Weird and Wonderful Writers I Have Known

Nobody tells you that one of the best things that can happen when you become an author is that you get to hang out with other authors. At panels, conferences,  book signings, and just casually when you run into them on your travels. It may not be the Fellowship of The Ring, but there’s a connection.

When I had only been publishing for a few years I was lucky enough to be on the Jewish Book Fair circuit at the same time as Walter Mosley.  We were both appearing in Houston and when I told the fair’s director how much I admired him, she graciously asked if I’d like to stay an extra day and meet him (!).  I not only joined a group for dinner, I heard him give a splendid reading.  Later Mosley and I had drinks and talked about the dynamics of building a series.

I’ve had dinner with the witty and urbane Edmund White in Paris after meeting him at an awards ceremony in D.C.  He gave me an insider’s advice about what to see in and near Paris that first-time tourists usually miss, and thanks to him I spent a glorious day at the amazing chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte. As he had predicted, it was almost empty by tourists.

At a summer Oxford University conference, the charming, friendly thriller writer Val McDermid rescued me from the humiliating spectacle of passing out in an overcrowded, boiling hot lecture room which had just one measly fan (the Brits, you know).  She deftly got me to the river where we sat for a few wonderful hours, cooling off, talking about our careers, life, and love as we watched little boats pass by.

I can’t count how many authors have been gracious enough to write blurbs for my many books, and one who was too busy to read that particular book actually invited me to teach at the summer workshop she ran instead.  Author after author has been unfailingly kind to me in one way or another.

There’ve been some very colorful exceptions.  My favorite was the New York Times best seller who I had been exchanging some notes with because we admired each other’s work. That author invited me and my spouse over for drinks the next time we were in New York.The visit was going to be one fun piece of a blowout birthday weekend that included dinner at the Russian Tea Room.  When we got to New York and I called from the luxury hotel we’d splurged on, the writer insisted I had the date wrong. That wasn’t possible, since, well, I did know my own birthday and had said I was coming in for it. This literary star was super frosty on the phone and even sent a postcard later telling us about the wonderful menu we had missed….

But a childhood TV hero was staying at the hotel, and when I saw him in the lobby I got to tell him how much I loved his show; I spent time that weekend with my best friend from college; the hotel’s Sunday brunch was stupendous; and I had terrific seats to see B.D. Wong and John Lithgow in M. Butterfly.

This wasn’t the only weird interaction with an author, but in the end, the generous and friendly ones have vastly outnumbered the others.  And the exceptions have given me great material….

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

 

When an Author Meets Fans

Though I’d been publishing stories all through the 1980s, it wasn’t until I was in my first anthology in 1988 that I started getting reviewed and meeting fans on a wider basis.

I was at an awards banquet in D.C. and the first person I ran into as I walked to the the banquet hall was one of my favorite authors, novelist Edmund White.  I told him how much I enjoyed his work and when he asked my name, he said, “Oh, I loved your story” and went on to talk about it in laudatory terms.  He dilated about career and getting started, warned me against dissing my peers in public, and when I said I was headed for Paris told me to look him up there.

edmund white youngI was just starting out, and soon I would be publishing books on a regular basis, getting reviews, doing radio, print and TV interviews and living the author’s vida loca.  I met fans all the time, often in large numbers.  It was always deeply humbling.

The coolest moments, though, would be the unexpected ones. no matter who the reader was.  Sometimes someone at an airport while I was on a book tour would come over to say they recognized me from a newspaper or magazine interview and tell me how much they liked a book or  a particular story.  Or I’d be having dinner or lunch by myself and a server would say, “Aren’t you–?” and thank me for whatever book meant something to them.

Waiting for boardingIt’s continued to happen closer to home, too.  The other day I was checking out at a grocery store and a woman walked by said “You probably don’t remember me–”  But I did because she’d gone to a recent writing conference I keynoted.  She’d bought a copy of my first book of stories, which came out in 1990.  “I didn’t know if I would connect to them or not, but I did.  To all of them!”  She said she could never imagine readers connecting to her work like that.

I laughed:  “Every writer worries about it.  You just have to keep writing and find the heart of your work.”

I was tired that morning, but I left the store feeling great.  Yes, I’ve gotten standing ovations from crowds of 500, and awards, and sold my literary papers to a university library, and gone on book tours in Europe, and been reviewed in the New York Times more than once–but this brief conversation reminded me why I started to write so many years ago.  To touch readers, one by one by one.

o-READING-BOOK-HAPPY-facebookLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them at Amazon.

The New York Times Outs a “Blurb Whore”

This week Malcolm Gladwell was outed by the New York Times as a “blurb whore.” The Times didn’t actually label him that, but it’s the term publishing insiders use for an author like Gladwell whose name appears promiscuously on book jackets.

