Literary Agents Have Messed With My Mind

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  They didn’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.  So I brought her the deal.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a long distance relationship would work out despite her saying she’s come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

Writer’s View: Celebrity Irish Author Tells Her Male Peers To “**** Off”

That’s what The Daily Mail quotes superstar Irish novelist Marian Keyes as having recently said:

“I only read women. I know that men write books. But their lives are so limited. It’s such a small and narrow experience….Their literature just really can’t match anything written by a woman. I just think ‘**** off’.”

If you haven’t heard of her, she’s written thirteen novels, sold tens of millions of books, and seen her work translated into several dozen languages.

Her dismissal of male authors was seconded by journalist Suzanne Moore, who complained that woman authors aren’t taken seriously.  She also warned readers of The Guardian, where she made these comments, not to send her names of great male writers since she knew who they were because she’d had “an education.”

Those remarks made me think of my own education.

I was an English major in college.  Along with the usual male suspects we read Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, the Brontes, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In graduate school along with Conrad, James, Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell, and Phillip Roth, we read Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Gertrude Stein, Doris Lessing, Susan Hill, Margaret Drabble, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark.

But more importantly than all of that, on my own I’ve read dozens of women writers including Agatha Christie, Ann Tyler, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West,  Anais Nin, Elizabeth Gaskell, Daphne du Maurier Olivia Manning, Ruth Rendell, Francine Prose, Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Braddon, Val McDermid, Stella Gibbons, Alison Lurie, Anzia Yezierska, Penelope Fitzgerald, Laurie R. King, C.S. Harris, Lori Rader-Day, Janet Fitch, Mona Simpson.

Those are the names of women authors that come most quickly to  mind.  I could add many more if I took the time to scan my library shelves.  Should I have to?  Gender has never mattered to me.  I’ve always looked for fine writing and compelling stories.  I often went on to read more by each author, sometimes hunting down everything in print if a first book hypnotized me.

Education isn’t a passive thing.  It’s not just waiting for books to be assigned to you, it’s seeking out books that you think might change the way you see the world or at the very least, open the doors to a new one.

Marian Keyes  admits that she reads an occasional book by a man, but she seems strangely limited herself to dismiss an entire gender’s writing so readily.  Since she’s famous already, I’m sure what she’s said will gain her even more fans, because inflammatory remarks like hers are crowd pleasers and bound to go viral.

There may well be caps, t-shirts, and all sorts of swag. She might even get her own talk show.  With no male guests if they’re authors, of course.  Because what could they possibly have to say when their lives are so impoverished of experience?

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

Advice For Writers: Is Writing a “Muscle”? Should You Write Every Day?

Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on Facebook or Twitter as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read on line about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books that urge writers to write every day and make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

And if you can’t eke out your daily quota, the advice sometimes goes that you should at least re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me, either, or made much sense. I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.

I don’t urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I suggest they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently working on a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some major fact-checking, too, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had an outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I wrote ten pages in a single day on this same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy.  I was done for the day!

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not. I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can now take a wide variety of online workshops him online at writewithoutborders.com.

Writer’s View: Are You An Introvert? An Extrovert? An Ambivert?

A recent Suzie Speaks blog discussed being an “extroverted introvert” and how that plays out in her life.  The question of those polarities is something I think about all the time.

Picking an identity

I’d describe myself as the opposite of Suzie: an introverted extrovert.   Though most people I know would say I’m extroverted because I do so much public speaking as an author (26 books and counting).  I’ve done readings in more than one language and spoken about my work hundreds of times on three different continents, from Oxford University to The Library of Congress in D.C. to the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Interacting with an audience is exciting and fun for me, and so is teaching in a classroom, which I’ve done on and off for many years.  That’s like writing, directing, and acting in a play.

