Amor Towles entertains with history, how he writes

Towles coverAmor Towles started with history.

Towles, who wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow,” told a full Benaroya Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, the history of the Kremlin, Red Square and the surrounding area, including the Metropol Hotel, the setting for his novel.

The hotel opened in 1905 and was the first in Russia to have hot water in the rooms. This was during the era of “grand hotels” from 1890 to 1910, to “serve the great new wealth that came out of the 19th Century,” Towles said.

The Metropol was mostly used by Muscovites until 1917 when it found itself in the middle of a proletarian revolution. The tsar’s government housed soldiers in the hotel, with snipers at the windows. When the Bolsheviks took over, they kicked out the soldiers and all the windows.

Towles told the story of John Reed, who wrote about the Russian Revolution in “Ten Days that Shook the World,” and his checking into the Metropol. The desk clerk said that would be fine “if the gentleman doesn’t mind a little fresh air.”

When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in Russia, they moved the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow, taking over three hotels to give government officials suites, making the Metropol the single biggest bureaucratic building in the country.

By 1922, the European nations were starting to recognize the Communist government as legit, opening the way for business representatives to start arriving in Moscow to start turning an agricultural society into an industrial one – and turning a profit. We can’t house these people in ratty hotels, the new Russian leaders decided, and the bureaucrats were out of the Metropol, the place was spruced up and an orchestra playing American jazz moved onto the bandstand.

The Communist leaders started hanging out at the Metropol even though it was supposedly off-limits to Russians. Towles said only about 10 percent of the Russian population belonged to the Communist Party, a status that brought multiple privileges and rights: Special stores where they could shop, schools their children could attend, or maybe a meal or a drink at the Metropol.

Ninety-five percent of the Russian population before the revolution was illiterate, Towles said, mostly peasants working other people’s lands. The Communists started a rapid reversal of that, using “five-year plans” for a quick industrialization of the country. To pay Western nations for help and material, the government needed hard currency, and it had little of it. But citizens did, stashed under mattresses, etc. in case who knew what might happen. So the Metropol was opened to all Russians, as long as they paid in Western currencies.

The decade of the 1930s was a bleak one for Russia, with the five-year plans failing and starvation taking millions of lives. But inside the Metropol, it was like “F. Scott Fitzgerald describing the Plaza Hotel in New York City.”

Towles

None of that, Towles said, is in the book.

The book is about individuals, especially the Count, the gentleman who lives through this history.

Towles came up with the idea about where to place his individual while he was working in finance, traveling to different cities to do presentations. He noticed that many of the same people were in the lobbies of hotels where he stayed as he returned year after year. In 1998, he visited the Metropol.

Next came the outline. He said he spent a year and a half designing “A Gentleman in Moscow.” His outline included a description of each chapter, what would happen in it, some poetry, some events, some language that could be used.

Having a structure for the book freed him to let his subconscious go, to choose the right words, to let the “flow” of creativity happen without worrying about where the book goes or how it gets there.

It took him another year and a half to write a first draft. “I write the first draft for myself,” he said. “Everything goes in, anything I want to do goes there.

“I had to ‘spend’ 32 years with a different person placed in a situation I’ve never been in, all presented to me through the craft of writing.”

The tone of voice of the character gets decided as Towles writes. Who Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov would be was decided when Towles wrote this passage, which appears on Page 10, about the Count being escorted to the hotel by two guards:

Version 2

“That’s the guy,” Towles said as he finished. He may be imprisoned in a hotel for the rest of his life, but he still takes charge.

What about historical research? “Pre-research,” Towles said, too often comes out as “clunk, clunk, clunk.” And he gave an example:

Let’s say you wanted to write about a child in the 1960s, arriving in the kitchen where her Mom is preparing dinner. Research would tell you what the room looked like and that the mother probably unwrapped a box of frozen Birds Eye peas and dumped them into a pot of boiling water. But what the child might remember is the solid brick of green peas, maybe some frost clinging to it, her reaction to that, her feeling toward her mother and what she might have said.

“And all that goes on in that room (goes there) so that when you go back and read it again, you say, ‘Oh, that’s when all that happened.’ ”

The research has to be there at some point for Towles to know whom the count is mostly likely to meet throughout the years in the hotel. But it never comes off as clunk, clunk, clunk.

He wrote the first draft for himself, but the revision is for the reader. Time to get rid of redundancies, use as few words as possible, clean up your own work and create the covenant with the reader. “I write with an audience in mind.”

That audience will probably be expanded in the next year or two as “A Gentleman in Moscow” is being made into a television series.

And Towles is working on his next book.

Using women’s instinct to protect African wildlife

Once you have seen animals in the wild, protecting them can become an obsession, as it did for Damien Mander, who came to talk and show photographs Oct. 29, 2019 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It was the first event we have signed up for called “National Geographic Live.” I found out that I have fallen out of practice taking notes in the dark. So here’s from memory and the brochure handed out in the entry hall.

