Interview with Jacob M. Appel

The Good Doctor: Exploring Bioethics, Identity, and Their Intersection With Fiction. An Interview with Jacob M. Appel

by Brigit Kelly Young

JacobMAppel_2Jacob M. Appel’s resume is staggering. He has published short stories in over two hundred literary journals, won numerous awards including the William Faulkner-Wisdom competition (in both fiction and non-fiction) and the Tobias Wolff Award, and in only a handful of years he has published three novels, two short story collections and a collection of essays. This February, Black Lawrence Press will release his story collection Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, and later in 2015 the collection The Magic Laundry will be published by Snake Nation. Appel is also a produced playwright, and he publishes regularly in the field of bioethics. His points of focus in this latter sphere include libertarian, often controversial, arguments on reproductive rights and assisted suicide, as well as lightning rod taboos such as the legalization of consensual polygamy, prostitution and incest. His essays on these topics and others related to law, medicine and culture have appeared in esteemed venues such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Journal of Medical Ethics, among others. If all this were not enough, Appel holds multiple graduate degrees including a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an M. Phil. from Columbia University, an M.F.A. from New York University and an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Appel’s wide field of knowledge pervades his fiction, both in his subject matter and his capacity for empathy. Gifted with the ability to embody an enormous array of characters and themes, he can fluidly shift from the perspective of a newly pubescent girl spying on a just-released sex offender in his story “Hue and Cry” from his short fiction collection Einstein’s Beach House (Pressgang, 2014) to the middle-aged protagonist of his novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up (Cargo Publishing, 2012), about a botanist turned America’s most hated man. Appel also plays with form. His most recent novel, The Biology of Luck (Elephant Rock Books, 2013), features the long, agonizing day of New York City tour guide Larry Bloom as he anticipates his meeting with the object of his infatuation, Starshine Hart, to present her with a novel he has written about her. Interspersed are chapters of said novel written by Bloom about that same day in Starshine’s life. Yet despite the variety of his subject material, several underlying themes continue to appear in his work: the value of freedom of expression and thought, the relationship between notions of chaos and fate, and deviation from societal norms.

Brigit Kelly Young: You’re incredibly, almost outlandishly prolific. Are you on drugs? Should we be worried? Could you share?

Jacob M. Appel: Yes, I’m on drugs. But there’s no need to worry; I never take more than my dealer recommends. As much as I’d like to share my drugs with you, word would get out onto the street and I’m afraid that I’d wake up to a long line of teenage delinquents and aspiring junkies waiting on my doorstep. I trust you understand. Nothing personal.

BKY: Oh, certainly. Understood. I would be remiss if I did not bring up the multiple roles you inhabit in your life and how that affects your writing. At a reading you did for your novel The Biology of Luck, I overheard a fellow physician of yours saying he had no idea what an accomplished writer you are. Alternately, readers of your work may be surprised to know you are a physician. What priority do you place on the artistic process while maintaining a doctor’s life? Further, how do these disciplines inform one another?de28a90c1e71c83d-coverthebiologyofluck1

JA: Being a doctor, in one crucial respect, is a very easy job. You show up at the hospital. Sick people show up at the hospital. There’s no need to convince agents or editors or reviewers or critics that you’re worthy of them, no need to create new worlds or imagine what has never been imagined before. In fact, nobody wants a particularly imaginative solution to their broken ankle or their strep throat. So you don’t have to drum up business or seek an audience; all you have to do is display a minimum of compassion and scientific knowledge and you’ve earned your keep. That’s the other easy part of being a physician. You provide care and the hospital sends you a check. A check that doesn’t even bounce. Rather amazing. So if you’re thinking of becoming a writer—a job which does involve convincing inherently suspicious and jaded agents and editors and reviewers and critic that you’re worthy—my best advice, at the outset, is to go to medical school.

BKY: I’ll consider it. As a psychiatrist you are unable to write directly about any of your patients, many of whom I’m sure have fascinating stories. You have been quoted in regard to this issue as saying that when you write you are “forced to detach” from anything you’ve heard during the day and to create entirely fictional works. When you are constrained by law and etiquette to even discreetly write about an experience at work that strikes you, how do you go about finding the essence of what affects you about that person or encounter and channeling it creatively?

JA: I really don’t write about work—not even very loosely. Nobody believes me, but I still don’t. Why would I? When I spend 60 hours a week taking care of patients with severe mental illness, the last thing on earth I want to think about at home are people with severe mental illness. But I do take a lesson from work with me to my fiction. That lesson is that we’re all only a few inches from the edge, and all it takes is one good shove to push us over. People forget that at their peril. I like to remind my characters of that—and sometimes I grab hold of them just as they’re going over the precipice, other times I leave them to their fate. I wish I could do the same with some of my coworkers.

BKY: If your characters do not come from your work experience, what drives you to choose these characters in particular?

