How My Mother Inspired My Mystery Series

I started a mystery series in the 1990s thanks to my absurdly well-read, multi-lingual mother. When I was publishing literary fiction in the 1980s, she had surprisingly urged me more than once to write for a wider audience. She was right, though it took me a while to see that. Once I did publish mysteries, my audience grew and so did my name recognition.

She had filled me with a love of all kinds of books as a child by reading to me, helping me learn to read myself, getting me a library card early, and taking me to our Beaux Arts library every week. She never forbade me borrowing any book no matter the subject or reading level, and she mocked the juvenile reading assignments we had at school. Sometimes she even mocked my teachers themselves. Born in St. Petersburg and raised in Poland, she spoke English better than a few of my native-born teachers and she was a scathing critic of their pretensions when she returned from parent-teacher conferences in elementary school, especially the one who tried speaking French to her because my parents had lived in Belgium for five years. When that teacher had asked her something in (awful) French, my nonplussed mother reported saying, “Excuse me? What language is that?” It was delicious to feel part of a conspiracy with my mother, and I think I was already learning something about appearance, reality, pomposity, and satire that would help me years later in my mysteries.

(my first library on West 145th Street in Manhattan)

This erudite and witty Holocaust survivor who loved Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Balzac, and Stefan Zweig also adored mysteries. Devoured them. She read mysteries with the devotion she gave to the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, which she said had helped her perfect her English once she got to the United States. I suspect it might also have helped her face the puzzle of her own life, her miraculous survival when so many dozens of her family members had perished or been murdered during the war.

On a typical day, the shelves in my parents’ bedroom where she kept her library books would have a wide range of mysteries, and thanks to her, I discovered Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Daphne du Maurier, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor–a very eclectic bunch, no?

My mother was also a splendid, unpretentious cook. She had grown up somewhat privileged in northeastern Poland in a bourgeois-intellectual family with a maid, and had never prepared any food for herself, not even a cup of tea until after W.W. II—or so my father claimed. Whatever the truth of that, her cooking was deft and never called attention to itself. She casually cracked eggs with one hand, stirred bowls like a magician casting a spell with his wand. Her omelets were miraculously fluffy, her cakes and cookies the envy of my friends. Though she couldn’t sing or dance, she was at her most elegant when she cooked or baked, despite our small Washington Heights kitchen.

When I started my mystery series, I quietly dedicated it to her, though she would never be able to read any of it, because by that point she had drifted far out onto the sea of dementia. I made my narrator, the besieged professor Nick Hoffman, a foodie and a book lover. I also made him something of an outsider since he’s a New Yorker in Michigan. In another private nod to my mother, I gave Nick in-laws who were refugees from Belgium. Lines that my mother had said or might have said weave their way through the series in silent tribute.

Someone who idolized that paper, she would have been proud to see my series reviewed in the New York Times Book Review more than once. I hope she would have recognized herself in this line from one of those reviews: “Nick Hoffman mows down intellectual pretenders with his scathing wit….the idiocies of academe always bring out the caustic humor that is the best part of him.”

My mother was the child of revolution, born to a Menshevik father who had to flee St. Petersburg when the Bolsheviks seized power. Through my childhood and adolescence, I watched her endlessly discuss history, politics, and state power with neighbors and friends. Her perspective on international affairs was informed by her deep reading in current events and her encounters with Soviet and Nazi brutality, but that didn’t mean she had lost her sense of humor. She once quipped that Spiro Agnew’s droning speeches reminded her of “Stalin on a bad day.” And she noted that a week before Stalin died, she had toasted to his demise at a party of Holocaust survivors. “It worked! Maybe I should have tried that sooner?”

She loathed Nixon and the Vietnam War and had made plans to get me to Canada should I be drafted. I know she would be appalled by the growth of our national security apparatus and the way it’s trickled down to local police departments who have become obscenely militarized. I wrote Assault with a Deadly Lie, due in October, with that massive cultural shift and my mother very much in mind. It’s the darkest book in the series. Nick Hoffman’s academic world is invaded by stalking, harassment, police brutality, and much more. In a way, this book is not just a continuation of the series, it’s a continuation of the conversation I’ve been having with my mother ever since she stopped talking to anyone back in the early 1990s, ever since that voluble, highly intellectual woman disappeared into silence. She may have been dead now since 1999, but in my mysteries, this one especially, she’s profoundly, beautifully alive.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0 and runs for the month of June.  This blog originally appeared on the Mysteristas site.

My Mother’s Beautiful Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died 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 a tutor.

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, 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 26 books in genres from mystery to memoir. He also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/

Sunday Night’s Battle of Winterfell Was a Hot, Dark Mess

SPOILERS AHEAD

I’ve been watching GOT for years and have enjoyed the battle scenes, but yesterday’s over-long episode was a dud, and stole too much from World War Z and The Lord of the Rings.  It may have cost millions to film, but it looked like crap.

