Authors Need to Respect their Fans

A writer I know recently asked on Facebook if people wrote fan mail to authors, and also asked authors if they responded.

When I was twelve, I read a kids’ book set in Paris. I don’t remember the title or the author, but I loved it so much I sent fan mail to the author via his publisher. He wrote back.  I was astonished.  I already knew I wanted to be an author and his gracious letter made me decide I would always respond to fan mail.

If I ever got any.

Well, the fan mail started with my very first publication, a prize-winning short story in Redbook, and it’s kept coming every year for one book or another. Of course, now it’s via email, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Back before email was a thing, one of my first editors was surprised that I replied to my fans. “Why would you waste the time?”

I treasure my fan mail and the correspondence I’ve had with authors.  If someone’s been moved by what I’ve written, writing back isn’t just polite, it’s fun.

All my fan mail before email is archived by Special Collections of Michigan State University’s Library, which bought my literary papers.  Someday, perhaps, a researcher will find the correspondence useful for its insights into my career.

When I sold my papers, old friends reminded me of many things. One who used to type my early stories back in the 1980s because I was such a slow typist, told me that we had discussed the possibility of some university buying my archives one day. I don’t remember that, but I have no reason to doubt her. Another friend reminded me of a long period in my career where nothing I wrote could get published, and that in more than one fit of despair I threatened to take everything I’d written and destroy it in a bonfire—as if that could somehow purge my failures. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t?” she asked wryly. “Special Collections wouldn’t have The Lev Raphael Papers, just the Lev Raphael File Cabinet.”

My eldest made the best comment. When I told him about the papers deal I said, “This makes me part of history.” He corrected me: “You’re already a part of history. Now you’ll have an index.”

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

 

American Soldiers Saved My Father From The Nazis

In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2,500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped not far from the Elbe because the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across that river with communications so disrupted. He fled ahead of the American troops he knew were coming and the remaining guards escaped when two American tanks appeared on April 13th.

Frank W. Towers, a first Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

(Frank Towers in France, 1944)

The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany. Now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been?

This verdant military setting with clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg 16 miles away and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. There wasn’t any time to play pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on, “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand. On Memorial Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to remember these heroes.

The account in this blog is drawn from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.

How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Musical Masterpiece in Chicago

I was in love with books and music from a very early age. My European-born parents had bookshelves in more than one room which held books in more than one language. I felt their importance before I could even read by myself.

And my parents loved classical music, especially Tchaikovsky. I must have been little when I saw Swan Lake for the first time because I recall asking my parents who everybody was. But more than that I remember being thrilled by the music as it washed over me and carried me away.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, inspired by a poem of Byron’s, was not in their record collection. I once spent a year reading everything I could of Byron’s and Manfred is a special favorite. I’ve quoted these lines from it many times: “in my heart/there is a vigil, and these eyes but close/To look within.”

The Manfred Symphony is apparently not performed that often, which is strange given how beautiful and stirring the music is. I heard a magnificent performance of it recently in Chicago, with Semyon Bychko conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the jewel-like Orchestra Hall.

The music is definitely Byronic: dark, romantic, passionate, melancholy, magnetic. The Chicago Symphony gave the piece the richness and depth it demanded. They deserved the standing cheers from the audience.

The story of how Tchaikovsky came to write this piece is truly bizarre. He was actually lobbied to do it by other Russian composers who felt it matched his emotional reality, and he was even given specific musical outlines. Tchaikovsky resisted vigorously until he read the poem and as a closeted gay man connected to its dark introspection. He thought the first movement was one of the best things he’d ever written.  I found it all compelling.  The symphony is just plain gorgeous, so look for it on CD, or if you happen to see it on some orchestra’s schedule, don’t miss the chance to attend a performance.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir including the Gilded Age novel Rosedale in Love.  He teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com.

Growing Up Multi-Lingual–And Staying That Way

The uproar about that New York lawyer going postal because people were speaking Spanish at a Fresh Kitchen eatery has reminded me how lucky I was to grow up in a multi-lingual home.

