In 1912, there were almost no “good” roads in the United States, according to the Lincoln Highway Association. The construction of the first transcontinental road for automobiles started in 1913, later named The Lincoln Highway.
Thousands of cars and passengers have traveled that route, stretching from New York City to San Francisco, creating even more thousands of adventures. In Amor Towles’ latest novel, the New York Times bestseller The Lincoln Highway, the fictional adventures of 18-year-old Emmett Watson are brought to life on the page.
Towles will speak at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater in a combined Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and Chautauqua Lecture Series presentation on the theme, “Infrastructure: Bridging and Maintaining the Physical, Social and Civic Underpinnings of Society.”
“In The Lincoln Highway, (a) kid comes home from juvenile prison and finds two friends of his hidden in the trunk of the warden’s car,” Towles said. “That’s my starting point.”
This is Towles’ first appearance on the Amp stage, but his second at Chautauqua — his previous book, A Gentleman in Moscow, was a CLSC pick in 2018, and Towles spoke then to an overflowing Hall of Philsophy crowd.
When writing, Towles said he looks for “a notion” for a gateway to a “rich universe” of experiences, interactions, emotions and “layers of meaning, semantically.”
“My instinct is what’s driving my decision to go deeper into a story,” Towles said. “I don’t start out with a mission of telling a particular tale or making a particular point or landing a particular thematic note.”
All of these details, Towles said, later “grows out of the process of writing the story,” which he only does once fully imagining the events in the story.
In the course of the novel’s action, which takes place in the 1950s, Watson returns to his Midwestern family farm to find his mom gone, his dad dead, a younger brother waiting for him and the farm in foreclosure.
After he discovers his two friends in the warden’s trunk, they convince him to go to New York when Watson wants to go to California — all in a span of 10 days.
“All that stuff comes to me very quickly, in a matter of minutes,” Towles said. “The actual imagining of the story takes place over a period of years as I fill notebooks and dwell on the different events and characters and settings.”
Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts, said the story in The Lincoln Highway would not be possible without the original construction of the actual Lincoln Highway as a roadway.
He said questions about physical infrastructure are often on people’s minds, with them wondering, “How do we win a bill on infrastructure?” and “How do we imagine (improving) this crumbling infrastructure that we have in the United States?”
It’s important to look back in history, he said, to see what was done, why it was done and what made it possible.
“While this is a novel and we come into it for a good story,” Ton-Aime said, “the story was made possible because, as a country, we decided it was important for us to have good roads.”
These roads lasted more than 100 years, for people to still see, research and archive.
Ton-Aime said the scope is central, because it “gives us an idea of what we are going to be doing 100 years from now.”