The author of Rules of Civility, our February book, answers questions about who—and what—inspired his story, the relationships of his characters, and what interests him as a writer. (Note: Our questions appear below in the order in which the author answered them, and in terms of punctuation and such I’ve forgone the usual spit and polish: I like his ampersands.) Enjoy.
I’d love to know if Walker Evans’s photographs actually inspired the book in any way?
While I began writing Rules of Civility in 2006, the genesis of the book does in fact date back to the early 1990s when I happened upon a copy of Many Are Called—the collection of portraits that Walker Evans took on the New York City subways in the late 1930s with a hidden camera. At the time, I primarily knew of Evans’s iconic Depression-era photographs of rural America, such as those that appear in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: the tilting clapboard houses, weathered signs, stalwart women in summer dresses… But this was the first I’d seen of his urban work.
The subway photos weren’t shown publicly until the 1960s, and, as I flipped through the pages, I had the fanciful notion of someone at the exhibit’s opening recognizing the same person in two of portraits. In the manner of such things, I wrote the idea on a matchbook cover and threw it in a box. Twenty years later, I pulled the matchbook back out of the box and set about writing this tale.
What inspired you to write a novel from the point of view of a young woman in the 1930s, as opposed to writing from the point of view of a man, in that era or any other?
Having started with the notion of someone recognizing an acquaintance among Walker Evans’s portraits, from the very first I imagined it was a young man in the photographs and a young woman who was looking at them. So I never considered telling the story from anyone’s perspective other than Katey’s.
Some writers like John Cheever and Raymond Carver seem to draw artistic energy from analyzing the realm of their own experiences—their social circles and memories and mores. I’m one of those who draw creative energy from the opposite. I prefer to put myself in an environment that’s farther afield and look through the eyes of someone who differs from me in age, ethnicity, gender and/or social class. I think a little displacement makes me a sharper observer. It’s that challenge of trying to imagine what’s on top of the dresser—the small thing that’s always there on the periphery that somehow brings events into focus.
How did Mr. Towles research the working and social conditions of the era?
I’ve always had a great interest in the period between 1900 and 1940—because it was an era of such incredible creative combustion.
In retrospect, the pace of change in the arts and industry in the 19th century seems pretty glacial. Painting, music, the novel, architecture were all evolving, but at a pretty observable pace. Then in the span of a few decades you have James Joyce, Nijinsky, Cubism, Surrealism, jazz, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, the Russian Revolution, movies, airplanes, skyscrapers and the general upending of received forms in almost every area of human endeavor.
Over the years, I listened to the music, saw the movies, read the novels and manifestos, lingered in front of the paintings. So I really didn’t do any applied research for the book. Rather, I tried to rely on my secondhand familiarity with the period to orient my imagination.
Did he base any of the characters on a real person?
None of the characters in the book are based on anyone in particular. But three of my grandparents and a great grandmother lived into their late 90s or early 100s. My maternal grandparents lived across the street from me in the summers and I’d see them every day. Over lunch when I was in my twenties, it was great fun to talk with them about their lives between the Wars—when they were young adults. My grandmother, who was simultaneously a woman of manners and verve, fended off marriage proposals until she was 30 because she was having too much fun to settle down. Like the book’s narrator, she pushed a rival in furs into the drink before ultimately accepting my grandfather’s proposal.
To some degree, these conversations (with my grandmother in particular) solidified my view that her generation was less Victorian than my parents’ generation. I think the 1920s and 1930s had a certain openness that was countered by the conformity of the 1950s.
I’m curious to know your thoughts about the “relationship” between Anne and Eve. What did you imagine each of their feelings were about the “arrangements” with Tinker?
I never really imagined that Anne and Eve had a relationship per se. Events in the book would suggest that Anne gave Tinker a lot of latitude. Anne “let” Tinker move Eve into the apartment and “let” him travel with her to Europe. As she explains to Katey at the Plaza, her assumption was that Tinker would eventually find someone closer in age; and at such time Anne would be ready to revise their “arrangement” as long as she was getting what she wanted.
And Eve? As Tinker speculates in the coffee shop, Eve had good reason to suspect he was sleeping with another woman, even if she didn’t know with whom. The earrings she found in the bedside table were certainly an indication. But as events eventually reveal, Eve doesn’t care. Because she isn’t in love with Tinker; nor does she have any intention of remaining with him. Her intent is to cash in on Tinker’s guilt and on the “you broke it you bought it” policy for as long as it suits her. Eve is interested in freedom; and she abhors answering to another whether it’s her parents or a husband.
Why did the author choose to set the preface so many years after the events, tipping to the fact up front that Katey and Tinker would not end up together?
In part, the frame of the story is dictated by the book’s originazing notion: of someone attending the Walker Evans opening in the 1960s and recognizing an old acquaintance among the old photographs. But the frame also served my purposes by diminishing the mystery of outcomes. The reader knows in the opening pages where Tinker and Katey will end up. As a result, the book is more about what happened in that year, how events shaped the future, how sentiments evolved, rather than a waiting game to see if love and/or fortune would prevail.
Sarah Wire Kauffman
I love a story that springs from other media—photographic exhibition, a favorite book, painters. I wonder if the Washington book is a favorite of the author? The detail of the time period is wonderful. I want Tinker’s cocktail tools!
I’m very interested in periods where there is a density of creative invention: Like the early Renaissance in Tuscany (with Massacio, della Francesca, Botticelli and Donatello), or jazz in the late 50s in New York (with Davis and Coltrane and Monk and Gillespie); or crime drama on TV in the 70s (with Kojak, Rockford, McGarrett, and Columbo). Throughout history there seem to be these brief periods when a group of varied talents come together and advance a whole art form by leaps and bounds. In some semi-competitive or cooperative dialogue, the players bring out the best in each other by spurring inspiration and risk taking, while defining new forms and frontiers. When I find a period like this I like to delve.
One of those periods for me is the revolutionary period in America. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin were all men of such sweeping talent and character. In an incredibly short period, they formulated a system of ideals and practical applications, which has served us well for centuries.
Initially, I imagined Tinker as an avid student of the period. But once into the book, I happened to pull a collection of Washington’s writings off my shelf, which led off with his “Rules of Civility”—and I knew right away that the “Rules” should be the primary thing that Tinker had studied. My book investigates social stratification & manners, character & appearance, ideals & compromise—and Washington’s youthful list somehow seems at the heart of the whole crazy matter.