The Winter Sister is a Powerful Debut Mystery

Difficult, demanding mothers and abusive fathers are a staple of contemporary fiction, but The Winter Sister by Megan Collins gives both of those tropes an exciting new spin.

Her heroine Sylvie has lived with guilt and shame for years because of something she did that she feels led to her teenage sister’s murder. Though Sylvie is a talented painter, she’s something of a slacker. At thirty, she’s marking time in a tattoo parlor for complicated reasons that emerge over the course of the novel.  She still hasn’t found her way out of the maze of her traumatic childhood.

But confronting everything that’s held her back becomes inescapable when she returns home to care for her cancer-ridden mother Annie, who descended into alcoholism after the murder of her other daughter, Persephone. That addiction proves to be more complicated than it seems, because Sylvie’s mother “swallowed her secrets like pills, then chased them down with something she’d hoped would drown her.”

The murder was never solved but Sylvie is sure her sister’s boyfriend did it.  Is she right?  Is she wrong?  Is she even safe herself?

Why her mother gave Persephone a name from Greek myth is a significant part of the plot, and that myth is woven into the fabric of the novel.  Huge surprises lie ahead for Sylvie as well as the reader in this taut, beautifully written, tightly plotted, totally absorbing novel that may move you to tears.

Collins is a gifted writer: she takes you into the emotional lives of characters who are lost in suffering without bludgeoning you, and her graceful, evocative prose weightlessly carries a dark but redeeming story forward on every page.  I read it in two days because I couldn’t put it down.

I’ve been reading mysteries for years and was the crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press for a decade and The Winter Sister feels fresh to me. It may share some plot elements with many other novels out there, but reading it, you feel invigorated by Collins’ deft touch in writing about small town New England life and damaged souls desperately in need of healing, forgiveness, and love.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  Lev teaches creative writing workshops and offers editing and mentoring at writewithoutborders.com.  In June he’ll be teaching Mystery Writing 1.0.

 

 

A Taste of Grand Rapids

I was in Grand Rapids last week to do an interview on WGVU about my newest mystery State University of Murder. The host Shelley Irwin is a terrific interviewer because she’s so well-prepared and enthusiastic.

When we were finished, I stayed on to have even more fun. I crossed the Grand River to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and arrived when it opened at 10am. That’s my favorite time for any museum at home or abroad because there’s rarely a crowd and you can linger in front of a work without feeling like you’re getting in someone’s way.

I was lucky to grow up in New York Cuty where my parents took me to the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and others from as far back as I can remember. We went so often that I didn’t just have favorite artists, I had favorite paintings and sculptures.  I’ve always found enjoyment, solace, and adventure in museums and especially love encountering artists I don’t know or know only be name.  Or work by artists I admire but have never seen before.

GRAM is in a spectacular modernist building that has the feel of a temple, and it’s filled with light and attractive galleries for a collection spanning Rembrandt to Rauschenberg. Some years ago I saw a splendid Warhol retrospective there that made me appreciate the depth and range of his work, and I’ve also been to GRAM for the yearly international competition Art/Prize.

Last week, I was delighted to find a Rembrandt self-portrait engraving at GRAM because it reminded me of visiting his home in Amsterdam and all the times I’ve encountered his work in other museums here and abroad.  There were portraits everywhere that spoke to me, including the one below by Gilded Age painter William Merritt Chase.  His work has always appealed to me because I grew up in a Gilded Age apartment building and went to a public library built in the same period.  Seeing this “Lady in Opera Cloak” from 1893 also reminded me of the many Edith Wharton novels I’ve read.

Sated in one way, I was hungry in another and I strolled a few blocks over to Bistro Bella Vita and had a terrific lunch. The restaurant is in a former factory, has high ceilings, wooden pillars, exposed brick walls and a soothing color palette of orange and brown with a dash of teal for contrast.  I felt great before I even looked at a menu.

My affable server was very knowledgeable about the food and wine without being pedantic.  I started with roasted Brussels sprouts that had a sauce with Greek Yogurt as its base. That may sound like an unlikely combination, but it was delicious. I moved on to seared gnocchi which were perfect, not too soft, not too dense. House-made, they came in a savory ragù of pork and Riesling, topped with fried sage. It was to die for, truly.

