A Writer’s Life

Richard René Silvin has held many titles in his life, but writer/lecturer is his favorite by far. A former hospital administration executive, Silvin retired to Palm Beach in the late 1990s and, like any retiree, he sought out hobbies.
   “My golf stinks, and I can’t ski like a daredevil like I used to,” he says. “I thought that instead of golfing, I would pick up another hobby. I decided to write.”
   In the last 10 years, he has written five books on subjects that reflect his varied experiences and pique his myriad interests. His bibliography ranges from an account of his friendship with the Duchess of Windsor to a rigorously researched recall of Villa Mizner and its many occupants. He also recently founded a publishing company with his partner, Robert Versteeg, to help others fulfill their dreams of becoming authors.
   For his latest tome, Normandie: The Tragic Story of the Most Majestic Ocean Liner (Silvin Books, $85), he delved into a topic that has mesmerized him since he was a boy.
   Silvin grew up in Geneva, Switzerland and would make trans-Atlantic crossings to visit his mother in America. He never traveled on the Normandie, which sank during World War II, but he was always fascinated by the ship’s design and modernity.
   “It was so far advanced, both in terms of its design outside but mostly because of its art inside,” he says. “It was a floating museum.”
   As a child, Silvin dreamed of navigating the Normandie. Now a model of the vessel rests inside his coffee table. This book serves to honor a ship that has sparked his imagination for decades.

   Below, Silvin chats with PBI.com about his writing and lecturing processes.

PBI.com: What are some of your earliest memories of writing? Have you always loved writing?

Silvin: No, I’ve always been a businessman, but I was always told you write really good letters. When I was younger, you write really good reports. So then when I retired, I thought why don’t I just have a little dabble in that? I did and I was fortunate enough that there was some success.

What’s your process like?

Well, let’s take Mizner as an example. I always wanted to write about a great house. I was always fascinated with Addison Mizner. When I found the house to write about—which couldn’t have been better because it’s not just a great Mizner house it’s Mizner’s own house—and when I met the owners of the house and they said that they would be very happy to help me with any details and any background they had, I then went to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. It’s amazing, and I luckily was able to become friends with the two curators. I went to them, and I think they understood that I have a great respect for their knowledge and a great respect for the wealth they have there. So I spent four months in the archives of the Historical Society. I lived in the Historical Society archives for about four months.

Are you writing while you’re researching?

Notes, lots of notes everywhere. They have a policy that if you handle things with gloves, you can have copies made of most things. I found Addison Mizner’s unfinished memoir typed up on old typewriter paper in there. They allowed me to make a full copy of it. So then I take all of that stuff home and I have little piles of paper all over the room for a long time and I start to sort it through. And then usually when we go away for the summer and we’re on Cape Cod, that’s where I absolutely isolate myself and go into a trance.

What’s the writing process like once you’ve done all your research?

I follow the chronology of the story and that makes it really easy for the way I think. Normandie was easy—I wanted to research how it was designed, how it was built, its inaugural voyage, all of the famous people who traveled on it in its brief four-year life, and, of course, the tragedy of its end. Same with the Villa Mizner. I wanted to find out why Addison Mizner built it, when, how, what it was like during his tenure there.

I try to make my books a story, not a history lesson because you’re going to lose your audience unless it’s a story. The major goal of my books is to lecture on the subjects. That’s my passion. From the books, we create, Robert and I, jointly a PowerPoint presentation. Those too are stories. We try to create an arc of a story like if you’re going to the movies.

What’s your lecturing style like?

I love speaking. Lecturing with a PowerPoint is really such a wonderful way to do it. I always feel like I’m cheating because you put a picture up on the screen and you don’t need notes. I never use notes—not a single one because the notes are the pictures. If you put a picture up and you know your material and you’ve organized your pictures in a certain chronology, you can just give a talk, take people to the movies and show people pictures. … Robert can put together these complex, beautiful slides so that as you go through them very quickly, as long as the speaking part is married and timed to it, the audience feels like they’re going to a movie. And I love it. The bigger the audience, the happier I am.

So no stage fright?

Not in front of large audiences. I do in front of small audiences. If you put me in front of 12 or 20 people, I don’t like it at all. You give me 300 or 400 in a room and I’m in heaven.

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