The Times article revealed how often Gladwell blurbs books totally outside his own areas of expertise and that his name “adorns scores of book covers not his own.”

If blurbing were an Olympic sport, he’d clearly get the gold.

“It’s hard to compete with Malcolm Gladwell,” said A.J. Jacobs, the author of four books, including The Year of Living Biblically, who was once such a prolific blurbist, his publisher demanded that he stop writing them. “He is always going to get the front cover. I get the back cover or, maybe, inside.”

Gladwell’s blurb helped make Freakonomics a best seller and publishers hope for similar success for their books when they enlist the nation’s Blurber-in-Chief.

33578-malcolm-gladwell-journaliste-auteur-origine

The Times reported that Gladwell hands blurbs out “like Santa,” though he doesn’t seem to care if authors are naughty or nice. No matter what the book’s genre, it does seem to help, though, if there’s a personal connection: “Many of the people for whom Mr. Gladwell has written blurbs he knows socially or has even dated.”

But the personal apparently goes deeper than that.

When Jacobs wrote about his “blurbing problem” a few years ago in the Times, he said that Gladwell told him tweeting and blurbing were “conceptually identical: the short, targeted judgment in which the initiator draws attention to himself while seeming to draw attention to something else.”

Blurbing is clearly an ego-boost and good publicity for authors writing blurbs, no matter how famous they are. Jacobs confessed in that article: “I get a thrill from seeing my name scattered throughout the bookstore.”

His tone was less serious than Gladwell’s, but the story sounds very much the same: “Me! Me! Me!”

Lev Raphael’s books–from mystery to memoir–can be found on Amazon.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Authors Can Be Sitting Ducks

Isn’t it amazing what people think they can say to authors at signings or readings?

They’ll criticize characters, plot, writing style, or the way a book ends–and rudely, too.  And then not even buy a book.  They’ll just unload on the author who’s a captive and has to be polite and just take it, no matter how unfair and uninformed the comments may be.

Mean NerdSometimes events can work your last nerve, but sometimes the situation’s just different enough where you don’t just take it.  That happened to me once at a university where things went awry from my getting off the plane.  The minion picking me up announced that she had no sense of direction, and got me lost 1) in the airport 2) in the parking structure and 3) in the city on the way to my hotel when we went drove in the wrong direction for at least ten minutes.

road-map-lost-imageWhen we finally got to it, the hotel room in a dinky “annex” was filthy with cobwebs and dust balls everywhere.  I called the host professor and asked to be moved somewhere else, but he insisted on seeing it for himself, assuming I was a diva, I guess.  He took one look and moved me to a Hilton Garden Inn.  But that was the end of his competence, because rather than do a short intro to my talk and reading, he read from my official, page-long author biography.  Slowly.

I timed him.  It took ten minutes.  And he stuttered.  Still, I made it through and was doing fine until the Q&A when someone raised my first novel Winter Eyes where a son of survivors is unsure of his sexuality and sleeps with a man and a woman at different times.  That gay reader accused me of “brutalizing” him with the open ending, and leaving him alone with his pain.

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I wasn’t rude, but I said plainly that he had misread the book and the characters who believed at the end that labels didn’t matter at that moment in their lives.  And if he was in pain, it wasn’t the fault of my book, but his issues that he needed to deal with.

I’d never been that assertive in a Q&A, but it had to be said.

Would I have replied as I did if the afternoon and early evening had gone better?  Maybe not.  But I felt I had to stick up for myself as an author and stick up for my book.  And for authors everywhere….

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

Authors: Don’t Sabotage Your Book Readings

Readings make a lot of writers nervous.  After all, we spend most of our time alone, well, alone with the voices in our head, anyway.

writing handsSo you can understand that for some of us, when we get invited to speak about our work and read from it at a book store or library or college, we goof.  We don’t choose the right excerpt, we don’t take the time to plan our remarks, we don’t practice our reading.

But the most egregious thing I’ve seen authors do is sabotage their own readings without any idea they’re doing it.  What do I mean?

Some authors will feel their best chance of establishing a bond with their audience is to start with something like, “On the way over here, I was going over about what I planned to say” or “When I was invited here today, I was wondering what you might want to hear” or even “I haven’t tried it before, but I’m pretty sure this part of the book might work.”

boratTaking people “behind the scenes” in those ways can come across as way too informal.  It’s also inappropriate. The audience doesn’t need to hear about how you put your talk and reading together or hear you share your doubts.  This isn’t a workshop about doing an event–this is the event itself.  There’s really no need to start with any kind of “process preamble.”

