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.

Marie Kondo Doesn’t Understand Book Lovers!

Marie Kondo is all the rage when it comes to de-cluttering, but her advice to cull your books by only keeping the ones that “bring you joy” reveals that she doesn’t understand all the different meanings that books can have for their owners.

I’ve kept books that I read years ago in college not just because I might re-read them, but because they remind me of classes, teachers, and even fellow students.  They’re part of my history.  Some of them helped inspire me to become a writer.

Other books relate to my professional life. I have a whole book case of review copies of books I reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other newspapers as well as on various public radio shows. I might re-read some. I might not. What matters is that those seven packed shelves, carefully alphabetized, are a window opening to my life as a reviewer.  They remind me of the editors I worked with, the deadlines I met, and the way I learned to write and revise with tight deadlines.

Then there are the books in my den which track my reading interests over the years: The Tudors, Shakespeare, Ancient Rome, The Middle East. Few of them spark joy, but they leave me with a sense of contentment and there’s always a chance I might re-read one or more. They’re certainly useful resources if I need them for some project.  They, too, are part of my history.  Likewise, as a writer of memoir, I’m not planning on emptying my revolving bookcase of memoirs because I may want to consult them at some point, and many of them inspired me in my own memoir writing.  There presence is encouraging, supportive, invaluable.

The several thousand books in my study are more varied and go deeper: biographies; Judaica; drama; poetry; American fiction, British Fiction, French, German, and Russian fiction; books about France and the French language; Psychology; The Gilded Age.  And then there are twelves shelves of books by and about Henry James and Edith Wharton, two of my favorite authors.

I also have multiple copies of a number of novels because I wrote notes in my books and when I want to re-read one that’s heavily annotated, I start over.  Likewise, there are books that contain notes I made about a book or story I was working on while reading them.  Get rid of them?  That’s almost as silly as her advice to tear out the pages that give you joy and pitch the rest.

That’s not de-cluttering, that’s vandalism.

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.

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.

 

How I Almost Quit My Writing Career–Before It Took Off

Special Archives at Michigan State University’s library purchased my literary papers almost ten years ago and updates The Lev Raphael Papers yearly.  Last week someone came by to pick up several boxes from 2018 of drafts, publications, correspondence, notes for workshops I did at conferences and anything else connected to my writing career.

I’m extremely fortunate to have sold my papers because I know writers who haven’t been able to donate their papers to a university they went to.  But after my very first publication years ago, I seriously thought about  abandoning my dreams of a writer’s life.

I grew up in Manhattan with New York ideas of success. I wanted to be a writer, so I imagined reviews in the New York Times, interviews on local news programs, my book in the windows of all the terrific bookstores on Fifth Avenue like Brentano’s and Rizzoli’s. And of course, it would be published by a prestigious publisher like Scribner’s or Knopf.

My first published story seemed to have opened the door to all that. It won a prize and was subsequently published in Redbook which at the time had 4.5 million readers. I made today’s equivalent of around $7,000, and just as exciting, I received fan mail and queries from agents.

Then five years of drought followed.  Not one story I submitted anywhere was accepted.  I was rarely encouraged to try again: the rejections were almost always form slips.  Even neighbors started to look at me with pity when I’d open up my mailbox in the lobby and I’d discover more than one stamped, self-addressed manilla envelope. Finding an agent didn’t change anything, even though she was famous and had celebrity clients.  My first novel didn’t get any better responses than my short stories.

I started thinking about a Plan B.  What would I do with my life if I wasn’t going to make it as a writer?  I explored two new paths. I interviewed at a rabbinical seminary because I had recently deepened my connection to Judaism.  And I considered a career as a therapist since I had been reading dozens of books of psychology, from Jung to Freud to Otto Rank and Karen Horney.

I didn’t get very far with either possibility before the rains came.  I story I’d written in a fever overnight was accepted for publication.  And then another.  And another after that.  I was finally finding an audience.  Despite my despair, I hadn’t stopped writing and hadn’t stopped reading books that inspired me.  I believed that as the son of Holocaust survivors, I had stories to tell, stories people would want to read.

