Thursday, March 5, 2009

Special Guest Blogger ~ Lev Raphael

First of all, I'd like to thank Lev for sharing some time from his busy schedule with me. Lev is the prize-winning author of nineteen books in genres from memoir to mystery and has seen his books translated into a dozen languages, some of which he cannot recognize. ;>) He escaped academia to write and review full-time and has done hundreds of reviews for the Washington Post, Jerusalem Report, and the Detroit Free Press where he had his own mystery column. Lev has also spent almost ten years on public radio as a guest reviewer and host of his own book show.

I found Lev last year when I was looking for fiction with gay Jewish characters and discovered Nick Hoffman. As Lev states on his website: "Who says academia isn't the real world? It's got the vanity of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the inhumanity of organized crime. A perfect setting for murder and satire! That's why I started the Nick Hoffman series, set at the fictional State University of Michigan at Michiganapolis. Nick is a composition teacher there, which makes him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric (EAR). And being involved in murder doesn't help his chances for getting tenure -- or does it?"
Nick is a great character and the Nick Hoffman mysteries -- seven at the moment -- are a delicious blend of mystery, murder and mayhem. Of course what drew me at first was Nick, who is gay (sort of) and Jewish (sort of) and his partner Stefan Borowski. Stefan originated in Winter Eyes, one of Lev's more mainstream books.

So, finally, here's my first question -- in two parts:
You write in several very distinct genres, how do you juggle them? Is there one genre you prefer more than the other?
LEV: I've always read across genres and that's how I write--whatever interests me at the moment is what I work on. It's actually mentally refreshing to be working on two books at the same time in different genres--each book is a great break from the other. They're all great. Each has its challenges and demands, promises and problems.
I started the mystery series because I was aware that some of my work was very dark, and I wasn't really drawing on my mostly comic vision of life in my writing. Academia is a world I knew well, and I picked someone who's a total outsider--a gay Jewish bibliographer who likes teaching freshmen!--because outsiders make great commentators and observors. It's been wonderful for me as a writer to go into and out of the series as a break from other more serious work. My devotion to craft is identical with the mysteries, but the spirit in them is lighter.
I really believe it made your mysteries even more intriguing when you brought in Stefan to Nick's world. Reading the mysteries and learning more about Nick and Stefan's relationship adds an extra dimension to the stories.

Next questions:
Not all writers draw as much on their own life as you do in your mainstream works. You call these books, "Second Generation". Can you explain what this term means? Do you think being a second generation child has impacted your work more than most American Jewish writers? Do you think it can be more difficult for someone who has had little experience or knowledge of the Shoah (Holocaust) on a personal level to understand your characters?
LEV: Whether it's obvious or not, all writing is biographical since we write out of what concerns, moves, and troubles us. Anyone who says their work isn't autobiographical has something to hide. :-)

"Second Generation" is the term for children of Holocaust survivors and there's no difficulty relating to characters like that since they're human beings with their family crises, emotional woes, love lives, etc. It's just like reading a Russian novel or science fiction or anything else: all that's required is an open mind, and a willingness to enter a different world than your own.

Being the son of Holocaust survivors has definitely impacted my work--how could it not? It's part of my inheritance, my material, my "word horde" as the Anglosaxon poets called it.

I know reading your essay, "Writing a Jewish Life" on your website brought back a very early memory relating to a girl I knew when I was only about seven years old. My family rented the first floor of a two family home from her mother and father, Holocaust survivors. Hannah was only a year or two older than me and so we became reluctant friends. One day right after she had lunch with me in my parents' kitchen, I saw her stuff a peanut butter and jelly sandwich inside of a napkin into her pocket. When I asked her why, she said her parents had told her to always make sure she had extra so she would never starve. When I asked my mother what she meant, she explained that Hannah's parents had suffered terribly in the War that had killed my Uncle Jackie and I should be very nice to her.
I tried, but it was difficult. Hannah was not a nice child. She was bigger and bullied me. It was only years later after we had moved away, that I realized how difficult it must have been for Hannah. When I was seven I wasn't able to enter her very different world.

One more question:
Besides being a child of survivors, you are also a gay Jew. What differences, if any, has been your experience being part of two minorities?
LEV: That's a big question and I've written several books to answere it, most reecently a collection of memoir essays called Writing a Jewish Life. Being any kind of minority gives you insight into the majority, whatever it is, that the majority doesn't have. It gives you a unique angle, which is excellent foddder for writers.

And of course, there is one question your fans always want to know: What's in the works for you?
LEV: I've just published a book about Germany in my mind and in reality, a kind of memoir/travelogue: My Germany. And I'm working on a historical Jewish novel, so that's new territory for me, and very exciting.
I'm really looking forward to that one. I love historicals.

Thanks so much for being with me today, Lev.
To learn more about Lev, please visit his website
Lev is the author of My Germany due April 2009 in the U.S. & September 2009 in Germany


Jeanne said...

I just wanted to thank Lev again.
His website offers a huge number of works to sample

Jardonn Smith said...

Thoughtful questions, Jeanne, and for writers, insightful responses from Mr. Raphael. Thank you both! I especially connected with the statement writing is autobiographical whether the author is willing to admit it or not. Every character navigates through the story with the same motivations possessed by the person at the keyboard.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

Very nice interview. I'll have to look up "My Germany". I was born there but left at the age of 2 though I have been back a few times.

Jeanne said...

Thanks for commenting, Jardonn, Mick.
Discovering the talented Lev Raphael was truly beshert for me!

Z.A. Maxfield said...

Wow, thank you for such a great blog post. I've definitely added another author to check out, these look wonderful.

Jeanne said...

Lev writes such diverse genres, it's hard to know where to go to first.

K. Z. Snow said...

Thanks so much, Jeanne, for bringing a fascinating, accomplished author to our attention (or mine, anyway!)

Anonymous said...

Another author to add to the "when I get ahead of the manuscripts." Thank you for sharing.

Kayelle Allen said...

I took German in high school and our teacher taught us a bit about the Holocaust. He told us that the Jews were God's Chosen people, and that those who bless them are blessed, and those who curse them are cursed. I had no idea at the time that he was quoting scripture. But it opened my eyes to a different world, as you said, and gave me a love for the Jewish world that has been lifelong. I do indeed pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and thank you for sharing part of your world with us here. Shalom.

Ken Summers said...

I do believe I have some new reading material to scrounge up. And not only because I'm such a big fan of mysteries (being raised on Murder, She Wrote will do that to you). And now that I actually HAVE free time before starting the next project, I do believe I need to look more into Lev... :)