Why I’ve Never Gone On a Writers’ Retreat

Fans often ask me if I go to writers’ retreats. I never have and I’ve never really wanted to, because I live in one.

The mid-century house I bought over 30 years ago in a heavily-treed subdivision is extra quiet because it’s dead center, even though there are some major roads nearby. That means you can’t hear any road noise whatsoever whether you’re inside the house or sitting out on the patio or the deck. There’s also very little traffic through the subdivision itself, sometimes none at all. 

What you can hear is bird song of all kinds: chickadees, robins, finches mourning doves–and of course we see our share of hummingbirds because they like our Rose of Sharon trees. Oh, and I also hear people biking by, neighbors with strollers chatting on their phones, minor stuff like that that forms a pleasant soundscape.

Yes, there are lawnmowers in the Spring, leaf blowers in the Fall and snow blowers in the Winter. But as someone who grew up in New York, that seems close to silence. For a few years when I lived in Queens, I was directly under a flight path to LaGuardia Airport, and sandwiched between the roar of the Long Island Railroad and the craziness of Queens Boulevard. 

My street is lined with maples that form a canopy when they leaf out, and a sculpture garden when the leaves fall.  From my study window, whatever the season, I have a view of a tall, graceful Gingko tree. If you don’t know this tree, they have succulent green fan-shaped leaves that turn a Napoleonic yellow in the Fall and can drop all in one day like gentle snow.  It has special resonance for me because there was Gingko near my elementary school in Manhattan.


I can see the tree down at the base of the driveway while I write at my PC and while I make corrections on printed-off manuscripts sitting in my reading chair. It’s just one of the majestic trees around the house and it symbolizes home for me.   As does the enormous oak at the very back of our yard which a former neighbor told us was standing here in the 1920s when a 400-acre farm was subdivided into lots for houses.  I like to do handwritten notes on a printed-off text outside looking  at that tree for inspiration.

Growing up in New York, I had very little sense of the change of seasons, but here I can watch it change by the day–and sometimes change back,  because as people in many states say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait an hour.”

The trees remind me that Michigan is where I became an author, not New York.
I experienced a five-year drought after publishing my first short story in a national magazine and it was only after moving to Michigan that the drought ended and my work started being accepted again.  I apparently needed a major change of scene to blossom. 

In Michigan I was fully free to become the writer I turned into, someone multiply anthologized, publishing across genres, taking the lessons my college writing mentor gave me into the classroom at Michigan State University and then beyond.  I now work with writers online at writewithoutborders.com, mentoring, offering individualized workshops, editing manuscripts of all kinds, and enjoying an even greater level of freedom than I had before.

I know that one of the appeals of a retreat is escape from where you are, but I don’t need that.  And people also go to commune with other writers, but I had that intense experience for two and a half years in my MFA program and I’ve hung out with writers at numerous conferences across the country.  I once interviewed Julian Barnes and asked who his writer friends were and he said, “They’re next door, in my library.  They’re my oldest friends.”

The books in the shelves around me in my study–biography, history, fiction– inspire me as much as the quiet of home.  This is where I’ve taken root. 

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in a dozen genres ranging from memoir to mystery.  His most recent book is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Gingko image by Marzena P. from Pixabay)

(Oak image by Csaba Nagy from Pixabay)

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)

 

Michigan Notable Book Awards Ignore LGBTQ Books

Every year since 2004, the Library of Michigan has publicized as many as 20 Notable Michigan books “reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.”

But that diversity has a huge gap. No book with LGBTQ content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide. That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation. This judge did note that the award once went to a gay writer, but there was no gay content to the book: “So that doesn’t really count, does it?”

The awards program actually stretches all the way back to 1991 under different names. It sponsors statewide author tours for the winning authors, so it’s a big deal. The Detroit Free Press describes what it means to be a winner:

While there’s no cash award that comes with making the list, there is a real economic reward for writers and publishers in terms of increased sales. Emily Nowak, marketing and sales manager at Wayne State University Press, said appearing on the list can lift sales by several hundred copies. For regional titles with small press runs of between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, that’s a significant boost and could push a title into a second printing. Many Michigan libraries often buy multiple copies of books that appear on the list.

And then of course there’s the free publicity, which is priceless, and the invitations to speak that an award generates, and the prestige.

