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 head

My 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.

7 Reasons I’ll Skip “Go Set a Watchman”

1) As a longtime print, radio, and on-line reviewer, I’ve always recoiled at massive media hype. I prefer to champion small press books and books that fly under the radar–and they make me more curious. It annoys me to see a book blitzed so relentlessly, and when a PR stampede roars into life, I’m suspicious and get the hell out of the way.

stampede2) When it comes to my favorite Southern writers, over the years I’ve preferred reading Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Allison, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and Faulkner.  Yes, Lee won a Pulitzer–but even though her classic book is wildly popular, it’s not at the top of my personal list.

3) The circumstances around the “discovery” of the book get murkier all the time and it’s increasingly probable that Go Set a Watchman is really an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and not actually a “new novel.”  Lee’s own previous comments about her working relationship with her editor make that pretty clear.

190px-Mockingbirdfirst4) It’s unlikely that aged, infirm Lee had anything to do with publishing the manuscript.  Her own sister was quoted by Lee’s biographer as saying, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”  Where’s the proof she would want us reading what she’d kept private for so long?

harper-lee_3374329b5) Reading about Go Set a Watchman and reading excerpts (including Chapter One in The Wall Street Journal) hasn’t made it seem appealing.  That includes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker quoting a drab passage I’m supposed to find “lovely.”  None of the reviewers has convinced me it’s a better or more interesting book than To Kill a Mockingbird.

6) If Lee weren’t famous, the manuscript (however it had been discovered) wouldn’t have been anything more than an archival curiosity.  It’s something a scholar might have eventually published with “apparatus”: notes, timeline, an introduction, etc.  But the Rupert Murdoch Money Machine has helped turn it into a global event instead.

Colorful fireworks lighting the night sky7) HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said that “We [only] gave the book a very light copy edit.”  So Harper Lee is such a genius that she can go right into print without real editing?  That smacks of opportunism, sloppiness, or dishonesty.  I don’t want any part of a book published in such circumstances. I might, however, watch Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird again to see if it holds up or if–like the novel–it’s just something that meant a lot to me in my adolescence….

"To Kill a Mockingbird"Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

 

Your First Drafts Are Not “Shitty”

I know, I know: Anne Lamott says they are in Bird by Bird so she must be right. A lot of people swear by her.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

squint“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity undermines your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott’s trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like that to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed.  Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities and cope with jealousy of other writers as it is.  We can brood endlessly about the wrong word spoken at the wrong time….

puzzled-lookI once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won the MFA program’s literary prize for that story so I was partly armored against his invective, but I still found his language deplorable.  I feel the same way when I hear stories from my own students who report how other professors have insulted their work, using words like “crap” and “shit.”

None of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and that they would need more work, sometimes much more work.  That was a given, part of the process.

For me, any draft is just opening a door, but with a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  So labeling it or dismissing it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.

I’m not saying that drafts make me want to put on a big hat and sing like Pharell, but every draft has possibility, and that makes me hopeful.

author 6Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery 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.

Why I Strongly Disagree With Anne Lamott

I know, I know: a lot of people swear by her.  And a lot of writers find her inspiring.

People especially like to quote the writing guru on the subject of first drafts.  She’s apparently very reassuring for anyone who fantasizes that established authors get it right the first time–though are there really folks naive enough to believe that?  They can’t have thought too seriously or deeply about writing.  But then there are also people who tell me that they’ll write a book if they ever get “some free time”–as if that’s all it took.

Lamott’s unsurprising points about revision are certainly valid: you have to keep revising, and revision is the heart of good writing for most writers. Where I think she goes seriously wrong in Bird by Bird is when she uses the word “shitty” to describe first drafts.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

puzzled-look“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity degrades your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott is ostensibly trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like shitty to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed in people who already have to deal with doubts about their abilities and cope with their jealousy of other writers.

Of course, if she says it, she must be right, and she’s spawned hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who throw the words “shitty” and “shit” around in connection with their work without thinking through its implications.

I once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won that MFA program’s literary prize for the story so I was partly armored against his slam, but I was still offended.  I feel the same way when I hear reports from my own students who report what other professors have said to them about their work.

