A Writer Falls In Love Abroad

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.

Being a Newbie Author Is Exhausting

It’s not easy for newbie writers.  Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be truly successful.  Go indie!  Publish traditionally!  Do both! The advocates of every path offer mind-blowing proof of their reasoning in blogs and books.  The barrage is as overwhelming as middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim your belly fat in only ten-minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat.  You can’t look like that without a personal trainer, religious devotion to the proper diet, and even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”   You have to have the right DNA.

chariotsI’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world: Publish the way I did because look how great things turned out for me.  Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon.  Or both.

First-time authors sometimes do well with a New York press, and sometimes do well going indie.  It’s all a crapshoot.

roll-of-the-diceMost authors will never reach the heights of the “experts,” and not through any fault of their own.  It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how amazing your book is: luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled.  Books have their own karma.  The right book at the right time published in the right way, well, that’s golden.

But nobody can predict when it’s going to happen. Not publicists, editors, agents, or publishers. And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, sometimes they just make the rest of the writing world–especially newbies–us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something predictable like, oh I don’t know, politics?  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, published by many different publishers. His career has been a roller coaster.

Why Writers Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters clustered around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

Brown_ladyWe have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more.  Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to.  There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are somewhat more insidious.  These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t.  And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

confused lookI’ve got a full file drawer for just one novel alone that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about.  Every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability.  It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy material about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been.  The further away from it I get, the less inviting the whole project becomes.

I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

Writing, Wandering, and Museums

I was recently in Philadelphia on a museum trip and I’m still musing as a writer about the experience.

One of my destinations was the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Rodin Museum, which I’ve blogged about on The Huffington Post.  The Barnes is a work of art itself.  The approach and giant entry hall were so stately and cool in 90-degree heat that I felt like I’d taken a Valium, or a sea cruise, or a twenty-minute balloon ride high above the city. Choose your metaphor.

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DSC01278The collection is unique for its stunning array of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, and Manets–and how they’re displayed.  This is not like any museum you’ve ever been to.  Because each room replicates the original collection miles away to the millimeter, with paintings and furniture and objects arranged as ensembles.  Of course, the setting is modern all the same, so it’s not like The Frick in New York with its Gilded Age opulence intact in room after luscious room.

Frick2At the Barnes, the original mission was to teach underprivileged art students, not stupefy or dazzle visitors, and Barnes was constantly fussing with his collection as he acquired new pieces.

barnes-foundation-rm23w-600Subjects and objects complement and even interrogate each other in geometric arrangements (as you can see above), or even have amusing dialogues.  In one room, there’s a Rubens of an ecstatic King David playing the harp.  His eyes are rolling up in his head and he seems to be staring right at the fleshy buttocks of a Renoir nude hanging right above him.

rubensThe guided tour I took was informative, but as usual, I found myself drifting from the more famous paintings to unexpected canvases that captured me, like a gripping Modigliani that had a kind of proto-Jazz Age insouciance.  She seemed both tender and wild.  I wanted to know her story (or possibly write it?).

bf206The Barnes itself and moments like these in museums remind me so much of the writing life.

First, different books I read speak to each other, interact in surprising ways, spark projects I never expected to write.  Or stories, essays, even books I write end up going together in ways I could never have imagined: they start an unexpected internal dialogue, even ignite a controversy.  Which leads to more writing, more “arrangements” in my mind, in the body of my work.  Every story or book I’ve written has added to the whole in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  And like Barnes, I’m constantly re-arranging.

Then I have certain projects in mind, might even have launched them with some kind of fanfare, and yet–  Something draws me off to another subject, to another vision, to another dream, another journey.  My day at the Barnes was like that at every single turn.  No matter what I was directed to look at by my smart and friendly guide, I kept drifting to a different painting or room or reflection or vision. I was on my own private tour.  But then what can you expect?  As Robert Heinlein said, “There is no way a writer can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured.”

I guess you could say that to write is to wander…..

Lev Raphael is the art-loving, travel-loving author of Book Lust: Essays For Book Lovers and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Summertime, and the Blogging is Easy….

I recently was reading comments on a blog about hard it is to blog along with everything else in a life and I thought, “Huh.”  I publish books; and I teach and mentor university students; and I’m married; and I travel; and I do radio reviewing; and I’m learning Swedish; and I’m planning a brand-new study abroad program; and I do readings from my books and keynote conferences and offer workshops; and I’m taking voice lessons.  Basically a full life.

Blogging still seems infinitely easier to me than when I worked for a handful of newspapers and one magazine as a freelance reviewer. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun and infinitely less stressful.

happy at pcI generally had no choice in my review assignments, with at least one book per week to review and often more.  I was constantly under deadline–my calendar was color coded for each news outlet.  I had to do revisions quickly and efficiently.  And sometimes I had to “turn” a book in 24 hours.  That is, read and write a well-crafted, literate, punchy review of anywhere up to 1,000 words.  Pressure mounted if an author was on tour or I had to do an interview.

Vintage-Frustrated-WriterCompared to that, blogging is like making a cup of coffee on my Braun one-cup machine.  Or walking the dog.  It’s easy.  The pressure I feel around blogging isn’t to produce and fast, it’s the typical writer’s demands: to get things right, to shape my ideas well, to avoid typos.  And thanks to doing it all myself, if I catch an error or somebody else does, I can correct that ASAP.  Likewise, if an idea occurs to me for restructuring, or if I want to make even minor changes, Boom.

