Lev Raphael was born in New York but got over it and has lived more than half his life in Michigan. That’s where his career took off and after a long pursuit by Special Archives, he sold MSU’s Library his literary papers. Author of 27 books, he’s seen his work translated into 15 languages and taught at universities–which means he’s become homework. He has written fiction and nonfiction in a wide variety of genres; his most recent novel is Department of Death, the newest installment in his long-running Nick Hoffman series of detective novels starring a crime-solving academic.
Department of Death is the latest in your Nick Hoffman series—can you tell us a little about the plot?
After a mass shooting event and a murdered chairman at Nick’s English department, he’s unacountably been installed as chair by a dean who loathes him. That’s one part of the mystery. Why him, why now? Being chair exposes him to more than usual department-wide animosity and he’s once more drawn into a murder investigation because he’s a prime suspect. As usual, the department is simmering and about to boil over, like the lines from Evita: “Dice are rolling, the knives are out.”
The series has been running for 25 years now, but you always seem to find a new angle or situation to keep things fresh. Is this ever a challenge, or do these ideas come naturally?
I’ve been lucky not having to produce a new book every year because I’ve been publishing in other genres all along. The ideas come from the news and from stories friends tell me, though given how crazy academia has become it’s hard to keep up. Ideas themselves aren’t hard to find, it’s knowing which ones will open the right door to the right book. And most importantly, I need to heard Nick telling me the story before I can begin, since they’re written in first person.
Tell us about the State University of Michigan. To what extent does it reflect your own experiences at Michigan State University? What do you think is important when choosing a setting?
I knew universities intimately from degree work and teaching, so setting my mystery series at one seemed an obvious choice. But I escaped academia soon after getting my PhD because even though I loved teaching, I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to teach and write the books I wanted to write. Teaching is a hire-wire act, demanding, challenging, thrilling. It takes a lot of energy and I didn’t have enough to split my life in half. My setting is fictional, but it also demonstrates love for the beautiful State of Michigan where I’ve spent more than half my life.
Hoffman has traditionally been bottom of the pile in his department, but in Department of Death, he finds himself in a position of authority. What motivated this choice?
Since he started as a lowly assistant professor in the first book, desperate for tenure, I wanted his life to change over time as well as show how the mayhem he encounters affects him. One big development in the series was a former student dying and leaving his department a gigantic sum for visiting authors and stipulating that Nick run the program. That mean a status change and a big new office, his own scretary, and a large budget. After that the next step up was logical: make him chair but under dubious circumstances.
How has your background influenced your writing? To what extent does your own life influence your writing?
Well, I’m the son of Holocaust survivors and I think being a first-generation American has given me a kind of double vision as well as what Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster.” But I also inherited an uncle’s sense of humor–according to my late mother– and that’s balanced everything and why the mystery series is satirical. Our house was also full of books in many languages when I grew up and I was in love with books and story telling as early as second or third grade.
Can you take us through the process of writing a book? What do you do first?
The Nick Hoffman mysteries typically start with a murder victim and a method. Then I build a story around those facts that includes the murder scene, the suspects, and the overall structure of the narrative which invariably changes over time. Other books start with a question, a situation, maybe even just a mood–and sometimes an invitation from a publisher. My memoir mentioned below started with observations I jotted down on a train in Germany.
What was the most challenging part of writing your latest book?
Keeping it fresh, keeping it funny. I was partly inspired by the recent college admissions scandal where parents were paying huge sums to get their kids into prestige schools and I wanted to be true to that craziness but make sure that I had my own spin on it. With a mystery, there’s also the challenge of making sure you play fair with readers and lay out enough clues.
What other books and authors have inspired you?
I think the most inspiring time of my life was senior year of college when I read everything I could find by Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Lawrence Durrell, Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fiztgerald. I feel like those writers all did for me what Kafka said: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
You have an incredibly broad bibliography, from mystery novels, to literary fiction, to nonfiction. Which of your books are you most proud of?
It took me a long time to figure out the structure of my 19th book, the memoir/travelog My Germany which is based on several trips there. That book put more miles on me domestically and internationally than any of the others since I did over fifty invited readings for it. I even read in German as well as English on two book tours in Germany, thanks to working intensively one summer with a tutor, and the response was encouraging wherever I spoke.