When Did Writing Become a Damned War?

 

Lately I’ve been feeling like writing is a bloody battlefield — not for me, but for tens of thousands of writers across the Internet.

I’m talking about writers who seem frantic or depressed because they’re not writing fast enough every single day, as if they should be queen bees in a hive squeezing out their quota of eggs and the hive might collapse if they didn’t keep producing.

I read cries for help on social media from writers begging someone, anyone, to offer ways they can write more than 500 words a day, as if 500 words a day isn’t enough. And then I read jaunty, triumphant posts on those same platform from writers bragging about writing several thousand words a day.   

The writing world in America is infected with its own special virus. The sensible suggestion that beginning writers should try to write something daily to get themselves in the habit has seemingly become interpreted as a diktat for all writers all the time. What we write doesn’t matter, it’s how much we write every single day, as if our careers — no, our lives — depended on it. As if we’re the American war machine in 1943 determined to churn out more tanks, planes, and guns than Nazi Germany because the fate of the world is at stake.

I was mentored as a writer in a time when quality not quantity was the standard and I’m happy that’s the case, because yesterday I probably wrote fewer than a hundred words. But they were crucial words because they completely re-shaped the first chapter of the sequel I’m writing to my dark novella The Vampyre of Gotham set in 1910 Gilded Age New York.

I hadn’t written anything at all for a few days before that: I was just puzzling over what needed to be done before I was ready to return to my PC. If I don’t write anything more this week, that’s fine because what I did was exactly what was necessary for the new book to move forward. And I know, anyway, that I’m writing subconsciously now that I worked out the kink in my story line.  Writing happens to writers all the time, everywhere: we don’t need tablets, laptops, pens or pencils. 

And we don’t need to be driven by false quotas or to feel shame because somebody, somewhere is writing a short story every week (or maybe two!) and some weeks we can barely manage to piece together a decent metaphor.

There’s nothing wrong with having a daily goal if that works for you as a writer, but why should you feel crazed because you don’t reach that daily goal — what’s the sense in that? Why have we let the word count bully us and make us feel like miserable?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his fiction and creative nonfiction has been taught on college campuses across the country.  With twenty years of teaching experience, he now offers mentoring, tailored workshops, and editing at writewithoutborders.com.

Photo credit:madamepsychosis

Why Did I Ditch “The Undoing”?

Because it was boring and obvious. The murderer had to be Hugh Grant. But I kept up with the story since my spouse watched it religiously for the New York wealth porn (clothes!  interiors!).  So I got regular plot reports, and I also read media updates which tried to stir up a frenzy about a lukewarm project that had none of the electricity or coherence of Big Little Lies.

How did I know who the killer was? Well, one way was patterns. I’ve reviewed hundreds of mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and read many hundreds more on my own over the years. I’ve also written a crime series that’s earned kudos from major national newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

In classic crime fiction, the killer is often the least likely person. In this case, there was a meta piece to the puzzle. When you cast an actor renowned for his supernatural charm, there has to be one major reason: it’s a red herring.  “Hugh Grant?  But he’s such a sweetheart?  He can’t be a crazy killer!”  Well, duh, of course he can.  He has to be.

As for the other suspects? There just weren’t enough of them, enough to be believable, that is. Nicole Kidman didn’t know about the affair so how could it be her? Neither did Donald Sutherland. The son? Puh-leeze. Sylvia? What compelling motive did she have? Grant was the super-obvious choice from episode one and each subsequent episode nailed that coffin shut. 

In addition to the regular plot updates from my spouse, nothing about the snippets I occasionally caught when I wandered into the living room tempted me back to watch the miniseries. Things just didn’t add up. Kidman was a counselor when she looked dressed and groomed for a holiday in Paris staying at The Ritz? Inconceivable. It would be too distracting to the clients, and my psychologist spouse agreed. Kidman took late night walks in New York alone? Were the writers on drugs? My spouse and I both grew up in Manhattan and her solo strolls were totally unreal.

TIME magazine put it quite well: The show was “littered with predictable plot twists, hoary genre clichés, thin supporting characters and relatively little to say.”

