Heavy Issues With a Light Touch
The elusive Lev Raphael, Ph.D., acclaimed in literary circles for his short story collection Dancing on Tisha B'Av and his novel Winter Eyes, now receives glowing reviews for his Nick Hoffman mystery series. But regardless of the genre, Raphael writes about topics many choose to avoid -- alternative sexuality and gender politics, for example.
Raphael laces his academic satire -- as he prefers to call his mysteries -- with literary references (Raphael displays a particular fondness for Edith Wharton) and popular culture. The mix keeps readers chuckling even as they join with Raphael in bemoaning society's paranoia, discrimination and jealousies. A similar sleight of hand characterizes the approach this book critic and reviewer for the Detroit Free-Press, Washington Post, Jerusalem Report and National Public Radio's Todd Mundt Show takes to interviews. As in his fiction, you need to read between the lines to get the full picture of Lev Raphael, writer.
Crescent Blues: You juggle shame, family, academia, love, homosexuality, Jewishness, the Holocaust and family -- did I leave anything out? -- with a delightfully insightful sense of humor. How did you strike a balance between humor and meaning?
Lev Raphael: You left out string theory.
Though it's not obvious, the series has been very influenced by my attending the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where I've year after year seen perhaps the best repertory theater in North America. Every summer I see up to a dozen plays, and usually at least a handful of those are Shakespeare plays. Over the years, the comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It have struck me more and more because of the darkness at their core. Yes, they resolve in marriages and dance, but you're keenly aware of the impermanence and threat to the harmony. In the series, I try to balance light and dark in that same spirit.
Crescent Blues: Does the long-term relationship between your main character Nick Hoffman and his partner Stefan give you the opportunity to acquaint readers with a less mainstream lifestyle? As a former teacher, do you have specific lessons you wish to impart?
Lev Raphael: Absolutely! I want people to know that college professors are just like everyone else. They have feelings and mortgage payments, and watch the Super Bowl, too.
Crescent Blues: Can you give us a sneak peek at your current projects?
Lev Raphael: I've written a huge chunk of the next Nick Hoffman book. It's set during Christmas-time, a month after the events of Little Miss Evil, and will be out in fall 2001. It may be the longest to date in the series, and Nick will be doing something totally unexpected. Several things, in fact.
Crescent Blues: How have readers, fellow writers and the publishing industry responded to the lifestyles of your main characters? Is the real world any more accepting of Nick and Stefan than the traditional Michigan neighborhood where they reside in your series?
Lev Raphael: I get lots of fan mail praising the reality of Nick and Stefan's relationship, some of it from other writers. Nick and Stefan live in a college town, and many of those are more liberal than the norm, so acceptance isn't really a major issue in the series.
Crescent Blues: With each novel you've moved Nick's office down another floor. Can you tell us if he heads upwards or in a different direction in the next book? Why do you have him on this downward spiral?
Lev Raphael: Because he can't keep his mouth shut and he keeps getting into trouble. He's not a "company man" and that exposes him to censure and danger.
Crescent Blues: The names you choose for your characters -- Dromgoole, Coral Greathouse, Serena Fisch, Grace Jurevicius, Dean Bullerschmidt -- seem reminiscent of Fielding. They sound more like caricatures than, say, Stefan or Nick. Is that just my imagination?
Lev Raphael: More Dickensian, really. All names are guaranteed real (not first and last together). I constantly jot down names that intrigue me when I read newspapers, or after seeing the credits of a movie.
Crescent Blues: Your settings and characters ring with authenticity. Do you pull from your own life experiences? Please, tell us about Lev Raphael and how much of him we see in the pages of his novels.
Lev Raphael: "I am Emma Bovary."
Crescent Blues: Stefan's unusual upbringing -- raised in a Christian home that denied his Jewish roots -- leads to other interesting story twists. Is this situation based on personal experience?
Lev Raphael: Not at all. It's based on people I met while touring in the early Nineties, people whose stories were so powerful I felt I owed it to them to pay some kind of tribute in fiction. I felt inspired.
