Why I Write Queer Crime Fiction

I never set out to write mysteries, queer or otherwise. 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 secured an ex-lover a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged and then depressed and a bit crazed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.  It was comic but also focused on the struggles of being a couple years before marriage equality changed the landscape.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press 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, my editor, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school and are happily married, 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 loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books; and 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.

Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving queer 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, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never could have imagined.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.  And of course, the unexpected keeps happening to Nick and Stefan living in a bucolic college town that has a dark side.  Through all of it, however, their bond is never shaken.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable.” He mentors writers, edits manuscripts, and teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

(fingerprint image by Kurious at Pixabay)

 

An Academic Nest of Vipers

When I do readings from my mystery series, people ask, “Are universities as loony and vicious as all that?”

Yes.  Absolutely.  And how do I know? Because I didn’t just escape that world with lots of notes, I have friends who are still there, reporting fiction-worthy incidents on a regular basis.

One chair I heard of had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: He suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they’d win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. Then there’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

There’s another who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement, trying to intimidate her.

A religious studies chairman I was told about argued with a rabbi teaching as an adjunct in his department–a rabbi!–that Judaism was absolutely not a culture, but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. The rabbi was fired for disagreeing.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was an ex- burst into her apartment, roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the department chair did absolutely nothing.

And reports from another department I know of describe the current atmosphere as “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. The faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, extrapolating from real situations and making them more ridiculous and threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true.  The psychological toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from mystery to memoir.  His latest book Department of Death just earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  It will be available only until the end of 2021.

Guidelines For a Last-Minute Faculty Hire

Stop sign 01

 

Greetings!

We’re thrilled that you can be teaching for us on such short notice. Speaking as chair of the creative writing program, we’re all so very proud to have you, especially since you’re an alumnus and live in-state. Here are some important guidelines we didn’t discuss in our texts and emails:

Please do not mention in class the tenured professor who you’re replacing and his unfortunate tirade about what he wrongly called “cancel culture” and “the Twitter mob” after he quoted James Baldwin and was justly excoriated. We all wish him a speedy recovery. He’ll be back next semester after his guided retreat of struggle and self-interrogation.

You have absolute and total freedom to assign any writing exercises and readings you choose in your introductory and advanced fiction courses, but they cannot include trigger or pre-trigger words of any kind whatsoever, and so I urge you to contact the Vetting Committee ASAP. You’ll find them very thorough.

We also expect you to submit your course materials and each syllabus to the Committee on Cultural Appropriation and Misappropriation and abide by their decisions as well as those of the Vetting Committee. Both committees work with dispatch and I must say a keen sense of honor and duty. You’ll feel inspired.

We picked you for your distinguished publishing record, but we urge you not to refer to yourself as a “working writer”–which you did more than once in our communications. This label could be seen as offensive, derogatory, and demeaning by other faculty who are proud that they’ve made their homes in academe. Mentioning your Pulitzer also validates hetero-normative and hierarchical notions of value.

In our discussions, you presented yourself as knowing “the publishing world inside and out” and said this was something special that you could offer students. I surely don’t need to point out that all of our creative writing faculty offer students something special. Your statement could be seen as arrogance, puffery, and blatant self-promotion.

You were an obvious and natural choice, having published more books in more genres than the entire creative writing faculty combined (please keep that to yourself). Making too much of these accomplishments might overwhelm your students and be interpreted as bullying or intimidation, while also disrespecting your colleagues (see above).

When students speak their truth, it is incumbent on you to not ask for explanations, clarifications, or in any way seem to challenge what they say. Your part is silent. Do not display any change of expression and definitely do not ask other students to comment. These actions will be reported and you could face dismissal.

Lastly, as a temporary professor, you will not be sitting in on any faculty meetings as your presence would most likely be anomalous and disruptive. We also won’t be giving you a plastic name sign for your office door since you’ll be here for just the one semester, but feel free to mention us in any interviews you do. We would appreciate the publicity.

Have fun!

Lev Raphael is the author of Department of Death and nine other mysteries set at the fictional State University of Michigan.

“Stop sign 01” by kirstyhall is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Edith Wharton Murders Giveaway

In my breakout mystery The Edith Wharton Murders, two rival Wharton societies are brought together in one conference–and murder results. I got the idea at a Wharton conference.

