Interview with Jacob Appel by Alexander Cendrowski

[Editors’ note: We interviewed Jacob Appel in our first issue, where he joked that it’d be weird if we continued interviewing him. We did, and this rounds out a full year of interviews between weirderary and Jacob Appel. (Here is interview two, conducted by our mail carrier, Gary Cunningham.)]

Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets by Jacob M Appel

Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets by Jacob M Appel

In keeping with weirderary‘s naming scheme and aesthetic, I thought we could start this interview off with a discussion of weirdness. In Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, you’re handling more than a few heavy hitting topics (abortion, climate change, the pre-death-but-post-diagnosis grieving process), but these topics are framed through lenses that often simultaneously inject humor and confound each short story’s conflict (an alien opens Alabama’s only Latvian eatery and subsequently falls in love with a pro-life protester, global cooling threatens the Earth despite the president’s assurance that the planet is actually growing warmer, and a mother can’t help but begin a romance with her new Grim Reaper-like neighbor while her daughter slowly succumbs to cancer). You’ve previously said that you don’t really consider your work as weird, at least in a traditional sense (ie. Unabomber weird). Where do you draw that line?

I should begin by conceding that I come from a long (albeit undistinguished) line of weird people.  I had a grandfather who would check psychiatric patients out of the state hospital to take them fishing alone on Sheepshead Bay and a  cousin who accidentally ran himself over with his own car while attempting to assist an injured squirrel—so my “weirdar” is relatively strong at baseline.  In addition, I work as a physician in a psychiatric emergency room in downtown New York City, so I’m well-accustomed to weirdness. By now, I’ve probably developed an immunity.  Weirdness, from my perspective, is entirely relative.  Take, for instance, Michel Lotito, the Frenchman who ate an entire Cessna 150 between 1978 and 1980.  Comparatively, I’m normal.  Maybe too normal—like the father on a 1950s sitcom (except I don’t have children and look nothing like Robert Young) or the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus.  Which reminds me, one of the best places to draw the line at weirdness is to ask:  If I were seated next to this fellow on a public bus, would I change my seat.  You may think it weird that, in my story, an alien opens Alabama’s only Latvian eatery and subsequently falls in love with a pro-life protester, but you clearly haven’t spent enough time in Alabama.  We’re talking about a state that has a monument to boll weevils and has criminalized sex toys.  They are in no place to throw any first stones at my extraterrestrial Baltic chef.

You’re right that I haven’t spent much time in Alabama, though “enough” might be another matter altogether. As far as the idea of changing seat on a public bus goes, I suppose the extra-terrestrial would get a pass—who could throw away such an opportunity? Though I wonder: does this line in the sand imply that weirdness is something to be avoided? Or, specifically in your own writing, do you think there are certain weird things you’d never do? Stories that you would never tell?

I think a useful metaphor is a trip to the beach on a hot summer day.  In our analogy, the water is weirdness.  Up to a point—maybe even up to your neck—wading into the cold water is pleasing.  But at some depth, as Stevie Smith warned us, you’re not waving, you’re drowning.  So the art of writing about the weird is reaching that distance from shore where you’re breathless, but not asphyxiating.  Of course, as an Ashkenazi Jew, my mother warned me long ago not to swim into any actual water at a public beach—lest I contract a lethal, flesh-eating parasite and bring her a life of unremitting sorrow.  (For your less family-oriented readers, a striptease may prove a more helpful analogy:  the great strippers of yore knew to expose almost everything, but not everything…. Similarly, as I write, I strive for enough oddity to keep the reader captivated, but not so much that the audience can’t look beyond the weirdness.)  You want to be weird like Jerry Brown, not weird like Dennis Kucinich.

There are certainly stories I would never tell.  About my work for the military intelligence services, for example, or how the KGB implanted a transmitter in the amalgam of my fillings.  I’ve tried before, and nobody believes me.  I also avoid stories involving me and Karen Russell, because they tend to devolve into sentimental romances.  Or Raquel Welch, because they might require an NC-17 rating.  But there probably are few things I wouldn’t write about because they’re too weird.  Except realism.  Raymond Carver, now his world is weird.  Who on earth invites a blind man into his home?  Or draws a cathedral?  So if there’s a line, I draw it at any attempts to present reality at face value.

In other words, you’re looking for an accessible level of weirdness. And, to continue your beach on a hot summer day metaphor, you don’t want to end up baked in the (realist) sun. Nice. Speaking of the beach, what do you consider your ideal writing location/atmosphere? Do you think you would be able to write at the bottom of the ocean (say, once provided oxygen, pressure-resistant clothing, and a good water-proof notepad)? If you had the opportunity to write anywhere in the universe, where would it be? Am I allowed to ask this many questions in a row?