Crescent Blues: In a surprise twist (for readers as well as for Nick) in Little Miss Evil you wrote of a sexual attraction between Nick and a woman, June Dromgoole. Can you give us a hint where this will lead? Will we see more of this attraction in the next Nick Hoffman mystery?
Lev Raphael: The next book opens with them having dinner and intimate conversation in Juno's apartment. Where it leads will be a total surprise for readers -- and even for Nick.
Crescent Blues: I understand your novel Winter Eyes gave you the idea for your mystery series characters. Are you planning to write more literary novels?
Lev Raphael: Actually, it was a story I wrote in the 1980s, "Remind Me to Smile," that had the core situation of Let's Get Criminal. [In the story] Nick makes dinner for Stefan's ex-lover who's now teaching in their department. What I added that wasn't in the story was the dinner guests ending up dead later that evening, and the book took off.
Winter Eyes is the story of Stefan's growing up. His family are Holocaust survivors who hid their identity as Jews when they emigrated to America. The book charts [Stefan's] learning of the family secret and his own sexual secrets. I've written another literary novel, which my agent is circulating. It tells of children of a Holocaust survivor who are surprised by the contents of her will.
Lev Raphael: She's pretty much outside his world so her perspective is valuable. Someone who's been successful internationally as a model, then gave it up as she got older. She's logical and loving and a tremendous support to him -- more like a sister than a cousin.
Crescent Blues: Your first short story collection won the 1990 Lambda Literary Award. Many of your stories have been printed in national magazines and anthologies. Do you plan to write more short stories?
Lev Raphael: Probably. I started in short story writing and stayed with it for fifteen or more years and published dozens of them, but ultimately wanted to write in other forms as much or even more. I've been publishing stories in anthologies all through the Nineties after my first collection, here and in England, and my first crime story just appeared -- "Free Man in Paris" in Crimewave 3, a new British journal.
Lev Raphael: It's got a great cover. Seriously, I have no idea. Maybe we could sit down and read tea leaves together some time and find the answer. Nominations and prizes don't always connect to quality.
Crescent Blues: If Lev Raphael had to limit himself to one career or one accomplishment, what would it be? What goals have you set for yourself?
Lev Raphael: I'd commit to never speaking of myself in third person -- that is, answering a question by saying: "Lev Raphael…." I've been writing and publishing across genres for too long (22 years) to limit myself. My immediate goal is to continue making the series darker, which means there are big changes ahead for Nick. There's been a progressive shift in that direction as Nick's career seems more in jeopardy and he responds to the burden of being involved in crime.
Crescent Blues: In one form or another, the concept of shame dominates your non-fiction books, including those written with collaborator Gershen Kaufman. Why shame?
Lev Raphael: It's the most powerful human emotion and the least understood and the most taboo. Fascinating material.
Lev Raphael: I admire the way [Wharton] triumphed over a stifling environment to become an artist, the high level of her consistent production, the depth of her social satire and the sheen of her style, and frankly, her exciting life in France and England and Italy. And all the people she knew and loved -- including Henry James, another favorite writer.
Crescent Blues: You come to books from a variety of perspectives -- your various careers as writer, reviewer, critic and former university professor. How have these varied perspectives affected your writing? In particular, how has reviewing changed your perspective as a writer?
Lev Raphael: Well, I think reviewing has made me less patient. If a book doesn't engage me quickly in one way or another, I don't have the time for reviewing it (though I may give it another chance later), and I certainly won't plunge ahead hoping it gets better, whether for review or for my own reading. There are simply too many good writers out there (dead and alive) with worthwhile books.
Crescent Blues: Do you have favorites among your own books?
Lev Raphael: Yes, but it changes, so there's no way to really answer that. Usually it's the book I'm currently writing because it's new.
Crescent Blues: Could you give us an idea of your own favorite reads? What do you look for in a good book, whether reading or reviewing or critiquing?