Damien

It seems that Mander is obsessed with more than saving wild animals. In fact, it looks as if he goes into all stages of his life in an obsessive fashion, out to do it all well, energetically and to the nth degree. Born in Australia, he was obsessed with water, could not stay out of the sea. He became a “clearance diver” in the Australian Navy.

Then on to Special Forces as a sniper and then a trainer in the Iraq War. He served three years there before abandoning it.

“The second mistake we made there, besides getting into it, was disbanding the Iraqi army,” Mander said. That took the jobs away from not just the soldiers, but also the income to the extended families depending on those jobs, alienating millions who probably were not sorry to see Saddam Hussein go and might have signed on to rebuild the nation.

Mander bounced around South America — photos of what looked like a good time in bars, but maybe not, as he also mentioned the statistics on Iraq War veterans’ suicides. Then to Africa where he was introduced to nature and had an epiphany — my word — when looking into the eyes of a buffalo that had ripped itself apart in a trap set by poachers. As his companion shot that animal, putting it out of its misery, Mander had found his next obsession.

In 2009, he founded the International Anti Poaching Foundation to preserve an ecosystem by “training and equipping rangers to fight the poaching crisis in Africa.” Given that a pound of ivory from an elephant’s tusk is worth $35,000 in Vietnam, it is no wonder that people in Zimbabwe, where 72 percent of the population is below the poverty line, would be attracted to poaching. So arresting poachers was taking the income from many families there, causing conflicts with local communities.

In 2017, the IAPF started “Akashinga,” which means Brave Ones in the Shona language. The idea was to empower “disadvantaged women to restore and manage a network of wilderness areas as an alternative economic model to trophy hunting” and poaching. As the brochure says:

“The women of Akashinga have built strong relationships with the locals, de-escalated conflict and invested into their communities. The community response to this was to work with us in conservation, rather than against us.”

Akashinga

A squad leader, Vimbai Kumire, who barely reaches up to the chest of Mander, also addressed us at Benaroya. Despite her diminutive size, she showed that passion could be more powerful than bullets. She told of the importance of animals to their culture and country and explained that it was not only an honor to protect them but was also providing income for her family and dignity for herself.

Many of the arrests made — “without firing a single shot” — are related to organized crime and the use of poisons.

“Syndicates have been broken open and we have been advised of an 80% reduction in elephant poaching across the region since 2016,” the brochure says.

The organization now has the responsibility for protecting wildlife in more than one million acres. The most asked question, Mander says, by those arrested is not “Why am I being arrested?” but “Why am I being arrested by a woman?”

“For so long, our vision has been clouded by ego from seeing the most powerful force in nature — a woman’s instinct to protect.”

It may take all of that and more to protect the wildlife in Africa. With more than two billion people living on that continent by 2040, the loss of wildlife habitat will continue to grow. According to an article in the Oct. 10, 2019  edition of The Times of London (picked up in Amsterdam on our way home from Africa), many countries have lost their rhinoceros populations because of habitat loss: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad.

Because of poaching, the rhino population in Botswana could be wiped out in two years, the article said. Rhino horns fetch $50,000 per kilogram in Asia, where they are used in traditional therapies. Botswana has fewer than 400 rhinos and has lost one a month in 2019, a rate that is still increasing. Conservationists blame part of that on President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who has disarmed the anti-poaching unit. His predecessor, Ian Khama, had an “unofficial shoot-to-kill” policy.

PlaqueThe rhinos we saw in Kenya were kept under armed guard. Not chained up or penned, but accompanied by the guards. Theirs is a dangerous way to make a living. A plaque on the overlook into the Ngorongoro Crater listed conservationists who have lost their lives, including six killed by poachers or bandits.

“In truth, there are really only a few things that matter: character and spirit,” Mander writes in the brochure. “If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a chance. CV’s, references, qualifications and fitness levels mean nothing here. We don’t want perfect. We want scrappers. someone that knows what it’s like to have to fight for survival. The rest will be learned.”

 

 

Rugby World Cup ends, back to normal sleep patterns

First hopes were on the United States Eagles. Just win a game, maybe get beyond pool place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. A hopeless cause, and unfulfilled.

Then I turned to Ireland. They could win the whole thing, until they could not. Then Wales, another hopeless cause when South Africa destroyed them.

Lastly, I turned to England, who played so well eliminating New Zealand from the finals.

That hope died this morning when South Africa took the championship by overpowering England’s scrums, containing their running game and out-kicking them in penalties. The score was 18-12 at one point, all on penalty kicks, which makes a boring game. Then at 66 minutes into the game, the Springboks opened up scoring with two tries before the game ended, 32-12.

A more interesting game was Friday morning when New Zealand clobbered Wales 40-17 to take third place. One of the announcer said of Wales’ desperate effort to get back in the game, “it’s not tidy, not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in that kind of rugby” — throwing the ball around recklessly like kids on a playground playing keep-away. That’s what keeps me glued to this form of football.

No more 2 a.m. start times for rugby games, at least not until 2023 when the Rugby World Cup moves to France. Or, we could be in that time zone, just down the road a piece to queue up to get into the stadium. Maybe not a hopeless cause.