Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. He is best known in Michigan for his Nick Hoffman academic mystery series set in the town of Michiganopolis. Reviewer and blogger at The Huffington Post, he teaches creative writing and other courses at MSU and had his own radio show on WLNZ. www.levraphael.com
Q&A with Lev Raphael
The perennially popular Lev Raphael has been a fixture at Rally for several years, always packing in a crowd. Catch some of his charm and enthusiasm in this interview. www.levraphael.com
You are a very prolific writer and you move between the different lines of writing work, fiction, nonfiction, blogging, essays. How do you juggle it all?
I’ve published books in about a dozen different genres because I’ve always read across genres, even when I was in elementary school and didn’t know the word “genre.” My publication history and on-line work match my wide reading interests. That being said, I could use a clone to work on books I’ve started and haven’t had a chance to finish or even take further. I manage solo by not forcing myself to write every day, which might sound counter-intuitive, but having a set schedule would make me miserable. I’m not the fastest writer, but I learned to revise and edit quickly and thoroughly in the many years I reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other papers. I’ve also learned over the years that work can always be improved, but you have to let it go at some point. And working on more than one project at a time is relaxing because it gives me a break as I move between works-in-progress.
You teach a workshop about writing bad sex. It is hard to write good sex. Why is it so easy to write bad sex? Best sex writing advice?
I think several problems are at work for writers doing sex scenes. They might be embarrassed. Conversely, they might be too turned on… It’s also possible they’re too confident and think sex scenes aren’t very demanding when the opposite is true. Writers also sometimes include the scene in the wrong place in whatever they’re writing. My best advice is to remember that you’re writing about people and so what they’re experiencing emotionally can be more important than the acts themselves. However explicit the scene is, don’t get lost in its “geography.” And ask yourself: what does this scene reveal about my characters and how does it move the story forward or deepen the story?
Are you an organic seat of the pants novelist or are you an outline and plot kind of guy?
It depends on the book. I’m at work on my 26th book, another Nick Hoffman mystery set in the crazy world of academia (out Spring 2019), and though I knew who was killed right away, it’s taken me a while to decide on the killer, since all of my suspects have really good motives. I’ve basically written this chapter by chapter, letting the story grow organically from what came before. With previous mysteries, I’ve sometimes done an outline that included specific scenes, but that didn’t feel right for this book. I’ve been published long enough to know I need to let each project be itself. If I feel I need an outline to guide me, I’ll work on one in some form, but writing is an adventure, and it’s sometime fun to just feel like you’re driving late at night and you can only see as far ahead as the range of your headlights.
Your work has taken you all over the world. How important is that kind of travel to building audiences for your projects?
Anything you can do to reach more people is valuable as an author, and you never know where it might lead you. Because I reached out to a German cultural institute in Washington, D.C. for my memoir/travelogue/family history My Germany, I ended up with two all-expense paid tours of Germany sponsored by the State Department because a diplomat was in that audience. Some of my readings were even in German. I’ve also been lucky to have had some publishers who either sent me on tour or managed to get my book to people who could set them up. I’ve worked hard to send myself on tour when it felt necessary and promote certain books. Back in the day, with my first book, a collection of short stories, I invested thousands in sending myself on tour. It was worth it in the long run to create name recognition. But everyone needs to decide on their own how much time and money they devote to publicity: there’s no right answer for everyone. Promotion can be a black hole, especially via social media.
What’s the best part of starting a new writing project?
Knowing that I’ll be at work for a while, because it’s such a satisfying feeling to be living inside a book, having ideas come to me in dreams, on the treadmill at the gym, walking the dogs, everywhere. It’s a combination of being really open to what’s next and also feeling immersed and cocooned. The world can be as crazy as it wants to be, but when I’m writing a book, I feel focused, protected, happy. It’s sometimes a bummer to finish a book, to let go because the wildest part of the ride is over and now there’s revising, editing, and everything else that goes with getting a book out there into the world.
What has you excited now?
I’m setting up a website to start teaching writing workshops on line this summer since so many people have asked me over the last few years while I’ve been teaching fiction and creative nonfiction at Michigan State. It’s not up and running yet, but it’ll be www.writewithoutborders.com.
You have been a speaker at Rally forever. Why do you like it?
I love Rally. The organizers have been generous enough to invite me to do a very wide range of workshops over the years which match my interests and my publishing. Attendees ask terrific questions. People are friendly and relaxed and it’s a good place to network for everyone. The range of sessions offered is terrific and inspiring for writers at every stage of their career. I’ve also been fortunate to have keynoted it and felt truly honored. Doing a workshop at Rally is always a highlight of my Spring, and when I’m on tour and can’t make it, I miss being there.
You and I talk about this all the time, but what would you say to authors about looking at their readings as a time to engage with folks who show up?
It’s absolutely crucial to treat those readings as performances and remember you’re not just reading your work, you’re presenting it dramatically to connect with the audience. I’ve written about this in my guide for writers, Writers Block is Bunk. You need to rehearse a lot and understand that you can reach people in the audience as powerfully as if you were an actor in a play. But you’re the actor, director, and producer. It’s all on you. Maybe it’s scary at first, but it’s one of the best thrills in the writing life. And you can always get better at it.