Fans Keep Asking Me, “Which is Your Favorite Book?”

I get that question all the time at readings.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, memoir-essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

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I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and a coming out story.  The thread that connects it all is my exploration of the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy set of stories to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice the poet Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career: somewhere between fifty and sixty.  That included two book tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German, which I had started studying in night classes.

Unexpectedly, I felt comfortable the moment I got to Germany and I remembered something I’d somehow completely forgotten: I grew up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where thousands of neighbors were German refugees from the Nazis.  I’d been hearing German in the streets, in stores, in our building’s lobby and elevator since childhood.  So suddenly plunging into a German-speaking environment wasn’t strange; it was comforting, it made me feel at home.

That was one of the many surprises connected to writing My Germany, and it made clear to me the power that memoir has to connect you to your own past in new, revelatory ways.  I was changing, which is why I had to write that memoir, and writing it changed me even more.   A colleague once said that writing is a process of discovery; well, that book opened up new worlds for me, and having just taught an online memoir writing workshop this past month, I’ve seen memoir do that for my students, too.  It’s thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

American Soldiers Saved My Father From The Nazis

In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2,500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped not far from the Elbe because the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across that river with communications so disrupted. He fled ahead of the American troops he knew were coming and the remaining guards escaped when two American tanks appeared on April 13th.

Frank W. Towers, a first Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

(Frank Towers in France, 1944)

The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany. Now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been?

This verdant military setting with clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg 16 miles away and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. There wasn’t any time to play pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on, “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand. On Memorial Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to remember these heroes.

The account in this blog is drawn from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.

The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did George Bush Really Write That Book About His Father?

All over the country, newspaper reviewers are wasting space reviewing George Bush’s biography about his father. Whether they pan it or praise it, they’ll say over and over, as Michiko Kakutani recently did in The New York Times, things like “he writes–” or “he says–”

Does he?

I reviewed for the The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Report and other print outlets for well over a decade, but I avoided celebrity-authored bios or memoirs for a simple reason. They were almost never written by the “authors,” but compiled from tape recorded interviews, ramblings, or notes and written by a professional ghost writer. I learned this early on in my own publishing career when one writer friend told me she had been asked to do a best selling author’s memoir, and another told me what he was ghosting.

In my view, when reviewers pretend that’s not happening, they makes themselves complicit in the fiction that these celebrities have actually written the book that flaunts their name, a book they’ve gotten huge advances for.

Bush wrote a book about his father? Have people forgotten what a juvenile attitude this man has about books?

Back when he was President, he and his senior advisor Karl Rove acted liked they were in elementary school, competing with each other to see who could read more books per year. Bush won, of course, supposedly reading ninety-five books yearly for three years straight, which is close to what I used to read as a professional reviewer. And of course his consigliere swore that Bush “loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.”

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Truly engaged readers can’t stop talking about books they enjoy, and sometimes even books they dislike. But given his love of books, it’s strange that nobody ever reported Bush discussing a book with them, anywhere. At meetings of world leaders, the President was widely known to chat only about his colleagues’ flights and if they were able to sleep on the plane. He never brought up books that he supposedly had read (like Team of Rivals) when that would have been a perfect opportunity, especially if his favorite topics were supposedly history and biography.

The only proof we had that he was reading steadily was testimony from his personal friend Karl Rove, just as the only proof we have that he wrote this new book is his name on the cover.

But the saddest part of the book race Bush ran with his crony was that reading sounded like a real burden, otherwise why compete in the first place, and in such a bizarre way? Rove reported that “We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book’s pages–its ‘Total Lateral Area.’ ” So the number and size of pages apparently meant as much to Rove and Bush as what was on them. Maybe more?

41: A Portrait of My Father is only 304 pages with the Acknowledgments and Index starting on p. 277, and physically it’s on the smaller side for a political hardcover: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches. By their own strange standard, this new book doesn’t score very high, does it?

BTW, Michiko Kakutani is one of my least favorite reviewers, and this bit of praise in her review has to be one of the smarmiest things she’s written in a long time:

“As for Mr. Bush’s descriptions of the West Texas world that greeted him and his parents in the 1950s, they are evocative in a way that attests to his painterly eye. “We lived briefly at a hotel and then moved into a new 847-square-foot house on the outskirts of town,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was called Easter Egg Row, because the developers had chosen vibrant paint colors to help residents tell the houses apart. Our Easter egg at 405 East Maple was bright blue.”

Really? That’s what one of the country’s most influential book reviewers considers evocative writing? You have to have a painterly eye to notice the colors of the houses around you? How is Bush being “evocative” if the image was handed to him by the neighborhood’s actual name? He’s just reporting what was there.

A passage like that makes you wonder. Is the reviewer angling for an invitation to a Bush party? Desperate to say something positive? Or just running out of steam? Maybe a bit of all three….

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence and the militarization of our police forces.