by Doward Wilson
This week we have a review of State University of Murder by Lev Raphael along with an interesting interview with Lev. This is one of several books we will be featuring this month written by LGBTQ+ authors in honor of Pride Month. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and there is also a link to purchase the book from Amazon and from an indie bookstore.
State University of Murder: A Nick Hoffman Mystery by Lev Raphael
Review by Doward Wilson
English professor, Nick Hoffman is still unsettled following events of the past spring, and now he has to contend with a new department chair, Dr. Napoleon Padovani. The chair is a prima donna who has managed to upset and alienate every professor and adjunct in the department and all of them are dumping it Nick.
When Nick is summoned to a meeting with Napoleon, he discovers why he has become such a figure of dislike. Everyone has been threatened with drastic changes in course assignments and work loads, what will be the outcome? Nick and his husband Stefan, also an English professor, attend a mandated day-long retreat for team building for the staff. As the day proceeds, Napoleon manages to rile everyone even worse than they had been. When Nick goes to the restroom at the retreat, he discovers the dead body of their new department chair, stabbed to death with his own stiletto. With all the professors and adjuncts present, it was going to be difficult to find out who did the deed. All of them wanted Napoleon gone, but who wanted him gone permanently? Can Nick and Stefan find the real culprit before he or she gets away with murder?
This was a exciting and entertaining read from the first page. The characters are well drawn and very realistic. The academic background is portrayed in a manner that will keep you laughing while shaking your head at the characters behavior. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it as a great mystery and cozy read.
Interview with Lev Raphael:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Lev: It seems like forever—in a good way! Back in second grade, I fell in love with narrative and being read to, and that’s when I wrote my first fiction and decided to be a writer. All through elementary school I would re-read books I loved a dozen times, and I think I was unconsciously giving myself lessons in how to create character, build suspense, write description. I was into science fiction, history, and biography even then.
Creative writing courses in high school and college were some of my favorite classes, and they led to an MFA. That’s when I published my first short story after winning a prize–in grad school. The story launched my career when it was accepted by Redbook, which had 4.5 million readers at the time. Ironically, my writing workshop and the professor had demolished the story just a few weeks before.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Lev: Winter Eyes was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1992, and it’s the story of the son of Holocaust survivors who’ve hidden their past from him because they’re so traumatized by having lost everything: home, family, country. Their son grows up thinking he’s a gentile and doesn’t know anything about his family’s real past. Of course, when there’s a family secret covered up by lies and silence, it eventually comes to light, and it turns out that the boy has secrets of his own….
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Lev: Junior high school is when I discovered Agatha Christie and fell in love with her and with the genre. But for a very long time I saw myself as just a short story writer—then I just kept branching out to different genres after my first collection was published. Let’s Get Criminal, being re-issued at the end of May as an e-book, was my first mystery and my fourth book. Why? Because I admired the genre so much and because I knew how difficult it was to construct one—I wanted to write crime fiction but felt I needed more publishing experience before I could start.
I’ve just published my ninth mystery, State University of Murder, and I’m working on the 10th. They’ve come out intermittently, not one a year, partly because I’ve had four different publishers for the series, and partly because that’s too much pressure for me, but mostly because there’ve been other books I wanted to write. That includes historical fiction, psychology and self-esteem, biography, horror, travel writing, memoirs, books about writing and publishing. The series is kind of vacation for me from everything else: going back to a place I know and love.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Lev: I loved the genre and an editor encouraged me to write something in a lighter vein than my fiction about children of Holocaust survivors—that was the final push I needed. Academia seemed like the perfect background since I knew it so well. There’s a comic side to that world as well as a dark side, and I’ve been mining the craziness of the academic world for a long time now, working with two characters who first appeared in a short story of mine. The series surprised me because it’s what got me reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. The newest one, State University of Murder, was partly inspired by two women I knew personally who felt their harassment/abuse cases were badly handled by their university. Their stories needed a kind of tribute.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Lev: Both. I hope that all of my books are entertaining and transport readers some place new without their having to take off their shoes and put their liquids in a 1-quart plastic bag for TSA.
Each book carries certain themes that may have contemporary relevance. And crime fiction is a superb vehicle for social criticism, as many people have pointed out. Look at how Barbara Neely’s Blanche series confronts racism and classism. So State University of Murder takes aim at the kinds of corrupt, arrogant, power-hungry university administrators across the country that people tell me about, and that I’ve encountered myself.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Lev: If I’m into a book, I write every day. But even if I’m not actively working on a book or trying to meet a deadline, I also read every day and that stimulates my writing. That means I’m writing even if I’m not at the PC. I “write” at the gym, in the hot tub or shower, walking my dogs, in my sleep, everywhere.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Lev: I’m always making notes on Post-Its or in the back of whatever book I’m reading, and also adding new folders to the current computer file for whatever project I’m doing. I used to outline the mysteries, but things changed so much as I wrote, and I started relaxing into the process more. Now I just keep driving at night and I can see as far as my headlights reach. I have a general idea of where things are going and I trust my creative GPS. When I need to stop and take stock of what’s next, I re-read what I’ve written or just sketch out ideas, maybe a scene, or write some dialogue. I love revisions, so there’s always time to go back and fix any issues with chronology or repetition.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Lev: I write full-time and have a book-filled study with a beautiful view of a very quiet suburban street with lots of old trees, so any time of day is fine—as long as my dogs are quiet. I do enjoy writing at night when the busyness of the day has faded, but I’m happy to write whenever I’m inspired—or on deadline. Sometimes a book will be so vivid in my head that I’ll be writing at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. because it won’t let me sleep, and there’s something beautiful about that nighttime hush.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Lev: Yes, very difficult! Five long years passed between publishing my first and second short story. The rejections were constant and so depressing that I thought of giving up and was seriously considering other careers. The logjam finally broke and I began publishing stories on a regular basis (though the rejections still kept coming). When I escaped academia to write full-time, it took two years to find a publisher for my first book of stories. That was no fun at all.
