Zibby is joined by bestselling author Amor Towles to discuss his latest novel, The Lincoln Highway. The two talk about the history behind the real Lincoln Highway, how Amor tries to capture universal experiences through very idiosyncratic stories and characters, and how writing, to him, often feels like magic. Amor also shares why he made the switch from the financial world to fiction and where he finds his personal inspiration.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amor. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Lincoln Highway and all of your work and everything else.

Amor Towles: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I have to tell you that I read Rules of Civility with my book club years ago when it first came out. Still, it remains one of my favorite books. So good, so amazing. Actually, I went and saw you speak somewhere related to that book ages ago. This is embarrassing now that I’m stalking you. I was such a huge superfan and now have been following along with you, so I’m delighted to get to talk to you about this book.

Amor: Great. Terrific.

Zibby: The Lincoln Highway, would you mind telling listeners a little more about what it’s about and how you came up with the idea for this book?

Amor: The Lincoln Highway, the background is that our story begins, as it were, an honorable young Nebraskan goes to the county fair with his little brother. A bully picks a fight with him at the fair. He punches the bully. The bully falls back, hits his head, and dies. As a result, Emmett, our hero, is sentenced to eighteen months in a juvenile work farm. The book opens on the day that Emmett has been released. The warden is driving him home to Nebraska. Emmett’s mother is long gone. In the meantime while he was away, his father has passed away. The family farm has gone into foreclosure. The warden is saying to Emmett that he’s an honorable young man, that what happened at the fair was a freak accident, that he has paid his debt to society. What he really should do is be prepared to start his life anew. Emmett says that’s exactly what his intention is to do. He’s going to pick up his younger brother, get in his car, and head west to start his adulthood. When the warden drives away, it turns out that two young friends from the work farm had hidden themselves in the truck of the warden’s car. They have a very different vision for Emmett’s future. As a result, instead of piling in the car and heading west, Emmett, his little brother, and those two friends end up heading east on the Lincoln Highway towards New York City with everything going awry. This is the way the story begins. Whole story only lasts ten days. It takes place in June of 1954.

Zibby: I have to say, when I first heard about the story, I wasn’t imagining the inmates — I wasn’t thinking that one of them was going to be a trust fund kid from the Upper East Side, which is where I am right now, and one, Dutchess County. I was surprised by the fall from grace and how they got there and how that reverberates in a lot of your stories, people who have come from wealth or who are falling from their stations, even the dad himself.

Amor: People from boarding school get themselves into trouble all the time. Where are you right now?

Zibby: I’m in New York City. Actually, three feet away, my son is here from boarding school right now.

Amor: Tell him to keep out of trouble. I don’t go to the Hamptons, but certainly, there are young people in the Hamptons getting themselves into trouble too. I think if you looked at a juvenile program, it may be a mix. Just as if you went to a rehab program, it may be a mix of kids from very different walks of life. Yes, one of the things that happens in this story is three kids who might never have come to know each other in the course of a normal life, the mistakes that each of the three have made have put them in a position where they suddenly meet each other, come to know each other, become friends. Their fates become a little bit more intertwined.

Zibby: Yes, it is always so random, the people you end up crossing your paths with in different arenas, not necessarily in the trunk of a car, but you know. I was also really interested in how Emmett decided to become a carpenter’s apprentice and that he couldn’t deal with how out of control it was to be a farmer. You had to be so dependent on the weather and all these things. Then he decided to intern or apprentice to earn extra money with a carpenter. The way he conceptualized both those professions, he didn’t have to worry. All the things that had plagued his father and his family — if you are a carpenter, you’re always going to have work. You don’t have to worry. I just thought for someone from such a young age, that was a very interesting insight. Tell me a little bit about that.

Amor: I suppose the bigger context in what you’re describing is, really, the book is about three eighteen-year-old boys, roughly, a nineteen-year-old young woman. There’s an eight-year-old, too, who plays a critical part of the story. If you think about those four figures who are all around eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, that’s a point in your life or in our lives that is, universally, it’s an interesting moment. If you think about our lives between zero and sixteen, that’s a period where we are receiving all kinds of input, instruction, counsel from our parents, from school, from our church, from the community around us and whatever shared values our community has. All of them are constantly speaking to young people before the age of sixteen, providing them advice, guidance, telling them stories in one form or another. All this is really to shape the young individual and to help define who they are and how they view right and wrong, where they draw their lines, what they think is possible for themselves, what they think is essential to do. All these things are being passed to us. You get to around seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and suddenly, the compass spins, as it were. Suddenly, we realize as young seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-olds, wait, I can make my own decisions about who I am, about what I want to do with my life, about what is right and wrong.

