An Interview with Lev Raphael

In honor of the 30th anniversary of his book, Dancing on Tisha B’av, I had the opportunity to interview Lev Raphael. Originally published in 1978, his book still resonates with today’s audience.

Q: Can you sum up Dancing on Tisha B’Av in 20 words or less?

The stories deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in an uplifting and open-hearted way.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

It was my first solo book and collected stories I published from 1978 well into the 1980s.  The follow-up, Secret Anniversaries of the Heart takes my work into the 2000s.  Both books are fueled by a desire to build bridges between Jews and non-Jews, gays and straights.  My overall concern is tikkun olam, a concept in Jewish mysticism that means repairing the world.

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Q: What research did you do when writing this collection of stories?

Because it’s fiction, the research I did was what I always do as a writer: I read lots of different authors for inspiration, some of them short story writers, some of them novelists.  I’ve been heavily influenced over the years by Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Anita Brookner, Andrew Holleran, Phillip Roth, D.H. Lawrence and dozens more.  My college writing mentor’s best advice was “Read everything!”  I’m always eager to find someone new, or read a book by an author I know but somehow never got around to, and the collision of different voices gets me writing or thinking about writing.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

I had an amazing editor, Michael Denneny at St. Martin’s Press, and he and I went back and forth over seven months sharpening, revising, laying out the best order.  It was a great, intense experience, and sometimes exhausting.  The stories had already appeared in magazines, and some had even been anthologized, so the stories were getting whole new lives.  Some needed numerous new drafts.  Putting them side-by-side, they read differently and revisions took time to work out.

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Q: This is the 30th anniversary of the release of this book and the themes are still very relevant in today’s society. In what ways do you see readers’ understanding of these topics evolving since its original release?

Life has changed incredibly since then.  There’s marriage equality, for example, as the law of the land in the U.S. and many major countries around the world. 

I’m considered a pioneer in writing about the Second Generation, a reason why Michigan State University bought my literary papers and has a Lev Raphael Collection.  One main thread of the book is the experience of those children of Holocaust survivors, and those children now have children of their own, so questions of Jewish identity in terms of the Holocaust have taken on a new meaning for the Third Generation. 

Q: What feedback do you get from readers?

With Dancing, I got tons of fan mail from readers of all kinds who felt the book spoke to them directly or educated them.  The collection also helped launch my public career as a reader and performer of my own work, garnering me invitations to speak at colleges and universities, synagogues and churches, and Jewish Community Centers.  One fan in Vienna started a gay Jewish group because the book touched him so deeply.  Others told me they read their copies so often they needed new ones.  Those kinds of responses blew my mind. 

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Q: What inspires you to write?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since elementary school and that’s when I wrote my first stories.  I was in love with story-telling and it didn’t matter to me what the genre was.  I read science fiction at a very early age, but also historical fiction and biographies.  Current events can spur a particular book, like my suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie which is about police abusing their power over ordinary people. Ideas are everywhere.

Q: Tell me more about the title. What meaning does it have for you?

There’s a Jewish legend that when the Messiah comes, Tisha B’Av, the day in the Jewish calendar that memorializes the destruction of the Temple, will be a day of rejoicing, not mourning.  The title also refers to an act of defiance one of the characters makes.

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Q: What is on your current reading list?

Twilight of Empire about the Hapsburg crown prince who committed suicide; White Lioness because I love Wallander mysteries; 1984 which I’m reading for the third time; Dog is Love about how and why dogs relate to people emotionally; Dark Invasion which explores Germans spying on the U.S. in 1915; and Red Sphinx, a sequel to The Three Musketeers which was my favorite book as a kid.

Q: What is your next writing project?

A mainstream novel about how a professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college is ineluctably drawn  into campus political and cultural conflicts.  The chaos opens her up to her own difficult childhood and forces her to make serious choices about her future. It’s 200 pages along and will be my 28th book when it’s done.

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Q: Can you provide your web address for the audience?

My author home is http://www.levraphael.com.  I’ve also moved from teaching creative writing, editing, and mentoring writers at Michigan State University to doing it online for writers at all levels: http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Q: Any closing remarks?

I’m living my dream, have had success I never imagined, like being sent on foreign book tours, and seeing one book sell close to 300,000 copies.

For people who want to write, my advice is read, read, read.  When you find a writer you admire, read everything she’s written–not to copy her, but to understand how she achieves the effects that fascinate you. 

Writers also need to be very patient, because overnight success is pretty rare, so you have to be committed to working on your craft and focus on long-term goals. 

Lastly, build a life that isn’t entirely centered on writing, or the ebb and flow of your career can make you a little crazy.  Have friends who aren’t in the business, have a hobby or hobbies, try for balance in as many ways as you can–and definitely do something physical to get out of your head: swim, do yoga, go running with your dog.

I’ve taken voice lessons just for fun and study Swedish every day for the same reason: they have nothing to do with publishing.

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