Has an Editor Changed Your Life?

Let's Get Criminal (A Nick Hoffman / Academic Mystery Book 1) by [Raphael, Lev]

I left teaching at Michigan State University years ago because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish a book with only having summers off for extended writing time.  It was a gamble, and a serious loss of income my spouse said we could manage–for awhile.  Two years passed and I was more and more disheartened, especially when I got rejections for my book of short stories like the one that said “I don’t much like your metaphors and such.”

I was so down that I even talked about giving up writing as a career and maybe studying to be a therapist, since I was married to one and had such a deep background in reading psychology, going back to college.  And then one night a call came from Michael Denneny, the celebrated editor at St. Martin’s Press, and he said, “I want to publish your book.”  I was ecstatic.  When I hung up and shared the news, my witty spouse quipped, “Did you tell him you’d given up writing as a career?”

The book got dozens of reviews and launched my career.  Denneny was an amazing, hands-on editor who spent seven months doing deep dives on each story in the book.  Many of them were abut the Second Generation, children of Holocaust survivors, and back in the 197s and 1980s I was a pioneer in tackling this subject.  It was understandably dark material and one night at dinner in New York, Denneny suggested that I branch out and write something comic, since he thought I had a good sense of humor.  That suggestion was tossing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples.

I immediately thought of the story in my first collection told in the voice of an English professor who discovers that his partner has helped a former lover get a job at their university.  Not only that, his partner invites the guy for dinner.  It seemed like a good foundation for a mystery: What if the dinner guest dies?

Crime fiction was a genre I loved, and I had started reading mysteries in junior high school. My local library was well stocked and I worked my way through every Agatha Christie book on its shelves and branched out in many directions, like the comic New England mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor and the spy novels of John Creasey.

Sadly, none of my college classes focused on genre literature, but the flip side is that as an English major, I was introduced to one amazing author after another, from D.H. Lawrence to Virginia Woolf. I read them all voraciously, inspired more than ever to make my life as an author.

For inspiration as I planned my mystery, I returned to crime novels I’d read before and read many dozens of new ones by authors from Robert Barnard to Sue Grafton.  Let’s Get Criminal was born, but Denneny didn’t connect with it.  I was disappointed, but as a writer friend once said, finding the right editor for your book can be as difficult as finding the right partner or spouse.

Winter Eyes (coming out novel) by [Raphael, Lev]

Soon after St. Martin’s press published my coming out novel Winter Eyes, I was approached by an agent who’d read about that books and I signed with her.  She saw Let’s Get Criminal as a Jewish Object of My Affections.  I was dubious, but then again, what did I know?  The rejections mounted and there was a trend: most of the editors said that they didn’t like mysteries.  Before I could ask why she was picking the wrong editors, she left the business.

But the editor who took over at St. Martin’s Press from Denneny, Keith Kahla, loved the book when I tried him myself, and he wanted the next one in the series, too, when I told him what I was planning. The Edith Wharton Murders was #2 and it put the series on the map thanks to a rave review in the New York Times Book Review where Marilyn Stasio said, “The Borgias would be at home at the State University of Michigan, that snake pit of academic politics.”  Kahla was justifiably pleased, and he was every bit as good an editor as his predecessor.

I read widely then and always had, so it was no surprise that I moved into other genres while keeping the series going and reviewed books for a number of publications including the Detroit Free Press where I had a monthly crime fiction column.

Let’s Get Criminal went out of print, was re-published by Lethe Press and went out of print a second time.  Now it’s available as an ebook from ReQueered Books.  I’m delighted that a new generation of readers can see where the Nick Hoffman series started.  And in case you were wondering about the title, it’s a comic nod to the Olivia Newton-John song “Let’s Get Physical” which plays a role in the book.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and his latest mystery is State University of Murder.

Must-read Crime Fiction About Russia

I’ve lost track of how many mysteries and thrillers I’ve read, and not just because I’ve been reading crime fiction since junior high. I also spent a good decade reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free press, everything from best sellers to European mysteries in translation. I’ve even taught crime fiction courses and workshops, but it’s rare when I want to re-read a book in this genre.  Even rarer: wanting to re-read a whole series.

But Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkendy Renko series is just that good and I’m almost halfway through for the second time. Starting with Gorky Park, which was a film with William Hurt, the series of eight books is set in Russia before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  It charts the very uneven path of Arkady Renko, a public investigator who is surly, cynical, defiant and heedless of consequences.  His father was a famous or infamous general during World War II, depending on who’s talking.  General Renko likely committed war crimes but also helped save the Soviet Union.

Arkady is nothing like the general and the name is a burden to him.  But then so is the stupidity and cupidity of his superiors, and the slovenly work other cops do. Renko is a classic outsider even though he officially works for the government and often finds himself being warned off cases or sidelined in some way.  This passage from the most recent book, Tatiana, deftly places Arkady in his milieu:

A golden youth, son of an infamous general, he had floated easily to the top.  By now, he should have been a deputy minister or, at the very least, a prosecutor, ruler of his own precinct and feasting at the public trough.  Somehow, he had wandered.  Almost all the cases that came his way were fueled by vodka and capped by a drunken confession.  Crimes that displayed planning and intelligence were all to often followed by a phone call from above, with advice to “go easy” or not “make waves.”  Instead of bending, he pushed back, and so guaranteed his descent from early promise to pariah.

Renko gets himself transferred from Moscow to a small town in Stalin’s Ghost for complex reasons and the drive to tiny Tver is the opportunity for him to reflect on how Russia is two very different countries, one wealthy and one anything but.  Leaving Moscow, there’s no

Mercedes, no Bolshoi, no sushi,. no paved-over world; instead mud, geese, apples rolling off a horse cart.  No townhouses in gated communities, but cottages shared with cats and hens.  No billionaires, but men who sold vases by the highway because the crystal factory they worked at had no money to pay them so paid them in kind, making each man an entrepreneur holding a vase with one hand and swatting flies with the other.

Cruz Smith’s dialogue in every scene crackles, especially when people are talking about today’s Russia or what they consider timeless characteristics of its people. Here’s his heavy-drinking police comrade Victor discoursing about the national drink:

“Life would be wonderful without vodka.  But since the world is not wonderful, people need vodka.  Vodka is in our DNA.  That’s a fact.  The thing is, Russians are perfectionists.  That’s our curse.  It makes for great chess players and ballerinas and turns the rest of us into jealous inebriates. The question is not why don’t I drink less, it’s why don’t you drink more?”

There’s also stark poetry in his prose.  Here’s Arkady discovering a nemesis on his street: “It was 2 a.m., the hour between sweet dreams and dark despair, a time to pace the floor, not the sidewalk.”  Or thinking about the runaway kid he’s in effect adopted: “Zhenya was Pluto, a dark object detectable more by its effect on the planets than by direct observation.”

Every book in the series is dark, deep, thought-provoking and a voyage into a country whose history, culture, and current political and social reality we need to understand much better than we do.

Lev Raphael is teaching a mystery writing workshop in June at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books, including the just-published State University of Murder.

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.

 

 

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.

Watching TV With My Westies

We have two feisty and super-smart West Highland White Terriers who seem to love TV–each in different ways.  Television is as important to me as reading and because I write mysteries, I watch a lot of movies and crime series, domestic and foreign.  I’m always curious to see how other writers develop character, work twists into their plots, and create believable dialogue.

And I’ve been surprised that the dogs enjoy it, too, though obviously they have different interests.  Our six-year old, Rudi, is fascinated by a wide range of things, and after dinner, he sits in the kitchen waiting for us to say, “It’s time for TV.”  While we’re cleaning up, he trots into the living room and plants himself on a chair or ottoman opposite the 65-inch screen, waiting.

Rudi is happy watching nature specials and enjoys simple scenes like the wind sweeping across a planted field, rippling the wheat or corn.  He also sat there riveted by most of Babe.  At the end of that movie, he turned to us and moved his lips like the animals he’d been observing, and he does that every now and then when he’s excited about something.

