Author Talk: July 1, 2011
THE BELLS is Richard Harvell's debut novel, the story of a boy named Moses who finds refuge in a monastery's choir and becomes its star singer, when he falls under the power of a man who will do anything to preserve his angelic voice forever. In this interview, Harvell talks about his fascination with and careful research of operas, castratos, monks, choirs and the 18th century --- all of which function heavily in THE BELLS. He also discusses fatherhood and masculinity, and how he transforms what might be considered the norm in his book, and offers a sneak peek at his next research-heavy project.
Question: THE BELLS is your first novel. What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
Richard Harvell: The first draft of THE BELLS was so easy to write. In ten months I had 600 pages, all of which were great from start to finish. Or so I thought. Fortunately, I had honest readers, in friends and agents, to open my eyes. And so I cut it in half, rewrote it again and again and again (about 20 drafts in all) before I had a story less about a time and a place and more about the characters who lived there.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of the castrati? What inspired you to create a castrato lead character?
RH: One night, while my wife was singing from Gluck's Orfeo, I had a vision of this castrato playing Orpheus in Vienna in 1762. He was a symbol of masculinity and of love on the stage, but off it, he was emasculated. I wanted to create a castrato who could be a lover on and off the stage.
Q: What was it like trying to craft Moses's experience despite the lack of autobiographical information on the castrati?
RH: That lack was the best part. I wouldn't dare write a novel starring Abraham Lincoln. But no one knows what the inner life of a castrato was like --- there exists no first-person account anywhere --- and that vacuum is wonderfully alluring for a novelist.
Q: You had to spend a lot of time researching to create a novel that was accurate to the time period. Did any of your characters have to change based on your research? Was there anything surprising that you learned that took the book in a different direction than you had anticipated?
RH: For the monks Nikolai and Remus, I started with the stereotype of medieval monks --- think Umberto Eco's NAME OF THE ROSE with wise, pious men. I wanted them to be evil kidnappers, exploiting Moses. But when I learned that Baroque monasteries were in a crisis of faith and function, with monks not spending their time illuminating manuscripts but drinking, philosophizing, arguing about their doubtful future --- even loving each other --- my two monks took on the much more interesting roles of eccentric outsiders who love and foster Moses.
Q: The characters in THE BELLS are very diverse in their masculinity as well as their sexuality. Can you tell us more about the way you created these characters around each representation of masculinity?
RH: The starting point of the novel was the contradiction of Baroque masculinity --- manliness represented by castrates. Moses's struggle is to resolve this contradiction by learning that there are many ways to be a man (or a woman, as Amalia, his lover, is dealing with a similar crisis of gender). And so in the book there are gay monks, the asexual creepy choirmaster, a womanizing castrate, adoptive fathers, Moses's own violent father.
Q: There are so many memorable, complex characters in THE BELLS. Who did you most enjoy writing about? Who did you most relate to?
RH: I have a particular soft spot for Remus, who only came together in the latest drafts. What starts as coldness reveals itself to be Remus's profound compassion for those around him. Because he is so perceptive and honest (many of the other characters are guilty of Nikolai's self-delusion), his point of view is closest to mine as the writer.
Q: Throughout the book, you describe sound as a physical phenomenon, with Moses's mother and Amalia actually feeling each note. How did you decide to add the physical sensation of sound as a means of connecting the characters? Did writing this book change the way you think about sound?
RH: I saw Touch the Sound, a documentary about Evelyn Glennie, a Grammy Award–winning deaf percussionist who plays barefoot and says she hears through all the many fibers of her body. I based Moses's mother on her, and as I became attuned to the way I also hear through the soles of my feet or the ringing of my gut, I found a way for sound to be one of many senses that unite the lovers (as well as the friends and enemies) of THE BELLS.
Q: What were some of your biggest inspirations for this book? Which writers and pieces of music had the biggest effect on you?
RH: I've loved opera for a while, and certainly Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is one of my favorites, but I really enjoyed traveling back in time writing THE BELLS, reading about and listening to great choral music from the 18th century, and the even earlier medieval chants Nikolai would have sung in his Offices. Europe in 1762 was a wonderful period --- Bach and Vivaldi had just died; Mozart was a child. I love writing about this period because it is such a rich time of idealistic progress. And readers may be surprised to hear it, but as I wrote THE BELLS, I read and reread P.G. Wodehouse'sJeeves novels in the hope that the genius of his hilarious narrative irony would infuse my book.
Q: Why did you choose to write the book as a letter from Moses to Nicolai? How did the idea of fatherhood shape the narrative?
RH: Moses is a performer, and so there has to be an audience to his story. He's writing to his son, but deep down he knows --- and hopes --- that many others will read it. And as I was writing about Moses becoming a father, I was becoming one as well (I now have two sons). Part of the victory of Moses's very unique masculinity is his becoming a very unique kind of father.
Q: What are you working on now?
RH: A love story between a concubine and a grave robber set in Egypt in 1798. The background: Napoleon's invasion and the dawn of Egyptology. Treasure hunting, decipherment, the clash of Islam and the West. No one warned me when I began that yet another revolution was coming to Egypt, but I have been able to experience these --- hopefully positive --- changes during my research trips there over the past two years. And in the new novel, the guiding role that opera plays in THE BELLS is played by the oh-so-wonderful ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS.
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