But evidently since 1991 there hasn’t been a single book with LGBTQ content published by a Michigan press or written by a Michigan author living here or elsewhere worthy of recognition.

Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost thirty years that the judges thought deserved being honored. Not one. The Library of Michigan’s web site claims that the awards “help build a culture of reading here in Michigan.” Perhaps so, but that culture being built is limited in its diversity.

Isn’t it time for the sponsors and judges of the Michigan Notable Books to stop ignoring LGBTQ books?


Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery. Publishers Weekly called his latest campus mystery Department of Death “immensely enjoyable.”

(Image by Sammy-Williams on Pixabay)

Marjorie Taylor Greene Has Company Distorting the Holocaust

Marjorie Taylor Greene is at it again, comparing mask mandates in the pandemic to being a Jew in Germany headed off to the gas chambers.  I wonder if her dismal understanding of the Holocaust is based on reading bad novels like Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time which features a bizarre romance between a Nazi and his Jewish prisoner.  Breslin’s attempts to root the book in the Holocaust are clumsy at best and her knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture is way off.  The book’s editor also seems to have been AWOL.

Examples abound.  Why does she use the word Hakenkreuz rather than Swastika?  The latter word is one most readers would be familiar with.  Hakenkreuz is a feeble attempt to make the book feel historically accurate.  So is using Sturmabteilung rather than SA or Brownshirts.  Both of those are much more familiar to readers of historical novels or thrillers set in Nazi Germany–and more understandable.

Why field the obscure word Gänsebraten when “roast goose” would do just as well?  Surely anyone picking up this book will understand after the first few pages that it’s set in Germany.  Breslin doesn’t need to keep reminding us, as when she substitutes the word Kaffee for coffee over half a dozen times. But Kaffee isn’t italicized, which it should be since it’s in a foreign language.  Page after page, you feel she’s just overdoing it and the publisher is careless and clueless.

That’s unfortunate, given Breslin’s weak grasp of German and Germany’s history with Jews.  Breslin’s heroine is addressed as “Jude.”  That’s the masculine for Jew in German, not the feminine, which is Jüdin.  But more egregious than that, the Nazis had many terms of abuse for Jews, and simply calling her a Jew is not pejorative enough–given the period.

Breslin’s understanding of Jewish culture and religion is also grossly off-base.  In a glossary at the book’s end, she defines a yarmulke as a “prayer cap.”  No it isn’t.  It’s a skullcap that’s not just worn at prayers by observant Jews.  More incorrectly, she thinks a shtetl is a “small town or ghetto.”  That’s flat-out wrong.  It’s the Yiddish for a small Jewish or heavily Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe–not remotely the same thing as a ghetto.

If that inaccuracy isn’t enough, the glossary says that Jews in the Holocaust wore a “gold” star to identify “their Jewry.”  (MTG also thinks the stars are gold).

Breslin further makes a hash of history when she says that “Sarah” was “a term that Nazis used for Jewesses.”  That makes it sound like a synonym.  It wasn’t.  What she seems to be fumbling with is the legislation in 1938 which forced Jews with “non-Jewish” names to add “Sara” [sic] or “Israel” as middle names to their identity papers so that there could be no doubt they were Jewish.  She and her publisher also seem oblivious to the fact that the word “Jewess” isn’t just dated, it’s widely considered offensive.

All these errors come from an author who claims to love the Jewish people. As the Erasure song goes, “Who Needs Love Like That?”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres including Rosedale in Love, set in New York during The Gilded Age, which is also available as an audio book.

Warning to Writers: Don’t Diss Your Peers

“Writers should not attack their peers.”

That’s what a famous author I deeply admired told me near the start of my career, and what he meant was personal attacks.  He’d made that mistake and it launched a feud that lasted years. 

I’ve been careful in my career not say much in public when fans ask me what I think about fellow authors if they’re not my favorite writers. If I do express an opinion, I keep the comments to something technical. So I might focus on their most recent book and say I wasn’t convinced by the point of view if that’s one of the problems I saw, of course.  I don’t make things up.

Even after a reading at a reception or a restaurant when things are more relaxed, I’m cautious, because whatever you say may travel much further than you expect and end up making you look bad. And what you say can end up on Twitter in seconds.  That’s what my mentor was trying to explain to me well before social media created firestorms.  He regretted disparaging another author personally because it made him look bad and they became enemies.

