Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lev Raphael on Identity, Social Commentary, Civil Rights, Jesus, and Keith Carradine

Lev, thank you for agreeing to chat on my blog.

First, I must say that you have a terrific name. Did you always have a sense that it would look great on the spine of a book?
You know, I thought less of my name on a book than of some book of mine being on a shelf with other books in a library, part of the great conversation. I felt this way as far back as second or third grade when I started writing fiction and was endlessly borrowing books from our local library which was a turn-of-the-century Gothic-style building and awed me every time I walked in.

Your website tells me that you are “widely sought after as a keynote speaker, panelist, moderator, and conference speaker.” Which is your favorite? And when you are sought, are you found?
There’s something special about keynoting, because you help set the mood for what follows. It’s an honor, and quite a responsibility. But I recently did an after dinner speech for a literacy foundation and that was a whole new challenge—and exciting. What I like best, I guess, at this point after having done hundreds of talks and readings, etc., is something I haven’t done before--if possible! As for being found—most requests come via email through my web site, and I always reply, even if I won’t be able to do the event due to scheduling or some other reason.

You have your own radio show and have been a commentator for NPR. How did you get involved in radio?
I actually gave up the show because it was too much work, but it was wonderful to do while it lasted. I got to interview authors like Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, Julian Barnes, Linda Fairstein. Now I understand why there’s a lot of burnout in radio, which I started in as a reviewer for a show in Ann Arbor. That got syndicated by NPR and then I also did work for two public radio shows in the Lansing, MI area, one of which was interested in my doing a weekly book show. It was fun and I think the authors enjoyed being interviewed by an author who had actually read their books and done research. Because I wanted to make sure the interview reflected me and the author correctly, I did the production, too, and that was sometimes mind-numbing, sitting there editing the tracks, timing everything, listening to some bits over and over. And then there were the occasional technical problems I had no control over--

Aside from seven Nick Hoffmann mysteries, you’ve authored fiction and non-fiction, and your “stories and essays are on university syllabi around the U.S. and in Canada; [your] fiction has been analyzed in books, scholarly journals and at scholarly conferences, including MLA.” Do you have a work that you consider your best? Or do you have an “I don’t love one child more than another” philosophy?
Because I write so many different kinds of things, I have lots of favorites. I think the new mystery,Hot Rocks, has the best plot. I think the story “The Tanteh” in my collection Secret Anniversaries of the Heart is my best story. I’ve done hundreds of reviews, and I know the one I did of an Alan Furst book, a very long one, for Boston Review, was my best. Then there’s the literary historical novel I recently finished that really still blows me away—I never expected to work in that genre, but when the idea hit me last April, it wouldn’t let me go. I’ve never written anything this complex, and it’s definitely the strongest novel I’ve done.

You have written some critically acclaimed works about the Holocaust, including your book of short stories called Dancing on Tisha B'Av. As the son of Holocaust survivors, did you always feel it was your destiny to write about this event in history?
I came to that late, that is, in my twenties, when I started claiming a positive Jewish identity since I’d grown up without one, and realized that I had something special to share with people as the son of survivors. I started with teaching, then writing about it. But that’s just one side of my work, as you know. I see the mysteries as offering entertainment, and then there’s my best-selling children’s book, which has been translated into a dozen languages, which focuses on self-esteem. Everything’s written for some kind of purpose or other.

Did your parents’ survival story tend to inspire you as a young person, or did it make you sad? Or angry, perhaps? And did those feelings compel you to write, or would you have become a writer regardless of your family history?
I sought refuge in books from my angry, unhappy family, and loved the myriad worlds I discovered there. But even in a different family, I would have been a writer because I loved storytelling from a very early age. I still do. Or I wouldn’t be writing.

Let’s go back to Nick Hoffmann. What drew you (and continues to draw you) to the Mystery genre?
I love the mix of crime, puzzle, and social commentary. Mysteries these days are a lot about exposing some kind of corruption in tandem with the exploration of the what and why of the crime, and they take us into different worlds. As for the series, I love coming back to some familiar characters in between working on other books in other genres—it’s like a vacation for me at an all-inclusive resort. I actually set my previous mystery, Tropic of Murder, at a Club Med, because I’d attended a mystery conference at one, and done research at another, and thought it would be a perfect setting for crime. Both trips were paid for, by the way, in a lucky turn of events. Leaving Michigan in mid-winter for the Caribbean was lovely.

I'll bet. What is the premise of Hot Rocks, your new book?
Nick is at his palatial health club and discovers a body in the steam room. He’s a prime suspect, of course, and driven to find the murderer, he discovers a whole web of secrecy and deceit among members and employees of the club. It’s got sex,fitness, and conspicuous consumption.

Oh, and as Henslowe says in Shakespeare in Love, “and a bit with a dog.”