But best of all, I’m my own boss.  I make my own schedule.  I choose my own subjects and timetable.  And I like my working environment.  🙂

I once had a book editor at a newspaper who blithely said, “I’m not much of a book person.”  Don’t ask me how this individual landed the job. That editor didn’t want me to review books that were in any way under the radar, but mainly the books that everybody already knew were out there or about to be published.  In other words, the books you couldn’t avoid seeing or hearing about: the best sellers.  That worked my last nerve.  Did the world really need more coverage of Stephen King?

But even worse, this editor had the perverse habit of cutting out the positive lines from a review and making it sound overly negative, or axing the negative and making it sound overly positive.  Content meant nothing to her, neither did style–and I crafted my reviews carefully to be balanced, so I was irritated. Finally, I had to write “defensively.”  I had to figure out how to write reviews that were what I began to think of as “armored”–incapable of being cut by this nimrod.  It worked, but it was exhausting.

That was the worst part of freelancing–working for people who could be difficult.  When I’m even remotely difficult, you know what? I stop writing and–you guessed it–make a cup of coffee or take the dog for a walk.  Or both.

Westie-terrier-by-Jeffrey-Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, a Gilded Age Romance, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Writing–I Can’t Quit You!

Do you remember the JetBlue flight attendant who freaked out a few years back? Somebody worked his last nerve, so he not only announced how fed up he was on the intercom, he grabbed a beer from the beverage cart and left via an emergency slide.  Cue the music from Rocky!

cutcaster-photo-100251510-Emergency-exit-door What a way to quit a job, but how do you make a grand exit if you’re a writer and you’re not somebody famous like Philip Roth?

I had early success. My first good short story won a prize with a famous editor as the judge.  Then it was published in Redbook, which had millions of readers.  The story garnered me lots of cash, fan mail, and queries from agents. It also turned my head, not that I needed much encouragement there. I grew up in glamorous New York and getting a story into a national magazine seemed a natural first step. What other possibilities were there?

NYCFive years of drought followed. Well, there was actually a vile crop: I reaped endless rejection letters. Nothing I wrote was accepted anywhere by anyone. I grew desperate to quit and contemplated various alternate careers.

This wasn’t the first desert I would have to cross in my 30 years as a published writer. I wanted to succeed, and I also wanted to quit. But writing wouldn’t let me. I was compelled to keep exploring my inner world and the world around me in short stories, which finally  started being published in the early 1980s.  The breakthrough didn’t just thrill me, it delighted all the friends who had been suffering along with me.

happy danceBut getting a book of stories published after that was unbelievably hard, especially when editors would say things like “I don’t like your metaphors and such.” My such? What the hell was that?  I confess I was tempted to write back and say, “My such is pretty damned good.”  Or “Such you!”

Facing another brick wall, I told my partner more than once, “I’m giving up writing as a career.” And I pictured gathering all my manuscripts together, building a bonfire and just getting rid of everything (including the discs).

bonfireIt wasn’t until I was reviewing for various magazines and newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post that I finally had an actual writing job, even if it was freelance. And even though I could quit whenever I wanted to, I enjoyed the deadline pressure, the challenges of reviewing across genres, and the interaction with editors and readers.

The guardian newsroom on a busy afternoonThe turnaround came in 1990 with my first book, but the ups and downs of publishing 25 books in many genres since have echoed the roller coaster of my early career. Things look great, then they look crappy, then I look for an exit. But there isn’t one. Because every time I’ve tried to or wanted to give up, fortune hands me a plum, or I get an idea for a new book and it won’t let me go.

The cold hard truth is what the late novelist Sheila Roberts one said to me, “I love the sheer sensual pleasure of putting one word next to another–there’s nothing else like it in the world.”  And she grinned.  Because she’s right.

Have you ever imagined giving up writing as a career and doing something completely different?

Lev Raphael’s 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery can be found 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.

 

 

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.

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

business-woman-thinkingThe thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Tina-TurnerCuriously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models, no even less: inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

Has a Teacher Changed Your Life?

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and I’m giving a shout-out to the writing professor who changed my life.  Her advice and guidance in college echo in my mind decades later now that I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University as a guest for several years.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus that I fell in love with writing itself.

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She was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia myself right after graduate school to teach for a few years before I quit to write full time. She didn’t believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.” Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She tried to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, to see it the way you did, making you feel like she was communing with you, not knocking you down.  And her overall goal was to create a community of learning, not set students against each other as rivals.

I took every class she taught and read two authors in her American Novel survey course who’ve stayed with me for thirty years, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Dr. Lauer is one reason why years later my second mystery The Edith Wharton Murders has two (fictional) Wharton societies at war with each other. In a tribute to her, I made my sleuth the author of a Wharton bibliography, just as she was. I also based one of the continuing characters in the series on her because she loved mysteries so much and I wanted to feel her presence in the books as I wrote them.

She said to me more than once in college–privately–that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something emotionally real. That was my El Dorado, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication. It was a story drawing on my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

I had already graduated and was in an MFA program, but she midwifed the story because she knew I was so anxious about broaching the subject matter. She made me read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, editor of The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which then had an audience of 4.5 million readers. It wouldn’t exist without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and mentoring.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the author I am today whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries. When MSU’s English department invited me to start teaching for them a few years ago as a guest, I realized that Dr. Lauer’s imprint was still so strong on me that I was teaching the way she did, interacting with students the way she would–filtered through my own personality, of course. And I remembered that after a terrific class one day I asked her how I could thank her. She smiled and said “Just pass it on.”

great-teachersLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.