In that same Bird by Bird essay, Lamott also talks about how much writers suffer, and how writing is never rapturous.  Well maybe some writers do suffer the torments of hell, and maybe for some writers their work is like a series of root canals without anesthesia, but never rapturous?  Her writer friends must be really miserable.  Many of the writers I’ve met actually enjoy writing.  Yes, it’s true!  They’re not martyrs–they love what they do.

You do not have to suffer to be a writer.  It is not a requirement.  It is not a badge of honor.  It is not a proof that you’re a professional.  And you definitely do not have to disparage your own work.

None of my 25 books has tormented me when I wrote them, and none of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and I knew they would need more work.  For me, any draft is just opening a door, that’s all.  I don’t need to label it or dismiss it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed.  I just keep working.

author 6Publishing is where I’ve encountered misery, true misery, because I had so little control once the work left my desk.  And that includes even publishing in magazines and newspapers where editors could sometimes make changes I objected to, changes that distorted what I’d written.

But writing itself? Yes, I do find that intensely pleasurable; I always have and likely always will.  Writing is a high for me, one of life’s great joys.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been writing a book or a story.  And that was even before I started earning money as a author.  How cool is that?

arms wideLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

 

 

Getting Fantastic Fan Mail

I’ve been getting fan mail for many years now and from many places–but last week was the first time someone wrote me from Brazil.

Just seeing the word “Brazil” curiously shot me right back to 7th grade Social Studies class where I had a snooty teacher who liked taunting us students.

One day he was lamenting how little we knew about current events.  He said we probably didn’t know any world leaders outside of our own president and I raised my hand and said, “The President of Brazil is Costa e Silva.”  I had seen the name in the New York Times, which my parents read daily, and it somehow stuck in my head.  This only briefly deflected our teacher’s snide little speech, but I still remember his beady-eyed glare….

brazil flagBack then, even though I had my favorite authors like Dumas and Isaac Azimov, and I sometimes dreamed of being a writer myself, I never thought about fan mail.  When it started coming after I published my first short story in Redbook years later, I wrote back to everyone (of course now it’s email).  That’s because when I was only about twelve, I wrote to an author of a YA novel and he actually replied–from Paris.  I lost many things over the years through moves, but never lost that.

So here’s my surprising Brazilian fan email (with the town name and the writer’s omitted for privacy):

I am writing to you all the way from ——–  in the countryside of Pernambuco, a Northeastern state of Brazil. I teach American Literature at a federal university, and I would like you to know that your work is read by my students, and it is really inspiring to us all.

Because my students are usually at different levels of English language acquisition, I usually have them read and analyze short stories. The one we worked on this term was “Shouts of Joy,” from Secret Anniversaries of the Heart. We all loved it!

Congratulations on your great and inspiring work!

secret LRThe story they all enjoyed appeared in my first collection of short stories Dancing on Tisha B’Av which won a Lambda Literary Award.  It was later reprinted in the book mentioned and pictured above, which collects 25 years of my short fiction.  I originally published “Shouts of Joy”–an erotic Passover tale–in the mid-1980s.

Given all the time that’s passed, getting mail about that story is like finding a letter in a bottle washed onto a beach: mysterious and fascinating.  It’s almost as if it’s happened to someone else, as if I’m a character in a story, or I’m a reading a story about someone else getting this email.  In fact it is, since I’ve published so many stories since then, so many books, and become such a different writer.

What do I mean? Back when I conceived, wrote and published “Shouts of Joy,” I thought I’d only write short stories for the rest of my career.  I’d started my career by having won a big writing prize and publishing in Redbook–which had 4.5 million readers-before I left my MFA program, and there were many short stories writers I idolized.

But life had other, more interesting plans for me, and I’ve ended up writing in genres I never dreamed would call to me, including psychology and historical fiction.

Hearing now about the impact of this thirty-year-old story of mine makes me wonder who–if anyone–might be reading it thirty years from today, and where.  You know,  I think there might actually be a short story in that…..

author 6If you’re a writer, what’s some cool fan mail you’ve gotten, and if you’re a fan, what’s the most surprising response to your fan mail you’ve received?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.