He’s been no fan of the dragons in Game of Thrones or zombies in The Walking Dead.  He races to the set to bark at horses tearing across the screen as they do somewhat too often in Poldark, but he seems especially fascinated by extreme closeups of people expressing intense emotion.  At those moments, I watch his ears twitch and his head move from one speaker to another.  Sometimes his eyes go wide if characters are yelling or crying.  Both Westies are fascinated by fast-paced chases and fight scenes like the ones in the Jason Bourne movies.

Rudi’s half-brother Ravi, who’s just over two years old, is a typical little brother and often seems drawn to whatever Rudi is watching or barking at.  But emotion triggers something extra special in the little guy. We were all watching Daredevil last week and I reacted intensely to a car crash that left the driver trapped upside down near her dead passenger because I have some lingering PTSD from a car accident of my own.  I gasped during that scene in the show and Ravi raced onto the couch and started licking my face as if to reassure me.  It’s happened before, and sometimes he responds even when I’m silent but experiencing surprise or momentary distress at what’s on the screen.  He’s clearly been observing my face.

So TV nights at our home are layered: my spouse and I are watching the screen, but we’re also watching the Westies, who watch each other, the screen and us, too.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of the health club mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in many genres.

This Flemish Thriller Will Keep You Guessing

Because I’ve had wonderful trips to Flanders in the past few years,I’ve been developing an interest in Flemish crime fiction. I recently discovered and reviewed Styx, a fantastic crime novel by Bavo Dhooge (pronounced Bah-voh Dough-hey). That book led me to another Flemish thriller, Baudelaire’s Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven. Scandinavian crime writers currently dominate the discussion of European crime writing, but based on just these two marvels, maybe their Flemish cousins are on the way up….

Van Laerhoven’s written a colorful, complex, atmospheric, darkly sensual crime thriller set in a fascinating period.

The book’s events take place primarily during a national catastrophe: the Franco-Prussian war, which is about to devastate Paris. “With the trumpets of war blaring in the background and [Napoleon III] delivering pompous declarations about the grandeur of France, all sorts of things were apparently permissible.” The city has been frantic with real estate speculation, sexual and political corruption, séances, Satanism, and spiritualism. Opium and nude women dancing with snakes in nightclubs are just some of the escapist delights available for the cognoscenti.

A literate ex-army police commissioner who’s a combination of “hermit and whoremonger” is handed a bizarre case. The ghost of poet Charles Baudelaire might be committing grotesque murders—as revenge for his mistreatment while he was alive. It’s a terrific opening conceit. I mean, what author hasn’t imagined savaging his or her critics—more power to you if you can do it from the Beyond. But the criminality has a more improbable source, if you can believe it, and the novel turns on dark, nasty, sublimely twisted secrets—as well it should. This is a book where poetry and perversity reign, with a deft nod to Edgar Allen Poe.

The police commissioner is aptly, ironically named: Lefèvre (the fever), and the author has fun with other character names. Lefèvre has previously gone up against many insane killers, has a “bloodhound reputation,” bears “the scars of pitiless duels,” and is obsessed with sex and death. He’s not the only feverish character in the book: le tout Paris seems on the verge of hysteria, a breakdown, or revolution. And over everything, the increasingly gruesome murders drift like the foul miasma of a sewer….

Baudelaire wrote that travel teaches bitter lessons (amer savoir, celui qu’on tire de voyage), but for fans of international crime fiction, travel via thrillers only broadens our horizons. And as Laerhoven’s poetry-quoting, lust-driven inspector says, “murder sensitizes people to the mysteries that lurk behind everyday life.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

 

Writers Are Not Machines

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 that way.

I was just 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?”

Sands of TimeIt 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 with the help of a team of interns or androids.

And God forbid there’s no news within a year of another book due to appear.  Telling people that I just published a book in the past year doesn’t seem to penetrate.  I get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

man_in_hammock-e1437520839805Okay, 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.

heidelberg-castleBut 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.  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.

writing is a businessLev Raphael’s latest book, the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie, was a Midwest Book Award Finalist and deals with police militarization and out-of-control SWAT teams.  It came out at the time when the Ferguson story hit the news; he’d been working on it for about four-five years.  You can find his books on Amazon.