Interview With Jacob Appel by Jessica Thompson

einsteins beach house by jacob appelI hope you don’t mind me starting off being perfectly blunt. You contacted us to offer a complimentary copy of your short story collection, Einstein’s Beach House (which I really liked!). We took a look at your bio (found here) and at first thought you were either delusional or a fraud. You have been published in over 200 literary magazines, won a shit-ton of prizes, and, most impressively/shockingly, hold nine higher ed degrees including an MD and JD. After doing a lot of googling and finding that, from what I could tell, this all checks out, I was almost angry. I can barely handle working, writing, feeding myself, and exercising. Do you get this type of incredulous response from people often? Do you know if your IQ is exceptionally high?

It is possible that I am both delusional and a fraud; these are not mutually exclusive.  I caution you against believing anything you read on the Internet.  But giving both of us the benefit of the doubt that I’m not a twelve year old boy in Nebraska with excellent web skills and a vivid imagination, I should emphasize two things that may cut my image down to size.  First, my literary failures still far exceed my literary successes.  My agent has two novel manuscripts on her desk – excellent ones, if I do say so myself – that she has not yet been able to sell.  (If you’re an editor at a respectable publishing house and you’re interested in taking a look, please feel free to reach out.)  And I receive far more rejection letters (upwards of 21,000 total) than acceptances.  In short, I’m scribbling away well below the radar screen.  Second, earning graduate degrees, while fun, is not particularly hard work. Nor, incidentally, is practicing medicine or teaching writing or any of the countless, random things that I do.  At least, not for me.  I am somewhat in awe of the millions of people who get up each morning to tackle genuinely hard work—driving cabs, collecting tolls, harvesting soybeans, cutting hair, waiting tables on the overnight shift at truck stops, manufacturing machine tools, etc.  I think it’s far too easy, when one is a writer or a professional or in graduate school, to lose sight of how much easier this is, in many ways, that what most people do….

I did very badly on my IQ test in 3rd grade.  I suspect the students who did better are either looking for jobs teaching philosophy or in prison for insider trading, so I don’t feel that upset.

For the record, I am also not particularly good at feeding myself or exercising.  I’ve found that reducing both balances out….at least up to a point….But I can’t recommend this plan in good faith.

I’m also curious about your time management practices and the “lifestyle design” that results in this level of productivity. Whenever I envy someone, I try to learn all that I can from them and celebrate them so my envy turns into gratitude and joy. You are clearly doing something exceptional with your time. Do you stick to a strict schedule? Use any particular apps, calendars, or planners? Set rules for yourself or daily to-do lists? Have a unique routine? With so many potentially competing interests, how do you prioritize?

I can’t say there’s any magic to what I do, but I make every effort to avoid existential clutter.  I don’t own a cell phone or a television.  Certainly, no calendars or apps. And I don’t have any children.  Not having children means I don’t require a house in the suburbs, which obviates the need to mow a lawn and to attend PTA meetings and to work extra shifts to save for college tuition.  It also reduces, if not eliminates, the need to drink heavily; for many people, sobriety is a great source of extra hours.  Beyond that, I don’t have a favorite football team and my knowledge of celebrity gossip stops when Eddie Fisher leaves Debbie Reynolds for Liz Taylor and I try to sneak out of the room when anybody mentions organized religion or political horse races or anything vaguely flavored with ideology, which means I can avoid most literary events.    

Of course, the real secret to writing a lot, as John Milton said, is typing fast.  

I enjoy asking writers why they choose to include or exclude current technologies such as smartphones and social media in their stories. For you, I’m now thinking you mostly exclude them because those things are not present in your daily life. I am definitely addicted to social media. Maybe you will inspire me to take a break and see if my productivity shoots up. Clearly you do use a computer since we are emailing right now–do you place limits on this?

You raise two distinct issues.  One is whether smart phones and social media have a place, if any, in fiction.  My short answer is that, when in doubt, one is always better off putting characters in the same space to grapple with each other—you can do more with an in person confrontation than with a phone call or an email.  I would save email and similar devices for situations where these technologies are either essential to the plot or used to create innovative forms.  But maybe, as a Luddite, I am biased.

The other question you raise is whether social media decreases literary productivity.  I can’t speak for everyone, but my sense is that much of the energy people spent on twitter, or diary entries for that matter, is energy not reserved for writing.  I’ll be glad to help you take a social media holiday once we’re done with this interview.  I’ve done that with people before.  I write them an email every morning telling them not to use Facebook or twitter and they send me an email every night confirming they haven’t.  Sort of like AA.

You mention avoiding literary events. I’m curious to hear more. I haven’t been to New York City since I was teenager, but my impression is that one of the benefits of living there as a writer is the proximity to literary events and other writerly people. Is there a writing community you feel you’re part of? Are there any events that, even if not particularly fun, prove useful career-wise?