Before World War II hit his tiny village in Czechoslovakia, my father knew Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, and Ruthenian. He learned German during the war, and also Rumanian. Far to the north in Vilnius, my mother’s household languages were Yiddish, Polish and Russian, and she studied German and French in school. Latin, too, which benefited me as a kid because she was able to explain grammar simply and clearly.  When they lived in bi-lingual Brussels after WW II, my father picked up Flemish.

I myself was bilingual before kindergarten: I spoke Yiddish and English at home, and even though over time I stopped using Yiddish with my parents, I still understood it. In fourth grade, my class started learning French, which I loved and took to so well that down the road I become my high school’s star French student.

When a German publisher bought three books of mine back in the 2000s, I started taking German classes and reached a point where I could introduce a reading in German on a book tour and even do the reading itself in German.

Not too long ago, a senior colleague at Michigan State University asked if I’d like to join him in launching a summer program in Sweden. I didn’t hesitate.  Part of the attraction was getting to study Swedish, a language I quickly fell in love with for its musicality and relative simplicity compared to German. That program didn’t pan out because of issues with the Swedish university, but the time I spent immersed in Swedish language study was tremendous fun.  When you study a language, you also learn about the country’s culture and history and until then, I’d known very little about Sweden.  I was fascinated by many things, including their notion of lagom: having just enough in life.

I moved on to Dutch more recently when I created a summer abroad program of my own based in Ghent, Belgium.  I made fairly good progress until it was kiboshed by a department chair despite the enthusiastic approval of administrators above her level who were eager for something new and exciting. I don’t regret the time devoted to it. Dutch isn’t easy, but it’s been fun and I know on my next trip to Amsterdam or anywhere in Flanders that I’ll be able to interact with people without feeling stuck in my own skin.

French has helped me in my travels across Europe and even, surprisingly, in Israel; ditto German outside of Germany.  I’ve read books in both languages that have inspired me as a writer.  A shop owner in Paris once said to me–after complimenting my French–that you can’t really understand another culture until you enter its language.

I’m grateful to the many fine language teachers I’ve had over the years for opening those doors.  They’ve made my travels infinitely more enjoyable, they’ve given my deeper access to the countries where I spoke that language, and they’ve connected me to my past.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Language Bigots Don’t Understand America

A New York lawyer’s rant about Spanish-speaking workers at a Fresh Kitchen recently went viral, and rightfully so.

The lawyer was infuriated to hear Spanish, which the counter workers were speaking to each other, and to some customers.  He’s not only intolerant, he’s ignorant.  Since the time when it was still called New Amsterdam,  New York City has welcomed people seeking freedom and opportunity, whether they spoke Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Vietnamese or any other language.  Hundreds of languages are currently spoken in New York.

Many immigrants might not know English when they get here and perhaps may struggle with it all their lives.  But if they don’t learn it or learn it fluently, their children do.  It’s a pattern that’s been repeating itself one generation after another and has helped us become ever more diverse.

When my parents came here in 1950 from Eastern Europe via Belgium, my mother spoke English, but my father didn’t and he had to learn it at his place of work.  Between them, they spoke close to a dozen European languages.  While Yiddish was their everyday choice, they often switched to Russian because they wanted privacy from me and my brother.  But they could speak it in public, too, and they did.

I heard several languages in my apartment building and grew up in a neighborhood where you could hear German on the streets, and then later Spanish.  I never felt threatened.  I felt the opposite.  These other languages were siren calls for me to make myself fluent in a second language at the very least.  And something more: they fueled my desire to travel outside of the country and experience other cultures as authentically as I could.

I teach on a campus with several thousand Chinese students.  They don’t frighten or enrage me.  I find the experience fascinating since Mandarin, Cantonese, and other languages spoken in China aren’t like any language I know or have studied.  Hearing spoken Chinese, I feel connected to the world outside my small Michigan college town, even if I don’t know what’s being said.  And I’m reminded how connected we all are, which makes me want to re-double my efforts in learning Dutch, my latest challenge after having spent two amazing weeks in Flanders.