Nobody was killed there, but I think a lot of people had their pride wounded.  One of the keynote speakers subtly dissed the attendees for paying so much attention to Wharton (!) when there was another writer this professor considered more important. The keynote speaker went on to praise this lesser-known writer.

That was before smart phones, so nobody was able to look the writer up while the keynote address went on. I’ll always remember how that moment typified the jockeying for position that goes on in academia 24/7. But that’s the mild stuff.  Professors undermine their rivals’ reputations with gossip and hostile journal essays, poach each other’s graduate students, launch Twitter campaigns to get them removed from programs or even fired.

Of course it’s all much more entertaining in a mystery if you have actual corpses.

My college mentor, a Wharton bibliographer, was at the conference, and so I wrote her into the book as a best friend and relative of my sleuth Nick Hoffman. He’s been given the thankless task of bringing two warring factions in the Edith Wharton field together and thinks of them as no better than gangbangers with advanced degrees.   I invented snark of all kinds, inspired by stories people across the country had told me about Ivory Tower insanity, and motives for murder were easy to come by.

St. Martin’s Press published the book and I met with the editor who was in love with the whole idea at my favorite café near Lincoln Center. I was in New York for the American production of Tom Stoppard‘s stunning play Arcadia. I’d seen the original production in London a few years before, so the night was filled with glamour and excitement for me, and all of that comes back whenever I think about the book.

The mystery earned me my first review in the New York Times and it was a rave: a writer’s dream come true.  I will never forget how thrilled I was when my agent faxed the review to me.  One of the coolest things I heard about the book’s reception out in the world was that it wasn’t just showing up on mystery shelves at bookstores, it was also being shelved alongside books of Edith Wharton herself.

The Edith Wharton Murders is out now with a fourth publisher and a fun new cover (its fourth!). You can find a review and a book giveaway at the following website: https://www.krlnews.com/2020/09/the-edith-wharton-murders-by-lev-raphael.html

Commencement Speeches Are Not Free Speech Issues

Senator Tom Cotton–who recently argued on Twitter for giving protestors “no quarter”–is unhappy with Wichita State University Tech.  That school decided to uninvite Ivanka Trump from giving a commencement address.

His outrage is basically the same blather we hear every year about this time.  Predictably, he argued for the importance of hearing “different views,” and the canceled speaker herself brought up “viewpoint discrimination” and free speech on Twitter.

But that completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights. Someone like former Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to. And he has. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op-Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.  So can anyone in the current administration, and Ms. Trump posted her address on YouTube.

But the First Amendment isn’t about guest speakers who are typically paid handsomely for their time. It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression. That’s just not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–or in the middle of a pandemic–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools have even had two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.” What a joke.

Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A. They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining. Funny, if possible. They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context. And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration. The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved. It’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if a celebrity gets invited to speak to a graduating class of students, and is suddenly uninvited. Free exchange of ideas? Please. The only real exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with or gets in the mail–plus free publicity.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in many genres.

Academia: A Nest of Vipers?

Over the years and on many book tours for my mysteries, people have asked me “Is academia as vicious as all that?”

The answer is Absolutely. How do I know? Because I not only escaped that world with lots of notes, but I have many friends who are still there, reporting one fiction-worthy incident after another to me.  Reality, not satire about the university,  is what’s over-the-top.

I’ll start with a minor example that shows you how petty and small-minded academia can be. Back in 2011, I was invited to teach at Michigan State University’s English department, where I had earned my PhD years before. The current chair had realized via a news story that I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. He was impressed, and I was flattered.

When I started teaching, the office manager wouldn’t order a plastic name plate for my office door, the kind that all the faculty members had. We’re talking about something that costs just a few bucks and is recyclable, for a department with a budget well in the millions. That was as silly as it was insulting.

My mystery State University of Murder focuses on a charming but dictatorial chairman of an English Department, Napoléon Padovani, who manages to alienate almost all his colleagues in an oppression blitzkrieg. He’s a composite of department chairs I’ve heard about from across the country.

One chair had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: he suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they might win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. There’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

And another chair who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement.

A religious studies chairman I know of argued with a rabbi teaching in his department as an adjunct that Judaism was absolutely not a culture but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. Their disagreement was a major reason the rabbi wasn’t rehired.  I should add that the chair was not Jewish.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was a former boyfriend had burst into her apartment, knocking the door off her hinges, and roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the chair did absolutely nothing.

