Guest Blog: How Should Women Authors Write About Crimes Against Women?

Women crime writers have reacted in outrage to the Staunch Book Prize, a UK award for “a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Internationally acclaimed author Val McDermid’s comment: “Baby, bathwater.”

One of my first thoughts was that if you eliminate fiction about crimes against women, you’re left with male on male violence—war stories are the ultimate example—and crimeless fiction. That’s not true. The 2018 prize went to Australian writer Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge, described as a “literary political thriller” that presents an “anguishing portrayal of world refugee crises.” It sounds like a fine book. Reviewers also called it “dystopian,” a “novel about sibling rivalry, family, masculinity, and the game of cricket,” and a “noir tour de force.” In other words, it’s the kind of book that male writers write that absolutely must be balanced by crime fiction in women’s voice about women’s experience.

This is precisely the reason I decided readers needed my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories. The subject—crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Full disclosure: I needed such an anthology, because neither my usual short story markets such as Ellery Queen’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines nor the noir e-zines that published darker fare were likely to want my latest story, “Never Again.” Why not? Because the first-person protagonist is a molested child, a fourteen-year-old girl whose father has been raping her since she was four. As a therapist for thirty-five years, I can assure you this is not uncommon.

What we need to object to is the graphic, lovingly depicted presentation of violence toward women—the serial killer’s point of view, the description of a rape, the beauty of blood spatter and a victim’s terror. Instead, e-zines whose guidelines invite submitters to bring on the horror, crudity, and gore, have a single caveat: No child abuse. (Oh, and no animal abuse, but that’s another story.) Noir editors seem to think avoiding the topic of child molestation entitles them to a white hat in the matter.

The Me Too Short Stories call for submissions—to women authors only, because I wanted maximum authenticity of voice—mentioned only “crimes against women.” Yet almost half of the stories in the anthology involve children. It’s not surprising, considering that child abuse is the seed from which adult violence grows in the form of both abusers and victims. Children are vulnerable by definition. Their protectors may be absent or neglectful or impaired. Or these protectors may themselves be at the mercy of those who have physical, emotional, social, or economic power over them.

When I added a second protagonist to my “Never Again” story, I made her an adult married to an abusive alcoholic. But her secret “me too” story started at age nine, when the preacher’s son molested her. Now he’s a deacon in the church the whole town attends, and her shame is expressed in fat and compulsive eating. This too, all of it, happens in real life.

Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology was created to give me and the other contributors the chance to write about violence toward women and girls not with loving emphasis on our pain and helplessness but by making them the protagonists, giving them a voice, showing the reader their courage and survival. That is how I think crime writers, men and women, can contribute to new attitudes toward violence against women.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the editor of Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology. She is also author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga, a Jewish historical series, and editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her short stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha awards and have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine among others. Her author website is http://elizabethzelvin.com. Liz is a psychotherapist who lives in New York and treats clients online at LZcybershrink.com.

For Halloween, Agatha Christie Says “Boo!”

I fell in love with Agatha Christie and crime fiction back in junior high and read every one of her books available at our local public library.  I was captivated by her mastery of plot even then, and now, when I re-read her, I feel an even deeper sense of awe.  She was a superb story-teller, subtle and devious and delightful.  No wonder she’s been so wildly popular for nearly a century–only the Bible and Shakespeare have surpassed her in sales.

Just in time for Halloween, William Morrow has a sweet treat for Christie fans: a collection of almost two dozen creepy and ghostly tales.  It opens with a bang.  The title story revolves around Simone, an enervated medium in Paris fearful of her last séance before marriage.  Why do these séances make her so weary?  Why is she afraid of her client, a woman grieving for a lost child?  The answers are suitably shocking and grotesque.

There’s a wealth of fun reading after that.  Christie offers a neat twist on inheritance stories in “Wireless.”  “The Mystery of the Blue Jar” deftly deals with a WWI veteran’s shell-shock–or does it? “The Blue Geranium” is one of several stories where dreams play an unusual and possibly supernatural part.

Hercule Poirot uses his little gray cells to uncover a murder in “The Dream,” a story that veteran mystery readers might find a bit too easy to unravel.  But watching him amaze a room of suspects by his ratiocination is always a treat.  In “the Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” Miss Marple profits from decades of observing human nature under a microscope in her village.  She deftly explains that a ghost story she hears over dinner is actually a tale of murder.  And what a murder!  The planning is fiendishly clever.

That indomitable village sleuth also appears in “The Idol House of Astarte,” a classic story of the supernatural with a femme fatale at its center, and told by a clergyman.  It raises the age-old question of whether a place or home can be “imbued or saturated with good or evil influences which can make their power felt.”  Miss Marple handily dismisses the many bizarre possible solutions to a strange set of crimes at a house party, but doubts still linger.