Yes, there were some exciting moments in the long-awaited confrontation, but they didn’t sustain almost ninety minutes of slashing and stabbing and hacking and running and shouting.  Much of it pointless, and some of it ridiculous.

My main problem was with the choices of the director and cinematographer.  Most of the episode was murky and hard to follow, especially the long periods where John and Dany piloted their dragons in the sky and it was hard to know what exactly they were trying to do or where they were.  Would it have spoiled anything to have been able to see the action more clearly or killed the writers to add even one line of dialogue?  Grunting doesn’t count.  And how was John suddenly so adept at flying a dragon when he’d only recently climbed aboard one?  Did he take a seminar?

Scenes inside Winterfell were just as murky as the ones in the air, but worse than that, they felt as repetitive as all the endless zombie attacks in The Walking Dead where the heroes stab and hack at a horde of zombies or loners. And they were very confusing because of the editing.  It would look like someone was dying, then it didn’t, then it did? That’s a cheap way to build suspense or at least try to sustain it.

Why did Arya flee to the library of all places when it wasn’t defensible? Likewise, why did we need to see her run through one hallway after another?  Yes, we got it: she was trying to escape.  Shouldn’t she have been able to find someplace better to hide–it’s her home after all.

More questions proliferated.  How did Dany survive amid the gigantic scrum of the dead attacking her? Why did the Red Lady give up the ghost? Why did we have to see the Night King approach Bran in slow motion? And given his amazing powers, why didn’t Old Blue Eyes head directly to Bran since Bran was so poorly defended?  If Bran was his target, the armies massed against the White Walkers and company could have waited. The entire battle was a frigging waste of time.

Previous battle scenes in the series have been clearer, more exiting, and more coherently filmed.  Most of this episode felt like the endless last half hour of a superhero movie or action thriller.  Instead of explosions we had dragon fire.  Lots and lots and lots of dragon fire.  And dead people tumbling all over each other like lemmings.

The night-time battle at Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings, which was echoed throughout the episode, was much more dramatic and more clearly staged and filmed.  Halfway through last night, I didn’t care who lived or died, just hoped the episode would end soon because it was so tedious and illogical.  Final questions: Did Sansa and Tyrion really need to stare at each other wordlessly for what seemed like minutes before actually doing something?  And how did Arya suddenly appear out of nowhere to become the savior of the Seven Kingdoms?

I’m a fan of the novels, but this battle did not live up to their promise or even match previous seasons of the TV series itself.  It was dreary, dull, and self-defeating.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a big fan of fantasy and science fiction in print and on screen.

Literary Snobs Aren’t The Only Genre Snobs

Writing in The Guardian, author Emily Maguire complains about literary snobs who look down on the sorts of books she likes to read, without listing any of them.  In general, though, they’re not in “the canon,” not written by :”dead white men.”

As if the canon has never changed and has never included Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton–and many others.

Literary snobs may have gotten in the way of her self esteem, but genre snobs  come in all shapes and sizes. The owner of Michigan’s wonderful mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s, once griped on Facebook about academics in her college town dissing mysteries, and rightfully so. But mystery fans themselves aren’t above genre-bashing.

I’ve been on a mystery readers’ and writers’ listserv for about fifteen years and way too often a predictable thread emerges. Somebody complains about being sneered at for reading mysteries by somebody else off-list who thinks they’re silly, trashy, mindless “escape reading.”

The list starts to seethe: some of the “victims” quickly turn victimizer and start trashing “Literature” or “literary fiction.” What’s that? Well, as defined by a best-selling mystery author at a conference I attended years ago: books where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting. Wasn’t he insightful? He certainly knew his audience—people roared their approval. Snobbery clearly works both ways.

What usually happens next on the list is that more people chime in with complaints about Proust or whoever they think is highfalutin and boring. That expands to include all Modern or Contemporary Fiction, however it’s defined, which is usually whatever book that person doesn’t like. Or disliked in high school. Or was told was brilliant but they hated. Or anything dubbed “classic.” And the authors and their fans are of course elitist.

The contempt these mystery readers sometimes feel directed at them seems to get recycled as they express disdain for books which have been written and enjoyed by people they have to denigrate. That’s not an argument or even a defense: it’s insecurity.

Sometimes they’ll point to all the crime writers on the bestseller list and sneer that literary novels only sell “a few copies” and are usually written “for the author’s friends.” Or they’ll make lavish claims and say something like “Anne Perry is a better writer than George Eliot.” I’ve had dinner with Anne Perry and I doubt she would make that claim. I’ve also read Eliot’s novels extensively. You can’t compare the two authors.