And dispatches from a department I know of are that the current atmosphere is “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, those faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. And the faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, taking real situations and people, extrapolating from them, making them more ridiculous, more threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true. And the emotional toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

***
Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently Department of Death.  He mentors and coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com.  This blog originally appeared at Mystery Fanfare.

Diversity Takes a Hit at MSU’s English Department

In 2011 I returned from a successful book tour in Germany where some of my audiences had been college students and I found myself missing the classroom intensely. Three days later, I received an email from the chairman of Michigan State University’s English Department asking if I’d consider teaching there.

Of course I said yes. When we met for coffee, I told him about the serendipity. He said that he’d reached out to me because I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together and I had unique experience in publishing that the academic writers didn’t.

I remembered the department’s home in Morrill Hall fondly–it was where I did my PhD–a 19th century building that was down-at-heels but spacious and full of character.

(Lansing City Pulse photo)

I was only back there again for a semester before we moved to offices in another building on campus. These offices were cramped and utterly soulless. The conference room was brightened for me, however, by large framed posters of writers featured in the Library of America series. There are hundreds of books put out by this nonprofit organization whose aim is “to celebrate the words that have shaped America” and their publications cover several centuries of American writers of all kinds: poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, historians.

The framed posters in that conference room happened to be of a diverse group of writers who had all inspired me in my career as an author and teacher: James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain.

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Baldwin, for example, changed my life when I discovered Another Country in high school because that bestselling novel spoke openly about sexuality and race in the 1960s the way that none of my assigned readings did, and in prose that was sometimes breathtaking. I’ve since read it novel many times, always finding new wisdom.

“I think you’ve got to be truthful about the life you have. Otherwise, there’s no possibility of achieving the life you want.”
― James Baldwin, Another Country

The conference room itself was grim and shabby around the edges. But the posters reminded me of the joy of seeing the world through completely different eyes, the fascination of watching students discover new viewpoints and revel in or wrestle with them, and how powerful authors motivated me as an author myself to keep working at my craft.

Returning to the classroom was exhilarating, and I felt as inspired by those writers as by my college mentor whose own teaching was witty, compassionate, and incisive.

I’m not at MSU anymore (I teach online at writewithoutborders.com), but I was still surprised and disappointed when several friends in the department recently told me that the Library of America posters were coming down. None of them could offer a compelling explanation. Or explain why when the removal was first announced at a faculty meeting, some professors were enthusiastic and practically cheered, as I was told.

That’s a very disturbing response at a time when universities around the country are focused on diversity and inclusion. More than half the writers in the group are Black, gay, lesbian or both. Why would anyone be happy to see them disappear? And why would the department want to symbolically cut itself off from a rich, diverse American literary heritage? What kind of message does that send to students and the university as a whole? What kind of statement does it make about the department’s priorities? And really, what on earth does anyone have against James Baldwin, one of America’s greatest post-World War II writers?

The department’s web site states that should the Internet ever collapse in some kind of apocalypse, books would still survive and “continue to galvanize readers.” I guess their authors won’t matter, though.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  This piece originally appeared in the Lansing City Pulse.

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.

 

University Abuse Scandals Inspired My Latest Mystery

People often ask me at readings, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In another context, the writer Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances are everywhere and all the time.”  That’s how I feel about my books: a door can unexpectedly open whether I was looking for one or not.  I walk across the threshold and discover a new world.

After I returned in 2011 from another book tour in Germany, the chair of the English Department at Michigan State University asked if I’d consider teaching for them.  I was delighted because I come from a family of teachers and had taught at various schools for over a decade before he contacted me, including two years at MSU after I earned my PhD.  He was delighted to have me join the faculty because in his words, I had published more books than any single professor and more than the entire creative writing faculty put together.

Flash forward a few years.  One afternoon, my office mate looks shaken and she tells me a terrifying story of an ex-boyfriend breaking into her apartment and roughing up her current boyfriend.  The police get involved, there’s a restraining order, but she eventually comes to feel that the department and the university fail her.  Soon after, one of my students tells me about being stalked and I quickly realize she’s talking about the same man.  She ends up leaving MSU before she can finish her degree because she’s so traumatized by how dilatory and even hostile MSU officials seem to be in dealing with her case.

Then the giant Larry Nassar scandal breaks.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  The two women I knew 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 these 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 he 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 quiet tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including the just released State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop at writewithoutborders is Finding Your Memoir and runs for the month of August. 

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.