I Went From Archival Research To Having My Work Archived

Years ago when I was visiting a friend who taught at the University of Texas at Austin, she and I went to the Harry Ransom Center, a museum and Humanities library whose holdings include collections of many famous authors.  My friend wanted to see something connected to the Brontes, and I was curious to see anything of Edith Wharton’s.

I had published a book about her life and fiction, as well as The Edith Wharton Murders, a comic mystery that got me my first New York Times review.  Going through the index, I randomly picked a letter from Wharton to Jean Cocteau.  “This should be fascinating,” I told my friend.

When the letter came in its plastic cover, it turned out to just be a note inviting him to lunch.

Years later, writing Rosedale in Love, a revisioning of Wharton’s classic The House of Mirth, I did some research at Cornell about a famous chef who was going to make an appearance in this Gilded Age novel.  I was surprised that the archivist gave me a box with clippings, menus, letters haphazardly piled inside.

That made me decide that if I ever sold my own literary papers, I’d at least supply the library with information about exactly what was in each box I gave them.  And that’s what I ended up doing, starting in 1999 when Special Collections at Michigan State University bought my current and future papers, and carted off 93 boxes of materials.

So what was in those boxes?  Writing diaries; travel/book tour journals; correspondence with other authors; domestic and foreign tour memorabilia; fan mail; corrected galley proofs; drafts and clippings of the hundreds of reviews I’ve published in the Washington Post and other newspapers; CDs from my radio show interviews with authors like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong; research materials for all of my books; interviews in print and on tape, CD and DVD; editorial correspondence; reviews of my books from around the world; articles, conference papers and book chapters written about my fiction; copies of all my published books, essays, and stories in all languages; unpublished manuscripts; poetry; “association copies” (books inscribed from other authors); awards; original cover art and posters; and “ephemera” including gifts from fans ranging over thirty years of his career as a published author.

I watched all that go with a tremendous sense of relief. I was happy that future researchers would have access a collection that was so complete–and that I’d sold them at the price an editor of mine said would be fair.  And glad to feel that in a way I had wiped the slate clean and was starting a new phase of my career as an author.  More than that, I’d made it easier for the archivists to create an index of my work to guide future scholars and researchers.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at http://writewithoutborders.com

Edith Wharton and Secret Love

Edith Wharton isn’t a writer you tend to think of on Valentine’s day. Her marriage was unhappy and the very secret affair she had in her forties was with a faithless cad.

No wonder that love in her novels is so often curdled, thwarted, or hopeless. Think of Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Mother’s Recompense, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence.

But there’s so much to love and admire in her work: the wit, the dissection of social fossilization, the gimlet-eyed study of women’s objectification, the elegant knife-sharp prose, the passion under the surface.

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ends with a quiet nod to a possible lost love of Henry James, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote in her study A Feast of Words. Wharton knew a touching story that James had told to a mutual friend: when he was younger, James had once stood for hours somewhere in Europe, staring up at a balcony window, hoping to see a face. He hadn’t said whose face it was and Wharton recast the story in her own way at the end of The Age of Innocence. It was a loving private tribute to a man, now dead, who might have exasperated her sometimes but whom she had been devoted to.

Wharton exasperated me with her stereotypical Jew Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth. How could such a gifted author betray her gifts like that?

When I re-wrote her novel as Rosedale in Love, I did my own version of her gesture to James by including a secret love and giving my book a surprise happy ending. Why not? I’ve been devoted to her fiction for years and it’s inspired me in my own writing to strive for the best.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His other Wharton-inspired book is a mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

My Life With Edith Wharton: A Birthday Blog

It’s not surprising that I fell in love with Edith Wharton, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway in Manhattan that I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken.  Like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam, it had gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing,

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. This was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world.  Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown that took us along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone, and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history.  I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness.  In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that helped launch the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing twenty-five books in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been noticed or discussed before.  A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery,The Edith Wharton Murders.  It was my first book to be reviewed by the New York Times.

More recently, I’ve re-entered her world in a far more intimate way: I’ve radically re-visioned The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s Jewish suitor Simon Rosedale.  I’ve given Rosedale a home, a family, a history, dreams, and a tormented heart.  In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice after two years of immersing myself in fiction and nonfiction from the early 1900s. I don’t know how Wharton would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating collaborations of my career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

In Praise of Passionate Professors

I did an MFA in Creative writing and English at UMass/Amherst when it was rated the third best writing program in the country–not that I picked it for its status. I wanted a school that was close to my New York home but not too close, which ruled out many other programs.

dubois_pond_chapel_620x305UMass was where I got my start as an author because I published my first story while still a student, in Redbook, which had 4.5 millions readers at the the time.  This was after having won second prize in the department’s writing contest my first year, and first prize my second year.

Each semester I had a writing workshop, but some of my favorite professors were actually literature teachers (we had to do thirty credits of lit classes). I still think about them years later because they passed on the most precious teacher’s gift of all: excitement. They were so passionate about the writers they taught that they set off fireworks in my mind that still glow whenever I think about those writers or read them.