But maybe it appealed to Americans in lockdown, the way Depression-era fans flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.  Too bad the miniseries didn’t have their wit or pizazz.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has been moderator or panelist at dozens of panels at mystery conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  He’s published 26 books in a wide range of genres and hundreds of short stories, essays, reviews, and blogs.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, by wajakemek | rashdanothman

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝐸𝑑𝑖𝑡ℎ 𝑊ℎ𝑎𝑟𝑡𝑜𝑛 𝑀𝑢𝑟𝑑𝑒𝑟𝑠 Giveaway

In my breakout mystery The Edith Wharton Murders, two rival Wharton societies are brought together in one conference–and murder results. I got the idea at a Wharton conference.

Nobody was killed there, but I think a lot of people had their pride wounded.  One of the keynote speakers subtly dissed the attendees for paying so much attention to Wharton (!) when there was another writer this professor considered more important. The keynote speaker went on to praise this lesser-known writer.

That was before smart phones, so nobody was able to look the writer up while the keynote address went on. I’ll always remember how that moment typified the jockeying for position that goes on in academia 24/7. But that’s the mild stuff.  Professors undermine their rivals’ reputations with gossip and hostile journal essays, poach each other’s graduate students, launch Twitter campaigns to get them removed from programs or even fired.

Of course it’s all much more entertaining in a mystery if you have actual corpses.

My college mentor, a Wharton bibliographer, was at the conference, and so I wrote her into the book as a best friend and relative of my sleuth Nick Hoffman. He’s been given the thankless task of bringing two warring factions in the Edith Wharton field together and thinks of them as no better than gangbangers with advanced degrees.   I invented snark of all kinds, inspired by stories people across the country had told me about Ivory Tower insanity, and motives for murder were easy to come by.

St. Martin’s Press published the book and I met with the editor who was in love with the whole idea at my favorite café near Lincoln Center. I was in New York for the American production of Tom Stoppard‘s stunning play Arcadia. I’d seen the original production in London a few years before, so the night was filled with glamour and excitement for me, and all of that comes back whenever I think about the book.

The mystery earned me my first review in the New York Times and it was a rave: a writer’s dream come true.  I will never forget how thrilled I was when my agent faxed the review to me.  One of the coolest things I heard about the book’s reception out in the world was that it wasn’t just showing up on mystery shelves at bookstores, it was also being shelved alongside books of Edith Wharton herself.

The Edith Wharton Murders is out now with a fourth publisher and a fun new cover (its fourth!). You can find a review and a book giveaway at the following website: https://www.krlnews.com/2020/09/the-edith-wharton-murders-by-lev-raphael.html

An Amazing Rave Review Thrust Me Into the Spotlight

The New York Times ruled in my family when I was growing up in Manhattan.  My mother especially loved the Sunday Magazine articles, my brother relished the daily puzzles, and I enjoyed reading book reviews and features about authors.

I wanted to be an author myself as early as second grade, when I started writing short stories.  And of course, I wanted to have a book of mine reviewed in the Times, someday because I thought that would be the ultimate sign I had made it.

Well, years later, I was heartbroken when I heard from a writer friend that he had heard my first book of short stories was going to be reviewed there.  I waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Then I published a biography and study of Edith Wharton’s fiction.  No review.  Two strikes.

At that point, I was discouraged enough to think I would never be reviewed in the Times.  I should have taken hope from lines Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

But, as know, precisely at the moment/when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.

One Monday, I got a call from my agent that my second mystery had just gotten a rave review from Marilyn Stasio, the most important mystery reviewer in the country.  My agent’s assistant faxed it to me and as I read the review, I actually jumped up and down for joy.  Friends started contacting me, my editor was thrilled as was my publisher, and I started hearing reports that the book wasn’t just being shelves in Mystery and Gay Literature sections in bookstores, but sometimes in Fiction right next to Edith Wharton.  And face out, which makes a big difference when it comes to sales.