I’ve done radio and print book reviews since the early 90s and I’ve found plenty of bad writing in every genre. If you don’t like a certain kind of book, don’t read it. But trashing a whole genre doesn’t make you sound authoritative or thoughtful, it only makes you sound like you’ve got a giant chip on your shoulder.

Lev Raphael is the author of The State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Sometimes Planning a Trip is Almost as Good as Going

I’ve been lucky over the years to travel abroad extensively on book tours, but primarily for research or just for fun. I’ve been to France, Belgium, England, The Netherlands, Italy, and Germany many times.

My French and German are good, my Dutch passable, and I can manage “travel Italian” though I know my accent needs work.

Many of these trips fulfilled dreams. I’d always hoped to one day teach abroad and I wound up with a six-week gig in London where the museums blew my mind and I fell in love with the Pimlico neighborhood I was staying in. For years I’d fantasized about visiting Bruges in Belgium and my week there doing research forr a book was unbelievably fulfilling. The food, the historical sites, the museums and churches surpassed my expectations. Oh, and then there’s the beer. I tried local varieties but also beers I’d had at home in bottles, this time they were on tap and tasted so much better. In Bruges I felt like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: drowning in honey.

I’d spent some time studying Dutch before my trip and found it really made a difference doors when shopping or ordering food or chatting with the B&B owner.  I ahd somehow even picked up a word for “amazing” that the owner, from the French part of Belgium didn’t know: verbazingwekkend.  When I used it, she was delighted.

As backup, my French was very handy and I once even found myself asking directions in German from someone whose accent in Dutch made it very clear where he was from.

I’ve had that same feeling of bliss elsewhere. Like standing on a bridge in Paris at night my first evening there with my beloved spouse, gazing at the buildings glowing with light and watching bateaux mouches glide down the river.  Once, through some scheduling mix-ups on one German tour, I ended up with something rare: free time. It happened to be in Munich and I actually had two entire days there for tourism, slow, fantastic meals in a number of restaurants, and a whole afternoon at the Nymphenburg palace and grounds.

There was a time I thought I might be teaching in Sweden, so along with studying Swedish (which I loved), I spent months researching sites across the southern part of the country for myself and whoever my students would be.  I read deeply about Swedish history and customs, tried out my Swedish on a friend with Swedish family and even studied a Swedish art song in my voice lessons.

The trip fell through for complicated reasons, but I’d been so immersed in what might be happening, watched so many videos, it felt as if I’d actually been there.  For a whole year and a half, I was dedicated to the idea of being in Sweden for a month and a half, and when it didn’t happen, I somehow wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be.  The same thing has happened with trips to Nice and other cities where I had tremendous fun just planning: studying everything from train schedules to walking tour maps and restaurant menus.  When I plan a trip, I buy books, watch travel videos, study the destination in depth and the immersion is all-consuming.

It’s said that the journey not the arrival matters, but sometimes, for me, the journey doesn’t get father than my iPad–and that’s fine.

How about you?  Have you ever felt like this about a trip that didn’t happen?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

 

Watching “The First” As A Writer

At one writing workshop I recently taught, one of the students said she never watched television. I told that my experience was very different. I watch TV series and movies on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix–but not just for entertainment or escape.

I watch them as a writer. I pay attention to how scenes are constructed, to dialogue that feels natural and moving, to how conflicts are sparked and develop, to character creation through habits, quirks, gestures, evasions, and everything else that makes them real.

None of that detracts from the sheer pleasure of being lost in someone else’s world–it adds to it.

Sometimes I fall in love if a show or movie seems to be doing something I haven’t seen before, or gives old ideas a new spin.

Recently I was blown away by The First, a new Hulu show in eight binge-worthy episodes that features Sean Penn, Natasha McElhone, Oded Fehr and a very strong supporting cast.  Created by Beau Willimon, it’s set in the near future where almost everything seems voice operated and cell phones don’t exist: your phone is a small device set in your ear and responds to voice commands.  People also share things like virtual reality concerts by linking special lightweight eyeglasses.

In Louisiana, a private company and NASA have teamed together to send a manned mission to Mars.  The whole first season explores the monumental problems involved, but more than that, it dives deep into what it’s like to be an astronaut in such a program–or married to one.  The impact of potential loss and distance from your loved ones is a major theme.

Fear and sacrifice are also themes, but the show creates an almost dreamy sense of wonder about space travel and expanding human knowledge that’s emphasized by a subtle and moving sound track.  Best of all, people’s conflicts aren’t neatly resolved–they’re left open and it feels so much less mechanical than most series because of that.

The show has moved me to tears many times for many reasons, and inspires me to make my own work as powerful in my own way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in many genres.  A veteran of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Americans Are Delusional–And It’s An Old Story

So you hear it over and over from TV news show panelists and on-line opinion piece writers: we have a Reality TV presidency and this is something brand new, hard to fathom. But is it, really?