KRL: Do you feel you faced any extra challenges by being an LGBTQ author?
Lev: Well, I’ve been lucky to have multiple audiences and get invited to speak on three different continents because of who I am. I’ve done hundreds of invited talks and readings at all kinds of venues, including the Library of Congress. I’ve been sent on sponsored book tours in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Germany, as well as having a university purchase my literary papers. That doesn’t happen to every writer.
The flip side is that review coverage is sometimes sparse and in the beginning, there were places I wouldn’t get invited to do readings. Times have changed dramatically, though, and we live in a very different publishing environment than when my first books came out in the ’90s.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Lev: Yes! My favorite rejection was an editor’s response to a collection of short stories: “I don’t much like your metaphors and such.”
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Lev: Someone once came up to me after a reading in Manhattan to complain that my first book of short stories had stories that were short. “I thought maybe they left something out at the factory,” he explained. Tough crowds those New Yorkers….
KRL: LOL. Future writing goals?
Lev: I’m working on a stand-alone suspense novel told in a woman’s voice and it’s challenging. I’ve done that POV in short stories, but a novel is much more complex. Then there’s the next mystery in the series, which I’m working on simultaneously. I’ve also been researching a book set in medieval northern Europe through heavy reading and some travel there. Beyond that, I have an idea for a World War II novel I hope to develop someday. I’ve published 26 books and I’ve never had trouble finding an idea—finding the time is the hard thing.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Lev: My mother survived the Holocaust, and wrote a play for students she was teaching in Belgium after the war. It was a great act of love and creativity. She adored teaching (and so do I). When I met her favorite student in Brussels, she said my mother would get so excited in the classroom that she’d hug herself. That image is precious to me.
KRL: What a special story. What kind of research do you do?
Lev: I do tons for anything that I don’t know, or something I’m not sure about. I do research online, often for small things like checking Google Images for details of an architectural style or the shape of a specific type of tree. Then I interview people preferably in person, though on the phone or via email works, too. The in-person interviews are one of the best parts of being a writer, because I chat with experts and professionals I probably wouldn’t meet socially, getting info for my books but also expanding my horizons in fascinating ways.
KRL: What do you read?
Lev: I’m always on the lookout for anything that has a strong narrative line and is well written. I read mysteries and thrillers, history, biography, mainstream fiction, current events. I’m especially fond of historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell’s Viking novels or the Regency series by C.S. Harris. Other favorite writers at the moment are Rachel Caine, Megan Abbott, and Lori Rader-Day. Right now, I’m finishing a Wallander mystery, I’m into a book about poison forensics in the 1920s, and a book about governments-in-exile based in London during World War II.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Lev: I love to laugh and I’ve seen Moonstruck many times, ditto the crazy French farce The Dinner Game. I enjoyed the first seasons of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. But I also love thrillers and I’ve watched The Bourne Trilogy more times than I can count, not just because it’s brilliantly done. Some of it is set in Berlin, which I’ve visited a few times, so many of the locations are familiar to me, and I’ve even stayed at a hotel where some of the action is set. I binge watch whatever grabs me and well-written shows teach me a lot, since writers are always learning. My most recent binge was the comic drama Dead to Me with Christina Applegate, which had superb dialogue and great twists. Ditto Russian Doll.
KRL: What’s your advice for young writers?
Lev: This is a tough profession, tougher since self-publishing has skyrocketed–there’s just so much competition. Writing itself takes talent and hard work, but luck plays a role in every writer’s career whether we want to admit it or not.
I also think it’s important to understand you’re in a business first of all, that writing isn’t just an art. But to deepen your art, I’d recommend that a young writer needs to read, read, read, especially outside your favorite genre. Travel as widely as you can, too.
Exercise is also important, because writing is so sedentary, and so is having some kind of interest or hobby that’s unrelated to writing. Lastly, have a life outside of writing and cultivate friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not always talking shop, and because variety will make you a better writer.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Lev: In addition to speaking fairly good French and German when I’m in Europe and immersed in the linguistic environment, I can also make myself understood in Dutch. My Swedish is rusty but I’ve been told my accent is good. I think growing up with parents who were multi-lingual helped to tune my ear, and I love language study. That and voice lessons are my hobbies. Right now, I get a daily Dutch vocabulary lesson in my Inbox because I’m planning a return trip to Flanders, which I’ve fallen in love with. I can’t wait! (Ik kan niet wachten).
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of State University of Murder, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “university,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 15, 2019. U.S. residents only. If entering via comment please include your email address, and if entering via email please include your mailing address so we can ship the book right out to you if you win (we won’t use your address for anything else). You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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