I saw something similar happen in my own career, though without the feud. A celebrated American author I’d never met and who had never insulted me in the U.S. apparently decided to mock me personally in an interview in a foreign magazine when he was on tour in Europe. He didn’t know the freelancer he was talking to was an acquaintance of mine who reported the incident in detail, with some scathing comments about the author who should have known better.

Feuds come and go in American fiction, and some of them raise questions of literary taste, commercial vs. literary fiction, sexism among reviewers, but what about rudeness and bad taste?  Jonathan Franzen has been a lightning rod because critics have praised him so highly.  Is that his fault? Best-selling author Jodi Picoult has dismissed him as nothing but a “literary darling,” ditto Jennifer Weiner who’s done so while publicly reveled in her wealth and mocking those at The New York Times who’ve ignored her as balding (a “hairist” remark if ever there was one). Whatever the legitimacy of their complaints, should authors be engaging in this kind of snark?   I guess the mockery had an impact because Weiner eventually became a contributing opinion writer at the Times….

But authors let loose on reviewers too.  Franzen himself has outdone them when he attacked Michiko Kakutani a few years ago after she panned his last book, calling her “the stupidest person in New York.” And Alice Hoffman attacked the Boston Globe reviewer who gave her novel a mixed review, actually asking her followers on Twitter to call this reviewer and express their outrage. None of this makes authors look good, no matter who the target is.

A writer friend of mine was once banging out a rebuke to a reviewer when his wife came up behind him and read what was on his Mac screen. “Do you want to be respected for your work,” she asked, “or have people think you’re an asshole?”

It’s a question every author should consider when getting ready to light into a peer.  It’s one thing to talk about the work, another to diss the writer.

Lev Raphael’s 27th book is the mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(free image from 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.

An Amazing Rave Review Thrust Me Into the Spotlight

The New York Times ruled in my family when I was growing up in Manhattan.  My mother especially loved the Sunday Magazine articles, my brother relished the daily puzzles, and I enjoyed reading book reviews and features about authors.

I wanted to be an author myself as early as second grade, when I started writing short stories.  And of course, I wanted to have a book of mine reviewed in the Times, someday because I thought that would be the ultimate sign I had made it.

Well, years later, I was heartbroken when I heard from a writer friend that he had heard my first book of short stories was going to be reviewed there.  I waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Then I published a biography and study of Edith Wharton’s fiction.  No review.  Two strikes.

At that point, I was discouraged enough to think I would never be reviewed in the Times.  I should have taken hope from lines Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

But, as know, precisely at the moment/when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.

One Monday, I got a call from my agent that my second mystery had just gotten a rave review from Marilyn Stasio, the most important mystery reviewer in the country.  My agent’s assistant faxed it to me and as I read the review, I actually jumped up and down for joy.  Friends started contacting me, my editor was thrilled as was my publisher, and I started hearing reports that the book wasn’t just being shelves in Mystery and Gay Literature sections in bookstores, but sometimes in Fiction right next to Edith Wharton.  And face out, which makes a big difference when it comes to sales.

The review offered great pull-quotes like this one:  “Killing is too kind for the vindictive scholars in Lev Raphael’s maliciously funny campus mystery.”  And because it was in the New York Times, publishers would use various parts of the review on  mysteries I’d write after that one.  Likewise, many people introducing me at events where I’ve done talks and readings have referred to the review.  It’s a kind of touchstone, even though I’ve gotten many more good ones in other newspapers and magazines since then.   The Times is that impressive.

The Edith Wharton Murders has recently been re-published with a gorgeous new cover, a foreward by noted author Gregory Ashe, and an introduction the publisher asked me to write.  Seeing it reborn brings back the thrill of being a new author having his biggest dream come true.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages, and Special Collections at Michigan State University’s Library archives his literary papers.

 

Traveling Back to France During My Michigan Lockdown

“Look me up whenever you come to Paris.” 

That’s what famed author Edmund White said to me when we met at an awards banquet in D.C. in the late 80s.  I was frazzled in the 90-degree heat that weekend and not prepared to meet an author I admired so much.  He was the very first person I saw as I walked into the banquet and I probably gushed when I told him how much I admired his work. 