Looking for an oasis

But I also crave my privacy and need down time after “performing.”  After a few hours of teaching, all I want is quiet, a glass of wine, and some calming music or streaming a no-brains movie.  It’s even more crucial for me to chill out alone when I’m on a book tour.  It’s way too easy for me to feel drained after spending so much time interacting with people because I have to be 100% present.  A book tour or any kind of invited speaking gig involves  constant talking with whoever picks you up at the train station or airport, with cab drivers, with your dinner companion, with fans.  Especially with fans since it’s important for me to do Q&A at my appearances.  Conferences where I do workshops are the same: I love what I do but I need to wind down afterwards ASAP.

Being an artist

The zigzag between introversion and extroversion has a deeper layer for me.  Years ago I read psychologist Otto Rank’s Art and Artist and he wisely noted that artists of all kinds need experience and stimulation to create, so they have to go out into the world.  But as Wordsworth wrote, the world can be “too much with us,” and so in Rank’s view, creation requires retreating from the world for us to have the necessary time and energy for contemplation and reflection.  Rank saw the artist as in a perpetual battle act between public life and private life, and it sometimes does seem that way.  I’ll be happy to go to concert, but wish I were home–or I’ll be working on a book and want to go somewhere, anywhere out in the world.

Marriage changed me

Years ago, I was the kind of person who people were glad to have at a party.  I enjoyed dancing, mingling, meeting new people.  As an extrovert, I could chat with anyone.  More than that, I loved throwing parties myself, organizing it all, inviting a cool mix of friends and acquaintances and keeping the whole thing going by just being on the entire evening.  Then I married an introvert who spoke only when it seemed necessary, and our long years together have definitely made me more introverted.  I prefer lunching with only person now, not a group, and would rather have just one couple over for brunch than do a dinner party–or any kind of party.

Living more quietly

I grew up in crowded, noisy New York City where it seemed like I was always surrounded by people and endless commotion.  But for several decades now I’ve been living in a suburb where the noise you hear is dogs barking, the chatter of birds waking up in the morning, kids laughing and biking, and the hoot of a distant train at night.  It’s something of an idyll for me, which is why I don’t apply to go to writers’ retreats: I have one.  Even though there are three main roads nearby, my house is at the center of the subdivision and we can’t hear any of that traffic.  It takes a lot to convince me to leave my retreat now, and I sometimes have to brace myself and get focused beforehand.  As much as I enjoy being with friends or traveling abroad, home is often my favorite place to be.  I guess when it comes down to it, I’m probably more of an ambivert–and yes, that’s a thing.  🙂

So how about you?  Are you an introvert, an extrovert, an ambivert?  What’s it like navigating your world?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online in on-on-one workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  His books range across genres from memoir to mystery.  You can check them out at  levraphael.com.

 

Writer’s Memoir: My Journey from Crime Fiction Lover to Crime Fiction Author

Growing up in New York, I read and revered The New York Times, which was one of a handful of papers in our house, but held the place of highest esteem.  And I remember classroom instruction in elementary school about how to fold it on the train or bus since it wasn’t a tabloid and the pages were so large.

I dreamed of being reviewed there at whatever point I became a published author.  But I never expected that it would be my mystery series that would open that door, and literally jumped for joy when it happened.

Let’s Get Criminal, the first Nick Hoffman mystery, is now back in print after a long hiatus and available on Amazon.

I had never set out to write mysteries, even though I loved crime fiction and started reading in it junior high school. 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.

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 like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. Nick and Stefan teach at the same school, are happy together, 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 I relished the academic setting where you find bald men argue over a comb, as Borges put it so well.

At the time of my conversation with Denneny, I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

When I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. 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 changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has had more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  But that’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to crime fiction.  The latest review of his new mystery State University of Murder is at the Lansing State Journal. You can study creative writing with Lev one-on-one at writewithoutborders.com

 

Review: “The Bookshop” is a Haunting Tale of Dangerous Dreams

If you’re thinking of watching The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy on Amazon Prime, wait. Read the short novel it’s based on first.  The movie adds touches of romance and intensifies Penelope Fitzgerald’s drama in ways that don’t betray the novel, but do make the story less subtle.  More than that, the dispassionate, incisive narrative is gone, with the exception of some voice overs.

