• Kate Raphael
  • Behind the Book: 18 Months + 1000 Pages + 37 Days = 1 Mystery
Behind the Book: 18 Months + 1000 Pages + 37 Days = 1 Mystery
Written by
Kate Raphael
October 2015
Written by
Kate Raphael
October 2015

In 2005, I returned from eighteen months in Palestine with 1000 pages of journals.  Those pages were full of my daily interactions with Israeli soldiers and police – some scary, some funny, some weird.  They also contained the stories of dozens of Palestinians, people I had met in their homes, at checkpoints, picking olives or at demonstrations.  Stories I had partially understood, or thought I had understood but might have completely garbled, as my Arabic improved from baby talk to second grade level.  (Children were always my best teachers, because they didn’t get tired of asking “What’s your name?” and “Why aren’t you married?”  I, however, did get tired of answering those questions.)  Stories from my 37 days in Israeli immigration prison, surrounded by women speaking a cacophony of Eastern European, African and Asian languages, mixed with Hebrew, which they spoke much better than I, despite my eight years of after-school Hebrew school way back when.  I think the underpaid teachers in my Richmond, Virginia synagogue school had a secret conspiracy to make us all sound really stupid if we ever tried to converse with an actual Hebrew speaker.

While in Palestine, I sent edited versions of these stories to a list of supporters and friends, family members, people who agreed passionately with my understanding of the conflict and people who fervently disagreed.  The edited-out portions usually comprised my snide reflections on my fellow activists, both Israeli and International (can you say “arrogant guys” three times fast?), Palestinian customs (my housemates and I had an ongoing battle with our neighbors over the practice of leaving plastic bottles in the olive groves and our determination to tote our own plastic bags to the grocery store), and most of all, my own sense of impotence and being out of place.

Some of the people who read these blogs encouraged me to collect them into a book.  That, of course, had been my secret ambition all along.  As a writer, I assumed that doing human rights work in a conflict zone would give me the inspiration to finally write that brilliant book I knew I had in me.  And it did.  The problem was, who would read it?  My friends already had, and all the other hundreds of activists who participated in our work had their own friends and their own brilliant blogs.  And for anyone who wants to know what it’s like to do peace-and-justice work in Palestine but doesn’t personally know anyone who has done it, there are plenty of books out there.  There are the journals of Rachel Corrie, the Evergreen College student who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect the home of a friend in Gaza from demolition.  There are books by Australians and books by Americans and books by Brits and no doubt also by Swedes and French people and even some collections of all of the above.  One such collection contains an essay by Yours Truly.  I insisted they drop the one where I whined about going to visit some Palestinian friends and not being served dinner.

I slowly faced the fact that if I wanted to turn my journals into a book, I would need to think outside the box.  I’m an avid mystery fan.  I like solving puzzles, and I’ve learned a lot about other countries and cultures from the likes of Tony Hillerman, Sujata Massey, and Qiu Xialong.  Two-thirds of what I think I know about ancient Rome comes from Stephen Saylor.  A friend who visited me in Palestine left a copy of Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist, which I finished in the police station the day I got arrested in Bi’lin, the arrest which led to my deportation five weeks later.  There’s no place like an Israeli settlement police station to learn about the PATRIOT Act and the Hollywood blacklist.

A few weeks before my arrest, I had glimpsed a scene – a seemingly abandoned car on a settler highway passing over a Palestinian olive grove – that I thought would make a good opening for a mystery.  I had actually written a few pages and sent it out to my blog list.  While in prison, I started thinking about the story.  I had my protagonist, a Palestinian policewoman, and her sidekick, a Jewish American lesbian peace activist (don’t ask me how I dreamed up a character like that).  But who would the murder victim be, and why did they die?

Plenty of Palestinians were murdered while I was in Palestine, but there was rarely any mystery involved.  At least 90% of the time, the Israeli army did it.  Case closed.  If it wasn’t the army, then it was a family feud or the person was suspected of being a collaborator.  Either way, same story – everybody knew, no mystery.  I didn’t want the victim to be an Israeli, because that’s the stereotype in the US media – Palestinians killing Israelis, when as I just said, it’s usually the other way around.  So I’m sitting in immigration prison, surrounded by all these foreign workers, many of them trafficked in one form or another, for sex work or domestic work, and my Hebrew is slowly improving so I can understand their stories, or at least enough of them to start making stuff up.  And that’s how I came up with Nadya, the Uzbek maid at the center of my novel, Murder Under the Bridge.  Nadya in turn led me to other wonderful characters, like Malkah, the teenage daughter of the family Nadya worked for, whose story is heavily informed by an Israeli friend of mine.

Of course, the longer I worked on the book, the further it got from my journals.  But any time someone says, “That part would never happen,” that’s sure to be one of the sections lifted straight from those thousand pages.

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  • Mardith Louisell

    Great interesting post. Thanks.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Enjoyed reading this post about your book's inspiration and your experiences.  Best of luck in the publication world.  I would love to read it myself.

  • Michelle Cox

    I can't wait to read this, Kate!  Your experiences sound really fascinating.  I really loved your last paragraph, though, when you said, "that part would never happen."  I often say, in reference to some strange event, "You couldn't write this because no one would believe it."!  Funny, isn't it?  Best of luck to you!