White surprised me with his very specific praise for a story I’d contributed to the anthology Men on Men 2, a story that would become the title piece of my first collection a year later.  Both the story and the collection would help get me national recognition, earn me scores of reviews, and start a series of book tours that ultimately led to readings on three different continents.

White meant what he said.  My spouse and I did look him up a few years later on a trip to France.  We were taking advantage of a great exchange rate and basing ourselves in Paris for three weeks, planning day trips.  When we asked White at dinner what we should make a point of seeing  that tourists tended to miss, he didn’t hesitate: Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose official website is here

I had never heard of this chateau only an hour’s drive from Paris.  The team of artistic geniuses involved in building it for Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances, Nicolas Foucquet, was the same trio who later designed and built Versailles and its gardens.  White assured us of two things.  Versailles was mammoth and would be teeming with busloads of loud and cranky tourists (he wasn’t exaggerating).  Vaux was more jewel-like and he’d be surprised if we would find more than a few dozen people touring the chateau and its exquisite grounds.

He was right.  The day we visited was sunny, and like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, we were “drowning in honey” as we moved from one amazing room filled with gorgeous paintings, sculptures, furnishings to another–and then out into the gardens to enjoy elegant vistas that seemed almost too perfect to be real.

That day and White’s advice came back to this week when I read the biography above of Foucquet, who was tried on a trumped-up charge of treason and for various financial crimes by the young king.  Louis XIV wasn’t just jealous that Foucquet had the most beautiful dwelling in France,  he was out to flex his muscles and show other rulers who was in charge in France.  He was also moved by people scheming against Foucquet for complicated reasons that would make for a great miniseries.  Foucquet’s long imprisonment in a remote fortress reads like chapters from The Count of Monte Cristo.

But despite his ignominious last years, he left behind a monument of architecture, painting, and landscape gardening that some call the most beautiful building in France.  Even rooms with a less-than-august purpose were magnificent: Vaux was one of the first chateaux to have a dining room.

©Sylvia Davis

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve had cabin fever for weeks now, but this biography opened up an unforgettable day for me, one that happened thirty years ago.  It sent me to a closet where I keep my travel photo albums—remember those?  I hadn’t thought of them in years and realized now that each one is a doorway to another life, another time, and a very welcome escape.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He offers individualized writing workshops and manuscript editing at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Twitter Vive la France! photo below: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Literary Agents Haven’t Helped Me

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  It don’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.  So I brought her the deal.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a Skype relationship would work out despite her saying she would come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

(Image free courtesy of Pixabay)

I Don’t Read English Novels–And Neither Should You!

Celebrity Irish writer Marian Keyes made headlines recently when she said she doesn’t read male writers because their lives aren’t as interesting as women’s lives–they were “limited.”  I totally get her frustration.

Because I don’t read English writers.  I mean I know that they write books, but if I can read books by American writers, why bother?  What could be more limited than an English novel?

I hear about all those English books when they get made into endless boring shows on PBS, but what’s the point?  English people’s lives are beyond limited.  Poldark?  Seriously?  I watched ten minutes and all they did was walk back and forth along cliffs with the wind blowing through their hair, though sometimes they rode back and forth along cliffs.  That says almost everything you need to know about England.  Oh yeah, there’s also Jane Austen.  Bonnets.

The English truly have such limited experience.  I mean, come on, they live on a crummy little island for God’s sake and nobody even gets voted off (well maybe immigrants down the road thanks to Boris Johnson)  And it’s not even their own island.  They have to share it with two other countries, Wales, whatever that is, and Scotland, which at least has whiskey.

You see all those goofy soldiers at Buckingham Palace marching back and forth like Poldark without cliffs and when’s the last time the English won a war on their own without American help?  That was against Napoleon, right?

Haven’t there been enough English novels been written already–can’t they just give it a rest? Don’t the English have better things?  Like figure out why they’re so brutal to people marrying into that hot mess royal family?  And why that whole Brexit thing was like they were the drunk-ass party guest who keeps saying he’s going but just won’t get the hell off your couch?

I admit I might read an occasional English novel if I’m crazy bored, but Americans, we really know how to live la vida loca.  I mean look at us now: D.C. drama 24/7, exciting tweets every few minutes.  We’re in the fast lane.  And driving on the right side of the road, too.

So English writers, just **** off, as Marian Keyes said about her male colleagues, without the asterisks, of course, bless her heart.