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)

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.

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

Write Fabulous Gay Mysteries? Why The Hell Not!?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay 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 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.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to quote Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

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 fabulous amateur detectives.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily partnered, 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 the academic setting is so ripe for satire.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started. I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and once my book publishing career took off, I was invited to review for the Detroit Free Press. I read lots of crime fiction and that made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too many mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at a diner as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine. 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 social 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 expected.  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.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops and mentors writers online at writewithoutborders.com.

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)

Review: For Halloween, Agatha Christie Says “Boo!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Write A Gay Mystery Series

I never set out to write mysteries, gay 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 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.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

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. He and Stefan teach at the same school, 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.

Years ago, 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, 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 expected.  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.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Did Winston Churchill Really Say That?

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

–A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

–A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

–An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers. You can find them on Amazon.  Lev teaches online writing creative workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

When A Character Seems TSTL

TSTL is a term used in the mystery reading/writing community for Too Stupid To Live. These are the characters in books and on big or small screens who seem to be smart but then make ridiculous mistakes that totally undermine their credibility. It’s the person who’s fully aware that a serial killer is on the loose who walks into their house and doesn’t turn on any lights. Readers or viewers howl in disbelief, press the pause button, or toss the book across the room.

I was recently watching an excellent British crime series that features some very strong woman detectives, and was very disappointed with a sudden plot twist.

The capable, resourceful, dedicated, and fiercely intelligent woman detective got a call and rushed off to meet someone, refusing to take anyone with her.  She also didn’t say where she was going or why.  The source she was meeting was closely connected to more than one murder and was possibly going to supply crucial information the detective’s whole team had been unable to get.

So what happens?  We see her in conversation at a restaurant but don’t see who it is (though we can guess), and she excuses herself to make a call to her chief to let him know she’s on to “something big.”  Okay, informing her superior is believable, and so is wanting some prvacy, but she doesn’t just step outside of the restaurant.

She crosses the street.

And walks down a dark alley.

With her back turned to passersby and traffic.

So of course she’s attacked before revealing what she knows.  The ambulance can’t get there quickly enough.  She dies.

This was infuriating.  There was no reason at all for her to behave the way she did, from start to finish, and it contradicted her character arc over four+ seasons.  Yes, she was impulsive, but never stupid.

Another term in the mystery world that applies here is “femjep.”  That’s when writers of whatever kind put a woman in ridiculous jeopardy.  It serves the plot, but it’s both retrograde and foolish.  Here, it was especially infuriating because you felt the writers wanted an unhappy ending to the season, and so they wrenched the character way out of whack.

Lev Raphael loves crime fiction and is the author of the acclaimed Nick Hoffman mysteries.  He teaches online creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

University Teaching Is Not A Demolition Derby

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country, and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, these stories make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas — all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Some teachers aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.  I heard from a former student today about how her new creative writing teacher tears down everything she writes and it’s profoundly undermining her confidence.

Creative writing is one of my passions, and I’ve heard of other professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse. I’ve never done that. I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to offer something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the piece is well-done humor. As for dissing a student’s work, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher during my freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and role model. She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way too. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers by identifying what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply, “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block Is Bunk and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.