My Journey from Crime Fiction Lover to Crime Fiction Author

Growing up in New York, I read and revered The New York Times, which was one of a handful of papers in our house, but held the place of highest esteem.  And I remember classroom instruction in elementary school about how to fold it on the train or bus since it wasn’t a tabloid and the pages were so large.

I dreamed of being reviewed there at whatever point I became a published author.  But I never expected that it would be my mystery series that would open that door, and literally jumped for joy when it happened.

Let’s Get Criminal, the first Nick Hoffman mystery, is now back in print after a long hiatus and available on Amazon.

I had never set out to write mysteries, even though I loved crime fiction and started reading in it junior high school. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. Nick and Stefan teach at the same school, are happy together, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I relished the academic setting where you find bald men argue over a comb, as Borges put it so well.

At the time of my conversation with Denneny, I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

When I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has had more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  But that’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to crime fiction.  The latest review of his new mystery State University of Murder is at the Lansing State Journal. You can study creative writing with Lev one-on-one 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 especially 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 made it harder for me to give students all the attention and feedback they need, the overcrowding made 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.  When you sign up for one of my workshops, you’re really doing an independent study.

I’m applying what I’ve learned in many years of classroom teaching in a very focused way. I 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 can truly share what I learned from her, and carry 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 a guide to the Writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can find his creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Universities Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

The New York Times recently told the chilling story of a woman doctoral candidate who left her doctoral program in the late 1960s because she was sexually harassed and assaulted.  As she recounts it:

“There was no word for sexual harassment, there was no language for this, there was no Title IX, no administrator to report it to. I felt shame as if I had done something wrong, and there was no recourse. So I left.”

Well, despite Title IX and administrators to report such conduct to now, two women I know at the university where I was recently a visiting assistant professor were not a whole lot better off.  They each felt that their complaints about a graduate student they accused of stalking, harassment, and assault were grossly mishandled. One woman was my office mate, the other was a student who had taken five courses with me, and gone on a summer abroad program in London that I co-taught. Disgusted, my office mate left Michigan, and my student left the university before graduating because staying there was too traumatic.

Their stories and similar ones around the country inspired my new mystery State University of Murder.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  Those two women were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear horror stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is the chairman mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.  And to the women students and faculty who find their universities toxic despite how far we’ve supposedly come from the 1960s.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.  His latest academic mystery is State University of Murder and his June workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0.

 

The Poisonous World of American Universities

Essays, stories, and books of mine have been taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I’ve been invited to speak at many different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community colleges.

They’ve all had something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about somebody wildly eccentric or even out-of-control in their department. Or about a scandal, a schism, some long-simmering vendetta. And I think to myself, “You can’t make this stuff up…”

There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn’t like a candidate because “He smells.” Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor’s seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student’s doctoral defense just to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student. Crazy, right?

I’ve heard of people with barely any publications get tenure through favoritism and then when they achieved their ultimate goal of becoming administrators, they become petty, smiling dictators over faculty with far more experience and reputation. There’s constant infighting, piss-poor collegiality—but worst of all, the sad stories of contemptuous professors who treat their students like dirt. And lately, of course, stories of sexual harassment and abuse have darkened the picture.

I love teaching and come from a family of teachers. I left academia after over a decade of teaching because I wanted to write full-time, and my editor at St. Martin’s Press encouraged me to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being “the real world,” but I disagree 100%.

At times it’s far too real and so are many of its denizens: petty, vain, hypocritical, self-righteous, power-hungry, wildly egotistical, obsessed with stats (perceived or real).

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in “Michiganapolis” somewhere in mid-Michigan. Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is primarily a composition teacher there. That’s made him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric—especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course. He’s even more of an outsider because he’s published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he’s from the East Coast, he’s Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he’s out.

Seven years ago, I was recruited to teach creative writing at Michigan State University when the chair of the English Department realized I’d published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. I’ve had amazing students to work with, known a few friendly colleagues, and most importantly, I was able to pass on the terrific mentoring I got in college. But in my years at MSU I’ve heard more stories of mistreatment, poisonous arrogance, and basic cruelty on campus and from friends teaching across the country. It’s all material, of course–but it shouldn’t have to be.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in a wide range of genres including the just-published State University of Murder.

Who Says You Need to Go to an Elite University to Be a Success?

Reading all the current articles about kids getting into prestigious universities thanks to shady parents and corrupt officials, I find one thing missing.