Lev Raphael: Recently it's Edna O'Brien's very Lawrentian Wild Decembers, Binnie Kirshenbaum's hilarious Pure Poetry, and that juicy and dramatic biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I also really enjoyed Steven Hartov's new thriller, The Devil's Shepherd, and Edmund White's novel, The Married Man.
I look for originality of voice and situation, beauty of writing, skillful story telling, humor, emotional depth and a world unlike my own. Mystery/thriller writers I admire now? Dennis Lehane, Terrill Lankford, Martha Lawrence, Sue Grafton, Ken Follett, Donald Westlake, Robert Barnard and, of course, Jane Austen.
Crescent Blues: What aspect of the writing life do you most enjoy? (I've heard you're a hoot on the book tour circuit and at writing conferences.)
Lev Raphael: Writing and revising. I don't understand people who say writing is painful. I couldn't enjoy a career based on pain. I adore the planning, the musing, the charging along, then coming back and giving it a different spin. Working on the book whether I'm at the computer, the gym, or mowing the lawn. But I'm also a very social person, so I enjoy meeting fans and other writers, hanging out and whooping it up at conferences. And readings are a blast -- they're performances, and I give them everything I've got. The audience deserves your best. It helps having done theater in college, and having taught for so many years, and done a great deal of public speaking before touring as a writer. I'm very comfortable with an audience.
Crescent Blues: Do you follow a particular writing schedule or have any writing rituals you swear by?
Lev Raphael: It depends on where I am in a book. I tend to be anarchic, and if the book is rockin' I'll give up whatever I have to, change my schedule, etc. I write every day in the sense that I'm working on something subconsciously even if I'm not putting anything down on paper or on the computer.
Crescent Blues: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Lev Raphael: Take no prisoners! Truly, do it if only if you can't live without it -- otherwise, take a different path. For most writers, there's little or nor recognition and never very much money, so learn to accept defeat and disappointment and very delayed gratification and very real envy when writers less talented than you become successful. Talent is one thing, luck is another. Some writers just happen to hit publishing at the right moment, and take off. Most importantly, balance your career with friends, lovers, pets, exercise, travel -- life, in other words.
Crescent Blues: What advice would you give to people choosing alternate lifestyles?
Lev Raphael: Sois sage, sois chic.
Crescent Blues: Do you plan to create a Nick and Stefan cookbook so readers can recreate some of those luscious meals -- complete with wine list -- featured in the books? Are you a gourmet cook?
Lev Raphael: Never. I wouldn't want to be pigeonholed as a writer of culinary mysteries, since that's not what I'm writing, not the focus of the series, but simply an element. People have asked, however, and I did supply a recipe for deep-dish lamb pie from the series to that new mystery writers cookbook, A Taste of Murder, edited by Jo Grossman & Bob Weibezahl. I like to cook, but I wouldn't ever call myself a gourmet cook. And no, my partner and I do not eat like Nick and Stefan do. They're fictional, we're real -- for the most part.
Crescent Blues: Tell us your favorite joke and while you're at it, where did you get that fantastic sense of humor?
Lev Raphael: My favorite joke of the moment is "compassionate conservatism." I've always loved satire, from Dorothy Parker and Henry Fielding to Philip Roth and Jane Austen. Since some of my work is so dark, I wanted the series to be lighter in tone.
Crescent Blues: How do readers react to the literary and popular culture references. What do they ask most often?
Lev Raphael: Most people love them, whether they get all of them or not. You don't have to, to appreciate Nick's point of view.
Crescent Blues: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Lev Raphael: We've talked about the relationship between Nick and Stefan, but as I see it and write it, the Nick Hoffman series is academic satire in the tradition of David Lodge, Kingsley Amis and Robert Barnard. The academic world is a wonderful background for mystery and satire because there's the surface level in which people talk about learning and a community of scholars, and then there's the simmering jealousy and nastiness underneath. Some of our finest contemporary writers have ventured into that territory recently: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Francine Prose, Denis Johnson, Jane Smiley Richard Russo. A great bunch to be associated with, no?
Click here to learn more about Lev Raphael.
Click here to read the Crescent Blues review of Little Miss Evil.