In “The Fourth Man,” a nighttime conversation in a train compartment about a famous split personality case turns very dark when one of the four men in the compartment claims to have inside information about the people involved.  What he reveals shatters the complacency of the other three–a doctor, lawyer, and minister–who discover that their view of reality is more limited than they imagined.

Christie explores that idea in more than one story, as when a “doctor of the soul” says that he doesn’t believe that spirits can be earthbound and haunt a particular place, but he has more than once seen “a kind of blind groping towards justice–a subterranean moving of blind forces, always working obscurely towards that end. . .”

Justice is served throughout the collection, most deliciously in my very favorite story, which is also one of the shortest.  “The Wife of the Kenite” follows a German veteran of WW I to his unexpected destiny in South Africa.  It’s chilling fiction, gorgeously written and perfectly wrought.

The shadow of that war looms over many of the tales. Even though they explore the supernatural and dark themes like avarice, jealousy, and revenge, they’re often quite funny. Poirot’s complaints when he gets to Egypt in “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” are priceless.  And then there’s Christie’s satire of inarticulate English gentlemen “who dislike any form of emotion, and find it peculiarly hard to explain their mental processes in words.”

Flashes of lovely character assessment like that and quickly evocative description are just some of the many delights in a collection that offers entertainment, suspense, deep human interest–and mystery, of course. Mystery of more than one kind, that is, since the eerie last story suggests that the “supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including nine Nick Hoffman mysteries, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

The Joy of Mentoring 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 was recnetly 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, and knew the publishing world in ways academic writers couldn’t, writing students 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 writing workshops online and helping other writers edit their manuscripts, 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.  I’m free of the stresses and strains of working in an environment that doesn’t always put students first, and isn’t very collegial, either.

But one thing hasn’t changed.  As always, 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-six 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 runs August 1-31: Finding Your Memoir.

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.

Quick! Stop That Runaway Character!

I’ve been doing readings from my award-winning fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And casts authors as at least mildly eccentric, and not entirely in control of themselves or their work when the truth is completely different.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving me advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Getting Fantastic Fan Mail

I’ve been getting fan mail for many years now and from many places–but last week was the first time someone wrote me from Brazil.

Just seeing the word “Brazil” curiously shot me right back to 7th grade Social Studies class where I had a snooty teacher who liked taunting us students.

One day he was lamenting how little we knew about current events.  He said we probably didn’t know any world leaders outside of our own president and I raised my hand and said, “The President of Brazil is Costa e Silva.”  I had seen the name in the New York Times, which my parents read daily, and it somehow stuck in my head.  This only briefly deflected our teacher’s snide little speech, but I still remember his beady-eyed glare….

brazil flagBack then, even though I had my favorite authors like Dumas and Isaac Azimov, and I sometimes dreamed of being a writer myself, I never thought about fan mail.  When it started coming after I published my first short story in Redbook years later, I wrote back to everyone (of course now it’s email).  That’s because when I was only about twelve, I wrote to an author of a YA novel and he actually replied–from Paris.  I lost many things over the years through moves, but never lost that.

So here’s my surprising Brazilian fan email (with the town name and the writer’s omitted for privacy):

I am writing to you all the way from ——–  in the countryside of Pernambuco, a Northeastern state of Brazil. I teach American Literature at a federal university, and I would like you to know that your work is read by my students, and it is really inspiring to us all.

Because my students are usually at different levels of English language acquisition, I usually have them read and analyze short stories. The one we worked on this term was “Shouts of Joy,” from Secret Anniversaries of the Heart. We all loved it!

Congratulations on your great and inspiring work!

secret LRThe story they all enjoyed appeared in my first collection of short stories Dancing on Tisha B’Av which won a Lambda Literary Award.  It was later reprinted in the book mentioned and pictured above, which collects 25 years of my short fiction.  I originally published “Shouts of Joy”–an erotic Passover tale–in the mid-1980s.

Given all the time that’s passed, getting mail about that story is like finding a letter in a bottle washed onto a beach: mysterious and fascinating.  It’s almost as if it’s happened to someone else, as if I’m a character in a story, or I’m a reading a story about someone else getting this email.  In fact it is, since I’ve published so many stories since then, so many books, and become such a different writer.

What do I mean? Back when I conceived, wrote and published “Shouts of Joy,” I thought I’d only write short stories for the rest of my career.  I’d started my career by having won a big writing prize and publishing in Redbook–which had 4.5 million readers-before I left my MFA program, and there were many short stories writers I idolized.

But life had other, more interesting plans for me, and I’ve ended up writing in genres I never dreamed would call to me, including psychology and historical fiction.

Hearing now about the impact of this thirty-year-old story of mine makes me wonder who–if anyone–might be reading it thirty years from today, and where.  You know,  I think there might actually be a short story in that…..

author 6If you’re a writer, what’s some cool fan mail you’ve gotten, and if you’re a fan, what’s the most surprising response to your fan mail you’ve received?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

An Author’s Characters On the Loose?

I’ve been doing readings from my fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving advice.

It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.