Betty: You're the son of Holocaust survivors. How has that affected your writing? Your life?
Lev: It's probably the most significant aspect of my life, in that I grew up very young with an intimation of unspeakable tragedy that wasn't distant but had affected my parents directly. It made me even more of an outsider than I was as the child of immigrants. Conversely, it inspired a drive to be a writer, and a teacher and it also fueled my concern for social justice. Did it help lead me to mysteries? Perhaps, since my childhood was filled with gaps. And lately, I've
discovered some unsolvable mysteries in my parents’ war years I hope to write about in one form or another.
Betty: Tell us about The German Money and how you were able to write it without falling apart. Or did you?
Lev: It's the story of three adult children of a Holocaust survivor whose will freaks them all out in various ways. The emotions of the story weren't difficult but the plot was, and even harder than that was finding the voice. That's partly why it took me twenty years from start to finish, through various versions of the story. Then I was lucky to have a terrific editor who helped me put the finishing touches on it. That's I think why it was a Booksense 76 pick, a Jewish Book
Council book (which meant a tour during Jewish Book Month), published in England and Germany, and why an independent producer has been doggedly trying to make a movie out of it.
Betty: You seem to be a man of many enormous contradictions. You are gay and write wonderful gay-themed mysteries, and yet in The German Money, you have a touching straight love story. You write about the Holocaust, yet have a German publisher and a German tour. You write literary fiction, mysteries, short stories, and non-fiction for young people experiencing rough times (Especially "Stick Up for Yourself!). You are a literary critic, and yet go ahead and put your toe in the fiction waters. Tie all this together for me.
Lev: I guess you could say I'm a Jewish author with a catholic career? :-) I don't see my career in terms of contradictions but more as a reflection of diverse interests going way back. I've always read very widely, from second and third grade on, when I loved science fiction, history, biography, natural science--and so my reading over the years has shaped what I like to write. I started with short stories way back when, moved to psychology, novels, literary criticism, reviews, a children's book and kept going from there. I never know where my career will lead, because this past year I stumbled onto an idea for a novel set in the Gilded Age-- a period I've always loved--and spent a very intensive six months researching and writing the book. It's all tied together by my curiosity, my love of learning, my enjoyment of challenges and newness.
As for the German publisher, I've now had two German book tours, been treated very well there (http://www.levraphael.com/europe_photos.html), and expect to go back since I signed a contract for a book about growing up with Germany as a presence in my home and then what it was like to actually go there. My wish for any writer is German translations and a tour. They see writers as cultural figures, and touring there is a real honor.
Betty: Tell me about Hot Rocks. It's no secret I loved it. And your protagonists... tell me about Nick Hoffman and Stephan Borowski.
Lev: Nick Hoffman heads for the steam room after a tiring workout and finds out that the man lying there isn't just resting or asleep, but dead. Since he discovered the body, and because he has a somewhat unsavory reputation because he's been involved in murders before, he's a suspect. That sends him into a justifiable panic, which he resolves by pursuing the case himself, along with his sidekick, Juno Dromgoole, who the Chicago Tribune called a "sex bomb" and I like to think of as Bette Midler with a PhD.
A big, expensive health club is the perfect setting for a mystery--all that devotion, anxiety, intensity, work, passion, fatigue. The place is electric. And there are groups and cliques within the larger community. It's a closed world with rules and customs of its own, and there's a fascinating transition--you enter in one set of clothes and then you strip and don a costume of some kind to be part of it. More than truths are bared, and more than flaws are concealed. How could you not want to set a mystery there?
As for Nick, he's a put-upon, highly literate English professor who just can't understand encountering murders on a quiet college campus when he was never even mugged growing up in New York His partner is the writer-in-residence, and both reflect different aspects of me: Stefan's more serious, Nick has a comic view of life.
Betty: Tell me about your radio show.
Lev: After an NPR show I did reviewing for folded, I was on a local radio station for two years, much of which I spent doing my own radio show where I interviewed authors. They loved it because I always did my homework, and I got to produce it too, and learned some valuable skills, along with making some goofs--but luckily the show wasn't live. I had great guests of all kinds--historians, novelists, mystery writers, literary critics, reviewers--the requirement was a well-
written, interesting book. Linda Fairstein was on it, so was Ellen Hart--and luminaries like Erica Jong, Julian Barnes and my favorite, Salman Rushdie (his publicist contacted me!). That was my highlight and I folded the show not so long after. It was a tremendous amount of work, and took away from my own writing. But for a time I was also a DJ since the station played jazz, world music, etc. and so in the break for my show I played something cool and commented on it. That was a hoot.
Betty: Who are you reviewing for these days? What do you look for in a book?
Lev: I've cut back heavily on my reviewing to get more books done. I review mainly for a public radio station in East Lansing, MI and my favorite recent book is Troublesome Young Men by Lynne Olson about the disastrous Chamberlain government in England and how it failed to prevent WW II and then when it entered the war, botched that, too. Tory rebels unseated the government and Churchill became Prime Minister. The book is exciting, dramatic, beautifully told
and intensely moving. It's filled with passion and a must read for history buffs. I look for books that have some of those qualities, I look for books that aren't "much of a muchness," for books that make me think or dream, for books I want to share with people and read aloud from, books that make me happy I've read them or even make me wish I'd written them!
Visit Lev Raphael’s website at www.levraphael.com