Back then, I had no idea that I’d go on to publish twenty-five books; do major book tours in Germany; present my work in Canada, Israel, France, Scotland, England, and all across the U.S.; have scholars publish articles about me; wind up with my own radio show where I interviewed authors; write in so many different genres; and see one of my books sell over 300,000 copies.

I was just trying to get short stories published, and because I didn’t give up, whole new worlds opened up to me.  Tobias Wolff’s words are something all writers and would-be writers need to remember: “We are made to persist.  That’s how we find out who we are.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com

I Love to Mentor Writers

My college creative writing mentor was amazing: funny, good-natured, and inspiring. I took every course she offered, both literature and creative writing. I even took what that college called a “January Project”: a short intensive course between first and second semesters. In hers, we studied a novel and some short stories through the lens of psychologist Karen Horney’s work on cultural conflicts. It was unforgettable, and gave me a whole new way to read and enjoy fiction.

My mentor offered me the chance to do unofficial teacher training with her because I wanted to become a teacher as well as an author. So I got to sit in on one of her classes in my last semester; afterwards we’d discuss what was going on “backstage.” We didn’t just talk about how she had put her syllabus together and picked the books, but analyzed how she orchestrated a class moment by moment. She was especially good at working with what might look like chaos to outsiders—those moments when the class seemed to go off on a tangent.

While I’ve been a full-time author and reviewer since graduate school, I’ve now been an adjunct at Michigan State University for six years in a row and fortunate enough to teach writing workshops and literature courses I love. Perhaps because I’ve published more books than all the tenured creative writers in my department combined, writing students have asked to work independently with me.

No matter what the genre they’ve chosen or how often we’ve met, everyone has grown as a writer. That’s been my goal, because my question before working together has been: Can I help this student do what they already do better?

Assisting students as they progress through various drafts and deepen their stories, I can pass on what I’ve learned from all the accomplished newspaper, magazine, anthology, book and magazine editors I’ve had over the years. Best of all, I feel myself connected to my college mentor, whose devotion to students was exemplary. Working one-on-one during office hours, I’ve heard my students ask questions that I asked when I was their age and discovering myself as a writer, learning my craft, finding my voice.

And now that I’m teaching online, the experience of mentoring has blossomed in new ways.  My workshops are limited to only ten participants, and I truly feel I can give them the in-depth feedback they need.  But as before, if I’m momentarily stumped for a comment or response, my mentor seems to pipe up with the right thing to say. All these years later, she’s still guiding me.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon, and his work has been translated into fifteen languages.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and his next month-long workshop begins November 1.

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.

Why I’m Teaching Creative Writing Online

I come from a family of teachers. My mother’s father taught economics in Poland. My mother taught language and literature in Belgium. And in New York, my brother taught special education.

I picked my undergraduate college, the Lincoln Center branch of Fordham University, specifically because of one creative writing teacher I’d heard about as inspirational.  It was a great choice. I ended up taking all her classes and didn’t just learn the subject matter, but also how to teach, how to orchestrate a class, and how to have fun doing it.

In senior year, she took me on as an unofficial apprentice because I told her my twin goals in life were to write and to teach.  I watched what she did in classrooms as an observer, and she even showed me how she graded papers.  When I started teaching, her model was always in my head.  She was in my head.

Recently I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University.  Like many colleges and universities, the powers-that-be have no idea what a good learning environment is for teaching literature or creative writing.  They overcrowd the creative writing workshops, which means students can’t get the attention they need in class or out of it.  That’s grossly unfair to the students, many of whom work more than one job to help pay their tuition.

Typically I’ve had twenty-five students in writing workshops, though once it was thirty.  Yes, thirty.  These class sizes not only make it harder for me to give students all the attention and feedback they need, the overcrowding makes it harder for students to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing their work.  But administrators don’t seem to care.

Luckily I’ve also been able to teach independent study students and supervise their senior theses, where individual attention is the critical foundation.

