Lev Raphael is nothing if not prolific. He has written 25 books and has not limited himself to one genre– or five. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. I asked him a few questions about his eclectic oeuvre.
Assault with a Deadly Lie is your 25th book. Your body of work is so varied it’s hard to even know where to begin. You’ve published short story collections, memoir, self-help, mysteries, novels dealing with Holocaust survivors, biography/literary criticism, essay collections, even vampire fiction. Do you have an agent who goes crazy trying to “brand” you?
I admire those authors who write in one genre and stick to it–because they’re easy to market. That’s just not the way my imagination works. I publish across genres because that’s how I read, that’s how I’ve always read, so I would get bored writing in one genre. I think it’s given me many different, sometimes overlapping audiences, which is not a bad thing, but it probably has kept me from becoming a superstar. 🙂 As a writer, it’s especially useful for me to be working on more than one book at a time in different genres–that’s refreshing and stimulating. Each book is a true vacation from the other–and I don’t have to put any liquids in a one-ounce bag!
As for agents, I haven’t had one in a long time, and no agent has ever done much to advance my career, though my first agent really boosted my confidence because she was Saul Bellow’s agent and I figured if Bellow’s agent thought I had talent, I probably did. Overall, my most successful books have been un-agented and I don’t see myself having an agent ever again. What’s the point? Especially now in this new publishing world.
How did you go from being someone who liked to write to being a professional writer? Was it a long journey to get published the first time?
My first publication was a short story in Redbook Magazine which at the time had 4.5 million readers. It won the writing contest in my MFA program, judged by a famous editor. I felt blessed, and then I felt almost cursed. Because after that, it took five years before I published my next short story despite what felt like hundreds of submissions everywhere, and then it took over a decade before I finally published my first collection of short stories. By that time, though, they’d almost all appeared in various magazines.
Why five years between first and second story publication? My problem, I think, was that I was ahead of my time in a way. I was publishing short fiction about children of Holocaust survivors before any other writer in the genre, something that isn’t as well-known as it might be because I don’t live in New York which would have given me much more visibility. But the flip side is that I found my spouse of thirty years in Michigan, fell in love with the state the day I crossed the Mackinaw Bridge to the UP at sunset, and established myself as a writer here–so it’s what Elizabeth Bowen says in her novel The Death of The Heart: “Home is where we emotionally live.”
Tell me about your latest book, Assault with a Deadly Lie.
It’s the timeliest book I’ve ever written even though I started it four years ago, because of all the talk in the country about militarized police forces. This is a suspense novel set in the academic world, and it explores the psychological impact of slander, harassment, stalking, police brutality, and the loss of personal safety. My narrator Nick Hoffman finds his secure, happy, college-town life changed forever after a nightmarish encounter with police. But even when that horrible night is over, his life doesn’t return to normal. Someone’s clearly out to destroy him. He and his partner face an escalating series of threats that lead to a brutal and stunning confrontation. What can he do when his comfortable world threatens to collapse? How can he reestablish order in a suddenly chaotic life?
Do you enjoy being able to continue the story of a character from one book to another?
I love it. That’s really one of the joys of writing a series. You have these old friends that you have a regular reunion with, and as writer you’re starting with some givens, some known factors that make for a solid foundation. But they also raise questions: How will they change? How will they be challenged? How will they change you? And because I don’t only write a mystery series, coming back to my recurring characters is even more entertaining. Over the course of the series, I’ve followed the advice of mystery writer Eleanor Taylor Bland: Characters on the periphery have moved to the center and some at the center have moved to the periphery. That’s been a lot of fun to work out.
How is your approach different when writing a mystery than when you write literary fiction?
I’d differentiate a novel from a mystery from suspense. With my mysteries I’ve always started with the murder and generally worked backwards. Who did it and why? How would those questions be answered? What would the roadblocks be? With the new novel, which is suspense, I started with a very dramatic opening event and constructed a series of escalating events that lead ineluctably to something even bigger at the end. I wasn’t sure exactly what that event would be, or how it would play out, or even what each crisis over the course of the book would be. I didn’t outline the book, just let it grow organically almost the way I let the novels grow, but I was conscious of the need to build tension, and for the need to let tension drop periodically. It was a great new set of challenges, which leads back to your first question. Writing in different genres is very challenging, and I love that.
The Nick Hoffman mysteries are set in fictional “Michiganopolis.” How important is the Michigan setting to your fiction?
Extremely important. I’ve lived here half my life and consider myself a Michigander. When I got here in the early 80s, the state was in economic free fall and people were very downhearted and down on the state, which was sad. I traveled around a lot, up north, to the UP as far as Copper Harbor, to both shores of the Lower Peninsula, to towns south of Lansing like Marshall and even went to Beaver Island. I tried to see as much of the state as I could and found it very varied and beautiful. I really said Yes! to Michigan. Remember that ad campaign? I gave my love of the state to the main character of my novel The German Money and also to Nick Hoffman in the mystery series. I even gave him a vacation cottage near Charlevoix that is so real-sounding lots of people have asked me if they could rent it.
Are there any genres you have not tackled yet that you would like to?
Well, I’ve recently moved into new territory. I’m working on what you might call a Biblical novel right now. I have an opening–and a shelf of research books. I’ve done a lot of Torah study and Bible study but that’s not the same as historical research in the period, though I’ve done some of that too. Orienting yourself in the First Century for the purpose of writing fiction, as opposed to reading about it for education or entertainment, that’s very different, so it’s a long-term project. I’ve also got the opening of a historical novel set in Bruges in the early 1300s (and a pile of books related to the subject). That period offers a completely different set of problems for a writer, though Bruges today has many buildings still standing from the 14th century and I fell in love with it on a visit a few years ago, which is why I decided to set a novel there. So i can step back into the past there in a way that will be really helpful the next time I go back.
I haven’t ever done science fiction or fantasy even though those are genres I was in love with when I was much younger–and I’d never rule those out. My career has taken me in unexpected directions–or I should say, my imagination has, and I’m happy to have such a creative, surprising tour guide!
Visit Lev Raphael’s website at www.levraphael.com for additional information and a schedule of his upcoming appearances.