Ninth adventure: Former MSU writing professor continues his mystery series

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Author Lev Raphael from Okemos previously taught English and creative writing at Michigan State University.
 

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Lev Raphael honestly believed 2014’s “Assault with a Deadly Lie” would be the final entry in his Nick Hoffman series of mysteries.

However, Raphael’s protagonist is back for his ninth adventure in “State University of Murder” (Perseverance Press $15.95).

“I did say that, yes, but inspiration is unpredictable. Ideas keep coming to me, thanks to the news and to friends around the country who tell me stories about what’s going on at their colleges and universities. So, no, it won't be the last,” said Raphael, who’s hard at work on Nick’s 10th adventure, due in 2021, where he’ll be “facing the biggest challenge of his career.”

A former English and creative writing professor at Michigan State University, the Okemos resident spoke about the realities of the writing life and signed copies of his novel at a Publishing Round Table at Oakland University last month.

A New York City native whose parents were Holocaust survivors, Raphael is one of the first Jewish-American authors to publish fiction about children of Holocaust survivors. He’s also one of the most prominent LGBT figures in contemporary Jewish-American literature.

Raphael earned his undergraduate degree in English from Fordham University in New York City in 1975, his MFA in English and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1978, and his doctorate in English and American studies from MSU in 1988.

“I’ve lived in Okemos more than half my life and I love it here and I love Michigan, which has felt like home ever since I drove across the Mackinac Bridge at sunset. Since then, I've enjoyed exploring both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas over the years,” said Raphael. “Michigan inspired me to set my mystery series here…”

The novels occur at the fictional State University of Michigan in the fictional Michigan city of Michiganapolis, where Nick, an English professor, lives with his significant other Stefan Borowski.

“Years ago, (a St. Martin’s Press editor) said that I should write something funny because a lot of my work was very serious. I thought the funniest environment I knew was academia,” recalled Raphael.
“Academia was two bald men arguing over a comb… I decided that would be my setting. I would take a fish out of water – someone from New York – and I made him my point of view. Nick shares some things with me, but he’s not like me in a lot of important ways. I decided to let chaos enter his life with murder and mayhem but give it a sardonic edge.”

Academia has a “Kick Me” sign on its back, noted the author.

“It’s got the vanity of professional sports, the hypocrisy of politics, and the cruelty of big business. That makes it a perfect setting for crime fiction. I also enjoy re-visiting the fictional town of Michiganapolis and spending time with my narrator, Nick Hoffman, and the bizarre people in his department,” he said.

“State University of Murder” has Nick at odds with Dr. Napoleon Padovani, the new chair of SUM’s English department, who abuses his power. Several of Nick’s colleagues confide in him about how Padovani has sexually harassed them, creating a hostile work environment.

“My characters are often composites, so Padovani, the exotic and demanding chair of the English department, is the epitome of arrogant administrators,” said Raphael. “Faculty members across the country will probably have encountered someone like him.”

According to Raphael, “State University of Murder” is somewhat autobiographical.

“It started when my officemate at MSU and one of my best students told me they were assaulted. I realized from things they said that they had to be talking about the same guy. When I raised it, they connected and were able to support each other through the harrowing legal processes that followed. As an author, I felt I needed to use my platform to respond to what had happened to them, so assault and abuse of power play a significant role in ‘State University of Murder,’” explained Raphael.

The recent sex scandal involving Dr. Larry Nassar, a former osteopathic physician and serial child molester who worked for MSU and USA Gymnastics, also played a role in the genesis of this novel.
Nassar’s cycle of abuse under the pretense of providing medical treatment to female athletes spans more than two decades, going back to the late 1990s. He currently is serving concurrent prison sentences at both the state and federal levels.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned on January 24, 2018 – the same day Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in Ingham County. In November 2018, Simon was charged with two felonies and two misdemeanor counts for lying to police about her knowledge about Nassar’s crimes. In late October 2019, it was announced Simon would stand trial.

“(My novel’s) inspired by (the Nassar) scandal and every other recent scandal of abuse in academia,” said Raphael. “They all raise the larger question of administrators who treat colleagues and students with cruelty and disdain and seem to care more about the reputation of their schools than decency. What kind of environment do they create around themselves, what's the human cost of that attitude, and how is it possible for crimes to take place and be hidden?”

Raphael (who left MSU in 2018) was teaching at MSU during the fallout from the Nassar scandal. 

“Like many Spartans, I’m horrified by how women were victimized and how the scandal was covered up,” he said. “While the two women I mentioned weren’t involved in the Nassar scandal themselves, I listened to their reports about mistreatment by campus authorities and the damage it did to their health and careers. It still haunts me that my student left before she finished her degree because she found staying on campus unbearable.”

He continued: “There was a sense of unreality that the university was under a national microscope, shock that this could have developed over so many years, disgust at what happened, and outrage. It was a very dark time. It cast a shadow over everything, I think. It came up subtly in connection to what students wrote in creative writing classes and likewise in connection with what we read in literature classes.”

Despite the controversial and sensitive nature of the subject matter in “State University of Murder,” Raphael stated writing this novel “was an especially smooth ride” for him.

“You know, I’m not one of those writers who finds writing agony. I love to write, and I even love to do revisions,” he said.

“When I started, I knew who would die and how, and worked out the finer points of the plot as I wrote along chapter by chapter. If I ever felt stuck, I just worked on something else, took the dogs for a walk, went to the gym, read, watched a movie, or did whatever freed my mind from that puzzle I needed to solve. Overall, writing a book is the perfect staycation for me.”



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