Literary Sojourn: Festival of Authors Celebrates 25th Anniversary (Part 2 of 2)

amor towles
Amor Towles told the Literary Sojourn audience about the writing journey that led to his second novel, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW.

Read Part 1 of this post by clicking here.

The other featured authors at Literary Sojourn were Chris Cleave, Eowyn Ivey, and Amor Towles.

British author and journalist Cleave, who wrote such best-sellers as Little Bee and Everyone Brave is Forgiven, served as a skillful master of ceremonies. He charmed the mostly female audience with his breathy voice, anecdotes about the writing life, and rapturous praise for other Sojourn authors’ books.

“Thank you for caring about reading,” Cleave told the 550 people in attendance . “…Thank you for being a light in the world.”

He noted the similarities between a writer’s life and the names of local ski runs: Heavenly Days (the lovely hour at your writing desk when you come up with a brilliant idea), which branches off to Vertigo (the realization at your writing desk that you have a genius idea, but it’s a long way down), followed by Ego (the book is a beast but so am I), and his favorite, Why Not?

“The next time anyone asks me about the writing process,” he said. “I’m going to refer them to the Steamboat ski map.”

“We read because writers make maps…,” Cleave said, explaining that we read to sojourn in the minds and lives of other people, and that literature is a map connecting us.

Eowyn Ivey (pronounced A-o-win), a former bookseller from Alaska, wrote The Snow Child, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the UK National Book Award. Her latest novel is To the Bright Edge of the World, which author Ron Rash has called “a dazzling depiction of love, endurance, courage, and wonder.”

Chris Cleave said he was afraid to meet Ivey a few years ago “as anyone would be meeting a powerful sorcerer.” He called her books mysterious and a balance between realism and fable. “Her books are for anyone who feels they’ve been born a few centuries too late.”

“I came to writing as a reader,” Ivey said, citing Little House in the Big Woods and The Hobbit as two of her childhood favorites. “I was moved by so many things I’d read and wanted to be part of.”

I could identify with Ivey when she mentioned that if she had to choose between writing and reading, she’d give up writing. When she worked in a bookstore, “I wanted to make a living as a reader.” In fact, she saw the Scholastic book The Snow Child while working at her hometown bookstore, and thought, “This is the novel I want to write.”

As a young reader, seeing maps at the beginning of novels was a thrilling clue: “Oh, I’m going on an adventure.” She described her delight in working with the map artist for To the Bright Edge of the World.

Ivey revealed her influences for this novel, including Beatrix Potter’s studies of fungus and plans, Cordelia Stanwood’s pictures of birds, and the “old grump” protagonist in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. When she realized her novel was similar to Dracula – in that both stories are told through letters, journals, and documents – she used the Bram Stoker classic as a guide for overcoming narration challenges.

Research included traveling with her husband by raft on a river similar to the one she made up for the novel; a grant paid for the trip. She also attended a retreat for Alaskan writers, led by celebrated author Louise Erdrich. (“Love Medicine is the book that made me want to be a writer.”)

Ivey read a passage from her book that reveals why the protagonist takes up photography: “The darkroom is nearly ready…I have sought some form to express myself…working with light itself…I am desperate to begin.”

When it finally came time for Chris Cleave to introduce Amor Towles toward the end of the program, and he said “This is the last you’ll hear from me tonight,” a few dozen women sighed, “Ohhhh….”

“It’s all right,” he said quickly, in a soothing tone. “We’ll still be friends.”

(I glanced at my partner. He wasn’t one of the swooning audience members.)

Towles began by confessing his goal many years ago, when he was in his 20s and writing fiction regularly: to publish a book by age 50. When he was 25 he joined a friend’s firm, and his gamble paid off: he became a successful investment professional. At 35 years old, he realized it was time to start working toward his writing goal, otherwise he’d end up “bitter and a drinker.”

He spent the next seven years working on a novel that he didn’t like. “I hadn’t outlined it carefully enough,” he said. He tossed out that “failed book” and returned to his best ideas,which were all from the first year. Towles wrote 26 chapters (which corresponds with the 52 weeks in a year) and spent three years revising the manuscript. The result? New York Times best-seller The Rules of Civility.

O, The Oprah Magazine called it “An irresistible and astonishingly assured debut about working class-women and world-weary WASPs in 1930s New York…in the crisp, noirish prose of the era.”

Towles entertained the Literary Sojourn audience with an enthusiastic and detailed history of the Metropol, the location for A Gentleman in Moscow. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is ordered to spend the rest of his life in a luxury hotel across from the Kremlin.

The author wrapped up his talk with anecdotes about his daughter and son. During the family’s New Year’s Day meal, when Towles mentioned his resolutions, his kid said, “Dad, don’t you think you should be less focused on your resolutions and more focused on your bucket list?”

Another time, when he asked his son where he’d like to go for his birthday dinner, the wistful reply was “Smith and Wollensky,” a steakhouse on the Upper East Side. The kids were used to receiving star treatment at Paul and Jimmy’s Ristorante, so when the waiter at Smith and Wollensky’s asked Towles’ daughter, “And what does the little baby want?” she replied, “I am not a baby. They call me La Principessa at the other restaurant.” Towles then displayed a photo of his daughter, whose face bore an expression of spunky determination. The audience laughed.

These humorous family stories were a nice way to end the event. Several improvements to Literary Sojourn this year – assigned seating, a beautiful new venue, and the newly-designed program – contributed to a much more organized and comfortable experience. (This was my third time attending; see two previous posts here and here.) Despite the soggy lawn due to rain the night before, a mid-afternoon break for the “Rocky Mountain High Afternoon Tea” was delightful and nourishing.

afternoon tea
Rocky Mountain High Afternoon Tea at Literary Sojourn.

Readers interested in attending next year’s event should watch the website for an announcement of the event date, and set several alarms for registration day: the event usually sells out in 10 minutes.

Katherine Valdez covers author events and book festivals in Colorado and California. Subscribe to Secrets of Best-Selling Authors by typing your email in the Follow box at and watch for the confirmation email to complete the process. Follow Katherine on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and Medium.

down river fish creek falls
Downstream from Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.



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