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/

“So…How Autobiographical Is Your Fiction?”

That’s the most common question people have asked me at the hundreds of readings, talks, and signings I’ve done over the years.  It especially comes up if I’ve read a story or part of book that’s been written in the first person.

Sometimes I’ll joke and throw out a figure like “Seventeen percent” or say “The adjectives–that’s where you’ll find the real me.” People laugh, and then I have to add “Everything.”  I’m serious when I say that.

Everything I write is autobiographical, no matter the genre, because I wrote it. Each book and short story derives from my experience in one way or another.

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That’s what I explain to my creative writing students, too, when they quote the dictum “Write what you know” and feel intimidated by it.

What we writers know isn’t just direct personal experience.    It includes all the stories of family and friends we’ve heard and anything we’ve ever experienced secondhand. It includes everything we’ve ever read in whatever form.  It includes world events and local events even if we only watched reports about them on TV or the Web.  And it includes every dream, everything we’ve ever imagined or hoped for.  The nightmares count, too.

Sometimes beginning writers tell me they don’t feel they have anything worth writing about because nothing’s ever happened to them, nothing “dramatic.”  I encourage them to step back and realize that their experience is already vast, if they’re open enough to see it, explore it, and mine it.  As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 25 books in many genres including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

My Legacy As An Author

This past week someone from Michigan State University’s Special Archives stopped by stop by to pick up seven boxes that will be catalogued and added to The Lev Raphael Papers.  They were filled with materials from conferences I spoke at, drafts of my next book, and “association copies”: books signed to me by other authors. All these items help fully document the life of a writer in the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

I was fortunate to sell my literary papers to the university where I had done my PhD. Michigan is where my career took off after five years of publishing drought, and it’s been my home for more than half my life. It plays a role in many of my books, so there couldn’t be a more appropriate place for me to leave my legacy as an author. Not just published books, but everything that both went into them and that followed their publication: research, journal entries, reviews, interviews, posters and flyers from my book tours, and even gifts from fans.

Special Collections will also get more journals and diaries than they already have, but that’s after I’m dead, or if I’m just tired of them taking up cupboard space. Someone once asked me at a reading how I could let all this material out of my hands.  It’s easy.  I’m enriching a collection for future researchers and freeing myself of connections to the work I’ve already done.  It clears my mind.

When I was growing up and dreamed of being a writer, I never imagined that there would be so much “stuff” connected to that career. It’s enjoyable to review it all as it goes into labeled folders and then boxed, and even more fun to let it go and move on to the next book–which will of course get boxes of its own.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon.  He has almost two decades of university teaching behind him and you can study creative writing on line with Lev at writewithoutborders.com.

My First Trip To Canada

I grew up in a wildly multilingual family and Canada’s bilingual nature fascinated as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  It was just a short flight from New York, but felt as distant and exotic as Belgium where my parents had lived for awhile.

I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was perfect. Even the subjunctive somehow sunk in. 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 (unlike my older brother whose French was not very good).

He 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 in a hot house—now it was alive, transactional.

Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies just the same. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked by a suspicious agent if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some 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 the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language. Oh, and how difficult it was walking in stalked heels on cobblestones (it was the early 70s, remember?). I

I knew then that I’d be back—and in more suitable shoes.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir, He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University and also teaches creative writing on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com

Teaching Creative Writing Shouldn’t Be An Xtreme Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty members invariably tell me  behind-the-scenes stories.  The tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, and ridiculous vendettas make great raw material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series.

But I’ve also heard stories from students that aren’t funny, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. These teachers seem to enjoy badgering and browbeating students as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or “That’s crap.  Stop reading.”  This behavior is abusive and inexcusable.

I’ve heard of some creative writing professors who are so intimidating that they make students shake with fear. Others I’ve been told about play favorites and don’t let everyone read work aloud. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a community, not a cage match.  Why do any professors believe they have a right to make their students suffer?

I teach the way I was taught by an amazing creative writing teacher at Fordham University who became my mentor and model. She ran her writing 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.

