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Wednesday, December 8,2010

Packing up the past

Lev Raphael boxes up his archives for delivery to MSU’s library

by Bill Castanier

 

After Lev Raphael packed up more than 75 boxes and sent them off to the Michigan State University Library’s Michigan Writer’s Collection he had only one word to describe how he felt.

“Relief.”


No, Raphael is not a hoarder.


He’s a writer, and a writer who has saved almost everything he’s ever written, as well as all the research that goes along with that writing.


That would include notes, research, multiple drafts, lengthy correspondences between editors — and, of course, every author’s favorite memories, the rejection notices.


Raphael has had a long and varied career in writing, publishing his first story inRedbook Magazine in 1979. He is especially recognized for his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, from the perspective of the son of Holocaust survivors and he is widely sought as a speaker on the issue. Raphael received his master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and his Ph.D from Michigan State University, where he taught before leaving to write full-time in 1988.


He has written two novels about Holocaust survivors, “German Money” and “Winter Eyes,” in addition to his landmark non-fiction book “My Germany,” in which he relates his search for his parents’ stories, both pre- and post-Holocaust.


While investigating his family history, Raphael returned to Germany to trace his parents’ paths. While there he discovered secrets his parents had never revealed that helped him piece together their histories. Ultimately, it helped him better understand who he is today.


Raphael recently completed a tour of Germany sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, during which he did readings and held discussions about his new book.


While in Germany, he continued to save material for the MSU Collection. He came back with enough promotional material to fill two more boxes.


Peter Berg, director of the MSU Library Special Collections, will tell you without a doubt that the Raphael collection is a treasure for other authors, scholars and students.


His papers join a select class of other writers associated with MSU, including novelists Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, and Richard Ford, along with poets Gary Gildner, Carolyn Forche and Jim Daniels.


“What impressed me most about the collection is its comprehensiveness,” Berg said.


“It is an important collection, since Lev was living in Michigan as it was written.”


Berg said he has been following Raphael’s writing career and was interested in adding his papers to the Special Collection for some time.


Raphael said he was initially hesitant to provide his papers, due to the personal nature of some writing.


“I thought, ’I can’t give this to anyone, it’s too personal,’" he said. "But now there is a lot more distance and it doesn’t feel as personal.”


He believes that the collection will allow scholars and students to see how his work has changed over time.


Some of his books are collections of previously published material that was edited and refined for the newer collection.


“Every editor has a vision. I have every draft of every manuscript, and you can track changes over time from story to story and from book to book.”

Part of Raphael’s interest in moving his material to MSU was that the material was taking up room.

“It was in the bedroom closet, it was in the attic, it was behind the couch — it was everywhere.”


The collection includes everything from his first journal entry to the first draft of the first published piece in Redbook, as well as other pieces from his youth.


There is a fan letter (and an answer from) an English author he wrote to at age 12. There’s even a piece he composed as a budding writer in the second grade, a science fiction story about an alien landing on earth, not liking what he saw and leaving.


“I saved everything because I always knew was going to be a writer,” he said.


Raphael said the collection perfectly reflects all the challenges and rewards of being a professional writer.


“I had no control over the ups and downs, and there is as much that is joyful as there is despairing.”


It took Raphael six months to organize the material and compile a 70-page inventory. “It was mind-numbing work,” he said.


Some of the effort was bittersweet.


For example, when he went searching for information on a former friend, he found out she had died.


He also came across manuscripts of books he worked on for a year or two that as he says “didn’t come. They didn’t have the juice.”


Raphael said he is taking time off from working on a new book, but is tossing around some ideas for a memoir.


“I have been working so hard for 27 years I really like taking some time off.”


But he isn’t slacking off. Instead, he’s started an erudite blog on The Huffington Post website, which includes the popular post “Was Shakespeare Jewish?” The Raphael collection will be available for research next spring.

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