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.

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.

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.

Authors: Do You Want To Conquer Kindle?

Bad prose is apparently essential.

I recently got an email about L.J. Ross, the “Queen of Kindle,” an English author I’d never heard of, who’s apparently sold millions of books. So I went to Amazon to check out the first book in her series.  As a newspaper and radio reviewer for many years, I was struck by what the review quotes said, and what they didn’t say:

“LJ Ross is the queen of Kindle” – Sunday Telegraph

“Holy Island is a blockbuster” – Daily Express

“A literary phenomenon” – Evening Chronicle

There was nothing about the books as books–these papers all tout her success, not her writing. It made me wonder if Ross might be a phenomenon like the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. That is, a huge bestseller despite ridiculous characters and laughable prose.

I downloaded a sample of Ross’s Holy Island, her debut novel which is set on Lindisfarne Island off Northumbria.  But I couldn’t make it past the first few pages for a number of reasons.  The clichés of “huddled together for warmth” and “crashing waves” put me off.  The larger cliché is a tired crime fiction trope: the trapped woman.

Lucy wakes up shivering near a famous ruined priory, and “her skin is exposed and helpless.”  Helpless?  A person can be helpless, but her skin itself?  And why not tell us how exposed she is, why make us guess?  Then we learn that she thinks her eyes are open but she’s not sure because it’s so dark.  It’s hard to believe anyone would not know whether their eyes were open or closed–but it turns out the darkness isn’t that deep anyway because she can see an outline of the priory and the sky is only “ink-blue” and “littered with stars.”

A bit further on Lucy tries to “feel her way to the edge.”  What edge?  We never learn.

She calls for help and hears someone approaching: “The footsteps maintained their unhurried gait and followed their inevitable path.”  People maintain a gait, not their footsteps.  But the author separates other things as well when she writes “Her mind struggled to process the words, to believe her ears.”  Is her mind some separate thing unconnected to her?  Wouldn’t just saying “She” be simpler and more accurate?

I read across genres and love good story-telling, but I can’t waste my time on writers whose writing is below par.  Especially writers who have people dying awful deaths suddenly thinking of something pleasant just before they die—in this case it’s “home.”  That’s another tired fiction moment.

Even the Amazon description of the book is poorly written, because it claims that the island of Lindisfarne is  “cut off from the English mainland by a tidal causeway.”  Causeways connect islands, but perhaps whoever wrote that was in the spell of her prose.  Bad writing can sometimes be hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

 

“Elite” Is a Hot Spanish Mystery Series on Netflix

The new Netflix original mystery series Elite is set at a posh high school near Madrid where “the leaders of tomorrow” are being trained to take their rightful place and rule the world.  How posh is this school?  It looks like a cross between a contemporary art museum and a tech company’s headquarters.

One of the oldest plots in the world is the entrance of somebody new into a closed community.  Here it’s made fresh via three lower-class students who’ve been given a year’s tuition in a PR move, because their old school’s roof collapsed thanks to shoddy construction.  The builder involved is determined to salvage his reputation and he’s behind placing these students at the same school his son and daughter attend.  He’s corrupt, of course, and his scheming sweeps up lots of innocent people over the course of eight episodes.

To make the situation even dicier, one of the new students is a Muslim teen who wears the hijab–until she’s ordered to take it off or be expelled. She hides this from her parents, but like all the secrets in Elite, it’s unexpectedly revealed. Bigotry and religious conflict are recurring themes in the series, tightly woven together with the much more intense simmering class conflict that leads to violence.

Elite isn’t just another teen drama fielding a good-looking cast, it’s a crime show whose structure is reminiscent of How To Get Away With Murder and Inside Man.  We find out right off that someone’s been killed and the murderer isn’t revealed until the last episode.  All the kids are quizzed by the police in tight close-ups about what happened leading up to the murder and about their tangled relationships. These kids are very mature, with adult passions, obsessions, and anxieties–all of which makes the arguments with their parents even more compelling and the series compelling and unique.

Lev Raphael is the author of the Nick Hoffman mysteries and many other books in a wide range of genres.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com

 

Writers Are Not Robots

Well, I’m not, anyway.

I do have writer friends who can produce a book (or more) a year no matter what kind of crisis is hitting them at home. Contracts pull them through. That, and stubbornness. I couldn’t work with so much pressure; I’d feel like I was on an assembly line….