Unreal lives aren’t anything new in American history, according to Kurt Anderson in Fantasyland: we’ve been living in fantasy since our foundation. Jamestown’s settlers were actually looking for gold and the Puritans wanted to create a New Jerusalem. If you think you know early Colonial history, think again: Andersen paints our first founders in a highly unflattering light as delusional bigots.

This scathing book is encyclopedic as it whirls you through our long, sad, and sometimes goofy history of what Anderson classes as crazes: conspiracy theories of all kinds dating back to the 1800s, theosophy, phrenology, patent medicines, creationism, ESP, alien abductions and so much more that you might be left gobsmacked at how exceptional we are. Exceptionally deluded, and given to believing whatever the hell we want whether there are facts supporting our beliefs or not. It’s our right to, as Americans. Fake facts aren’t a new concept, just a new label.

The main “inflection point” for Andersen was the 19th century Gold Rush out west where thousands of people become millionaires overnight. Many thousands more failed. Just as the same thing would happen time and again in real estate and the stock market. Those few, epic, golden years left a searing imprint on our collective consciousness: anyone can get rich quick and anyone can become anything. “Something like magic could suddenly sweep aside common sense. Miracles actually happened in America.”

This kind of thinking exists in every realm Andersen exhaustively explores with wit and extensive research. Nobody is safe from his thoughtful scorn, not televangelists proclaiming The End of Days or academic institutes researching psychic phenomena and other “crackpottery.” It’s likely to make some readers angry because he classes all religious belief as fantasy in a country that’s more religious than any other First World nation. But then he also has harsh things to say about crystals, yoga, Reiki and other New Age staples—and the anti-vaccination campaign which to him shows that people on the Left can be as misguided, misinformed, and fact-averse as people on the Right.

Fantasyland is not a quick read because you may keep putting it down in amazement (or disgust) with each new example of our “extreme, self-righteous individualism.” But it’s a book that can make you laugh as much as squirm, defiantly answering that Talking Heads question: “Well, how did I get here?” We Americans have always been addicted to believing in the fantastical, and now we’re drowning in it.

“Same as it ever was….”

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

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

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

What I Discovered When Flying With A Disability

The New York Times recently ran a story about being in a wheelchair and feeling invisible. When I injured my knee a few days before a trip from Lansing to D.C. via Detroit, I hesitated about arranging for wheelchair assistance in Detroit. It wasn’t invisibility I dreaded, it was exposure.

For those of you who don’t know the route or the Detroit airport, if you’re flying to or from Lansing, the connection there can take at least fifteen minutes even with the moving walkways and the monorail, because you have to switch terminals. As they say in the city of my birth, it’s a schlep.

My injury didn’t require surgery, just physical therapy when I got back. I had already cancelled a previous family visit to D.C. due to a severe migraine that kept me in bed for a whole weekend and I was determined to go this time. The trip was important, but then so was my health and comfort. I did not want to aggravate my injury.

I’d been in an airport wheelchair before when I had to take a flight to London and I didn’t like it. Yes, I got through security much faster, but at a price. People stared, then looked away. Both parts of that equation were very discomfiting. Were they wondering what was wrong with me since I seemed fit? Were they embarrassed for having been caught staring? I was embarrassed myself to have my disability—however unseen—on public display.

For this D.C. trip, a friend joked that I could wear a sign that said: INJURED KNEE. STOP STARING. That made me laugh, as she knew it would.

Being transported by wheelchair because of an injury, being helpless for what seemed like ages on that London trip made me feel reduced to that injury at a time when the pain, reduced mobility, and inconvenience had disrupted my normal routine enough already. In a chair, the disability felt like it was in charge and I was along for the ride.

I could easily imagine the flip side for my D.C. trip: limping the whole painful way. My light, well-packed roll-aboard would turn into a loathsome burden. Stopping to rest would be mandatory. Knowing that I might have to speed up at some point because the closer I got to the gate, the slower I’d be going as the pain and fatigue caught up with me. And people would stare anyway since airports aren’t made for limping but for rushing, and my face would likely reveal how miserable I felt.

Having dealt with shame in other areas of my life and written about it, I knew facing this was important, so I did order the wheelchair. And? Well, there was no happy ending. No sense of “closure.” No soaring ballad by Adele over the credits. But at least I was comfortable and on time– and most importantly, I won’t hesitate next time if need a wheelchair.

I’ve never been a sports nut, but I’ve belonged to a health club for years. I’ve done yoga, weight training, spinning classes, had swimming lessons with a coach, and I’d taken my physical being-in-the-world completely for granted until recently. I wonder now how many times over the years I’ve stared at people in airport wheelchairs. What was I thinking?

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the travelogue/family history My Germany.