The review offered great pull-quotes like this one:  “Killing is too kind for the vindictive scholars in Lev Raphael’s maliciously funny campus mystery.”  And because it was in the New York Times, publishers would use various parts of the review on  mysteries I’d write after that one.  Likewise, many people introducing me at events where I’ve done talks and readings have referred to the review.  It’s a kind of touchstone, even though I’ve gotten many more good ones in other newspapers and magazines since then.   The Times is that impressive.

The Edith Wharton Murders has recently been re-published with a gorgeous new cover, a foreward by noted author Gregory Ashe, and an introduction the publisher asked me to write.  Seeing it reborn brings back the thrill of being a new author having his biggest dream come true.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages, and Special Collections at Michigan State University’s Library archives his literary papers.

 

Amazing Anniversary of My Breakthrough Debut Collection

I published Dancing on Tisha B’Av almost thirty years ago and the book capped ten years of publishing groundbreaking stories about gay Jews and children of Holocaust survivors. More than that, it fulfilled my childhood dream of having people read a book of mine because I was so crazy about stories even then. I had longed to see a book of mine on library shelves and in bookstores.

I’ve now published twenty-five more books in genres from mystery to memoir and I’ve loved writing each one, and have never known where any book would take me.


Dancing had a unique trajectory. It won a Lambda Literary Award and launched me as a public voice of gay Jews, as someone building bridges between Jews and non-Jews, gays and straights. It started me on what has seemed like a never-ending series of book tours that has included hundreds of invited talks and readings across the U.S. and Canada and in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Israel.

It opened me up to the magic of reaching an audience, however large or small, and how exciting that could be. Thanks to having been a classroom teacher and taken theater classes in college, I knew something about being in front of an audience but needed more experience which I got, in spades. I also received “director’s notes” from my husband (then partner), who came on many of the tours, and I trained myself to become the best possible performer of my own work that I could possibly be, rehearsing before each event.

My career took many turns after that: I reviewed for fifteen years for a handful of newspapers and radio stations, even producing my own local radio show where I interviewed authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Salman Rushdie. I launched a mystery series featuring a gay sleuth and his partner. I published in genres I never expected to, like horror, The Vampyre of Gotham, and historical fiction, Rosedale in Love. More recently I returned to university teaching for six years at Michigan State University, which inspired two new crime novels set in academia.


I always counted myself fortunate in having an amazing writing and teaching mentor in college, and when I asked her how I could thank her, all she told me was to “Pass it on.” And that’s exactly what I’ve aimed for in both my writing and teaching over the years, and it’s what I continue to strive for in my online mentoring today. Her guidance is always with me. Truly, that Lutheran professor helped make me the Jewish writer I am today.


Lev Raphael’s author website is levraphael.com, and his online mentoring website is writewithoutborders.com.  His collection Secret Anniversaries of the Heart gathers 25 years of his fiction.

Hot Sex, Violence, and Devastating LA Fires

Get ready for a rough and extremely raunchy ride: Terrill Lankford’s Shooters is a propulsive, hypnotic, sexually explicit, blistering exposé of the American hunger for more, more, more.  A hunger that leaves people empty inside, desperate for meaning–no matter how gilded their cage might be.

This thriller has the sheen and danger of that classic cult film The Eyes of Laura Mars, which it cleverly echoes.

Arrogant Nick Gardner’s the same kind of fashion photographer as Faye Dunaway’s character, creating advertising photos that simmer with violence and eroticism.  But he’s much rougher around the edges.  Highly promiscuous, Nick is the kind of guy who’d “rather have sex with a complete stranger than kiss a friend with meaning.” 

He’s a self-confessed “asshole” who loves showing off his mad driving skills in his Lamborghini and the ultra-hot women who want to ride along.  Think of him as a  foul-mouthed Gatsby with a dark past and an even murkier future. 

Nick has made it big in his field, but he’s keenly aware of how fragile success can be in a city littered with failures.  Musing about all the people who linger in Los Angeles even though their dreams have died, he thinks:

“The city is like a terrible drug.  Addictive in the worst way.  Everyone hates it, yet most of them stay no matter what the cost.  Some manage to leave, only to return a year or so later.  Very few have the intestinal fortitude to kick the insanity for good and live elsewhere.  The dream is always there, a brass ring only inches outside their reach.”

