“Do You Know Stephen King?”

It sounds like a specialized question, but it’s not. Apparently, if you know King, your reality as an author is verified, whether the person asking will ever bother to read a book of yours or not.

I’ve been asked about King many times times by cab drivers when I’m doing book tours across the country and they find out why I’m in town. It’s almost always the first question.

So, here are some sample answers to help out all you road-weary, flummoxed authors in those moments when your mind might go blank and you’re wishing you had stayed home or taken your parents’ advice and gone into your cousin’s wallpaper business. Feel free to suggest your own.

— “We went to college together. Dude could par-tay!” Make up the wild story of your choice at this point. You’re a writer. Be grotesque. Embellish.

— “That SOB? Never wanted to. He used to date my cousin and he was into really kinky sex that left her with a limp and allergies. It’s really sad.” Sink into your seat and mutter darkly.

— “Yes, but he trashed my house once after a séance and we haven’t talked since, though our lawyers are working it out. At least he says those are his lawyers. Sometime you can see right through them…. It’s kinda creepy.”

— “Stephen who? Is he some kind of writer or something? Like, wha has he written I might have heard of?” Look truly puzzled.

— “Are you kidding? I’m the one who gives him his book titles and plot twists. He gets writer’s block all the time and calls me drunk at three in the morning. Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything. Please don’t tell anyone!”

— “No. Have you?” Glare.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

University Teaching Is Not A Demolition Derby

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country, and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, these stories make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas — all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Some teachers aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.  I heard from a former student today about how her new creative writing teacher tears down everything she writes and it’s profoundly undermining her confidence.

Creative writing is one of my passions, and I’ve heard of other professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse. I’ve never done that. I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to offer something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the piece is well-done humor. As for dissing a student’s work, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher during my freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and role model. She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way too. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers by identifying what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply, “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block Is Bunk and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

Betsy DeVos and Winston Churchill?

Dana Milbank just quipped in The Washington Post that every time our Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks, “it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished.” There’s a gravitas about that witty put-down that sounds Churchillian.

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.


Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.




Be Prepared: Finishing Your Book Can Bum You Out

I’m currently a few chapters away from a solid draft of my 26th book, and even though I’m excited that it’s been going so well, I’m sad to be seeing the end.

I’ve published books in a wide range of genres–including memoir, historical fiction, erotic vampire tale, and literary novels–but no matter what I’ve written, the experience is always the same: immersive.

I may be worried about something in my own life, about a friend’s health, or about the state of our nation’s politics, but when I’m writing a book, I feel protected and cocooned.

It’s not that I don’t register what’s going on around me; I experience it all inside a kind of bubble.  The book-in-progress is always on my mind, whether I’m at the gym, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or walking the dogs.  I may not be consciously working out the next scene or chapter, but the book is as real and present as soft music coming from another room.

A book of any kind is an adventure, a promise, a series of doors that open and some that close.  It changes as it grows and I change with it.  The end point likely won’t be what I thought it would be, though sometimes the last line is waiting for me like a charming host ready to pour me a great glass of wine.

Ironically, with the end in sight, everything is clearer and I usually write faster, but I feel a countervailing pressure to slow down, to enjoy these last moments with the companion of many months–or even years.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what happens when it’s done: editing and revising, the chance to revisit a manuscript and see it with fresh eyes after a break.  And working with a good editor is one of the joys of publishing. But that’s not the same as creating something new.  When I’m done, the sense of wonder and discovery that Mandy Patimkin sings about in Sunday in the Park with George has vanished.  “Look, I made a hat…” he sings.  “Where there never was a hat.”

When the book is done and revised however many times it needs, the technical, business side is ahead.  It becomes a product in the marketplace. And though I love doing readings from my work and have a great time on book tours thanks to being an extrovert with some acting experience, I’m already thinking about the next book, the next adventure….

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Don’t Miss this Terrific Mystery from Argentina

I reviewed crime fiction at the Detroit Free Press for about a decade and had a terrific editor who loved the genre. But she quit because she got tired of being constantly pushed to do “features about Stephen King.” This was at a time when book coverage across the country was shrinking.