I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I do my share of readings, book signings, craft talks.  I visit colleges and festivals.  And I often enjoy that.  I also attend these events for others, when I know them or have a particular vested interest in their work.  What I don’t do is attend random readings by authors I don’t know or attend receptions for people I’ve never met.  Nothing one does at a cocktail party, in my experience, is going to advance one’s career as much as an hour in front of the typewriter.  That being said, if you’re having a party at the University of South Florida, I will try to attend.  If Sophia Loren is on the guest list, I will definitely attend.

Speaking of careers, do you consider “writer” your primary career? I swear I’ll start discussing your book soon, but I’m still marveling at the fact that, if someone asks you the go-to social question, “What do you do?” you could choose from a variety of answers that include doctor and lawyer. Do you change your answer depending on the situation?

I always change my answers depending on the situation.   And I never admit to being a doctor or a lawyer – otherwise, people show you their rashes or ask for advice with writing their wills.   I used to tell people I was “Deep Throat” until Woodward and Bernstein blew my cover; now I often claim I’m the Zodiac killer or, on occasion, Anastasia Romanov.   As a result, I find myself in fewer and fewer social situations.   The truth is that I’d like to consider myself primarily a “writer,” but I suspect nobody except my agent and my grandmother will stretch the truth that far. I suppose dilettante is a more accurate assessment.

Well, that sounds modest. I’m pretty sure if I were a doctor and a lawyer that any time someone disagreed with me I’d immediately remind them that I were a doctor and a lawyer. Speaking of doctors, several of your short stories in this collection contain doctors of some sort. How has training as a doctor informed your fiction writer’s perspective of doctors, and have the doctors you know from your medical schooling ever read your doctor-containing fiction? I’m also wondering if there are doctors in your family (besides yourself).

It is not too late for you to become both a doctor and a lawyer.  If this interview concludes without a hitch, I’ll even write you medical school and law school recommendations.

My grandfather was a psychiatrist.   He had a brief moment of fame in 1940 when he served as an expert witness in a lawsuit between Anna Schoeffler Hauptmann, the widow of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, and cartoonist Frank Moser. Coincidentally, my father, a nephrologist, later treated Lindbergh himself.  In contrast, my career goal as a child was not to become a doctor.  In third grade, we had to make a poster about our future career choices, and my poster read:  “Not a Doctor.”  Being a doctor informs my fiction in several critical ways:  First, it ensures that I won’t starve, even if I don’t write anything.  Second, it lets me put the letters “MD” in my cover letter, which I fantasize scares the high school interns opening the mail at many journals to pass my work along to the editors, rather than recycling it.

I often give free copies of my story collections to the psychiatry residents and medical students at the various hospitals where I teach.  Whether they read them or not is another matter.  Only once has a colleague actually claimed that I based a character upon him—a belief he clings to, with pride, even though I assured him that I’d written the work in question nearly a decade before first meeting him.

Reading that your father and grandfather were doctors makes sense since you write about the profession so authentically. In “La Tristesse Des Herissons,” a psychiatrist treats a hedgehog for depression. Some readers might interpret that as mocking psychiatry. Does your family read your stories? I’m just beginning to publish short stories and the only downside to it is a looming fear that my family will find them and be offended. Have you faced any backlash?

I often tell my students that if they’re not writing stories that they wouldn’t want their parents to read, they’re not making themselves vulnerable enough in their writing.  Fortunately, I have an arrangement with my parents that they don’t read any of my work unless I give them permission.  So my essay collection (which is largely a memoir in disguise), Phoning Home, is off limits.  I did know a couple that adopted a hedgehog with negative consequences; I imagine they might view this piece as less than flattering, even though it’s not about their hedgehog.  And of course I am mocking psychiatry.  Most things only improve when you mock them (although I’ve found this works with less efficacy regarding children and romantic relationships).  Honestly, I think our society as a whole could use a good, sound mocking.  

The problem with being trained as a psychiatrist is that my instinct now is to ask you about your stories and publishing experiences…which wouldn’t really be conducive to an interview.

Maybe someday, after I’ve published more, you can interview me, but for now we’re still talking about you. This is the inaugural issue of weirderary so I’ve been thinking a lot about what “weird” means, or what we as editors want it to mean for us. We’ve gotten some submissions that are weird but not “our” kind of weird and I’m trying to find terms that help explain what that means. Your stories are weird and I have my ideas about why/how, but I’d like to hear from you before I share them. How does weirdness influence your work? What about the word “weirderary” made you think to reach out to us?

“Weird” is a weird concept.  I suppose most writers are rather weird and that most great fiction is written by outsiders.   Outsiders with a dose of narcissism, I might add, because it takes a certain audacity to believe other people might want to read your ideas.   But weird is a narrow range—somewhere between that Silent Majority living in commuter suburbs and that strange guy who stands under your window every Thursday night wearing a trench coat and singing Mel Tormé standards.  (He’s not me, by the way—I live eighteen hundred miles away and my trench coat is at the dry cleaner.)  I guess it’s telling that I don’t think of my stories as weird at all.   Of course, the Unabomber probably thought mailing letter bombs was all part of a run-of-the-mill day’s work….    

