Interview: Lev Raphael

Please welcome Lev Raphael, author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
That partly depends on where I am.  If I’m at home, it includes sleeping late, not having to rush to the gym, having plenty of time to read, walk the dogs, enjoy a nice dinner and watch a movie.  If I’m traveling, it also includes sleeping late, speakhot rocksing the local language if I know it (or know enough of it), and taking in local sights in a leisurely manner.  I’ve published three books connected to Edith Wharton, and I read from the most recent of them, Rosedale in Love, in Florence last summer at an Edith Wharton conference.  My favorite day there involved going to one church after breakfast to look at the art; a two-hour lunch at the Piazza Santo Spirito; then a few hours enjoying the church of Santo Spirito; heading back to my quiet hotel to make notes about my day, catch up on email, and Skype home; and then change for a 3-hour dinner near the hotel.  The key thing to a perfect day for me, wherever I am, is not feeling pressed for time.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My favorite men’s cologne is Joop! (which has the exclamation point in its name), though I’m also partial to Rochas for Men because I first tried it in Aix-en-Provence when samples were being given out on the Cours Mirabeau where I was having dinner one night.  Paul Sebastian is a nice light cologne, and I have also sometimes used Cool Water by Davidoff.

My favorite dish to cook at home is pasta with a sauce made from simmered cherry tomatoes, Mascarpone, and Parmesan, and fresh basil.  It’s very simple, very earthy, very good.  It doesn’t take much more than half an hour.

My favorite accessory is a very thin, very soft, very big cashmere and wool scarf I bought on a book tour in Frankfurt.  It cost more than some coats I’ve owned, but my closest friend in the world who is like a sister to me had sent me euros before the book tour and said, “Buy something extravagant.”  I did.  Every time I wear it, I think of her, and my good times in Frankfurt.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
My creative writing teacher in college believed in me as if I’d been her own son, pushed me to “write something real,” and predicted that I would have a long career if I did.  My mother also believed in my talent implicitly and that made a huge difference during hard times.  I was inspired very early by the life of Henry James because his career collapsed at one point, but he kept going.  He made very little money and there’s a great story about that.  Edith Wharton was a good friend and once when she came to visit him she arrived with a magnificent new car, saying it had been purchased with royalties from her latest book.  James showed her a little luggage cart he had for guests he met at the train station in Rye and said, “I bought this cart with the royalties from my last book.  With the royalties from my next book, I hope to have it painted.”

Do you listen to music when you write?
I used to, when I was younger.  Now I listen to music when I revise, and it’s typically classical from one period or another, whether dramatic or soothing.  But writing isn’t just sitting at the PC or laptop or even a pad of paper.  A lot of it involves musing, letting things sift and sort in your unconscious, and in that sense I do listen to music all the time, except when I want to hear the bird song in my quiet neighborhood.  I often work on a book while at the gym, and there the music on my iPod could be Steve Reich or classic disco, whatever gets me motivated.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Neuhaus chocolate from Belgium because it’s my favorite chocolate, and I learned there that it’s the chocolate Belgians give each as gifts.  It’s very rich, very elegant chocolate, very subtle, and I hope my book captures some of those qualities.  But even if it doesn’t, I love thinking about Neuhaus, and am looking froward to having some next time I’m in Belgium.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Hot Rocks is set in an upscale health club not unlike the one I’ve belonged to for many years.  I’ve overheard wonderful stories there, been told others by members, and have observed all sorts of people, trainers and members, young and old, fit and fat, shy and boisterous.  It’s a perfect setting for a murder because it’s like a small town in a classic mystery, bristling with secrets.  But it has something better: the costumes and the changing in and out of them.  People go in wearing street clothes, get naked in the locker rooms, change into yoga wear or gym wear, take that off to shower, then change back into what they were wearing before.  The interplay of surface and revelation intrigued me when I tuned into it.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I grew up a child of Holocaust survivors who spoke many languages before English, so I was in some ways an outsider in New York and someone with a sense of different, clashing realities.  Outsiders show up in my work, and so do family problems, and trying to find the answers to tough questions.  Also, the difference between appearance and reality, which is why academia has inspired my mysteries.  There’s so much lofty rhetoric about education and a community of learning, while there’s a lot of backbiting and double-dealing, while fundraising and the success of a football or basketball team can be higher priorities for administrators than learning.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Nick Hoffman started his career as a composition professor, the lowest of the low, and what was worse to his colleagues was that he liked his work immensely.  They looked down on him for that as well as his having authored a secondary bibliography, but no “original” scholarship.  His book is immensely useful, but it’s not daring or recondite.  During the series his career takes a nosedive and then gets an unexpected lift.  He rolls with the punches, though, because he had a generally happy family life, he has a sense of humor that reviewers and fans have enjoyed, and he’s happy with his partner.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Wow.  That’s a tough one!  I guess he’s got some of Sam Waterston’s New York attitude when he was on Law and Order, a touch of Hugh Grant’s wit, and a lot of Vince Vaughan garrulousness.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
If the guest list is only mystery/thriller authors: Alan Furst, Ellen Hart, Linda Fairstein, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, and Loren D. Estleman.  They’re all wonderful writers, terrific and smart story-tellers and I know they’d enjoy each other’s company.  And if not, I’d enjoy cooking for them and hanging out together, so somebody would have fun.  And if someone cancelled at the last minute, my fantasy replacement would be Anthony Horowitz who wrote Foyle’s War.