This short novel contains a world of heartbreak and cruelty.   In the late 1950s, Florence Green decides to live her dream and open a book shop in a small English coastal town.  The building she chooses for her home and business is damp, decayed, and mournful.  Her courage seems more like naivety.

Though the shop seems to start off well, the portents are not good from the very beginning.  The town seems a dead end and suffers regular devastation.  Its name is warning enough: Hardborough.

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt cold.  Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.  By 1850 the [river] had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away.  In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river.  In 1920 the old railway was closed….The great floods of 1953 caught the seas wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide.”

Later on we learn that new homes have been and washed out to sea by erosion, a force that works on Florence herself.

In a town this besieged and small, everyone knows every step Florence takes.  More and more it seems people are leagued against her, egged on by a wealthy doyenne who says she wants the house Florence has leased to become an arts center–that’s supposedly her dream.  But what this arbitrary, rich woman really wants is to deny anyone else a place of even minor honor and notoriety.  She dreams about power, not culture.  She employs rumor and worse to get her way and to ruin Florence, whose love of books is overflowing, but whose knowledge of the world is very flawed.

Fitzgerald excels at small, cutting descriptions of people, like this one about Milo North, someone vaguely employed by the BBC who worms his way into Florence’s life:

“What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to avoid trouble before it started…His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether.  Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.”

The movie gives viewers a sort of happy or redemptive ending, but the novel is hauntingly unsparing–and Florence’s home itself is haunted.  Though The Bookshop is quite short, there’s an epic feel to this rich and thoughtful novel that might make you want to read it again as soon as you’re done.

Lev Raphael teaches one-on-one online workshops at  writewithouborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

 

Why Did I Start a Mystery Series With a Gay Sleuth?

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 paraphrase 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 like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily married, 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 I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. 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 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 online at writewithoutborders.com.

When an Author’s Quirks Get in the Way: Chris Bohjalian and “The Flight Attendant”

Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel of suspense tells a gripping story about an alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in a luxury hotel bed in Dubai next to a murdered man she slept with the night before.  His throat’s been slashed and there’s lots of blood in the bed.  When she drinks too much, she has blackouts, and she’s wondering if she could have killed him, though she can’t imagine why.

What should she do now?

Cassie has a history of bad choices and some of what she does immediately and in the days after her horrific discovery is truly off the wall–when it’s not just plain dumb.  The lawyer who eventually tries to help her has no problem calling her crazy.

So who killed Cassie’s sexy, wealthy hook-up?  And was he really a hedge fund manager?  Cassie doesn’t know, but before long she starts suspecting that she’s being followed.  In classic thriller style, her troubles escalate as the story unfolds, and often because of her own mistakes.  Cassie is almost a total screw-up, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her, given the alcoholism in her family.  And given that she’s painfully aware of how stuck she is in very bad patterns:

She wanted to be different from what she was–to be anything but what she was.  But every day that grew less and less likely.  Life, it seemed to her…was nothing but a narrowing of opportunities.  It was a funnel.

The details of her work life in the air and on the ground are fascinating, ditto how she interacts with her fellow flight attendants, and Bohjalian is at his best describing Cassie’s shame about her alcoholic blackouts.

But the writing is a bit odd at times. Streets and aisles are described as “thin” rather than “narrow” for no apparent reason. The author has a fondness for unusual words like “gamically,” “cycloid,” “niveous,” “ineludibly,” “noctivagant,” and “fioritura” which stop you right in your tracks.  The last one is a doozy.  It refers to vocal ornamentation in opera and seems totally out of place in describing a lawyer’s complaint to her client.