I fear this may disappoint you, but I write to EVERY new journal I can find, offering complimentary review copies and wishing good luck.  So I approached weirderary, but also The Normal School.  If there were a journal called “Ordinary,” I’d be knocking down its doors too.   That being said, at the moment, your unpublished journal is my favorite.

You don’t think your writing is weird at all? With kids going to meet the neighborhood pedophile (with a parent’s permission), the depressed hedgehog, and, well, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but “The Rod of Asclepius” in general? You write realism and it’s all in a pretty traditional form so it’s not weird in that sense, but the characters are weird and they get themselves into ridiculous situations. Is it absurdist? There’s definitely a lot of dark humor. I know the categorization is not terribly important, but like I said earlier, I’m trying to get better at verbalizing what weirderary is looking for, what we weirderary editors are into.

Okay, maybe it’s a bit weird, when you phrase it like that.  Like Shirley Jackson is weird or Carson McCullers is weird, but not like my Uncle Charles is weird.  (You’ll have to trust me on the distinction.)  But it’s important to me that my stories be believable—maybe absurdist, but not cartoonish or post-modern or kafkaesque. There are many gifted writers whose primary concern is form. I don’t consider myself one of them.  I like to think that I write comedies of manners in the spirit of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net.  Of course, I may be deluding myself…   

I’m also curious about your thoughts on contacting every new journal. How much time does it take and how helpful do you think that has been? Don’t a lot of new journals fold pretty early? There seems to be an overwhelming number of journals so just the idea of trying to contact each one makes me feel tired, but again I’m pretty new to the whole publishing scene and maybe casting the widest possible net is the answer.

The world is full of gifted writers and brilliant stories.  Some of these writers become very lucky at an early age and win a Pulitzer or appear on Oprah.  Being the child of a famous writer helps.  So does marrying a prominent editor, I’ve heard. Alas, that’s not any more of a career plan than finding a winning lottery ticket or marrying into royalty.   So the only other option available to the rest of us writers out in the peanut gallery is relentless diligence—both with regard to writing and to marketing.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wish it weren’t so.   But contacting fledgling journals for reviews has very little downside.  The worst thing that can happen is that I receive a bad review.  Or ignored.   And I’ve met countless fascinating people along the way…. It’s true that lots of journals fold early.  But just because lots of relationships go south quickly doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t go on dates. If anyone is reading this interview, by the way, and they’re thinking of starting a journal—or they own a bookstore or work in a public library or can make any other case for a free book, they should reach out to me via email.  I’m sort of the Johnny Appleseed of books these days, so I’m not a very difficult to persuade.    

Thanks for giving us a little insight into the marketing aspect of it. Also, if weirderary helps your career in any way, please let me know because I will be extremely proud. We are reaching the end of the interview, but before we conclude I’d like to hear you talk a little about the animals in your work. Since most of your stories take place in New York City, I was surprised by how many animals we saw–the hedgehog, a tortoise, talking birds. Do you own any pets? Are you going for a certain effect when you include an animal in a story, or do they just sort of appear while you write?

I assure you that if I win the Nobel Prize, I will be sure to thank weirderary in my acceptance speech.  Even if I win in economics or physics.

I’d love to claim that animals are a thematic claim for this collection—that my next collection will feature stories about vegetables or minerals—but that would be wishful thinking.  For what it’s worth, I always wanted a pet as a child….but my parents wouldn’t let me get one.  Unless one counts the vicious, near-sighted rabbit my mother adopted when I was in college.  So maybe I’m rewriting the history of my childhood, filling in the pieces in an act of historical revisionism.  Isn’t that what all writers do?  I suspect Melville wanted a pet whale when he was a lad.

Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview. Final question: is there any last comment you wanted to add?

It has been my pleasure.  We can do this for the next edition of weirderary too, if you’d like—even make it a regular installment.  “Weirderary interviews Appel” in every issue.  Now that would be weird!  If any of your readers are intrigued by the collection and are willing to write an honest review on Amazon, a personal blog or a similar venue, they should feel free to write to me via email (jacobmappel@gmail.com) to request a complimentary copy, making sure to include their full name and postal address.  Good luck with your weird pursuits.

Ha, ha–that would be weird! Maybe we will do something like that. Thank you, and thanks for the interview!

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novels, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, which won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award, The Biology of Luck (2013), and four collections of short fiction. He practices psychiatry in New York City. (website)

Jessica Thompson is a fiction writer from Chicago. Her writing has been published in revolver and The EEEL. She is an editor of weirderary. (website, twitter, instagram)