Her replacement actually told me, “I’m not a book person.” But Editor no. 2 had definite ideas about what I should be concentrating on in my column: best sellers. This was when bricks and mortar book stores were still flourishing and I felt that readers saw best sellers in newspapers ads and on full display in book store windows, in the stores themselves on walls, in end cap displays, on the best seller tables.

There was no reason for me to exclude best sellers, but why not keep my main focus on great books readers might miss: books by new or under-appreciated authors; books from independent presses; books that had been translated into English. That last category was especially important to me because with Americans tend to avoid books in translation.

If I did review a translated book, I only picked that novel if the translation felt smooth and natural (beyond the story being good, of course). Claudia Piñeiro is Argentina’s best-selling crime writer, someone I’ve just discovered, and her book A Crack in the Wall is all of that and more, thanks to its highly unusual structure and focus.

Pablo Simó works in a boutique Buenos Aires architectural firm. He’s a bit of a dreamer and something of a weirdo. He obsessively designs a building he doesn’t seem destined to ever build, and he takes a circuitous subway route home instead of a direct bus for reasons that take some time to become clear. What also evolves is the nature of the crime the book is built around.

In Chapter One we discover that he and his colleagues are somehow involved in a murder and its cover-up, but the how and why emerge slowly, in the context of his messy family life and all the ways in which he’s really living a life of quiet desperation. When excitement and sex enter the story it’s both a surprise,and the psychological depths the author explores drive the story forward in exciting, gripping ways. Diving deep into verities of love and marriage, the author lays bare the city’s convoluted building practices and takes us on a fascinating virtual tour of the city’s architecture, especially some of its famous Art Nouveau structures.

I’ve been reading and reviewing mysteries for years, but don’t remember anything quite like A Crack in the Wall. It’s one of those books you finish with a “Wow!” or maybe even “Damn!”

Lev Raphael is the author of eight mysteries set in Michigan along with a wide range of books in genres from memoir to vampire fiction.

Oh, Canada: Love Letter From a Neighbor

Canada was just a short plane ride away when I grew up in New York City, and its bilingualism fascinated me as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was excellent. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual.

My brother, who didn’t speak French, put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but now it was alive, transactional.

Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey, though. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies nonetheless. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some smart-ass remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and elsewhere that week and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language.

But my next trips to Canada involved a different language: Shakespeare’s English. Living in Michigan, I visited the Stratford Festival in Ontario twice as a graduate student, and later, my spouse and I became Festival members.

Though I’d seen some wonderful shows in New York, nothing beat watching Christopher Plummer as Lear in front row center seats or Martha Henry in Long Day’s Journey into Night, a play I’d seen and studied extensively in college. Her silence was more evocative and devastating than many actors’ monologues. The play left us so stunned we couldn’t vacate our seats for a good ten minutes afterwards–and we went back to see it again that summer, just as we saw other plays twice when they were terrific.

Stratford was a revelation: not just a charming, scenic town, but a place where you could run into the cast members anywhere and they were happy to chat.

And then there were several trips to Montréal and Toronto each, a week in Vancouver, a handful of celebrations we had at the Langdon Hall Country House and Spa, trips to Québec City by ourselves and with one son and his wife, and my own professional visits as an author to Windsor. I know I have a lot more to explore in Canada and luckily there’s plenty of time for more great food, wonderful people, and memorable sites.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Clashing with Copyeditors

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.

I liked his phrase so much that I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn’t life be perfect?

That was before I had my first collision with a copy editor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn’t their native language. Like many immigrants, they “translated” from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copy editor didn’t get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I shared this with said that a writer friend was once so enraged by his copy editor’s rampant lack of imagination that he just wrote across Page One of his manuscript, “Stet the whole goddamned thing.” I could never do that, because copy editors do catch real problems, but I’ve come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher’s copy editor aggressively changing everything—my style, my syntax, my vocabulary—to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as “a good word”–as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn’t using it strictly correctly. But after having published nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles, I had my own ideas about what was correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn’t spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such tone-deaf copy editing.