Nobody seems to be talking about the importance of being mentored in college, and you don’t need a big name school to find a mentor. Back when I was applying for colleges, I chose Fordham University at Lincoln Center for one main reason: I’d heard there was a fantastic creative writing professor there and I wanted to study with her.  I was born and bred in Manhattan, but didn’t bother applying to NYU, Columbia or any other prestigious school in New York state.  I put all my chips on Fordham.

I won.  At Fordham I found the perfect mentor in Dr. Kristin Lauer.  Thanks to her, I’ve published over two dozen books, seen my work translated into 15 languages, had international book tours—and much more.  I’m not famous, but I’ve lived my dream of being a published author.

Dr. Lauer was endlessly encouraging and inventive in her choice of assignments. Beyond that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia years later. She did not believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.” Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She did her best to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, making you feel like she was communing with it, and communing with you.  It’s much harder than it sounds.

More than once, she predicted that I would publish and win prizes someday if only I wrote something “real.” That was my City of Gold, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication in a national magazine. It was a story drawing on my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

She midwifed that story. I would read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. The story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, then-editor of the yearly volume The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which had 4.5 million readers at the time. It wouldn’t have lived without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and teaching genius.

Almost every time I’ve walked into a class or a workshop I’m teaching at a writers’ conference, she’s on my mind: muse, guide, inspiration.  I wasn’t interested in prestige when I was thinking about colleges in high school.  I applied to a school where I hoped I would find inspiration, and I hit the jackpot.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders. He’s the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  His author web site is levraphael.com.

What’s Better Than Re-reading a Book You Love?

My answer: Teaching it!

I had been a fan of historical fiction for a long time and when I discovered Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, I was in heaven.  The return of The Last Kingdom to Netflix reminds me how wonderful it was to assign that book for a class reading popular fiction in a wide variety of genres.

The hero is Uhtred, a dispossessed young noble from northern England in the 9th century, during the reign of King Alfred. Uhtred is descended from kings but his rightful claim to an impregnable fortress where he grew up has been usurped by his uncle, and Uhtred is burning with the desire for revenge.  It’s what obsesses him through the entire series.

Alfred was known for his piety, his strategy, his culture, and his determination to drive the Danes from his realm of Wessex in southern England and the other kingdoms England was then divided into. Glamorous, hot-tempered, man-of-action Uhtred has a complex relationship with this intellectual, pious king whom he ends up being bound to in life-changing ways.  Breaking an oath of allegiance in this period was more than dishonorable–it could brand you for life as untrustworthy and shameful.

“The world began in chaos and it will end in chaos.  The gods brought the world into existence, and they will end it when they fight among themselves, but in between the chaos of the world’s birth and the chaos of the world’s death is order, and order is made by oaths, and oaths bind us like the buckles of a harness.”

Uhtred has grown up with a split identity: raised English, he was captured by Danes as a child and identifies as a Dane, which makes for tremendous conflict, both internal and external. He’s a part of both cultures, both peoples, and lives out his cultural conflict almost daily with most of the people he meets.

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Teaching the first book in the series, I had students talking about expectations and conventions in historical fiction, which many of them hadn’t read before.  We moved on to discussions of Cornwell’s use of sense detail, his honest depiction of violence, the role of women in both Saxon and Danish societies as he portrayed it, the impact of the story being told by a first person narrator.   Many of them were put off at first by the alien cultures but soon found themselves compelled by the story telling.  I fell in love with the book all over again during the two weeks we spent discussing it with my students.  It felt new, fresh, and exciting.

TV reviewers are telling readers that this show is a good stand-in for The Game of Thrones.  Maybe.  The books couldn’t be more different.  Martin is a genius at world building on an epic scale, but Cornwell’s books are tighter, move faster, and with rare exceptions stick with the same point of view so that you’re immersed in just one character.

The Last Kingdom is a brilliant mix of deep psychology and high adventure.  It’s hooked me all over again and I’ve started re-reading book two in the series….

Question: what book have you been re-reading lately?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

 

 

 

Have You Been Dissed By A Writing Professor?

It happened to Harlan Ellison who was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows. His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

I’m not defending Ellison’s response, but if you think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was “shit.” He could make students cry or tremble with fear. Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level. A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t “suffered enough.” Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I loved the community of writers in my MFA program, but got poleaxed by a professor. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and then the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  It was devastating.