JA: I imagine they’re all variations on people I knew as a young child, but re-imagined in such a way that I don’t recognize them myself. Does that sound too psychiatric? I believe it was Flannery O’Connor who said we all have enough experience by adolescence to keep us writing for life, but in my case, by age seven or eight, I had my fill of life experience. Now I just spend my time translating those experiences, disguised, onto the printed page. I’d be lying if I didn’t also confess that many of my female characters are modeled on a girl I fantasized about in middle school. Fortunately, for both me and her, that girl never actually existed.

BKY: Your immense body of work spans many genres and forms. You are a playwright, a novelist, a personal essayist, and write extensively on bioethics. For all I know the next thing you’ll come out with is a hip-hop track. When an idea strikes you for a piece does it come wrapped in the vision of a particular form, or do you first contemplate which form would best serve the idea? How conscious is the process of placing the idea with the form?

JA: I have a lengthy list of ideas for creative work tucked away in my gray matter, so I usually start by deciding what genre or form I’m in the mind frame to create and then I choose a story line accordingly. But I do have my limits, so don’t pre-order my hip-hop track just yet. I do see myself with a second career writing liner notes, or possibly appliance instructions.

BKY: Is there anything in particular that contributes to that list of creative ideas you choose to explore?

JA: I enjoy writing about intelligent, emotional people.  I fear there’s far too much interest in people who are intellectually and emotionally stunted – the inarticulate world of Ray Carver.  I’m not sure why this interests people.  If I’m going to write about a truck driver, it will be a truck driver who reads Proust and dreams of breeding a truck-dragon hybrid.

BKY: What is your ‘truest self’ as a writer? Is there a form in which your voice finds its most authentic outlet?

JA: My “truest self” is when I’m not a writer. I suspect there’s even a “truer” hypothetical version of myself that would involve being Karen Russell’s husband, or possibly Sophia Loren’s rent boy, but I haven’t yet self-actualized.

Writing is a sophisticated euphemism for lying, both lying to oneself and lying to others. I suppose that means that every literary author, or at least every author of fiction, can boast a dash of the sociopath.

BKY: A bioethicist, however, often searches for truth. In your work as a bioethicist do you ever sit down to write an argumentative essay and decide that your point would come across better in a fictional setting? In what way do your political and ethical concerns come through in your fiction?

JA: The major difference between writing in bioethics and writing fiction is that bioethicists attempt to offer solutions, while all a fiction writer has to do is draw attention to existing problems. In fact, nobody wants to read a novel that offers a systematic solution to the problems of the world. Let’s face it: Morris’s News from Nowhere and Bellamy’s Looking Backward aren’t exactly jumping off the shelves at airports. I have considered writing a novel about a bioethicist who writes argumentative essays that solve all of the world’s problems, but that might be cheating.

BKY: In your work in bioethics, in which, as you say, you attempt to offer solutions, what initially drew you to the issues that you’ve focused the most on, such as reproductive rights and assisted suicide?

JA: I suppose I have a very functional approach to the nature of human life and also a deep aversion to human suffering. The idea that life itself is an inherent value has never made much sense to me. Reproductive decision-making not only furthers human autonomy, but it also gives us a distinctive opportunity to prevent future suffering. Assisted suicide, similarly, is not only beneficial to those who choose it, but to many others, like myself, who know they could choose it if they ever needed to do so.

The_Man_Who_Wouldn't_Stand_Up_(book)BKY: I’m curious if you have a philosophy on how fiction can best “draw attention to existing problems.” In an interview with Emily Schultze in The Fiction Writers Review, you said that writers attempting to address the bigger issues in the world at large perhaps give too much focus to large-scale tragedy and horror whereas “the more systematic, pervasive horrors of the world go unnoticed because they occur every day.” The unmasking of these previously unnoticed pervasive horrors is a huge theme in your work. In The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, when the protagonist apathetically sticks his tongue out on national TV during the national anthem and then becomes the victim of a media madness that eventually denounces him as a terrorist, this is particularly apparent. How would you say The Biology of Luck deals with this theme?

JA: Many people take solace in the belief that success is the product of integrity and hard work. Unfortunately, that’s utterly false. One’s lot in life is usually determined before one leaves the womb. We live in a country where even the son of a President can grow up to be President. If your father went to Harvard and Yale, you’ve got a much higher chance of attending Harvard or Yale than if your father picked fruit or canned salmon. Appearances also matter. Pretty girls get dates, marry bankers, retire to Boca Raton, etc. Homely girls work hard and die alone. Not always, but more often than not. To some degree, the same is true for men, but less so… There is hope for Larry, less hope for Larry’s female equivalent. Which is why we shouldn’t teach children in school to work hard and study. We should teach the boys to have wealthy, well-connected parents and the girls to be born with stunning good looks. I’m not saying the world should work that way, but I have a hard time tolerating a society that deceives small children about their prospects.

BKY: I would posit that in The Biology of Luck the hero sees himself as an outsider. In The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up the world sees the hero as an outsider. How do you see yourself in that regard? In what ways do you relate personally to these protagonists?

JA: I’m an outsider, but not a cool outsider like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Not even an angsty, truant outsider like Holden Caulfield. More like a nineteenth century governess, lurking on the periphery, serving up my barbs to the few who will listen. Or possibly like Statler and Waldorf, those two cantankerous old men who heckle from the balcony on The Muppet Show.