I was full but couldn’t resist the olive oil cake which was airy and the lightest I’ve ever had–and beautifully presented as you can see above. Dining at this restaurant reminded me of fabulous bistro meals I’ve had in France, Italy, and Belgium, and I can’t wait to go back to Grand Rapids for another grand meal.

Lev Raphael is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and his favorite city in Europe is Ghent.  He’s the author of a memoir/travelogue My Germany and two dozen other books in a wide range of genres.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

“Do You Plot Your Mysteries?”

Noted journalist Andrea King Collier recently interviewed me ahead of A Rally of Writers where I’ll do a workshop on “Finding Your Sleuth.”

AKC: How much time do you spend on research? What’s the first thing you do when you start? How do you know when it’s time to just stop?

LR: I’m currently writing two novels and my research has involved interviewing experts in fields like medicine, law, advertising, and academic administration for insight into their jobs and more specifically, to answer “What if–?” questions. I don’t stop to do that, I like to keep writing while I wait to fill in the blanks, so I could be doing research even near the end of a book.  I often don’t know what I don’t know when I start a book, so that’s exciting.

AKC: You write mysteries among other genres. How do you hone in on what the next story might be?

LR: The stories usually come to me. And some days I feel like an airport dealing with planes that have been diverted because of bad weather: there are too many ideas buzzing around in my head. State University of Murder was partly inspired by the sexual assault crisis at MSU and the way other campuses have also been dealing with this issue. But I didn’t want to fictionalize any specific story in the news. Instead, I wove that theme into a book whose larger target is malfeasance and arrogance at the level of administrators.

AKC: Do you plot your mysteries or are they organic?

LR: It’s both. With a mystery I generally know three key things when I start: who’s been killed, how they died, and who the killer was. So I plot ahead, but not as far as I did when I started the series and needed more scaffolding. Each book now is organic because I keep asking myself “What happens next?” And I may decide to change the means, the motive, and even the murderer. It all depends on how the book evolves.

AKC: How do you silence your inner critic?

LR: I’m lucky.  That’s never been a problem for me because I had such an amazing creative writing mentor in college whose voice is still with me when I write and when I teach. Of course I have my doubts about every book I write or I’d be a jerk, but they don’t discourage me. The doubts push me to work harder, think smarter. If I get stuck, I don’t despair.  I know that it’s usually because there’s a question in the book that I haven’t answered well enough for myself to move forward.

AKC: Who do you love to read?

Dozens of writers old and new. When it comes to mysteries, I especially enjoy Martin Cruz Smith, Sue Grafton, C.S. Harris–all very different, and reading voices that collide inspires me. Right now I’m re-reading some books by D.H. Lawrence because his insight into his characters is wild. I’m a big fan of other modern authors like Virginia Woolf, Isherwood, and Evelyn Waugh. I also read a lot of novels in translation, with Zola and Balzac my favorites in that category.

AKC: Tell us about your online coaching classes

LR: I have almost twenty years of university teaching behind me and I’ve taken that experience online where I can mentor writers working on individual projects in any genre, and people signing up for a specific workshop, like my next one about mystery writing, which runs for the month of June. In each workshop and each interaction with a writer, I’m passing on the guidance and encouragement I got in college, and I add my own experience as a teacher, reviewer, and author.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  Lev teaches creative writing workshops and offers editing and mentoring at writewithoutborders.com.  In June he’ll be teaching Mystery Writing 1.0.

The Pulitzer Prize Was Once Yanked From The Real Winner

Two of my favorite authors were involved in a scandalous incident that made Pulitzer Prize history. Edith Wharton’s loving but barbed evocation of Old New York, The Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer in 1921. Very popular and critically acclaimed, it explored the world of her parents which she re-created brilliantly. Yet her book wasn’t the judges’ first choice.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a gigantic bigger best-seller, was originally picked by the three-judge panel. That novel swept the nation because it dared to make fun of small-town life, which at the time was as sacred as our flag.

Columbia University’s advisory board had the power back then to over-rule the decision, and it did, because Main Street was deemed “unwholesome.” Scandal broke out when the angry judges went public.

Wharton was embarrassed, but Lewis was gracious about his loss and they developed a friendship of sorts.  He admired her work and she thought he was one of the few American authors with “guts.”

