After 26 Books, I’m Still Learning How To Write

I’m a highly visual person and I think I got my training early, growing up in New York, a paradise of museums.  From elementary school onward, my parents took me on repeated trips to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan.

My very first exposure to genius was when the Met bought Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” for an unheard-of sum.  I recall being very little and actually crawling through the crowds on my hands and knees so I that could get to the front.  The moody, evocative painting was breathtaking, an entrance to a brand new world.

But that’s what I felt in every museum, whether it was discovering Braque at MOMA, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, or Monet at the Met.  I didn’t have words for my experience, but looking back, I know that time after time, I felt elevated, transported, and hungry.  I wanted to see more.

And I did, roaming gallery after gallery, and expanding my range to other museums like the Frick.  It was a world of magic, discovery, and promise.  I often felt like Henry James when he visited Rome the first time and wrote “I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.”

I never imagined that I was going to be a painter, but from second grade on, I felt destined to turn the world into words the way these masters turned the world into experiences on canvas.  Each one was a doorway to wonderment and a world that was waiting for me in Europe.

Sculpture appealed to me, too, whether Greek and Roman glories at the Met or Brancusi’s stark, eloquent experiments in texture and form at MOMA and elsewhere.  Years later I would be moved to tears by a whole exhibition of Brancusi’s sculptures at the Tate Modern when I wandered through the near-empty galleries.  Like a character in Brideshead Revisited, I felt that I was “drowning in honey.”

When I started publishing fiction after years after creative writing classes and completing an MFA in Creative Writing, I was keen to paint with words, to describe what people and places looked like.  Sounds and aromas were secondary, not that it stopped me from writing many books and winning prizes, doing book tours here and abroad, finding my work being taught at universities, and even selling my literary papers and correspondence to a university library.

But in recent years, certain writers who appeal to more than the visual have captured me and taught me to be a better writer because they create an environment that’s also aural and olfactory.  Martin Cruz Smith does this in his crime novels set in Russia that expose corruption and bloated bureaucracy, the chaos observed by his cynical hero Akady Renko.  C.S. Harris also creates a mesmerizing landscape that is multi-dimensional in her Regency mystery series which often explores the wealth and privilege of the period’s upper crust.

In a league all its own is Janet Fitch’s best seller White Oleander about Astrid, a young girl coming of age despite the vengeful, seductive madness of her brilliant, demanding, poet mother.  Sent to jail for murder, her mother is the unhappy touchstone in Astrid’s life as she bounces from one foster home to another, learning harsh lessons about life, memory, and herself.  Her Norwegian name can either refer to strength or beauty, and both are qualities she discovers in herself through harrowing circumstances.

Fitch’s story-telling is powerful because it’s rooted in emotion and the senses, woven through with striking similes and metaphors:

By April, the desert had already sucked spring from the air like blotting paper.

I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this.  Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music,  find it a comfortable chair.  Despair was the enemy.

So much going on in Kandinsky, it was like the frames were having trouble keeping the pictures inside.

The pearls weren’t really white, there were a warm oyster beige, with little knots between them so if they broke, you only lost one.  I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.

Of course Astrid doesn’t get her wish as her life gets broken apart again and again, breaking the reader’s heart because she feels so deeply and is so alone.  That last quotation is a perfect example of Fitch’s gift for taking an object and making it become deeply personal, emblematic of a character’s turmoil.

I was so caught up in the beauty of the writing and the fierceness of the author’s vision, I didn’t want it to end, but I also knew that it would inspire me to make my own books live and breathe more fully than before.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

Re-reading My Favorite Authors Makes Me A Better Writer

When I’m on a book tour fans often ask me “What are you reading?”  I get the same question when I teach a creative writing workshop or master class like I just did at Oakland University, sponsored by Rochester Writers.  I’m often reading books that will inspire me to write and lately I’ve been-re-reading favorite authors like Martin Cruz Smith.  His novels set after the fall of the Soviet Union explore a country that’s just as cruel and dangerous, but one where oligarchs are becoming swollen with daring, arrogance, and billions in wealth.

In Three Stations there’s a gigantic contrast between diamond-studded luxury goods and homeless kids stealing whatever they can to survive in the heart of Moscow. Arkady Renko is a disgraced police investigator with a clear eye for what’s happening around him and a dedication to justice. Though he’s the son of a famous general and communist, he is truly an outsider because he won’t follow orders. I’m really glad I missed this one somehow as I worked through the series, because I found it really inspiring.

And for authors who struggle with writing good sex scenes, he dispatches one in a brilliant paragraph that could be a model for anyone. It inspired me in my stand-alone currently about 200 pages along which will be my 28th book.

I’m also re-reading luminous, thrilling mystery novels by C.S. Harris set in Regency England, starting with Why Kings Confess, one of my favorites in the series.  These books feature nobleman Sebastian St. Cyr who has access to all levels of society and is indefatigable in solving any crime that he comes across and intrigues him.  He’s a dashing figure with almost magically keen eyesight and hearing, and a man not remotely averse to challenging the rich and powerful.  Harris is brilliant at evoking the period through appealing to sight, sound, and smells–you can almost taste the acrid fog that’s so much a part of the era when coal was burned indiscriminately.  Who even thought of climate disruption back then?

The two authors are very different in setting, tone, and prose style.  Harris is more sensual, Cruz is more spare.  Cruz’s books ooze cynicism about old and new Russia’s corruption and greed, while Harris fields a sleuth who serves justice and believes it exists.  Both authors evoke their time and place with dazzling detail and tell fast-paced, gripping stories.

I learned years ago in my writing career that what could stimulate and inspire my work was a creative clash of voices and styles.  Reading these two different authors again right now has made me very productive: I wrote two chapters of my next mystery in under a week.  This method of reading different writers in succession might not work for everyone, and that’s something I tell all my writing students and workshop participants: find what works for you.  But whether you’re a writer or not, C.S. Harris and Martin Cruz Smith are authors you should add to your TBR pile.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.  He teaches online writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

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.

Travels Through Europe’s Troubled Borderlands

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father grew up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.  His country of birth doesn’t exist anymore, either: it’s now two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it was variously part of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It was also twice invaded and ruled by the Germans in her lifetime.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in “borderlands,” as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Blessed with fluency in Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns that have been swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of just the right quote or anecdote as Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate of borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories of others, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father had grown up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in borderlands, as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Armed with fluent Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns who have been pinballed over the centuries, swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.