Teaching isn’t combat, 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, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work–without tearing them down. 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 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

A Comic Novel Finally Wins The Pulitzer For Fiction

If you need to laugh in these troubled times, Less might be just right for you.  A book of sly wit and comedic gusto, it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve reviewed in years, a wicked take on the writing life–and much more.  And it’s only the fourth comic novel to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Greer’s hero Less is a novelist who’s “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Facing fifty has doubled his sense of failure and impending doom.  Desperate to escape an ex-lover’s wedding, he’s actually constructed his own around-the-world author tour made up of wildly disparate events.

His ports of call? Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, France, Morocco, Japan—all of which he observes and appreciates with the eye of a poet. And why not? He spent years in love with an older, Pulitzer-winning poet—a certified genius who was as hard to live with as a tiger. That demanding, driven poet unintentionally deprived him of a separate identity. Less is still better known for his ex-lover than for his own work—and he’s not remotely Kardashian enough to make a career out of that.

Wherever he goes, Less faces “writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.” He’s publicly pronounced to be mediocre, he’s informed that his work isn’t gay enough, he’s mocked in Germany where he confidently speaks enough German to confound and annoy people around him because of his awful blunders. Yet this holy fool is sexually charismatic in his own way, apparently able to stun men with just a touch…though he’s not remotely a great lover.

I laughed all the way through the book, recognizing publishing types like the withholding literary agent, and I rooted for Less to become more. More forceful, more insightful, and more in control of his own life. I won’t reveal whether he does any of that, the ending, or how ingenious Greer’s narrative is, but I have to praise his gift for striking, off-kilter images like these:

The view out his window was of a circular brick plaza, rather like a pepperoni pizza, which the whistling wind endlessly seasoned with dry leaves.

In the suburbs of Delaware, spring meant not young love and damp flowers but an ugly divorce from winter and a second marriage to buxom summer.

Less was so deeply satisfying that I put everything aside last year to read it straight through one weekend. Colorful, hilarious, incisive, and surprisingly moving, it deserves to be read alongside satirical classics about the writing life like Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and John Updike’s Bech at Bay.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

“Phantom Thread” is a Hot Mess

I’ve been a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis since The Last of the Mohicans, which I’ve seen many times. As the critics say, nobody inhabits a role the way he does. So after all the raves for Phantom Thread, and the Oscar nominations, I expected to swoon over what’s apparently going to be his last film.

He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a successful haute couture designer in London in the 1950s who’s meticulous, eccentric, obsessive, and an uber-curmudgeon. Someone “noisily” buttering her toast at breakfast can apparently spoil the equilibrium of his entire day. Woodcock’s no-nonsense, stylish, highly efficient  sister is his business partner and their bond is intense.  Then a disruptive force comes into their lives when Woodcock invites Alma, a waitress he meets outside of London, to move in, work at his atelier, and be a model.

And that’s when the movie slowly goes off the rails, losing all psychological believability. We don’t know anything significant about Alma’s background–and barely anything about Woodcock’s–so the attraction between them seems shadowy and even creepy.

It becomes more than that when Woodcock impulsively decides to marry Alma and almost immediately finds her a malign influence on his couture business: “There’s the smell of death in this house” he laments to his sister, and he can’t concentrate on his work. As if we’ve switched to some kind of dark fable, Alma poisons him to get him under her control. Twice. And he seems to enjoy it.  I’m not making any of that up.

None of this is convincing or coherent in a movie that relishes surfaces: beautiful interiors, gleaming dress fabrics, pearls shining on aristocratic necks.  What’s sadly missing in this film that drags on past two hours is background and depth.  Who are these people, really, and what makes them behave the way they do?

On a more basic level, but just as important, what’s Woodcock’s status in the world of fashion?  Why are his clothes suddenly not fashionable enough for some clients?  The gorgeous surfaces and the inside view of the intense labor involved by a whole team of people to create couture may be dazzling–but they cover up way too many gaps and ambiguities.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and on line at writewithoutborders.com.