As for hearing employees speaking to customers in something other than English, my mother spoke Polish with the butcher she frequented, and Russian whenever she realized a store employee was from somewhere in Russia.  I envied her knowledge, flexibility, and fluency.  And if a guy like the lawyer at Fresh Kitchen had gone postal about her not speaking English, I’m sure she would have had a wide range of terms to put him in his place.  But politely, because she was always dignified, and her English had a British tinge to it.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

 

When You’re An Author, Fans Can Keep You Going

There are a lot of things nobody prepares for you when you start a career as an author.  Going on my first book tour years ago, my publisher and editor didn’t ask if I knew how to do a reading.  Luckily I had some acting experience and my spouse was on sabbatical, so after every reading I got “director’s notes.”  What worked, what didn’t work, where did I need to slow down, how did I need to engage my audience better–and much more.

It was invaluable, like taking a one-person seminar, and it made each successive reading more successful.

That tour was when I first discovered how amazing it is to encounter fans.  People who haven’t just read your work, but have absorbed it and want to thank you.  One person told me she actually had read my book half a dozen times and kept it by her bedside.

I was blown away.  Writing is so solitary, and discovering the impact your work might have shifts you out into the world so differently than when you sit there reading a review.

The other day I was at the gym chatting with a trainer.  She’s used to seeing me wear blue but I was once again all in black and she asked what was up. I joked about going to Paris and wanting to fit in.  A woman nearby asked when I was going and we go into a talk about travel and learning language.  She was studying Italian for a big trip to several cities.

I told her about my last trip to Florence and that I’d done fine ordering meals, asking directions, and buying things, but that was about it.  She asked how many languages I spoke.  French and German were my mains, with side dishes of Swedish and Dutch.  Then I had to explain how I’d gotten involved in studying the latter two and we traded more travel notes.

I asked her name and introduced myself and she said, “Oh, I know who you are, I see you here a lot but haven’t wanted to bother a celebrity.  I’m a big fan of your mysteries.”

It made my day, made my workout.  And reminded me once again how lucky I am to have people reading and enjoying my work.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Dazzled at the Art Institute of Chicago

Walking into any museum is always partly a trip to an enchanted part of my childhood. My very first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was to see its newly acquired Rembrandt: “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” The painting was making headlines not just because of the artist, but because its 2.3 million dollar sale price was the highest ever paid for a painting sold privately or publicly.

I didn’t know what the painting was about or anything about Rembrandt but I was awed by the crowds and determined to share in the spectacle.  I actually crawled under people’s legs to get to the front. The painting stunned me: it was so solemn and mysterious.  That day, the door to great beauty was opened to me and it’s never closed.

Because we visited museums so often when I was a kid, I grew to have “friends” in New York museums, like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at MOMA.  Whenever I’m in Chicago, I go to the Art Institute and at some point pay homage to Caillebotte’s enormous, haunting “Paris Street: Rainy Day” which was recently cleaned and looks beautiful (much better than my photo shows).

I was captivated by the artist’s most famous painting the first time I saw it, perhaps because of my long years studying French, my trips to Paris, and my love of the period it evoked.  It came to move me even more after the Art Institute’s 1995 Caillebotte exhibition which revealed his depth as an urban Impressionist capturing the loneliness we can all feel in a big city.

But after re-acquainting myself, I wander off, whether there’s an exhibition I had specifically come to or not, because I know I’ll end up being surprised by joy.  Especially when there isn’t a crowd of people standing in front of a canvas, statue, or glass case (I’m too old to crawl).  There’s always a treasure around a corner or across a gallery–something I’ve missed before or never really explored.  Like Manet’s moody portrait of his fellow artist Alfred Sisley, which seems almost painted in the subject’s style.

Or this moving, “Entombment” by baroque painter Guercino who I don’t remember encountering before visiting the Art Institute.  It’s an enormous canvas, and the rich blues and reds serve to heighten the sorrow of the scene.