Then there are the authors trying way too hard to be funny. Of course, jokes or cute anecdotes are fine, but keep them short–if you go that route at all. Your work is what you’re there to represent, not your dazzling comedic personality.  Because remember at the end of the day, you’re still a writer, not Chris Rock or a talk show host whose meanderings are part of the act.  Nobody invited you for your shtik.

ellenSome authors nervously mark time.  Sharing a stage with other authors they’ll mistakenly  comment, “Well, it’s been a long night, and–”  Yes it has, but keep that to yourself and pretend everyone just got there. Or, “As the middle author of five tonight, I think I should be the one to boost your energy in case it’s flagging…”  No you shouldn’t.  What if people weren’t tired until you said it?  And if they were, your bringing it up isn’t likely to make them feel better.  Or, “I’m going to keep this short.”  Whoa!  That’ll make the audience start looking at watches rather than you.

Don’t ever take your audience behind the scenes. You need to play your part in a solo or group event without calling attention to the performance in any way–and that’s exactly what it is, a performance in front of an audience.  What you need to exemplify is the Italian sprezzatura: the art that conceals all art.  Do you want to come across as polished, or do you want to possibly come across as uncertain and even bumbling?

WizOfOzGetting things right takes a lot of time and effort.  It also takes thinking through every aspect of the event, from the nature of your audience to your goals to your own role as, like it or not, the star–or at least co-star.  The audience deserves it, whether you’re speaking to 5 or 500.

Lev Raphael has done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents–and in more than one language.  He’s the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.

Bizarre Things People Say To Authors

Nobody tells you that when you publish a book, it becomes a license for total strangers to say outrageous things to you that you could never imagine saying to anyone.

I’m not just talking about people who’ve actually bought your book. Even people who haven’t read your book feel encouraged to share, in the spirit of helpfulness.

At first, when you’re on tour, it’s surprising, then tiring — but eventually it’s funny, and sometimes it even gives you material for your next book. All the comments on this list have been offered to me or other writer friends in almost exactly these words:

“I liked your book, but I hated the ending.”

“Your characters shouldn’t be so nice.”

“Your characters should be more likeable.”

“You need more sex in your books.”

“There was too much sex in your book.”

“The book doesn’t make sense unless there’s a sequel.”

“You used too many words I had to look up.”

“Too bad you’re not better known.”

“It was fun but it’ll never sell.”

“My bookstore doesn’t carry any of your books.”

“I found some typos in your book — you should fix that.”

“I’d like you to write my book.”

“Ewww.  What’s up with that cover?”

“Can you tell your agent about me?”

am i 4“You have a way with words.”

“Your stories are too short.  Did they leave something out at the factory?”

“You need to put a nice lesbian in your next book.”

“I have a 2,000 page manuscript, I think you’d really enjoy editing it for me.”

frustratedwomanLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Authors: Don’t Let Reviewers Hold You Hostage

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

123rf frustration laptop over head123rf frustration laptop over headAs a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in genres from memoir to biography.

People Will Say Anything to Writers

Did you get fired from your real job?

What do you write? (long pause) Oh.

Aren’t there enough books out there already?

asterisk blog photo Do you know Stephen King?

I’m into gaming.

You should write a book about my life, it’s a bestseller for sure.

123rf frustration laptop over head123rf frustration laptop over headsquintMy sister reads a lot. Have you written anything she would know?

I liked your book except for the characters.

I’m gonna write someday, when I get some spare time.

jokeyYou should write a screenplay! That’s where all the money really is.

Your book was…interesting.

I thought books were dead.

If you’re a writer, what kinds of off-the wall comments and questions have you heard?

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction which you can find on Amazon.

My Bastille Day Faux Pas in France

Edith WhartonYears ago when I was researching a book on Edith Wharton’s psychology and fiction, I visited her home north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.  It was less than an hour north of the city and I’d written ahead long in advance to get permission to explore it and take pictures.  I didn’t realize my clueless publisher would have no interest in the photos, not even an author photo of me in her garden. The ways of publishing have always been mysterious….

Arriving in that small town of fewer than 15,000 citizens, and fluent in French, I was puzzled that nobody I asked on the street seemed to know where Rue Edith Wharton was.  I kept getting responses of “Desolé, M’sieu, connais pas.”  Sorry, don’t know. Finally I resorted to the Town Hall for a map to find the home Wharton called Pavillon Colombe, which was built in the late 18th century for an actress.  I later learned that the street had only recently been renamed for Wharton, which was probably why citizens couldn’t help me.

pavillon colombeThough the facade of her home is aloof and impersonal, it opened into a cool, dark hall, beyond which, through French doors, stretched a sunny parterre. A shy maid showed me into a gorgeous salon filled with beautiful paintings, tables, books, and bibelots. A bell rang somewhere and the maid said, Madame la Princesse vienne. I stood there trying to figure out why she was using the subjunctive tense to tell me that the princess was coming (what was wrong with the regular present?), and I felt that I was in way over my head.