When we make that transition, either consciously or unconsciously, both happen, we take all those inputs from our youth, and we amplify some and we discard others. There are kids who, very self-consciously, want to be like their father, let’s say. A son wants to be like their father. There are kids who, very self-consciously, reject their father’s choices. Even if their father’s an honorable person, they say, you know what, the life that my father has chosen is alien to me, anathema to me. I would no sooner do X than jump off a cliff. You can have both moments occur. Yes, all three of the young men in this, and Sally, the young woman too, they are at that moment in their lives. They’re very conscious of the lives that their parents lead. They have inherited both problems and wisdom from their parents to varying degrees. They are defining their lives in contrast, in some cases. For Emmett, being raised on a farm by a father who wasn’t a natural farmer and seeing the ongoing struggles that that has created for him and that they’ve had to share as a family, it’s very natural for him to be like, this is not for me. As I say, that’s just a part of the bigger mosaic of individual decision-making at that point. The story investigates many different kinds of decisions that the young characters are making in a similar type of context.

Zibby: This is how I feel about going into finance, by the way. I would rather be nailing —

Amor: — Oh, I see, because you have parents —

Zibby: — I have a family in finance. I’m like, let me just read books all day. Thank you very much. Didn’t you have a background in finance? Did I make that up? Didn’t you start out in that way?

Amor: I spent twenty years in the investment business, yes.

Zibby: That’s what I thought. I saw pictures, by the way, on your Instagram of the Lincoln Highway. I didn’t realize the way it was paved. Even today, it has bricks and all of that. That was such a visually arresting image. Do you know what I’m talking about or not?

Amor: Of course. The Lincoln Highway, which the book draws the name from, was/is the first highway that crossed America. In the early twentieth century as the car was gaining in popularity across the country, the vast majority of roads in the United States, first of all, were unpaved. The dirt roads, which were okay for horses in rein, proved to be more difficult for cars. Cars would have difficulty navigating these roads if they got to being muddy, for instance. In addition, the roads weren’t really designed for long-distance travel. They were designed to get you from the farm into a town or from the train depot to your house. That’s what roads were for. They spiderwebbed out from townships and municipalities. What they weren’t really designed to do was to go from, say, Boston to Salt Lake City. Nobody was doing that. If you wanted to go from Boston to Salt Lake City, you took a train. You certainly didn’t take a carriage or a car. An American entrepreneur by the name of Carl Fisher who believed that Americans, now that they had cars, would want to see their country and should see their country, decided that he would build a paved road that crossed the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, specifically from Times Square to San Francisco. At the time, the federal government wasn’t involved in road making at all, and so it ended up being a private venture. He raised money from the public and barnstormed to raise money. Eventually, he raised enough money, whatever in today’s terms, millions of dollars, and the road was built.

The reason I go through all this is because it’s not like they had one crew who started it in Times Square and paved the road slowly across the nation three thousand miles later. What, of course, they did is, his notion was, we’re going to raise money all across the country. The individual counties in which the road is going to cut through, they’ll take over their zone. Simultaneously, groups would be building the road all across the country, county by county, once the line was drawn of where it was going to be. That meant that, to some degree, the roads, how they were made did differ from place to place. In Omaha, Nebraska, there is a stretch which has not been tinkered with for a hundred years, really. Yes, the photograph I just posted on my Instagram account recently, that is a bricked segment. That’s not a coincidence. It’s a red brick road. It’s not a yellow brick road. It’s not a coincidence because you actually go not far from there to, for instance, Aurora, Nebraska, which is right in the middle of Nebraska, there were brickworks in those counties. They didn’t have cobblestones. They had bricks. It was a very easy thing, the notion of, we’ll use bricks. If you go to Aurora, Nebraska, today, the downtown area around the town hall, all the streets are brick in that specific area. It’s not as if the Lincoln Highway was brick from the beginning to end. It’s just that in that segment, it was brick. For whatever reason, that little segment has not been touched for a hundred years. It’s a fun little window on what that segment of road looked like.

