Creativity and the gift of time Richard Harvell discusses the creative writing process

Issue: 1/2016
Building a career is challenging enough without moving to Switzerland. For some though, the expat life creates a unique opportunity to explore creative outlets and even launch a new career. For advice from someone who has done just that, Ashley Roque sits down with novelist Richard Harvell.

Life abroad sparks many emotions - from enjoyment to anxiety. For many accompanying partners, the transition can be more difficult, in part, because of excess down time. Maybe you left behind a blossoming career, evenings filled with friends chatting over the dinner table or simply the freedom to stroll down the grocery store aisles and understand what the products are on display.

Newly found time can be debilitating but for expats who have passed through this phase or are able to avoid it all together, added hours can be a gift. A chance to dive into a hobby. An opportunity to explore a new culture. Or even the opportunity to launch a career.

For Richard Harvell, a novelist and excecutive editor of publishing house Bergli Books, his move from the US to Switzerland with his Swiss wife was an opportunity to combine all three.

A DIVERGING PATH

After withdrawing from Yale University and Dartmouth College in his early 20s, Richard headed to the Swiss Alps - first to visit friends, and then as a teaching intern and basketball coach for an international school near Interlaken.

"They couldn't find a basketball coach in the middle of nowhere and I played basketball through high school," he recalls. "They just assumed any American would know how."

During his year in the Alps, he met Swiss native Dominique, and they crafted a plan to spend nine months walking and biking from Switzerland to Istanbul.

"We walked a good distance of the way and biked a good distance of the way, and sort of gave up in Romania, at the point it stopped being fun," he recalls. "You get to know someone after nine months doing that sort of thing."

Deciding to continue their relationship and head to the US, they married.

"I was 21," he says with a laugh. "Dominique is horrified when I tell people I didn't really believe that we were going to stay together. I thought it was a green card marriage. That was … 2001. But somehow I think those might be the best ones."

A CREATIVE OUTLET

Married, Richard re-enrolled at Dartmouth to earn an English degree before returning to Switzerland for his wife's career - she is a primary school music teacher.

While the move was a "better" career move for her, it meant Richard needed to map out his own path, starting with accepting a part-time English teaching job in Basel.

"I had it very easy but that is actually a hard thing for someone who is in their mid-twenties and who has always been an over-achiever," Richard recalls. "First I'm in little Liestal [a town in the rural canton of Basel Country] with five days off a week … but you can't just sit down and write a great novel, that doesn't work.

"I constantly had this existential terror that I'm not doing anything important with my life," he adds. "I'm just wasting away, wasting time."

So in his downtime, Richard spent 20 hours per week writing short stories and another 20 hours reading, while also seeking support from members of an English-speaking writers' group in Basel – Thin Raft.

"Sure, I didn't publish anything for my first couple of years and then somewhere I read the suggestion about the goal of getting 100 rejections in a year," he explains.

While he missed the quota, only receiving rejections in the high 80s, he succeeded in publishing two stories in US journals – piquing agents' interest and his subsequent work on a novel that "will never see the light of day."

"It took place in the future. A bit of Ayn Rand meets Brave New World. Sort of a psychological, terrorist novel no one is going to be able to read," he explains.

But from the "bad" writing, Richard moved on.

SOUND THE BELLS

With his first novel shelved, Richard refocused and began pulling inspiration from his time working in the Swiss Alps as a basketball coach, his wife's vocal performance in the opera Orpheus and the history of musicos - young boy singers castrated before puberty to preserve their vocal range.

"I thought it was fascinating that someone could be a symbol of masculinity on the stage but then in real life somehow not be a complete man," he explains.

And so Richard began creating a story set in the 18th century around a young boy called Moses from a small alpine community, his time singing in St. Gallen Abbey before a forced castration and subsequent journey to Austria in search of love.

Four years and 25 drafts later, Moses' life was published as The Bells by Crown at Penguin Random House.

CREATIVITY AND WORK

Whether Richard would have launched a fruitful career as a writer if he and his wife remained in the US will remain unanswered. Not only did his move and his expat life push him to succeed, he also credits the country's work culture.

"I think Switzerland is very compatible with the writing life," he explains. "Despite being so hard working, the Swiss don't have this ‘always work harder, always make more money, always do something better' mentality. I think there are a lot of people who have a hobby on the side."

For those interested in delving into creative writing, Richard recommends getting involved in Switzerland's English writing community, putting in the necessary time writing and making sure you know your market.

"It's a responsible thing as a writer to say, ‘Give up unless you really want to do this,'" he adds. "It is such a difficult market, such hard work. You need to do it because you love it. You've got to do away with the pride. If you can't do that, then you're lost. You've got to be able to seek criticism, take criticism and give yourself criticism and you've got to put in the hours."

 

Photos: © howardbrundrett.com

More Information

To learn more about Richard Harvell and his work, visit www.richardharvell.com

Author: Ashley Roque - Hello Switzerland

Ashley Roque was Editor-in-Chief of Hello Switzerland. Hailing from the US Sunshine State (Florida), Ashley launched her career as a political journalist in Washington, DC, with Inside Washington Publishers and the Roll Call Group, while also spending time in the non-profit world as ActionAid International USA’s communications manager. She lives in Canton Aargau with her Swiss husband, working as a freelance journalist.

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