But I couldn’t help relishing the elegant rooms opening onto each other and onto the parterre.  This was my first time ever in a French home of such grace and beauty.

Princess Isabelle von und zu Liechtenstein, the wife of Pavillon Colombe’s owner, strode up through the garden.  She was drop-dead chic in black and grey with a colorful Chanel scarf at her throat, her hair in a chignon. As she passed wailing peacocks, she called out to two bounding white borzois in a high piping voice.  It was an entrance like something out of a stage play, dramatic and somewhat intimidating.

Madame la Princesse gave me a brisk but exceedingly gracious tour through the house that bore no trace of Wharton’s former presence.  On my own I toured the garden which also had changed since Wharton’s day, but still showed signs of her planning.  In the Italian style, it was a tranquil, inviting progression of orderly spaces, light giving way to shadow, square spaces to round, grass to fountains.

Upon leaving and thanking my host, I struck the absolute wrong note.  Bastille Day was coming up and I made some reference to it, because I’d never been in France before on July14th and was looking forward to the fireworks.

eiffel-tower-fireworksWithout thinking, I asked if the Princess had any special plans.  “Je porte toujours le deuil,” she said with no change of expression: “I always wear mourning.”  She added that her husband was a descendent of Queen Marie Antoinette. My French failed me.  My English failed me. Had I spoken German at the time, that would have failed me, too.  Luckily, I was on my way out.  It does make a good story, though, something Wharton herself might have enjoyed.  I suppose the Princess’s version might be even more entertaining–if she’s ever deigned to tell it, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.  This anecdote is taken from his study Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame.

The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

Writers don’t tend to talk openly about their disappointments. It’s too revealing and often too painful. But we’ve all had them in one form or another, whether it’s a prize we didn’t get or a book that bombed.

My biggest one in a decades-long career came by way of an agent. This wasn’t your ordinary agent.  Oh, no.  She was one of the biggest in the country, with clients on the best seller list and a history of major deals.

When she read my book, she gave me the kind of feedback for making changes you’d expect from the best, smartest, most tuned-in editor. And her emails were as upbeat as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Working with her her was like jamming with a fellow jazz musician–we were so much in sync. But there were some false notes. She wanted the book to open in a way I thought was deadly dull, and she wanted to change the title to something awful.

I won about the title, but caved on the opening. Maybe she saw something I didn’t? Then she she arranged meetings in New York with almost two dozen bigwigs in publishing–people at the very top of their houses or imprints, people I’d read about but never dreamed would be looking at a book of mine.

Her talk was as bold and inspiring as her editorial advice. There was going to be an auction, and she thought $100,000 was a good floor. This was dizzying to someone who’d never gotten more than a $15,000 advance on a book.

Then the bomb dropped. She launched her campaign to sell my book just before Thanksgiving, even though I’d expressed some anxiety about that,  I’d always thought the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s was when publishing slowed way, way down. At least in my experience, and I had published quite a few books by then. On top of that, the stock market had collapsed in New York, publishers were firing staff and in a state of panic.

depressionI’ll never know if she would have sold the book in a better financial climate, but I do that when she failed, know she dropped me in a New York minute, wouldn’t consider revisions and acted as if as if I had somehow disappointed her.  Her advice at that point was brief: “Why don’t you write a memoir? Those are flying out the door!”  And then she handed me off to her assistant.

I was crushed. That’s not hyperbole.  Six years later, the wound of being revved up by her and then dropped still stings.

I told her I’d already written a memoir that was being published (and had sold before I signed with her) and couldn’t write another on command.  Besides, even if I could, I wondered if she would have as much success with a memoir of mine as she had with my novel.

Ironically, that memoir hadn’t earned me much of an advance, but when it was published soon after this debacle, it scored me dozens of very well-paid speaking gigs in the U.S., Canada, and Germany.  I made many new friends, And then I sold my current and future literary papers to Michigan State University’s Special Archives for a satisfying sum at a time when authors I know were having trouble giving their papers away.

A very dark time turned deeply fulfilling, almost magical. As we say in New York, “Who knew?”  When I related this crazy sequence of events to a friend, he said, “Writers can be as normal as anyone else, but their lives are manic depressive.”  And he couldn’t be more right.  We go from high to low, sometimes within the same day, our careers as crazy as the stock market, trying to hold onto what really matters: the work we’ve devoted our lives to.

inexpressible_joy

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S. and has been translated into 15 languages.  You can read more about his books at his web site.