Zibby: Wow. Oh, my gosh, I love that. I wanted to read this one part about Emmett when he finds something special from his father tucked away in the car. It’s about books themselves. I just wanted to read this thing about how his dad had never approved of ripping out books, and yet here’s a page. You said, “His father made painfully clear that night, to deface the pages of a book was to adopt the manner of a Visigoth. It was to strike a blow against the most sacred and noble of man’s achievements, the ability to set down his finest ideas and sentiments so that they might be shared through the ages. For his father to tear a page from any book was a sacrilege. What was even more shocking was that the page was torn from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays, that book which his father held in greater esteem than any other.” Is this something you share? Do you have a feeling about ripping pages out of books? Was this a thing in your family too?

Amor: My books are an invention, so they are not expressions of my family behavior.

Zibby: I was just wondering if that stemmed from anywhere. That was my one personal question.

Amor: In that story, Emmett got in trouble for defacing a book and was sent home by the principal, in essence. His father was furious. That did not happen to me. Of course, most of us witnessed some version of that at some point in our lives. I think it’s probably a pretty universal situation. In elementary school, some kid starts drawing in the books. A particularly traditional teacher will be furious and say, what are you doing? You can’t be drawing in the books. Not allowed. Somewhere along the way, somebody expresses to us the elevated importance of books and taking care of books and showing them respect, whether it’s a librarian or a parent or, as I say, a teacher. No, that was not a family thing, but I do think it’s probably a universal moment. I liked the contrast there. The father wants to — since the farm’s in foreclosure, he doesn’t have much to leave his son. He leaves him advice. He leaves him advice from his hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American, middle of the nineteenth century reverend and essayist and philosopher. That’s what he leaves him. As Emmett says, here’s a guy who loved Emerson, prized the book, hated the defacing of books, and yet tore out this passage before he died to give his son. Therefore, it kind of has the weight of all these things behind it. It’s something that you should take all the more seriously for the fact that for his father to do it, it was contrary even to his own normal rules. It must be an important passage. Of course, in the way of books, Emmett’s ability to understand that passage at that point in the story is very different than his ability to understand that passage at the end of the story. I’ll leave that for others to figure out on their own.

Zibby: Dot, dot, dot… I watched the video you posted somewhere, I saw somewhere, about your very different books. Obviously, all three have been quite different in terms of form and character and everything. You go into why. Why did some take place over multiple decades whereas some take place over ten days or in a summer or whatever and even different time periods and types of people? It sounded like you’re a master craftsman who has to try a new challenge each time. You wanted to hone your craft by trying different things. Tell me about that and why you see it working so well to jump time periods or format or structure and what your plans are from here.

Amor: First of all, I don’t think of myself as a master craftsman, but I do think of myself as a craftsperson or however you want to put it. Different writers are trying to achieve different things in their writing and sometimes trying to achieve different things in different books. As a novelist, I am very interested in how elements of craft can be used to achieve different types of narratives and different types of outcomes artistically and philosophically. From my standpoint, when you shift a story a decade and you shift the focus from one age group to another and you shift the center focus of the story from a happy event to a tragic event or whatever these little elements are that distinguish one story from another, for me, part of the thing that’s interesting about that as a challenge is that every element of craft should change along with those simple facts. Meaning that to tell these two different stories, let’s say like this story in the mid-fifties, if this story were thirteen years later, fifteen, fourteen years later, it was 1968 and you still had an eighteen-year-old, what a radically different tone and poetics you would need to bring to bear to tell that story. Life for an eighteen-year-old in America in 1968, you’ve got the Vietnam War. You’re on the verge of Woodstock. Rock and roll is booming. You’ve got counterculture. You’ve got free love movement in San Francisco. You’ve got a lot going on which is not happening in 1954, not even a generation before. Half a generation before, it’s a completely different landscape.