What’s next for you?
I just signed a contract for my 8th Nick Hoffman mystery with my first choice: The University of Wisconsin Press which has a marvelous trade line.  I’ve published with boutique presses and giant presses and I think UWP did the best marketing and publicity of any publisher I’ve worked with.  They’ve expanded into mysteries and are doing very well with them, and I’m happy to be back on board there with a new project.

I’m also researching a historical novel set in Bruges, Belgium, where I’ll be spending a week doing site research.  Tough, huh?  Almost as difficult as the free vacation I had at a Club Med when I was part of a mystery writers and reviewers conference.


Lev Raphael is the author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the crazy world of academia, as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup. His books have been translated into nearly a dozen languages, some of which he can’t recognize. But he has been able to do readings in German when he’s done book tours in Germany, thanks to a good tutor. Lev has been writing since he was in second grade and currently is a guest teacher of fiction writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American Literature at Michigan State University. That university’s Library purchased his current and future literary papers for its Special Archives, carting off 93 boxes of all sorts of materials related to his long career. His attic is now navigable again.

For more about Lev’s books, check out his web site:

Follow him on Twitter at

Read his book blogs at

9 thoughts on “Interview: Lev Raphael”

  1. I couldn’t click over here fast enough when I saw we were featuring Lev Raphael today! I’ve “known” him on FB and loved everything he’s posted and all his keen insight into the writing life so I was thrilled to get a chance to know him even better. And I have to say, I like him even more now. This is probably my favorite interview we’ve done on Mysteristas. It really gave me a feel for what you are like, Lev, with your thoughtful answers. If your book tour ever takes you to Minneapolis please be sure to let me know! Can’t wait to read your latest and congrats on the 8th Nick Hoffman mystery.


  2. Lev, thanks for stopping. That cover image was a great way to start my day! And that sauce sounds amazing. We are starting to drown in cherry tomatoes, so any easy recipe involving tomatoes is going to be a hit.

    What did UWP do that you found so effective?


  3. I have no idea where to start first! I agree with Mary that the recipe sounds delicious and it’s a perfect time for our cherry tomato harvest. I made a spinach tortellini the other night that was a huge hit with my family. We love pasta, as evidenced by our sit-downers.
    Personally I have trouble listening to music when I write, but I do like acoustical guitar when I’m revising. Above all, I love the sound of birds and the wind in the trees. Best sound ever!
    I didn’t know UWP had opened to mysteries. How wonderful! I’ve already self-pubbed my first series, but I think being a “hybrid” author would be a smart route to take. UWP will be at the top of my hope list.
    Thanks for the interview, Lev!


  4. Hi Lev, I’m going to try that chocolate for sure! I’m in love with your main character since I teach English and have known hundreds of multi-talented adjuncts toiling away in obscurity. You didn’t even blink at our “girly” question about signature this-and-that’s. Congratulations. 🙂


  5. What a fabulous interview! Great story about Edith’s and Henry’s royalties. I had no idea there was such a discrepancy in their payments. Would have guessed it was the other way around, given how scholars tend to put Henry on a slightly higher pedestal (not that I agree with that). You’ve probably answered this a thousand times, but what prompted your initial interest in Edith Wharton studies?

    Also: now I want a scarf like yours. How kind of your friend to fund a special item like that!

    Your description of Nick as a mashup fits perfectly with how I’ve always imagined him…love the series and have been a fan since discovering the first one. Have found your take on academia to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining. Could absolutely see the books adapted into film!


  6. Great interview!

    What a fabulous treat to have a friend encourage you to splurge on something extravagant. The fact that it reminds you of her and of that book tour ever time you wear it is perfect.

    What do you plan to do with your attic now?


  7. Thanks to everyone above who enjoyed the interview. I haven’t had this much fun answering questions in a long time!

    Diane, the attic somehow fills with boxes all on its own, even without my papers in them–very strange. Cynthia, the scarf was a real style upgrade. The store, Frida, was ultra-chic and I said no to the first scarves the clerk showed me, then as soon as she held up “the one,” I said, “Ich nehme dass!” (I’ll take it!). Wharton btw always made more money than James once her writing took off. Theresa, I was happy to answer questions I hadn’t been asked before. Donna, the recipe is on the NYT web site, just look for cherry tomatoes + pasta. Mary, UWP was 100% responsive to my cover idea and relentless in publicity. Kristi, I love Minneapolis, haven’t spoken there in a while. I hope I come back soon.


  8. I think I have to start posting half-naked guy pictures on my FB page more often. After I posted Lev’s book cover, I had quite a few grateful comments from female readers. Hope that translated to sales, Lev! 🙂


Leave a Reply to Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.