Dogs sell. :) There’s a beautiful piece on your website called “Writing a Jewish Life,” which was both a published article and a keynote address that you gave not long after September 11th. It details some of the confusing emotions of your childhood as the child of Holocaust survivors, then your struggle to emerge as a young man and a young writer in college. You wrote, poignantly, that writing is “a hazardous enterprise at best, an arena of life where it would be best to inject your self-esteem with novocaine if such a thing were possible.” Wow, what a great way of putting it. After all the acclaim, do you still feel this way?
I don’t think rejection ever stops stinging. I don’t think you ever forget the lost opportunities or the most savage reviews. The pain fades with good news, but failure and false starts are wounds that can start throbbing quite easily. Between my first and second published short stories I lived through a blizzard of rejections that lasted over five years.

That stays with you. And then there are further disappointments of all kinds. To be a writer, you need more than just patience on top of your talent, you need a high tolerance for hard knocks.

Now, I've had a lot of great things happen in my career, like one book selling over 250,000 copies; getting two European book tours; winning a prize where the contest was judged by D.M. Thomas who wrote The White Hotel; having people teach my work in colleges and universities; getting invited to places like Oxford University and the 92nd St. Y. But I've also had a lot of terrible things happen in my career, like when one publisher purged all its mystery authors and I found out via email rumor, or another publisher canceled a contract the day before Thanksgiving. The list could go on. That's the reality of a writer's life.

You also quoted Janet Malcolm, who said, “Art is theft. Art is armed robbery. Art is not pleasing your mother.” Again, that seems to be a universal truth. Did your mother come around in terms of your writing career?

I think it’s a Hallmark Card fantasy that our parents will like what we write—why should they? In my life specifically, my mother fell ill before she could read my mysteries, a genre she loved. That’s very sad to me.

What are you reading now?
A book about the Spanish Civil War; a mystery set in 1947 Egypt about the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels; and The Utility of Force by a British general writing about the nature of war vs. insurgencies. I didn’t used to read more than one book at a time, but now I find it almost impossible to stick to just one, unless it’s riveting. Or short!

I’m also reading a few German language guides because I’m doing a two-week book tour in Germany next month for my third book published in German and I need the brush-up.

Sounds exciting! You have an M.F.A in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in American Studies; you once taught, but left academia to write full time. When were you busier—then or now?
I left almost twenty years ago, which amazes me. I loved teaching, but knew I could never do more than publish stories and articles because I only had summers off and that wasn't enough time to do a book. I suppose it’s a different kind of busy now, perhaps? When you teach writing, for instance, you’re bombarded by all those different student voices, not of your own choice (as opposed to when you pick your reading material). You have endless grading to do, and student conferences, and lessons to plan (plus meetings to attend). I didn’t write as much then, because I didn’t have the time. I’ve been much busier as a writer and reviewer since I quit teaching.

You need a tremendous amount of time around the time you write, so to speak, time to not feel pushed and pulled. And then writing doesn’t just happen at the computer or wherever—the subconscious is always working. I frequently have ideas or work tangles out in something while I’m walking the dogs, working out, grocery shopping, showering, falling asleep.

So you're busy writing without looking like you're busy writing. And when I was reviewing, sometimes I'd have to read 3-5 books a week just to keep up, so the ten years I did that were truly hectic.

Wow. You are in Michigan, and you credit the finding of your Jewish identity to the fact that you left New York and moved to Michigan. Is this because Michigan is a Jewish place, or because it’s not?
The latter, but then writers often find themselves away from home. It worked for James Baldwin when he left Harlem for Paris. He saw himself and America much more clearly. Leaving New York helped me develop a better sense of my audience and what I had to say in my fiction, at least to begin with, and it broke the dry spell I spoke about earlier.

Do people ever tell you that you resemble Jesus?
I wish those twelve guys would stop following me around. It’s embarrassing.

I have in the past been taken for Keith Carradine, which is more fun. Especially if I was flying first class. Or in New York when staying at a ritzy hotel and my hair was cut a certain way.

Well, I would think that Jesus would get his room comped. But I suppose Keith Carradine is a more likely sighting. :)

You married your partner in Canada. Do you think America will ever re-define its notion of marriage? Perhaps to encompass the “marriage of two minds” rather than only of two genders?

I hope so, though I don’t care what it’s called. Western Europe has moved that way, even South Africa! Who would have thought the U.S. would be behind the former apartheid state in a question of civil rights?

One last plug: should people start with your first mystery, or should they buy Hot Rocks and work backwards?
Read something, anything, I need a new toaster!

Seriously, I’ve written the series so that it can be picked up anywhere, though Nick does change over time. People should approach the series however they like to read a series: obliquely, from behind, ambush, whatever works.

Good advice. I need a new toaster, too--I don't think they make them as sturdy today as they once made them.

Lev, thank you so much for talking with me. Now that I’ve read the beautiful pieces on your website I will certainly be seeking out your mysteries.


Pat B. said...

Wonderful interview, Lev and Julia!
Pat Browning

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Pat! Lev is very interesting, as you see. :)