In tackling a story about an eighteen-year-old, neither one of those moments in time — as I say, the vocabulary would clearly be different. So would the semantics. So would the imagery. So would how the poetics work. The tone of the dialogue would be different. How settings were described would be different. The pace of the book might be different. Certainly, the themes, the are going to be different. That’s going to reverberate back through how the language is chosen and formed. Yes, as a writer what I think is interesting is when you turn that dial, how you reinvent all these elements of craft, your dialogue, your setting, your characterization, your communication of ideas, your metaphors and allegories and allusions and similes and all these various elements of poetics. How do you retool them for this story of these people at this time? That’s part of the fun for me and hopefully fun for the reader. If someone’s a fan of A Gentleman in Moscow, Rules of Civility, I think they will find that The Lincoln Highway is clearly my book. They will recognize it as my work, but they will also see quite quickly that, artistically speaking, it’s very different than the other two just as they were different from each other. That, hopefully, is something that they’ll enjoy, that experience of difference.

Zibby: Interesting. What’s your next book going to be?

Amor: Different.

Zibby: That’s it? No more? No more details?

Amor: That’s all you get.

Zibby: Okay. What made you go from the world of finance to writing? Then now that you’re here, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Amor: I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I wrote fiction in elementary school and high school and college and graduate school. Really, that’s the thing I’ve been doing all my life. My childhood friends, what they find surprising is that I was in the investment business for twenty years. That’s what shocks them. I’m not a great font for advice, source for advice. What worked for me was basically read, write, repeat. From the time I was in first grade, I would read something. If it grabbed me, I’d read more of it. Then I would probably start writing in some fashion drawing from what I’d just read as an experiment or as thievery or whatever you want to call it. That began around the time I was in first grade. Continued to write through today. I’m constantly reading books with the interest not only of enjoying them, but of understanding how they work and how an author approaches their craft, how they realize the intrinsic mission of their books. That inevitably influences me and shapes how I might — that’s one thing I get to carry into the next project, is how that person did that. I’m not copying people. I make it sound like that. I’m fifty-seven, so I’m talking about after decades of reading. You’ve accumulated a large vocabulary of different styles of storytelling, different approaches to storytelling. That helps me when I set out and invent an idea. I have to start thinking about, how do I tell this? I can draw on this long-standing awareness of different types of storytelling that might serve the purposes of this tale.

Zibby: Very interesting. I feel like one of the things that you do particularly well is developing your characters and how real they become and how quickly you’re able to introduce us to them. We feel like you get to know them very quickly with just a few details or a few sentences that they said. Within a page or two, I totally got to know Duchess. That’s who that person is. I know the backstory. He’s funny, all the things. It’s very impressive because sometimes it takes a while to get to know people. I feel like that’s one of the most vivid things in your writing.

Amor: I appreciate you saying that. I’m glad that’s your experience because it’s certainly the intention. I think that an element which is among the most important and is the most unique is what you’re describing, which is that the novel is an artform in which we can take the perspective of a different human being. We suddenly can see the world through their eyes. We can feel, in the best of novels, very close to their experience. We feel emotionally in tune with them. If they have a setback, we’re upset. If they have a victory, we’re excited. If something funny happens to them, we laugh. If something tragic happens to them, we cry. There’s some real potential bonding between a reader and central characters. When that happens, it’s a beautiful thing and can make a story much more powerful. I do think that for young writers, this should be one of the things that they strive to gain a command of. How do you invent a personality, a three-dimensional individual who’s idiosyncratic, who’s unique, and yet the reader gets access very quickly to an understanding of who they are?

Part of the pleasure of a novel is getting a deeper and deeper understanding of who they are and watching how they change. It’s not like you need to know everything. As you say, you want to know enough about them that you have a sense of, I can feel who this person is. I know who this person is. Now I’m going to join them in this discovery. I’m going to get to know them better along the way, much in the way that we do in life, particularly when we hit it off with somebody. You spend forty minutes at a party talking to somebody who’s a natural fit for you, and it’s very exciting. You feel like, I feel like I’ve known this person their whole life. You realize there’s many things you still need to know about them. They are changing, but yet you have this strong sense of affinity. In writing, you’re trying to create that similar version of that experience. The challenge is that you have to make that connection, that aspect of affinity, for all kinds of readers at the same time. I can’t just make one in a thousand people like my main character. It does have to be, ideally, a broader scope than that.

Zibby: It’s really like magic that it ever works, when you think about it.

Amor: It is. It’s very much like magic.

Zibby: Amor, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for all the hours of reading pleasure that you’ve given me.

Amor: Thank you, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Take care. Buh-bye.

Amor: Buh-bye.


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