Interview with Lev Raphael

Today, we welcome Lev Raphael, whose academic mysteries include the following:

  • Let’s Get Criminal
  • The Edith Wharton Murders
  • The Death of a Constant Lover
  • Little Miss Evil
  • Burning Down the House
  • Tropic of Murder
  • Hot Rocks

What inspired you to become a writer and when did you begin writing?
I fell in love with storytelling in first and second grade. My mother read to me, but I learned to read early and was wild about the Oz books, The Three Musketeers, science fiction, and biographies of famous people like Mozart. Michigan State University recently bought my literary papers and among the dozens of boxes in my attic, I found one that had short stories I wrote in second grade—so I started young. My ambition was to write a book to join the authors I loved on their shelves, to be part of the library.

Can you describe your writing process?
It differs depending on the project, but it never involves suffering or anxiety or writer’s block. I love every aspect of writing from note taking to revisions, and I revise constantly, almost always going over what I wrote the day before when I start the next day or afternoon or even next hour. Ideas come to me in all shapes and sizes and I make note of them, whether it’s a plot, a character name, or a setting. Those are seeds, and sometimes they grow. Once I have a book in progress, I work every day unless I’m tired or on a book tour, but I don’t keep set hours during that work day. I work on the computer, but often print off drafts for hand-written revisions and then transfer those.

Which part of the process is the most challenging and how do you overcome it?
Because I love writing so much, in my career of over thirty years, the surprises of publishing itself have been the hardest thing to deal with. The more I know about the business, the less I think I understand. It feels very Alice in Wonderland to me, even now. How I deal with the business side of publishing is to keep writing and to have a full life that doesn’t revolve solely around my career. I like to cook, read for pleasure (as opposed to reviewing), work out, watch movies, listen to music–all of that acts as balance.

Do you write in multiple genres and, if so, how does the writing process differ?
In addition to the mysteries, I’ve published books of essays, memoirs, literary fiction, two short story collections, a children’s book, historical fiction, psychology, biography, and even a Jane Austen mashup. I love them all, but mystery in some ways is the most demanding because you start backwards, or at least I do. Who was killed, how, why–and the book fleshes out the discovery of all that. Mystery writing demands more of a foundation, and in some ways more discipline than other genres. But that makes it delightful at the same time. I love a challenge!

How do you organize plot structure (outline, note cards, intuition, etc.)?
I go through tons of Post-its, and sometimes my PC and desk are decorated with them, but then I also write in the backs of books I’m reading. Sometimes I do a somewhat formal outline, but usually I just lay out the beginning and end and some crucial turning points and leave the rest to my unconscious, to conversations with my spouse, and serendipity. I’ve been writing long enough to trust that the work will get done, that I’ll enjoy it, and that I won’t run dry. I have friends who work as sounding boards and editors, and they’re crucial in my process.

What inspired you to write in the academic mystery genre?
I escaped academe to write and review full-time, but while I was there for over a decade, I gathered a lot of material from teaching at several different universities. And as an author, I’ve spoken at many universities–even about my mysteries–and have heard lots of stories. The academic world is one where innate silliness collides with ruthless ambition–a great playing field for murder. I started the Nick Hoffman series because I felt my other books were so serious and I wanted to work in a somewhat lighter register. Over the years I’ve turned to them as a vacation from other books, and that’s great: no need to put my liquids in a one-ounce bag or take my shoes off.

How did your protagonist and/or other important characters take shape (appear fully formed or reveal her/himself gradually)?
I grafted bits of myself and some friends onto a downtrodden composition teacher who loves to teach–that makes him something of an outsider which is a good stance for an amateur sleuth. He’s also a dogged researcher, having published a secondary bibliography of Edith Wharton. Nick is like all my characters who can come to me anywhere, even while I’m traveling. It could be an attitude, a face, clothing, a name. Everyone is a conglomerate of different people I know or have met, or aspects of those people. I’ve never plunked someone into a book without changes, so none of my mysteries are romans à clef.

Would you please tell us about your latest book?
In Hot Rocks, my hero and his professor sidekick solve a murder, or try to, at an exclusive health club informally connected to the university they both teach at and they uncover a world of sexual secrets. Like the other mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, it’s a social satire blended with a mystery. Nick and Juno make an unusual team because she’s a foul-mouthed, rule-defying Canadian who is more powerful in their department than you’d expect.

What are you working on right now?
I’m very excited to be working in a brand new genre for me: I’m writing a historical vampire novella. I’m also working on a new mystery in the series, and another memoir. And I’ve sketched out a few more books in a general fashion beyond that in different genres. That’s why I wish I could be cloned and have another me writing at the same time I was.

What advice do you have for writers who have not yet been published?
Learn your craft, be patient, and have friends who aren’t artists of any kind so that you’re not constantly immersed in the world of writing. Live. Travel. Enjoy life. Most importantly, remember that you always have control over how good your work is, but you don’t have control over its reception in the world, and its karma. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but an important one.


Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American Jewish Literature who has been publishing fiction and nonfiction since 1978. He’s the author of twenty-two books that have been translated into nearly a dozen languages; he’s also published hundreds of reviews, essays and short stories. Widely anthologized in the U.S. and England, he’s done hundreds of talks and readings from his work on three continents. Last fall, the American Embassy in Berlin sponsored a two-week book tour for him in Germany to speak about his memoir My Germany. Lev’s writing is taught at colleges and universities and has been analyzed in academic papers, articles and books. Lev currently blogs on books for The Huffington Post and writes a review column for the on-line literary magazine You can find Lev on the web at and follow him on Twitter @LevRaphael.

6 thoughts on “Interview with Lev Raphael

  1. Thanks so much for the interview. This is wonderfully interesting! You write in so many different forms–it’s very inspiring. When you first started writing, did you know that you’d end up in different genres?

  2. Thanks for asking! I started out convinced I’d only write short stories. Then a novel beckoned. Then reviews. Then a book in psychology, and ten genres later, here I am. At this point, I can’t say “I’ll never write —- “

  3. It’s impressive. Especially intrigued by the vampire novella–sounds like quite a departure!

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