And yes, I mean pissed off–not annoyed, irritated, steamed, put out, or vexed.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

The White Devil is an Amazing Gothic Thriller

It’s rare that I re-read crime fiction, but working on a new mystery of my own, I’ve been picking some of my favorite books to revisit for inspiration. The White Devil was at the top of my list, and here’s what I wrote about it for The Huffington Post back in 2011:

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction for well over a decade on-air, in print, and on-line, and always look for something original. I found it in Justin Evans’s amazing thriller The White Devil, my favorite crime book of the year.

Ask yourself what’s worse: thinking you saw a ghost or having it confirmed that you did actually see one?  Andrew Taylor faces that creepy dilemma and a lot more in a book that ingeniously mixes literary detective work, a horror story, young love, academic satire, and cultural conflict between Americans and Brits. If that sounds like a lot, well, Evans is terrific enough to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. The White Devil is truly one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in the last few years.

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The title is an obvious clue you’re signing up for a dark thrill ride since it’s the name of a play by John Webster, one of those grim Jacobean authors given to writing about ghosts, conspiracies, and revenge.

Sinister revenge is at the heart of the book, but Taylor doesn’t want anything dark at all when he comes to the elite English school Harrow. He’s screwed up big time at his previous prep school and this is his last chance, made possible only because his father gave Harrow a lot of money. Taylor desperately needs a fresh start and good grades, but he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two hundred years ago. And Byron left some bitterness behind, bitterness that reaches out from another dimension and snares Taylor.

The writing in this novel is quietly beautiful and so balanced, so appropriate to the material that despite the propulsive story, I stopped now and then to read passages aloud to my spouse or just to myself. I wanted to savor and share the excellence of a superb storyteller. When it was over, I felt lucky to have spent a weekend with this gifted writer’s second book, even though I lost some sleep because the book was so fine it was hard to let it go.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including the Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the wild world of academia.

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Edith Wharton and Secret Love

Edith Wharton isn’t a writer you tend to think of on Valentine’s day. Her marriage was unhappy and the very secret affair she had in her forties was with a faithless cad.

No wonder that love in her novels is so often curdled, thwarted, or hopeless. Think of Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Mother’s Recompense, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence.

But there’s so much to love and admire in her work: the wit, the dissection of social fossilization, the gimlet-eyed study of women’s objectification, the elegant knife-sharp prose, the passion under the surface.

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ends with a quiet nod to a possible lost love of Henry James, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote in her study A Feast of Words. Wharton knew a touching story that James had told to a mutual friend: when he was younger, James had once stood for hours somewhere in Europe, staring up at a balcony window, hoping to see a face. He hadn’t said whose face it was and Wharton recast the story in her own way at the end of The Age of Innocence. It was a loving private tribute to a man, now dead, who might have exasperated her sometimes but whom she had been devoted to.

Wharton exasperated me with her stereotypical Jew Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth. How could such a gifted author betray her gifts like that?

When I re-wrote her novel as Rosedale in Love, I did my own version of her gesture to James by including a secret love and giving my book a surprise happy ending. Why not? I’ve been devoted to her fiction for years and it’s inspired me in my own writing to strive for the best.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His other Wharton-inspired book is a mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

6 Reasons Why Blogging Is Awesome

1—Because helpful strangers will take time out of their busy schedules to tweet or email you about the smallest typo you make and not even ask for credit.

2—Because other strangers are happily invested in your mental health and delighted to tell you that you should stop blogging forever since you’re obviously a narcissistic loon.

3—Because people feel free to diss whatever credentials you have and call you a hack when they don’t like your blog. We all need a dose of humility now and then, right?

4—Because someone’s always bound to completely misread your blog and respond to what you didn’t say, which shows you that everything in life is contingent.

5—Because what’s the point of meditating and getting centered if you don’t have people hassling you? Blog nimrods offer rich material to float away from.

6—Because if you write satire (or crime fiction) it’s always good to have new targets and victims.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres. His books and shorter works have been translated into 15 languages.