I was recently at a party and someone asked me what I was working on. I said, “Nothing. I published my 25th book last Fall. I’m taking time off.” He looked at me like I was a slacker or something. But that’s not an unusual response.

I’ve been a member of the same health club for over two decades and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town not unlike East Lansing. No matter when I publish a book in the series, someone will always ask, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

It could be the very same week there’s been an article in a local paper or a radio interview. Really. As if I’m churning them out on an assembly line with the help of a team of research assistants.

And if I don’t have news about another book in press, I often get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

Okay, publishing 25 books in different genres over the last 25 years isn’t shabby — but they haven’t come out on any sort of regular basis. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out.

In case that sounds like I’m Type A, I should explain that my second novel took almost twenty years to finish. Yes, twenty, working on and off because I kept re-conceiving it. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré — and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

But some books took me only six months to write from concept to completion for various reasons. And another book was fairly easy to put together because it was a collection of already-published essays and didn’t need extensive editing. So it’s all highly unpredictable.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill. Or the people who think that popping out another book can’t be that difficult since it’s not like I have a real job, anyway.

Maybe I should ask them, “So, when are you doing your next brain surgery?” or “When’s your next super-messy divorce case?’ or “When’s your next multi-million dollar real estate deal?”

Nah. I’ll just blog about it, or write them into my next book. Whenever.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Letting Go And Moving On: A Writer’s Tale

I’m working on my 26th book and I know that finishing it will leave me sad because living in the world of writing is balm for my soul.  Life feels concentrated, focused, enriched when a book is my mental companion.  It’s part of the fabric of each day, whether I’m actually writing or not because it’s always on my mind, and I feel a sense of loss when it’s done.

But finishing is also joyful. And that’s not because I enter the familiar process of watching the book move out into the world through various stages of publication–and then look forward to all the possible speaking engagements.

The joy is partly something more mundane: cleaning up and letting go.

While working on a book, I generate endless drafts of chapters, sections of chapters, and several of the entire book itself no matter what the genre. With some books, especially one of my Nick Hoffman mysteries, I might have to go through ten drafts of a really difficult or challenging chapter before I get it right.

I print everything off because I learned a long time ago that it’s too easy for me to miss errors, gaps, typos, and continuity issues reading the book on any kind of screen.  I need to have the text in my hand to see it clearly.

For almost ten years now, all that paper has been indexed and stored–but not by me. Special Archives at Michigan State University’s library purchased my literary papers and whenever I finish a book, I box up everything connected to it and someone from the library comes to take it away to add to The Lev Raphael Papers.  My work has joined the papers of other well-known writers associated with MSU like Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Carolyn Forché, and Richard Ford.

If any researcher now or in the future wants to follow the progress of a book or story of mine, it’ll all be available, from Post-it Notes to scribbled-on rough drafts to the final product final drafts.  The blind alleys and abandoned parts are all there, and so is all the research material I’ve gathered, since I don’t need to consult it any more.

When I’m done with a book, I’m always surprised at how much “stuff” there is associated with it.  But seeing the collected work of a year or more carted off doesn’t leave me with the writer’s version of Empty Nest Syndrome.  That’s because there’s always another book waiting in line to be written, another world for me to enter and explore.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery including a book of advice for writers: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

“Do You Know Stephen King?”

It sounds like a specialized question, but it’s not. Apparently, if you know King, your reality as an author is verified, whether the person asking will ever bother to read a book of yours or not.

I’ve been asked about King many times times by cab drivers when I’m doing book tours across the country and they find out why I’m in town. It’s almost always the first question.

So, here are some sample answers to help out all you road-weary, flummoxed authors in those moments when your mind might go blank and you’re wishing you had stayed home or taken your parents’ advice and gone into your cousin’s wallpaper business. Feel free to suggest your own.

— “We went to college together. Dude could par-tay!” Make up the wild story of your choice at this point. You’re a writer. Be grotesque. Embellish.

— “That SOB? Never wanted to. He used to date my cousin and he was into really kinky sex that left her with a limp and allergies. It’s really sad.” Sink into your seat and mutter darkly.

— “Yes, but he trashed my house once after a séance and we haven’t talked since, though our lawyers are working it out. At least he says those are his lawyers. Sometime you can see right through them…. It’s kinda creepy.”

— “Stephen who? Is he some kind of writer or something? Like, wha has he written I might have heard of?” Look truly puzzled.