There you have a perfect diagnosis of  our cultural sickness, more than fitting for our dark times in 2020.

The book opens with the threat of wildfires engulfing parts of the city and that threat hovers over everyone and everything until it explodes.  It couldn’t be more emblematic of the fire inside Nick and everyone he meets.  They’re all burning for something: drugs, sex, thrills, money, success, fame.  Some will be destroyed.

Feeling blocked one day at work, Nick hits a party he shouldn’t attend and leaves with a hot blonde coke fiend he should never have even talked to–but of course he can’t resist.  Their orgiastic, drug-crazed night ends badly and Nick ends up traveling down some surprisingly mean streets to solve a crime he’s the prime suspect for.

Following his violent stint as an amateur private investigator, we learn about his unsavory past in a town filled with ugly secrets.  Some of them are not for the easily shocked.  Nick is an anti-hero whose trajectory in the novel is always down, and justice is served in unexpected ways.

In all my years reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press, this is one of the only thrillers I’ve wanted to re-read on a regular basis.  It never fails to blow me away, which is why I’m thrilled to have been asked to write the afterward to the Kindle edition.   The writing is fierce, brutal,  unrelenting–and unforgettable.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the recent State University of Murder.

 

Knife: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fire: Image by Николай Егошин from Pixabay

Write Fabulous Gay Mysteries? Why The Hell Not!?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to quote Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be fabulous amateur detectives.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily partnered, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because the academic setting is so ripe for satire.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started. I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and once my book publishing career took off, I was invited to review for the Detroit Free Press. I read lots of crime fiction and that made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too many mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at a diner as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those social changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops and mentors writers online at writewithoutborders.com.

Awesome Pandemic Cooking With My Mother in the Kitchen

My mother helps me cook now more than ever, even though she’s gone.

I’ve always liked to cook, but since the Michigan lockdown in March, I’ve been spending lots of time perusing cuisine websites and the online food sections of the New York Times and Washington Post for new ideas.  All those hours in the kitchen have made me feel as if my mother was with me while I turned pages and scrolled through website recipes.

She was a meticulous but relaxed cook and I loved watching her in the kitchen.  She broke eggs one-handed with casual grace.  Her omelets were perfect and seemed effortless.  Sugar cookies always came out just right and when she baked marble cake, she poured batter as if she were an artist finishing a canvas.  Her sausage and cream lasagna took hours to assemble and was the favorite dish of an opera singer she admired.  It sure tasted operatic: big, bold, unforgettable.

Some years after she died I found out from her surviving brother in Israel that she had actually given piano lessons in Poland before the Holocaust, a secret she kept to herself for some reason.  It made me wonder if there was music in her head when she composed her meals.

Look at this omelet

photo by holytoastr*

My father once said that because she grew up with a maid and joked that she barely knew how to boil water when they got married.  I think she learned to cook after the war from a neighbor in Brussels who was a street walker (prostitution was legal in Belgium).

Both my parents were Holocaust survivors.  They met in a displaced persons camp in Germany and had absolutely nothing except the aid and clothes they started out with that was given to them by various relief organizations in Germany and then Belgium.

They lived in a rundown part of Brussels but above a bakery and woke every morning to the heady aromas of fresh baked bread.  One story my mother told me was that every day an elegant, well-dressed beautifully made-up woman left from a nearby apartment.  My mother asked her what she did.  “Je fais les boulevards.”  I walk the streets.  That wasn’t an idiom she was familiar with and when she asked other survivors she had come to know they were horrified and afraid some pimp was trying to recruit her.

She also told me that this woman sometimes baby sat for my older brother who was born in Brussels.  That’s what makes me think the same woman helped my mother learn how to cook, since my parents must have liked her and trusted her.

My mother gave me many gifts.  A love of languages, since she spoke half a dozen; a joy of reading; a fascination with art, music, history and current events.  The gift of savoring every moment of preparing food is something she probably didn’t realize she was passing on.  But whenever I dice, whisk, sauté, or bake–she’s there.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery.