Lewis eventually got to have a perfect vindictive triumph. A few years later he rejected a Pulitzer for another book.  A few years after that, he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both events garnered him enormous publicity.

Main Street and The Age of Innocence deserved awards and are eminently readable classics of the early 20th century. But I’ve wasted too much time over the years with books pushed at me by people with the sole recommendation being their prize status.

I don’t care. Is the story-telling hypnotic? Is the voice compelling? Is the prose striking? Are the characters memorable? Is this a book I’ll lose sleep over? And is it something I’ll feel I haven’t read before?

Any of those will hook me. But I know from people who have served as judges for various contests and awards that prizes can be given to books for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality. The publishing world isn’t any less venal now than it was in the 1920s.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Who Says You Need to Go to an Elite University to Be a Success?

Reading all the current articles about kids getting into prestigious universities thanks to shady parents and corrupt officials, I find one thing missing.

Nobody seems to be talking about the importance of being mentored in college, and you don’t need a big name school to find a mentor. Back when I was applying for colleges, I chose Fordham University at Lincoln Center for one main reason: I’d heard there was a fantastic creative writing professor there and I wanted to study with her.  I was born and bred in Manhattan, but didn’t bother applying to NYU, Columbia or any other prestigious school in New York state.  I put all my chips on Fordham.

I won.  At Fordham I found the perfect mentor in Dr. Kristin Lauer.  Thanks to her, I’ve published over two dozen books, seen my work translated into 15 languages, had international book tours—and much more.  I’m not famous, but I’ve lived my dream of being a published author.

Dr. Lauer was endlessly encouraging and inventive in her choice of assignments. Beyond that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia years later. She did not 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 did her best to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, making you feel like she was communing with it, and communing with you.  It’s much harder than it sounds.

More than once, she predicted that I would publish and win prizes someday if only I wrote something “real.” That was my City of Gold, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication in a national magazine. 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.

She midwifed that story. I would read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. The story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, then-editor of the yearly volume The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which had 4.5 million readers at the time. It wouldn’t have lived without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and teaching genius.

Almost every time I’ve walked into a class or a workshop I’m teaching at a writers’ conference, she’s on my mind: muse, guide, inspiration.  I wasn’t interested in prestige when I was thinking about colleges in high school.  I applied to a school where I hoped I would find inspiration, and I hit the jackpot.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders. He’s the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  His author web site is levraphael.com.

Writers: Have You Ever Had Your Work Stolen?

The New York Times recently did a story looking at possible plagiarism in A. J. Flynn’s best-selling novel The Woman in the Window because it seemed very similar in ssignificant ways to Saving April by Sarah A. Denzil.

This is murky territory, because as someone who’s reviewed crime fiction since the 90s, I find thrillers often work with similar ideas and even plot twists. Is it theft? Or is it the fact that the genre has certain tropes that appeal to readers and smart authors stick to the tried and true?

I have been definitely plagiarized in my own career. Years ago I was the first person studying Edith Wharton to notice that the feeling of shame cropped up all through her fiction. Searching the literature about her, I found that nobody had examined this theme or even remarked on it.  I started publishing articles about shame and her fiction, working with Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Theory.

In addition to unveiling this neglected them, I also discussed works of Wharton’s that had never been written about in any academic article.  I shared copies with one Wharton scholar whose next book lifted my ideas without any footnote. When I contacted her about it, she said brightly, “Well maybe we were working on similar tracks at the same time.”

When I reminded her of the articles I had sent her, she was silent. I asked if she could have her publisher add an erratum slip, which academic publishers do when there’s an error in the text. This small printed slip of paper tucked into a book is an inexpensive way to make a correction or note something was left out. Sounding agitated, she said, “But that would look like plagiarism.”

That was very revealing.

Then there was a less obvious borrowing when a well-known author in The New Yorker lifted something I wrote about Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells in an online magazine. He and I had previously appeared in the same issue of that magazine, so I assumed he had read my article as I had read his there.  I wasn’t being paranoid to think he was lifting what I wrote because a professor at Michigan State University noted the similarity and said, “He owed you a reference.”

