Happy Birthday Henry James! You 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 critics consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42. 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.

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 I will always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books of fiction and nonfiction in genres from memoir to mystery. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com. His latest book is State University of Murder.

Fans Keep Asking Me, “Which is Your Favorite Book?”

I get that question all the time at readings.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, memoir-essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

[cover]

I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and a coming out story.  The thread that connects it all is my exploration of the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy set of stories to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice the poet Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career: somewhere between fifty and sixty.  That included two book tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German, which I had started studying in night classes.

Unexpectedly, I felt comfortable the moment I got to Germany and I remembered something I’d somehow completely forgotten: I grew up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where thousands of neighbors were German refugees from the Nazis.  I’d been hearing German in the streets, in stores, in our building’s lobby and elevator since childhood.  So suddenly plunging into a German-speaking environment wasn’t strange; it was comforting, it made me feel at home.

That was one of the many surprises connected to writing My Germany, and it made clear to me the power that memoir has to connect you to your own past in new, revelatory ways.  I was changing, which is why I had to write that memoir, and writing it changed me even more.   A colleague once said that writing is a process of discovery; well, that book opened up new worlds for me, and having just taught an online memoir writing workshop this past month, I’ve seen memoir do that for my students, too.  It’s thrilling.

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 Class of 2016

Please Don’t Call Me A Survivor

As one of the first American authors to publish fiction dealing with the experience of children of Holocaust survivors, I’ve been invited to do hundreds of talks and readings across the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and Israel.

I’ve appeared at a wide range of kinds of venues: colleges and universities, libraries, book fairs, synagogues, churches, and writers’ conferences.  For my memoir/travelogue My Germany I did between fifty and sixty presentations alone.  Being invited to be a speaker has been tremendously satisfying because sharing my experience as the son of two Holocaust survivors through my work has been a mission of mine for many years.  It’s my personal tikkun olam, the term derived from Jewish mysticism which means healing the world.

Hearing myself introduced is often a humbling experience. Sometimes, though, I have to gently correct the person who’s introduced me–and it’s something I will work into the Q&A so as not to embarrass anyone. Why do I need to do that? Because I’ve been called a “second generation Holocaust survivor.”

That label couldn’t be more wrong. My parents survived the Holocaust. I did not. They lost their homes and their countries, and dozens of members of their family were murdered.  My mother was in a slave labor camp at the end of the war–but before that she was in a ghetto and a concentration camp.  My father was a slave laborer for the Hungarian army and wound up near the war’s end in Bergen-Belsen.  Each one witnessed and survived horrors that are staggering to contemplate.

Many children of Holocaust survivors, known as the Second Generation, cope with a difficult legacy.  Growing up with parents who survived horrific events is very complicated because it can feel like living in a minefield.  Your parents may or may not want to talk about what they endured, but either way, it’s easy for you to say or do the wrong thing and enrage them, or make them cry.  While their own childhoods were normal, their childrens’ aren’t because their  parents are coping with mammoth trauma and loss.

Psychologists have studied the Second Generation and found many of us have problems ranging from anxiety, depression, and a predisposition to PTSD, as well as issues with relationships, self-esteem, and identity.

I’m proud to have keynoted several international conferences bringing together children of Holocaust survivors, child survivors of the Holocaust, and their allies.  And I’m glad that there’s been an international audience for my work.  But if I labeled myself a “Second Generation Holocaust survivor,” I would be blurring important distinctions.  I would be elevating any personal trauma I grew up with and making it equal to what my parents suffered.  It isn’t.  It never will be.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the memoir/travelogue My Germany.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com