— “Are you kidding? I’m the one who gives him his book titles and plot twists. He gets writer’s block all the time and calls me drunk at three in the morning. Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything. Please don’t tell anyone!”

— “No. Have you?” Glare.

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

Don’t Miss this Terrific Mystery from Argentina

I reviewed crime fiction at the Detroit Free Press for about a decade and had a terrific editor who loved the genre. But she quit because she got tired of being constantly pushed to do “features about Stephen King.” This was at a time when book coverage across the country was shrinking.

Her replacement actually told me, “I’m not a book person.” But Editor no. 2 had definite ideas about what I should be concentrating on in my column: best sellers. This was when bricks and mortar book stores were still flourishing and I felt that readers saw best sellers in newspapers ads and on full display in book store windows, in the stores themselves on walls, in end cap displays, on the best seller tables.

There was no reason for me to exclude best sellers, but why not keep my main focus on great books readers might miss: books by new or under-appreciated authors; books from independent presses; books that had been translated into English. That last category was especially important to me because with Americans tend to avoid books in translation.

If I did review a translated book, I only picked that novel if the translation felt smooth and natural (beyond the story being good, of course). Claudia Piñeiro is Argentina’s best-selling crime writer, someone I’ve just discovered, and her book A Crack in the Wall is all of that and more, thanks to its highly unusual structure and focus.

Pablo Simó works in a boutique Buenos Aires architectural firm. He’s a bit of a dreamer and something of a weirdo. He obsessively designs a building he doesn’t seem destined to ever build, and he takes a circuitous subway route home instead of a direct bus for reasons that take some time to become clear. What also evolves is the nature of the crime the book is built around.

In Chapter One we discover that he and his colleagues are somehow involved in a murder and its cover-up, but the how and why emerge slowly, in the context of his messy family life and all the ways in which he’s really living a life of quiet desperation. When excitement and sex enter the story it’s both a surprise,and the psychological depths the author explores drive the story forward in exciting, gripping ways. Diving deep into verities of love and marriage, the author lays bare the city’s convoluted building practices and takes us on a fascinating virtual tour of the city’s architecture, especially some of its famous Art Nouveau structures.

I’ve been reading and reviewing mysteries for years, but don’t remember anything quite like A Crack in the Wall. It’s one of those books you finish with a “Wow!” or maybe even “Damn!”

Lev Raphael is the author of eight mysteries set in Michigan along with a wide range of books in genres from memoir to vampire fiction.

Writing Past a Problem

Working on my most recently published book, I ran into a significant problem.  To move the novel forward, I needed my protagonist to have a confrontation with a minor character.  I knew what this woman’s role was in the book and how she drove the plot forward.

But the woman herself was a blank.  I had no idea what she looked like, what she sounded like, what kind of house she had.  None of that was real.  And so I did when I’ve learned to do after many years as an author: I let go.  Consciously, that is.

writer-thinkingI knew I would be musing about it freely and without stress if I focused my attention elsewhere.  Walking my dogs was one choice.  Working out at the gym was even better.  Freeing my mind and focusing on repetitive physical activity (treadmill, weights) has always helped me write.  Even if I’m not consciously writing, my subconscious is beavering away at the problem,  pondering the questions I’ve posed myself.

After a few weeks, the answers came to me when I did something a bit different: I worked out three days in a row instead of taking a day off between workouts.  Suddenly I could see this woman limping up to her front door past the impatiens.  I knew why she had planted them, and why she limped.

impatiensBetter still, I heard her speaking her first line to my protagonist, and once he answered, the scene took off.

But I didn’t head right to my PC or make any kind of notes.  I let the scene build.  Adding layers and complications.  Making connections with other parts of the book.  Many words, many realities.

After so many years of writing and publishing, I knew my own process well enough to know that I wasn’t ready.  I wanted to have a draft in my head since the scene  would anchor a whole chapter and push the book to its dark climax.

Writing isn’t just the physical act of clicking keys or wielding pen or pencil or even dictating.  It takes place invisibly–to everyone else but us authors.  That’s why it sometimes feels so magical.  And that’s why it’s often hard to answer the question “What are you working on?”  I often don’t want to say, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure.

It’s actually a lot easier when someone asks me “Are you writing a new book?” My reply is “Always.”

writer-ionescoLev Raphael is the author of Hot Rocks, a health club mystery, and 24 other books in many genres.  He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.