How Reading Henry James Changed My Life

I had an amazing senior year of college reading (and reveling in) George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James.

While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42.

lady(Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s 1996 film of Portrait)

That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

It may sound like a cliché, but I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for.  My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining.  It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction in a wide range of genres.

 

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

The thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Curiously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models and sometimes inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

Writing Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.

Scott-body-042115That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.

RagnarI wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

What Do Writers Really Want?

The answer is simple: Everything.

Roxane Gay once pointed out in Salon that discussions about whether women writers don’t get enough press coverage miss the point.  Even successful authors are easily dissatisfied: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”

I learned this early in my publishing career when an author I was getting to know told me about another writer whose first novel had been reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold about 500,000 copies. That’s the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for.  My friend had lunch with this author who turned out to be miserable. Why? He hadn’t been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and couldn’t let go of the disappointment.

I’ve met a millionaire author of thrillers whose books sell worldwide and have been made into movies–but that’s not enough. What’s missing? Respect from established literary critics. Another writer friend who’s spoken all across the country and has taught writing workshops in Europe is eaten up by not being invited to keynote an annual writer’s conference back home in a small college town.

No matter what level of achievement writers reach, many of us just can’t stop hoping for more. Sadly, we don’t wish we were writing better books, we wish we were better known, richer, more respected, had more exposure or just had something other writers had–whatever that is. And in the end, it wouldn’t be enough, because for many writers, there’s never enough.

Roxane Gay’s essay was another voice in the controversy launched  when novelist Jennifer Weiner went public about about not being as admired as Jonathan Franzen, not getting his level of respect or review coverage. She’s a writer of popular fiction, she’s been a New York Times best seller, she’s made millions from her books and more than one was turned into a movie. It’s an enviable place to be, but she apparently envies literary novelist Jonathan Franzen, who’s been on the cover of TIME and endlessly praised by the literary establishment.

Whatever you think about her complaints or about her writing, I can’t imagine Weiner would be happy if she had everything she thinks she wants, because there would be something else beyond her reach. She’s a writer, after all.  For way too many of us, our favorite music is what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the song of the self.” It’s a one-voice melody that runs up and down the scale “like a mouse maddened/by its own elusive tail.”

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

Following Elmore Leonard’s Rules?

Since his recent death, people have been posting and re-posting Leonard’s well-known rules for writers, which added together seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Kind of like Leonard himself.

One of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  But does Leonard follow his own advice? Here are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth 

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

I see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all superbly well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have a tremendously evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the dangerously violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  And then the question is, does it matter?