Paul Mariani was a Hart Crane expert and while I’d read a biography of the doomed poet and some of his letters before signing up for Mariani’s Symbolist poetry seminar, Crane’s work seemed inaccessible to me, arcane and closed. But Mariani made the poems intimate, open, immediate, and I still quote lines from “Voyages,” “Chaplinesque” and “The Broken Tower” today. Crane feels like an old friend and I re-read his poems more than any other poet’s.

white buildingsThe late Ernest Hofer taught Contemporary British fiction and brought over English paperbacks for his students because we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. in those pre-Amazon days. Under his tutelage I read writers I probably wouldn’t have found on my own: Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell. Hill’s Strange Meeting is still one of the best WW I novels I’ve ever read. Hofer was also a Henry James expert and he let me co-teach a James class with him in which I also supervised an honors student. That gave me even more teaching experience than I already had.

susan hillCynthia Griffin Wolff was just about to publish her psychological biography Feast of Words about Edith Wharton which would change Wharton scholarship forever. Her seminar was rigorous and exciting. She knew Wharton so well that she never consulted her manuscript or any notes.  Even though I was already in Wharton’s thrall, I left Wolff’s class with a deeper respect for Wharton that led to three books of my own connected to that author.

feast of wordsEach of these professors was dedicated, focused, patient, good-humored–and in love with their subjects. You can’t fake that last quality.  It’s why I try my best to only teach books and classes I’m enthusiastic about now that I’m a guest at Michigan State University.  My hope is to pass on some of the gifts that were given to me in those formative years with such grace and generosity.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

The Secret to Get People Reading Your Blog

So you’ve started your blog and there’s minimal traffic?

A sure-fire way to generate an audience is to write smack about somebody famous, especially if that celebrity just died.

Just see what would happen if you blogged that Prince’s music was over-rated, that he hadn’t really written any hits lately, that he was derivative, that he always looked like he got dressed in the dark–or whatever nastiness came to mind.  The comments would explode.

prince orangeIf you dissed Prince so soon after his death and all the memorials praising his genius, you’d be endlessly re-tweeted on Twitter. Now, people do respond to the 5 Ways to De-Clutter Your Sock Drawer blogs, but when a blogger targets somebody popular, it’s like swatting a bee hive with a bat.

You can do better than that, though: don’t just attack a person, attack a whole genre.  Look at Curtis Sittenfeld.  Never heard of her?  That’s true for lots of readers.  But she recently generated a ton of publicity by saying that most romance novels are badly written.

Bingo!  She got tons of press and widespread attacks by romance writers and readers.

Of course, she was after bigger game than blog readers because she was publishing an updated version of Pride and Prejudice which she thinks is a romance.  But the strategy could work just as well for you: diss a popular genre with a provocative blog title, and watch the comments mount.  Try writing a blog “Crime Fiction is Crap.”

The comments won’t be pretty. You’ll get dissed as a hack or moron or worse.  Ignore all that.  Ignore all the negatives, because what’s the point of getting into a conversation with someone who wants to insult you?  Just watch for the people who agree–because those people will show up, too.  And who knows, they might stick around….

BlogLev Raphael is author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir.

What Authors Never Say At Book Signings

airplane_0Being an author on a book tour can be a wonderful experience, until things go wrong: missed flights, poor turnouts, noisy and uncomfortable hotels, cab drivers taking you to the wrong book store in the wrong part of town, hotel WiFi crapping out–and a host of other problems that can work your last nerve.

So sometimes your charm can wear very thin, and you start to feel that the same kinds of remarks or questions you’ve heard before feel like swings people are taking at a piñata.

800px-pinata_in_san_diegoThe stress can leave you most vulnerable when you’re marooned at a table waiting for people to come over and get a book to be signed.  This isn’t after a reading, but when all the bookstore wants you to do is just sit and sign.  You end up feeling like you’re not much more than somebody’s desperate grandmother at a weekend yard sale trying to unload worthless junk rather than an artist selling a book you’ve slaved over.

LandscapeHere are some moments many authors have experienced, and what some of them might have been thinking in their weary, frazzled, tortured little hearts.

Scene: Customer rifles through a book for five or more minutes while the author sits at the bookstore table grinning stupidly and helpfully, imagining alternative realities that would have kept her home: a stalled car or a civil insurrection or just a plain old flu.

sick in bedCustomer puts book down and mutters, “I’ll get it on Amazon.”  Customer trundles off.

Author would love to say: “I won’t sign it on friggin’ Amazon!”

Or Customer asks, “Will I like it?”

Author would love to say, “You will adore it.  It’s gonna improve your sex life, give you a green thumb, help you lose weight (and seriously, honey, it’s time because have you seen yourself from behind?), get your kids into their first choice colleges, and make your dog stop peeing on the couch.”

guilty dogCustomer says out of the blue, after inspecting as if it might have bed bugs, “I don’t read much.”

Author would love to say, “I could tell from the vacant look in your eyes.”