Now I’m applying what I’ve learned in many years of classroom teaching to offer online creative writing workshops.  I’ll get to coach and mentor writers at all stages and offer the kind of individualized attention that learning to write requires.  No matter where you are in your development as a writer, sharing your work with someone requires trust and an atmosphere of safety.  That’s what I saw my college mentor create over and over. Teaching online, I’ll be sharing what I learned from her, and carrying on a family tradition in an exciting new way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in a dozen different genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love set in New York’s dazzling Gilded Age.  You can find his creative writing workshops at http://writewithoutborders.com.

Authors Need to Respect their Fans

A writer I know recently asked on Facebook if people wrote fan mail to authors, and also asked authors if they responded.

When I was twelve, I read a kids’ book set in Paris. I don’t remember the title or the author, but I loved it so much I sent fan mail to the author via his publisher. He wrote back.  I was astonished.  I already knew I wanted to be an author and his gracious letter made me decide I would always respond to fan mail.

If I ever got any.

Well, the fan mail started with my very first publication, a prize-winning short story in Redbook, and it’s kept coming every year for one book or another. Of course, now it’s via email, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Back before email was a thing, one of my first editors was surprised that I replied to my fans. “Why would you waste the time?”

I treasure my fan mail and the correspondence I’ve had with authors.  If someone’s been moved by what I’ve written, writing back isn’t just polite, it’s fun.

All my fan mail before email is archived by Special Collections of Michigan State University’s Library, which bought my literary papers.  Someday, perhaps, a researcher will find the correspondence useful for its insights into my career.

When I sold my papers, old friends reminded me of many things. One who used to type my early stories back in the 1980s because I was such a slow typist, told me that we had discussed the possibility of some university buying my archives one day. I don’t remember that, but I have no reason to doubt her. Another friend reminded me of a long period in my career where nothing I wrote could get published, and that in more than one fit of despair I threatened to take everything I’d written and destroy it in a bonfire—as if that could somehow purge my failures. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t?” she asked wryly. “Special Collections wouldn’t have The Lev Raphael Papers, just the Lev Raphael File Cabinet.”

My eldest made the best comment. When I told him about the papers deal I said, “This makes me part of history.” He corrected me: “You’re already a part of history. Now you’ll have an index.”

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

 

How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com

A Comic Novel Finally Wins The Pulitzer For Fiction

If you need to laugh in these troubled times, Less might be just right for you.  A book of sly wit and comedic gusto, it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve reviewed in years, a wicked take on the writing life–and much more.  And it’s only the fourth comic novel to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Greer’s hero Less is a novelist who’s “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Facing fifty has doubled his sense of failure and impending doom.  Desperate to escape an ex-lover’s wedding, he’s actually constructed his own around-the-world author tour made up of wildly disparate events.

His ports of call? Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, France, Morocco, Japan—all of which he observes and appreciates with the eye of a poet. And why not? He spent years in love with an older, Pulitzer-winning poet—a certified genius who was as hard to live with as a tiger. That demanding, driven poet unintentionally deprived him of a separate identity. Less is still better known for his ex-lover than for his own work—and he’s not remotely Kardashian enough to make a career out of that.

Wherever he goes, Less faces “writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.” He’s publicly pronounced to be mediocre, he’s informed that his work isn’t gay enough, he’s mocked in Germany where he confidently speaks enough German to confound and annoy people around him because of his awful blunders. Yet this holy fool is sexually charismatic in his own way, apparently able to stun men with just a touch…though he’s not remotely a great lover.

I laughed all the way through the book, recognizing publishing types like the withholding literary agent, and I rooted for Less to become more. More forceful, more insightful, and more in control of his own life. I won’t reveal whether he does any of that, the ending, or how ingenious Greer’s narrative is, but I have to praise his gift for striking, off-kilter images like these:

The view out his window was of a circular brick plaza, rather like a pepperoni pizza, which the whistling wind endlessly seasoned with dry leaves.

In the suburbs of Delaware, spring meant not young love and damp flowers but an ugly divorce from winter and a second marriage to buxom summer.

Less was so deeply satisfying that I put everything aside last year to read it straight through one weekend. Colorful, hilarious, incisive, and surprisingly moving, it deserves to be read alongside satirical classics about the writing life like Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and John Updike’s Bech at Bay.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.