "Rules of Civility." Here's an excerpt.
Eve was one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest.
In New York it becomes so easy to assume that the city's most alluring women have flown in from Paris or Milan. But they're just a minority. A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I — like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs. Every morning in early spring one of them skips off her porch with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane ready to flag down the first Greyhound headed to Manhattan — this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size."
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