I’d like to claim I share nothing in common with either Arnold Brinkman in The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up or Larry Bloom in The Biology of Luck, but you wouldn’t believe that… Like Arnold, I have no patience for the flag-waving, jingoistic sort of patriotism that dominates our culture. Don’t get me wrong: I have immense respect for the men and women in the military who risk their lives overseas to protect our freedom, for the veterans who’ve made these freedoms possible and for the values enshrined in the Constitution. What I have no patience for are the nitwits who stamp flags to the bumpers of their Chevrolets and claim they’re proud to be Americans, as though they have ever done anything personally to justify such pride. Like Larry, I’m always chasing after the beautiful girl on the bicycle… although, soon enough, I’ll be chasing after beautiful older women in wheelchairs, which is to my advantages, because I’ll have a much easier time catching up.

BKY: What questions are you most interested in asking in your fiction?

JA: I’m very interested in cognitive dissonance and the ability of human beings to blind themselves to their own shortcomings.  Similarly, I am fascinated by the ways that people manage to perceive themselves as victims, while attributing personal responsibility to others who suffer.  And, maybe because I had a rather isolated early childhood, I am deeply vested in the subject of human loneliness.

BKY: Speaking of your upbringing, your non-fiction work, some of which you recently published in the essay collection Phoning Home, often involves connections to your family’s past, particularly to a Jewish-immigrant experience. What is your relationship to this heritage? Do you see yourself as connected to the literary tradition of writers discussing Jewish themes?

JA: You’ve outed me, it seems. So I confess—I come from a long line of Jews, the sort of Jews who brought lawn chairs with them to wait in that line and kvetched about how long it was. It’s easy to glorify these folks, to imagine them all living lives of song like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but the cold reality is they were probably an impoverished, joyless, somewhat xenophobic lot who treated their women as second class citizens and overvalued arbitrary rules at the expense of mercy. That being said, they’re my impoverished, joyless, xenophobic, misogynistic ancestors, so I’ll defend them to the death.

I see myself in the tradition of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and Norman Mailer and Grace Paley and Saul Bellow and other Jewish-American writers who sold a lot of books and received glamorous awards and were honored with invitations to A-list parties. I am hopeful that others will see me in this light.

BKY: In many an interview you have promoted writers always knowing where they’re going in a piece before they start writing it. You’ve termed this “prewriting,” saying it is much easier than “rewriting.” Despite this philosophy, have you ever found that where you thought you were going is in fact the “wrong” place? In the revision process, how often have you changed major events, considering how firmly you feel they should be known before diving in?

JA: I rarely change the larger concept of a story or novel once I’ve started writing. I have been known to throw the story or novel away entirely. For me, either it works the way I conceived it or it doesn’t work at all. As a writing teacher, I find students are often encouraged to revise works that simply are unsalvageable, rather than turning to new projects that have far greater prospects. Some stories, unfortunately, are not worth telling. Recognizing these stories and not telling them is a crucial part of becoming a professional writer.

BKY: Which writers and works most inspire you?

JA: I’ll confess that I much prefer comedies of manners to novels of deep ideas. You can trace my tastes from Fielding to Austen to Eliot—and more recently, to works like Lucky Jim and Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and the stories of John Cheever. Don’t get me wrong: I can also be a sucker for a good, heart-rending love story like My Antonia or Sophie’s Choice. Modern theater, particularly of the non-realist variety, also influences my writing: Thornton Wilder, Sarah Ruhl, Paula Vogel. Anything with an abundance of magic, a wisp of sadness, and an absence of anger. And finally, I would be remiss without mentioning Philip Larkin.  I dream that someday someone somewhere will describe my writing as Larkinesque.

BKY: Lastly, considering your disproportionate number of accomplishments compared to the majority of society (you have even been called the most overqualified worker in America), of which single accomplishment are you the most proud?

JA: When I was in seventh grade, I triumphed over future celebrity comedian Peter Grosz (The Colbert Report, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!) in our middle school’s “humorous speech” contest. [Okay, that’s not exactly true. For those who are sticklers for the truth, I actually came in second place, while Grosz came in first place, but that’s a minor detail. The point is that I won – or nearly won – and I was awarded the green jacket and my girlfriend received 554 red roses… okay, maybe I didn’t have a girlfriend, but if I had, and the contest had been judged fairly, she’d have received her garland. I mean, come on, Peter Grosz became a standup comedian—and he is the funniest man alive—how could the judges not have given me a handicap? But I’m not bitter…] So that’s what I’m most proud of. I reserve the right to change my answer if I marry Karen Russell or have a torrid affair with Sophia Loren.

For More Information

More information on Jacob’s biography and links to his works can be found at his website.

Purchase Jacob’s books at his author’s page on Amazon.

Read his story “Enoch Arden’s One Night Stands,” winner of the New Millennium Writings Award.

Several of his articles on bioethics have appeared on The Huffington Post, and can be found here. 

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