A few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!” I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author. My professor’s comment at the next workshop? “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality. Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek. Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can take 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

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.

London is for Art Lovers

I grew up in a city of great museums, New York, and felt intimately close to many of them from a very early age because of countless school visits and trips with my parents. But it was only on a recent visit to London that I realized something extraordinary: art can heal me.

I was in London teaching in a summer abroad program for Michigan State University and had marvelous, hardworking, creative, and witty students. The two classes were small which made for an easy bond to develop among us, and I was thrilled to have my dream of teaching abroad finally come true.

Unfortunately, the circumstances weren’t ideal. I’d injured my knee right before the trip. I had a surgeon’s OK to travel, but I wore an uncomfortable knee brace, was in pain despite medication, and wasn’t getting much sleep for the first few weeks of the trip. London was suffering under a heat wave, and my flat had no air conditioning. Not only that, it was a duplex, so I had to hobble up and down a narrow, wearying staircase more times than I could count every day.

And then one Sunday morning, when I was starting to feel better, I decided to venture to the Tate Britain Museum, which was very close to my flat in Pimlico. I had to take a cab there because the half mile walk would have hurt too much. I arrived at 10 a.m. when the museum opened, finding just a handful of people waiting to get in; they quickly scattered on their own missions. I had come to see the famed pre-Raphaelite collection — and was disappointed to discover those paintings were away on loan.

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I wandered somewhat disconsolately, and then suddenly found myself in heaven: a roomful of Henry Moore sculptures. I knew Moore’s work from books and having seen some statues in New York, but here was a whole family of them, so to speak — and they were all mine. I wandered from one to the other, solitary and awed, for a good ten minutes, in utter silence. Then I sat down near my favorite one and just admired its enigmatic beauty.

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I don’t know how long I sat there. In all my many years of museum-going in New York, Chicago, D.C., Paris, Berlin, Munich, Bruges, Florence and other cities, I couldn’t recall ever having quite so much time to simply revel in a great work of art alone. The tranquility of this cool, aquamarine figure radiated throughout the room and worked on me like a series of Chopin Nocturnes.

Contented and happy, I eventually moved off as other people entered, and in the next hall, was dumbstruck. All the way at the end in another gallery was a remarkable sculpture unlike anything I had ever seen. The closer I came to it, the more amazed I was. I’d heard of Jacob Epstein before, but had never heard of his remarkable, stunning 1941 sculpture Jacob and the Angel.

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The massive work is carved from one giant piece of alabaster and when the sun shines down through skylights above, parts of the statue are translucent; other parts glow and the whole thing seems to be shimmering with frozen movement. The Genesis story in which Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and emerges with a new name, Israel, and a limp, has always been one of my favorites because it’s so mysterious and otherworldly.

The statue did in fact radiate mystery and unearthly power both in form and texture. Despite its size, it felt strangely weightless, even timeless, and I felt transported, though I’m not sure where. I circled the statue, once again alone, feeling as if it were my own or a gift or a message. I caught a glimpse of Jacob’s face. I read surrender there and peace. The struggle was over and the angel was holding him up.

It seemed ironic to be limping away myself when I couldn’t take in any more of the statue’s mysteries. But I felt infinitely lighter in spirit, and that day marked a real turning point for me in London, because I slept better, felt more relaxed, and even was able to tolerate my pain somewhat better.

For days afterwards, I carried around inside the feelings of transcendence, peace, and awe I felt at Tate Britain, and writing about it now, I can recall being lifted out of my own existence completely. I may have arrived there feeling battered and even broken, but I felt much closer to being whole when I left.

Lev Raphael’s teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders and is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can check out his on Amazon here. Follow him on Twitter at

My Mentor is Always with Me

 

I write and review full-time, teach part-time, and my college mentor from years ago is with me in almost every class or workshop I teach.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University that I fell in love with writing itself.

Dr. Lauer was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia years later. She did not believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.”

Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She did her best to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, making you feel like she was communing with it, and with you.

She said to me more than once that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something “real.” That was my City of Gold, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication in a national magazine. It was a story drawing on and transmuting my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

She midwifed that story. I would read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, then-editor of the yearly volume The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook. It wouldn’t have lived without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and teaching genius.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the widely published author I am today, an author whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries.

Almost every time I walk into a class or leave one, she’s on my mind: muse, guide, inspiration.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutbordersHe’s the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.