After being interviewed twice by Kate Raphael on KPFA Women’s Magazine program, I turned the tables and invited her to share her writing journey on my blog. Her second interview with me will be aired on 1/8/18.
Kate Raphael is a long-time feminist and queer activist, mystery novelist, and office worker. She is a founding member of Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT!) and San Francisco Women In Black and a member of the editorial collective of the quarterly queer newspaper, UltraViolet. She is a former board member of San Francisco Women Against Rape and was a 2004 LGBT Pride Parade Community Grand Marshal. Kate’s interviews with Syrian and Honduran feminists have been broadcast nationally. Click here to read her blog.
What started you off as a writer?
I was a nerdy, lonely kid and so I read constantly. Being transported to another place or time, being able to experience life as someone else through an engrossing story, was such a magical experience for me, that of course I wanted to be able to do that all the time. And pretty early on, I’m not sure how, I was exposed to the romantic image of the poet or writer. Being a writer meant you were deep, and made social quirks and awkwardness okay – instead of just not marking you as a misfit, they set you apart and made you special. You could also be an artist, but I have zero artistic ability, so I had to be a writer. But I also always loved words. I love what they can do, take a random collection of things and give them meaning, and if used well, create a powerful emotional response.
How do you fit it into your extremely busy life working 40+ hours a week for a law firm, hosting a popular radio show (Women’s Magazine) on KPFA, pursuing social justice as an activist, and marketing your books?
It’s extremely difficult. I’m over scheduled and irritable a lot. Sometimes I can weave things together, like doing marketing/social media tasks, writing leaflets or preparing for radio interviews during slow times at work, using my show to surreptitiously promote my books, and of course, my books and my radio work are part of my activism. Also, of course, sometimes I prioritize one thing over another for a period; during the first few months after a book’s release, I can’t do as much activism as I can at other times, or do as many radio interviews. But that’s good, because then I realize I miss those things and come back to them with new energy after a break.
Why did you choose the murder mystery genre?
First, I love reading mysteries. I love the pacing and the puzzle solving. So I decided to write what I would want to read. But also, the mystery genre is very well suited to exploring and exposing social issues, situations that are fraught with injustice and complex power dynamics, such as those in Palestine. I love writers like Tony Hillerman, who wrote about the Navajo reservation in the southwest, and Walter Mosely, who writes mostly about Black people in Los Angeles. They use mystery to teach about freedom struggles in a really nuanced way, and I felt like I could try to do that for Palestine. Plus, it had not really been done in the way that I am doing it. There is no other feminist mystery series that I know of, set in Palestine, with a Palestinian woman as protagonist. And there is an audience. Global mysteries are a thing, there are book clubs that read them, there is a sub-genre of mysteries with lesbian content, which mine also have, so I hoped I could use the genre to get information to people who would not otherwise pick up a book about Palestine. And to some extent that is happening, although maybe not as quickly or widely as I had hoped.
Have you written in other genres? Poetry? Short stories? Articles?
I am probably the world’s worst poet. Which is too bad, because I really look great in a beret. I don’t write short stories much, although when I first started writing fiction, I did, and I think they were not bad. And I wish I could because novels are such a huge commitment. But I don’t love short stories as a reader, I find them not that satisfying, somehow, like I just get to know the characters and then I have to say goodbye to them. I don’t think you can write well in a genre you don’t read.
I do like to write nonfiction. It’s probably my favorite thing to write and to read. I have been a print journalist, so I can write in the objective news style (not that anyone is actually objective) but what I really like to write are personal essays. I write them as blog posts from time to time, but I haven’t figured out how to find readers. The things I am interested in are very eclectic and idiosyncratic in some ways, so I don’t exactly have a niche. Probably the most popular thing I ever wrote was this piece about Finns in the U.S., that was motivated by a line in a book I read. Everyone who read it knew some Finnish person they sent it to.
When did you start publishing?
I published my first novel in November 2015. Before that I had just published a few essays in anthologies and magazines.
What connection do you personally have to Israel and Palestine?
I grew up in a very Zionist Jewish family. Support for the state of Israel was absolutely unquestioned. But, it was also a family that was committed to social justice. So there was a contradiction there, and eventually, I was forced to reckon with those contradictions. In college, I was active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and Israel was South Africa’s primary supplier of arms at that point. So that was one thing that pushed me to question what I had learned about Israel, and then in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and oversaw a massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon – somewhere between 800 and 3500 civilians were killed. From then on, I knew that whatever might have been the motivation for settling in the region, the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East is a disaster. The more I have learned about how the state was established, the more convinced of that I have become.
In September 2000, Palestinians in the West Bank began a series of demonstrations against Israeli rule. Within one week, the Israelis fired one million bullets at primarily nonviolent protesters, injuring thousands. This became a sustained uprising known as the Second Intifada. In 2002, I went to Palestine as part of an international mobilization to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance, and I ended up spending eighteen months there, over a period of three years. During that time, I was arrested several times, and spent about six weeks in Israeli jail, before being deported in early 2005. Shortly before I left, I glimpsed a scene that gave me the idea for Murder Under the Bridge.
How did the main characters in your two published works, Chloe and Rania, come about?
Rania just popped into my head. I sat down to start writing a mystery and I thought, well, if there’s a murder, who would investigate it? And I started writing a Palestinian policewoman. She took shape quickly – I knew she was very small, wore glasses, covered her head but was not very religious, had a son, had been an activist from a young age, and tends to chafe against authority. She borrows attributes from a number of women I know but is definitely not based on anyone.
Chloe – well, I had to have an international protagonist also, in order to use the stories I had accumulated during my time there. But somehow, in trying not to make her too noble, I seem to have imbued her with all my worst qualities. So I think of her as kind of the comic relief, she means so well but is a bit of a bull in a china shop. Yet she has a big heart, and I think that comes through.
Who is your favorite character from your book(s)?
Absolutely my favorite recurring character is the Israeli policeman, Benny Lazar. He’s based on a real person who is one of the more annoying people I’ve met in my life, but he’s also a bundle of contradictions. He’s the law in a huge illegal settlement in the West Bank, but he considers himself a leftist, he is sympathetic to the claims of the Palestinians, and he’ll help them as long as it doesn’t jeopardize his career. I think Benny really epitomizes the complex juggling act of life in Palestine and Israel. Plus he is a larger than life personality and has quirks that lend themselves to broad comedy.
Do you neglect personal hygiene or housekeeping to write? Or vice versa?
I neglect housekeeping (not so sure about the personal hygiene) most of the time. When I’m supposed to be writing is the only time my house is clean.
Do you see yourself continuing to write mysteries or do you want to branch out at some point?
Before I went to Palestine, I was working on a novel about political interns. This was just after Chandra Levy had disappeared, she had been working for a congressman, Gary Condit, and also had an affair with him. That was shortly after the whole investigation involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and I was thinking about what it meant that Jewish women were at the center of our two big political scandals, which was an aspect of them that no one seemed to be talking about. I actually took the manuscript with me, thinking I might have time to work on it while I was there. Ha ha.
I would still like to get back to that project. The ideas it was exploring still seem important to me and I haven’t read anything else that grapples with them in a satisfying way. But I don’t know how quickly that might happen. I have three more books in mind in the Palestine mystery series, and I also have another crime series in mind. So the literary fiction might have to wait for a benefactor to discover me so I can stop working so much.