At a point when Cassie is longing for a drink, it’s not enough for Bohjalian to call it her ambrosia.  No, he has to pile on synonyms “amrita” and “essentia.”  Seriously?

You get the feeling with all these splashy word choices that Bohjalian is showing off, but why would a best-selling author bother?  Does he somehow feel that he has to jazz up his thriller with fancy-shmancy diction to prove that he’s more than just a genre writer?

Bohjalian also spends way too much time on Cassie’s amygdala, her “lizard” brain, and mistakenly thinks it’s a seat of reflection.  It isn’t.

Almost as annoying as his vocabulary or his weak grasp of neuroscience is the fact that his American characters sound British when they use “rather” as in statements like “I rather doubt that–” Even the narrative employs “rather” as a modifier way too often.  This is apparently a tic of his that nobody’s bothered to point out to him. Likewise, Bohjalian uses formal phrasing in a story that’s anything but formal, so time and again there are constructions like this one: “She hadn’t a choice.” Given the book that he’s written, “She didn’t have a choice” seems more direct and natural.

Despite the distracting quirks, I stuck with this thriller because the protagonist is a fascinating hot mess and Bohjalian is a solid story teller when he gets out of his own way.  The novel has some fine twists and a satisfying and surprisingly heartwarming ending.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres including the newly-released mystery State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.

Guest Post: The One Thing You’re Missing When Evaluating Your Writing

One thing we writers must do is regularly seek feedback on our work. It’s the only way we can expect to improve.

The problem is, most of us go about it all wrong.

Let’s say Sandy creates a story and takes it to her writer’s group, submits it to a contest that offers critiques, or hires an editor. Her ultimate goal is to get feedback, but when she gets it, she focuses on only one part of it—the negative. Like most writers, she zeroes in on what she perceives to be her weaknesses, or on what she feels she did wrong.

Seemingly forgotten are all those comments describing what she did well.

This approach may make sense to you. After all, aren’t we supposed to work on our weak areas to improve as writers? Once we fix these, don’t we become publishable, potentially bestselling authors?

Logical, except it rarely works that way. Instead, what usually happens is you work for months or maybe years trying to fix what’s wrong, and odds are what you’ll have to show for it will be a slightly better story, but one that’s still not good enough to attract the eye of an agent or editor.

What happened? Your writing coach or group or editor or whoever it was said your dialogue was weak, and you needed to speed up the pacing. You worked on both and afterward “they” said it was better. So why didn’t you get the result you were hoping for?

Making a weakness less of a weakness is not enough to make you competitive in today’s market. Competition is too fierce.

Focusing mostly on your weaknesses results only in mediocrity. To succeed as a writer, you’ve got to find a way to be extraordinary.

Why Writers Must Identify and Focus on Their Strengths

Bestselling author Paul B. Brown wrote in Forbes, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good as being the best you possibly can be at something.”

I’m not saying you should ignore your weaknesses completely. When I first started writing novels, I hired an editor and got feedback that was really helpful. She pointed out my weaknesses, and I spent a good amount of time studying plot, story structure, conflict, and suspense.

It was time well spent as we all need to educate ourselves in the craft of writing. The problem was that I spent more time on those things than I did building my strengths, which slowed my progress considerably.

As long as you’re stuck in the “fixing your weaknesses” mindset, you’ll remain blind to the things you do really well—and that will keep you from reaching your highest potential.

Maybe you’re great at writing stories that make people think, or that keep them up at night. Maybe you’re an amazing world builder or mystery plot-weaver, or perhaps you have a special way of getting across a strong argument.

What are your strengths as a writer? You must discover the answer to that question, for only then can you start to build on those strengths and become the best writer you can be. For more information on how to use your strengths to build a noticeable author platform, check out Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.

Colleen M. Story’s Writer Get Noticed! is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way. With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness and Writer CEO. Her author website is colleenmstory.com and you can follow her on Twitter @colleen_m_story.

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.