More recently, after a terrific week in Ghent, Flanders, and because I’d published travel blogs and a travel memoir, I pitched a “36 Hours in Ghent” article to the New York Times Travel section.  They hadn’t done one before and I was planning a return trip. There was no reply, but this week, sure enough, a “36 Hours in Ghent” article showed up in the Travel section. Was the author working on the same idea seven months ago when I made my pitch? Maybe.  Maybe not. It definitely felt creepy,.  You’d think if the Times had already assigned a piece like that–or was planning to–they would have rejected my query with an explanation.

That’s unfortunately the life of a working writer.  And while I haven’t had direct theft of actual lines, these experiences have been bad enough.

If you’re a writer, have you ever had your work stolen?  Add your comment below.

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Famous Things Three Authors Never Said

The Internet is awash in bogus quotations and here are three of my favorites.

I’ve often seen this quotation from Mark Twain all over Facebook, and the first time was early in the morning, spoiling my first cup of coffee: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.” My warning bells went off immediately because the whole thing sounded too contemporary, especially “putting us on.” Not that Twain couldn’t be scathing about politicians. In A Tramp Abroad he wrote, “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

While I haven’t read nearly as much Twain as Eliot, I know The Gilded Age well, having read James, Howells, Wharton, and other novelists of that period extensively. I also researched it for a few years to write my own Gilded Age Novel, Rosedale in Love: The House of Mirth Revisited.

There’s one very popular quote people seem to relish during NaNoWriMo that’s supposedly by William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer, be writing.” It doesn’t show up on searches of Faulkner websites, but it’s on Pinterest and Wikiquotes, and there are lots of Google images of it. That’s grounds for suspicion as much as the Yoda-like quality of the phrase. I prefer certifiable Faulkner, like the advice he gave in a famous Paris Review interview: “I’ve heard people say,’If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.’ I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and nothing will stop you.”

Another outrageously obvious misquotation I frequently see online was supposedly uttered by the brilliant Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Seriously? That sounds like a Nike ad at best. It’s not witty, it’s blunt and ungraceful. But Wilde did write in a letter to Alfred Douglas that “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” I wonder what he would have said about people who disseminate fake quotes?

If you have a favorite classic author, there’s probably a website devoted to sorting the spurious quotes from the authentic ones for that specific writer. So here’s a thought: Before posting an inspiring author quote on Facebook or elsewhere, or tweeting it, why not verify whether the author actually said it? As Jane Austen put it so well, “The truth is always at our fingertips, if only we dare reach far enough.”*

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

*I made that one up. 🙂

Travels Through Europe’s Troubled Borderlands

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father grew up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.  His country of birth doesn’t exist anymore, either: it’s now two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it was variously part of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It was also twice invaded and ruled by the Germans in her lifetime.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in “borderlands,” as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Blessed with fluency in Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns that have been swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of just the right quote or anecdote as Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate of borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories of others, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Marie Kondo Joy Isn’t Just For Humans!

My six-year-old Westie loves watching television, even if there aren’t any dogs, horses, or other animals to bark at or observe. When we’re done with our dinner, he’ll sit close by and wait for his cue. When I say “We’re going to watch television,” he troops off to the living room, picks a chair, sits or lies down facing the large screen and waits for us to start the evening’s entertainment.

He’s a big fan of action scenes and chases, but more than that he enjoys dramatic close-ups when couples are arguing or just having an intense interaction.  I’ve watched his ears flick back and forth, his eyes widen as he surveys what’s happening.  Sometimes he rears back when he’s startled.

He was especially fond of Babe, which had lots to keep him focused, and sat through a whole hour of it, then wandered off, perhaps over-stimulated.  After the movie, though, he came back, stared at us and moved his lips just as the animals in the film seemed to do.  Maybe he was asking if there was a sequel.

So given his responsiveness, I thought I’d have him watch some of Marie Kondo’s show, and while he’s not very good at folding, he did seem fascinated.  That’s when I thought it might be time to organize his toy basket because some of the stuffed animals looked pretty disreputable after a few years of chewing, tugging, and chomping.

He clearly rejected several of them by turning his head away.  Between us we managed to reduce his toys by 1/3 and the ones that stayed clearly give him joy-joy feelings as they say in Demolition Man.  He’ll play tug of war with them, throw them around as if subduing a rabbit or some other yard demon, and basically have a great time.

I wonder if he’ll be willing to consult with me when I de-clutter my library.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.