Customer sighs after putting the book back upside down and face down, “I have so many books at home that I have to read first.”

Author would love to say, “This is way better than the trash you’re used to.”

Customer bustles up to you and scolds you at length for some plot point in your last book and says you better not have repeated the same mistake in the new one.

Author would love to say, “I’m so grateful!  That was amazing advice! Nobody’s ever pointed that out to me before!  I’m dedicating my next book to you!  Here, take a free book!  No, take two!”

Friend_hugLev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.

My Bastille Day Faux Pas in France

Edith WhartonYears ago when I was researching a book on Edith Wharton’s psychology and fiction, I visited her home north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.  It was less than an hour north of the city and I’d written ahead long in advance to get permission to explore it and take pictures.  I didn’t realize my clueless publisher would have no interest in the photos, not even an author photo of me in her garden. The ways of publishing have always been mysterious….

Arriving in that small town of fewer than 15,000 citizens, and fluent in French, I was puzzled that nobody I asked on the street seemed to know where Rue Edith Wharton was.  I kept getting responses of “Desolé, M’sieu, connais pas.”  Sorry, don’t know. Finally I resorted to the Town Hall for a map to find the home Wharton called Pavillon Colombe, which was built in the late 18th century for an actress.  I later learned that the street had only recently been renamed for Wharton, which was probably why citizens couldn’t help me.

pavillon colombeThough the facade of her home is aloof and impersonal, it opened into a cool, dark hall, beyond which, through French doors, stretched a sunny parterre. A shy maid showed me into a gorgeous salon filled with beautiful paintings, tables, books, and bibelots. A bell rang somewhere and the maid said, Madame la Princesse vienne. I stood there trying to figure out why she was using the subjunctive tense to tell me that the princess was coming (what was wrong with the regular present?), and I felt that I was in way over my head.

But I couldn’t help relishing the elegant rooms opening onto each other and onto the parterre.  This was my first time ever in a French home of such grace and beauty.

Princess Isabelle von und zu Liechtenstein, the wife of Pavillon Colombe’s owner, strode up through the garden.  She was drop-dead chic in black and grey with a colorful Chanel scarf at her throat, her hair in a chignon. As she passed wailing peacocks, she called out to two bounding white borzois in a high piping voice.  It was an entrance like something out of a stage play, dramatic and somewhat intimidating.

Madame la Princesse gave me a brisk but exceedingly gracious tour through the house that bore no trace of Wharton’s former presence.  On my own I toured the garden which also had changed since Wharton’s day, but still showed signs of her planning.  In the Italian style, it was a tranquil, inviting progression of orderly spaces, light giving way to shadow, square spaces to round, grass to fountains.

Upon leaving and thanking my host, I struck the absolute wrong note.  Bastille Day was coming up and I made some reference to it, because I’d never been in France before on July14th and was looking forward to the fireworks.

eiffel-tower-fireworksWithout thinking, I asked if the Princess had any special plans.  “Je porte toujours le deuil,” she said with no change of expression: “I always wear mourning.”  She added that her husband was a descendent of Queen Marie Antoinette. My French failed me.  My English failed me. Had I spoken German at the time, that would have failed me, too.  Luckily, I was on my way out.  It does make a good story, though, something Wharton herself might have enjoyed.  I suppose the Princess’s version might be even more entertaining–if she’s ever deigned to tell it, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.  This anecdote is taken from his study Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame.

Has a Teacher Changed Your Life?

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and I’m giving a shout-out to the writing professor who changed my life.  Her advice and guidance in college echo in my mind decades later now that I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University as a guest for several years.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus that I fell in love with writing itself.

quote-Edna-Ferber-life-cant-defeat-a-writer-who-is-14548

She was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia myself right after graduate school to teach for a few years before I quit to write full time. She didn’t 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 tried to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, to see it the way you did, making you feel like she was communing with you, not knocking you down.  And her overall goal was to create a community of learning, not set students against each other as rivals.

I took every class she taught and read two authors in her American Novel survey course who’ve stayed with me for thirty years, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Dr. Lauer is one reason why years later my second mystery The Edith Wharton Murders has two (fictional) Wharton societies at war with each other. In a tribute to her, I made my sleuth the author of a Wharton bibliography, just as she was. I also based one of the continuing characters in the series on her because she loved mysteries so much and I wanted to feel her presence in the books as I wrote them.

She said to me more than once in college–privately–that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something emotionally real. That was my El Dorado, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication. 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.

I had already graduated and was in an MFA program, but she midwifed the story because she knew I was so anxious about broaching the subject matter. She made me read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, editor of The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which then had an audience of 4.5 million readers. It wouldn’t exist without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and mentoring.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the author I am today whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries. When MSU’s English department invited me to start teaching for them a few years ago as a guest, I realized that Dr. Lauer’s imprint was still so strong on me that I was teaching the way she did, interacting with students the way she would–filtered through my own personality, of course. And I remembered that after a terrific class one day I asked her how I could thank her. She smiled and said “Just pass it on.”

great-teachersLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.