 

*”Look at this omelet” by holytoastr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Commencement Speeches Are Not Free Speech Issues

Senator Tom Cotton–who recently argued on Twitter for giving protestors “no quarter”–is unhappy with Wichita State University Tech.  That school decided to uninvite Ivanka Trump from giving a commencement address.

His outrage is basically the same blather we hear every year about this time.  Predictably, he argued for the importance of hearing “different views,” and the canceled speaker herself brought up “viewpoint discrimination” and free speech on Twitter.

But that completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights. Someone like former Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to. And he has. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op-Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.  So can anyone in the current administration, and Ms. Trump posted her address on YouTube.

But the First Amendment isn’t about guest speakers who are typically paid handsomely for their time. It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression. That’s just not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–or in the middle of a pandemic–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools have even had two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.” What a joke.

Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A. They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining. Funny, if possible. They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context. And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration. The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved. It’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if a celebrity gets invited to speak to a graduating class of students, and is suddenly uninvited. Free exchange of ideas? Please. The only real exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with or gets in the mail–plus free publicity.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in many genres.

Why Are People Surprised Cops Injured A Peaceful 75-Year-Old Protestor?

The recent video of a Buffalo senior citizen being shoved to the ground by cops went viral and was one more example of the ways in which police departments around the country have turned into small armies. 

Back in the Obama administration, official Washington was having second thoughts about the giant giveaway of military grade equipment to local police forces. But it was already too late to reverse a decade of bad policy and bad thinking because too many American cops were thinking of citizens as “The Enemy.”

And it wasn’t just Black citizens–though they’ve been assaulted and killed in disproportionately high numbers. It was and is all citizens.

A sea change was taking place that was invisible to most Americans. Across the country, in big cities and small towns, police forces gradually turned into armies. It took the events in Ferguson to blow things wide open. Senators like Claire McKaskill started to speak out, too late, about the results of a misguided policy: “The whole country and every representative and senator have seen the visuals, and at some level, it made all of us uncomfortable.” Note her shocking understatement and the typical D.C. focus on “optics.”

Those optics have only gotten more horrifying.

The technical term for the change  is “militarization.” Well before 9/11, the Pentagon was lavishing cops in every state with military equipment, but that’s escalated since 2006 as the Pentagon has unloaded surplus assault rifles; armored vehicles; planes and helicopters. The total dollar amount has now reached into the billions since that terror attack has made everyone think they’re the next target, no matter how improbable it might seem.

Even tiny towns want armored personnel carriers. And they use them. For things like serving warrants and drug raids. That’s right. For ordinary police work that used to done without military hardware.

Assault with a Deadly Lie: A Nick Hoffman Novel of Suspense (Nick Hoffman Mysteries Book 8) by [Lev Raphael]
50,000 SWAT team raids take place in this country every year. The U.S. is now a war zone and our police have morphed into soldiers. They raid at night for maximum shock and awe, break down doors, use flash bang grenades, shoot people’s dogs, wreck homes, and commit violence on innocent citizens. They often raid the wrong house because their information is out of date. Sometimes they even kill unarmed citizens. And they haven’t really been accountable to anyone, despite the string of news stories that have been appearing on local TV stations and in local and national newspapers for years.

I started reading about these epidemic SWAT raids a decade ago and was shocked to learn that police forces were recruiting ex-military and radically shifting their consciousness and their perceived mission. Forget serving the public. The public is the enemy, at least potentially, and the enemy has to be crushed. As more ex-soldiers have entered the police force and more cops have been trained by the military, the danger has increased to the general public everywhere.  

And you know this is a searing problem when organizations as different as the ACLU and The Heritage Foundation agree that America’s police are out of control.

That’s one reason I wrote Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense that explores the crushing effects of police brutality on innocent people. Because nowadays, none of us are really innocent when cops are on the scene. We’re all criminals, no matter who we are or where we live. As the defense lawyer in my book says, after 9/11, “You think you have rights and freedoms, but everything is contingent now.”

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in a dozen different genres, from memoir to mystery.