Paintings like these make me sit down on a bench, study them, let myself stop worrying about time or anything else, and just disappear into whatever world the painter has created.  In those moments, I feel as a writer that something is being written on and in me.   I feel filled, transported, healed–and sent off in new directions that I couldn’t even have imagined just an hour before.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in many genres.  He’s been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and offers writing workshops on line at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

My Mother’s Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died nearly twenty years ago.

Well-read and well-educated, she inspired me with a love of learning for its own sake.  She was always ready to help me with homework in any subject, made me pay attention to politics and the news, and encouraged me to follow my dreams of travel to Europe. Even though I started learning French in fourth grade, my command of that language wouldn’t be as good as it is if she hadn’t been so thorough and patient.

More than that, she also taught me a valuable life lesson.  I was pretty young when my parents, my brother and I were walking into some downtown Manhattan restaurant for lunch and we were approached by a homeless man.

I didn’t understand anything about how people in our wealthy society could end up at the bottom like that, I’d never been in a situation like that, and I was embarrassed and confused.

Dressed in several layers of clothing including a tweed topcoat that seemed too heavy for the season, the man asked my mother for a cigarette, sounding as formal as a college professor.  She opened her purse and offered him a whole pack of Larks.  And money.

He shook his head in thanks, said, “One cigarette was all I asked for.”  And that’s all he took.

Inside, I asked why she had offered him all of her cigarettes.  My mother was a Holocaust survivor and had seen worlds of horror that I was only just beginning to learn about.  What she next said has always stuck with me: “I could never beg for anything in the war.  If someone does what he did, I have to say yes.”

It was an eye-opening, heart-expanding moment.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  An assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, he also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/

 

Food Fun in Chicago

Because of my Russian heritage, when I’m in Chicago I like to eat at Russian Tea Time near the Art Institute. I’ve never been served a bad meal there, and having lunch or dinner, scraps of my parents’ conversations in Russian come back. The enjoyable present makes for a warm connection to my past, and I feel my late mother’s presence very strongly because she was a wonderful cook and used to make her own borscht.

But this past weekend I felt like changing things up. I’ve had several book tours across Germany and in Vienna where I became very fond of the food, the wine, and the beer. So Berghoff seemed a natural choice. It’s been in business for a century.

The wood paneling and stencils on the wall felt familiar even though the clientele was multi-national. I’d eaten many a schnitzel on my book tours so I wanted to see how their Wiener Schnitzel compared. Served with spaetzel and creamed spinach, it was delicious, and so was the German Riesling. The apple strudel, though, was a bit too sweet and looked deconstructed.

There was a band playing blues in the bar, but I didn’t mind the commotion because I was reflecting on how my life had changed so dramatically after I found a distant cousin by marriage in Magdeburg, where my mother had been a slave laborer in a munitions factory. Germany had always felt taboo to me until that discovery, and I’ve been there five times now, visits recorded in my memoir/travelogue My Germany.

For breakfast I picked Le Pain Quotidien on Michigan Avenue and that also sparked great reminiscences. My tasty avocado toast with smoked salmon seemed very American, but the coffee came in a little pitcher and I got a bowl as opposed to a mug. It brought back more pleasant memories, this time of research trips I’d done in both the French and Flemish speaking parts of Belgium. The coffee was smooth and strong, the staff friendly.

I had planned lunch at a trattoria but got the days confused and it was closed, so I found myself drawn ineluctably to the nearby Russian Tea Time where I had two specialties I’d never tried before.  The excellent mushroom barley soup was tomato-based and filled with vegetables, while the duck strudel (yes!) was terrific and unusual.  I had two glasses of a sweet red from the Republic of Georgia and wished my mother could have been alive to dine with me there.

Food and writing often go together for me, and this trip gave me ideas for fiction and much more. I was alone for most of my time in Chicago, and that can sometimes make me miss being home, but memories and new enjoyments were great company.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.  He’ll be teaching an online memoir writing workshop this summer at http://writewithoutborders.com/workshops/