I imagine you’re hoping that I do my writing in weird places:  maybe in the lawn care aisle at Sears or on the median of the Cross Bronx Expressway or in the women’s restroom at the aquarium.  Alas, I am always puzzled by people who write in public places.  Quite frankly, I’m suspicious that their goal isn’t writing, but to be seen writing, or to cultivate a poetic sensibility.  Can you imagine Doris Lessing writing the Golden Notebook between lattes at Starbucks?  These days, I do all of my writing in my dimly-lit, poorly-ventilated home office, which also doubles as kitchen and bedroom and parlor.  Romantic, I know.  But this approach has its perks:  I can write in my bathrobe, if I’m so inspired, and I can take nap breaks between paragraphs.  If I could write anywhere, it would likely be in Olivia de Havilland’s dining room – I imagine this would not improve my writing much, but it’s probably my best chance at meeting her and hitting her up for an autograph.  Of course, with my luck, Miss de Havilland would probably take to eating all of her meals out….

You are NOT allowed to ask that many questions in a row.  I realize you ask that rhetorically, or possibly in jest, but if you knew what happened to the last interviewer who asked multiple questions back-to-back, you’d be much more cautious about testing these boundaries….Nothing personal, you understand.


I must say I’m disappointed to hear that given the opportunity to write anywhere in the universe, you would choose a place on Earth, although I suppose visiting one of the queens of Hollywood’s Golden Age isn’t a bad wrap. I’m not, though, disappointed to hear you write at home. I agree: coffee shops make for poor writing spots. But since we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the mechanics of this interview. We’re both sitting here (or, at least, I’m sitting here—you could be hanging upside down from a pair of monkey bars for all I know), over a thousand miles away from each other, emailing questions and answers back and forth. Worse still, we’ve gone and formatted my questions in bold, whereas your answers take on a normal font. What do you think of that?

The joys of the internet is that I could actually be sitting across the street from your home with a pair of binoculars and a laptop, stealing your wireless.  Or I could actually be a twelve-year-old boy in Nebraska with an email address similar to that of the author you hoped to interview.  (Or, I can’t resist mentioning, an alien-turned-Latvian chef moonlighting as a ghost writer for Jacob M. Appel.)  And I have a confession of my own:  although I’m delighted to do this interview, I had hoped that, after the last interview I did with weirderary (with your letter carrier par excellence, Gary Cunningham), that you’d raise the stakes and have me interviewed by one of Jessica’s parents or her hairdresser or a Chinese peasant selected at random.  (I remain open to any of these possibilities, by the way, although you will have to supply a translator with the Chinese peasant, and most women I know keep me far away from their parents.)

By now, you’ve probably figured out that one of my secret fantasies is to be a professional interviewee.  Someone like Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly who is far more famous for giving interviews about his achievements than truly achieving anything.  Think David Frost – only in the other chair.  (I hope a few of your readers are old enough to recognize these names….if not, feel free to replace them with contemporary celebrities I’ve never heard of.)  As this is an interview nominally about writing, I should also emphasize that, as an obscure author, almost all publicity is good publicity.  Okay, there are limits.  Don’t be picked up on a morals charge.  Don’t be Jonah Lehrer.  But do as many interviews as you can….and as many readings….and as many craft lectures.  I’d give a talk in a plague hospital if I thought it might sell books.

This is the second time in our interview series with you that you’ve mentioned being a twelve-year-old boy in Nebraska, and I’m starting to get suspicious. Regardless, as a professional interviewee in-training, it makes sense that you’d shoot for near-maximum exposure. And as long as you don’t start wildly plagiarizing, I think you’ll be alright.

As we start to pull this interview to a close, I was wondering about your day-to-day schedule. You’ve obviously got a list of accomplishments a mile long (readers of our previous interviews and those who can skip to the bottom of this page will know what I’m talking about), but what’s your current time breakdown? How much of each day do you spend writing, for instance?

Are we really pulling this interview to a close?  So soon?  For me, ending an interview always feels like a breakup….Okay, maybe not a breakup, but like when I was a kid and summer camp ended and I had to say goodbye to my new friends.  But I suppose these interviews have meaning only because they are fleeting.  Like my uncle’s marriages.

As for my daily schedule, I know your readers want to hear than I write precisely for two hours seventeen minutes daily, timed by a giant hourglass I pilfered from the set of the Wizard of Oz, with a bust of Immanuel Kant on my desk.  Alas, my schedule is rather chaotic, punctuated by my work as a physician and lots of travel to literary events.  For instance, at the moment I am in Denver, about to serve on a panel about marketing short fiction with Rebecca Makkai, Renee Zuckerbrot and Lindsey Drager.   (You should invite me to Tampa to give a reading or workshop, and you could see my writing habits first hand – I’ll even sit behind a glass cage on your campus and you can bill it as “struggling writer in native habitat” or something similar.  Maybe get a federal arts grant to sponsor it.)   Some days, I carve out several hours to write in the morning and another several in the evening.  Other days, I wonder why I am doing this at all—it’s not like Western Civilization would grind to a halt if I didn’t write another short story—and I spend my afternoon gorging myself on jelly donuts and contemplating a PhD in historical linguistics.  I feel much less accomplished than I look.

Don’t think of it as the end. Think of it as a new beginning. Something, something doors, something, something windows. Besides, I think there’s a case to be made for intensity of conversation versus length of session. Certainly there are short stories that we can experience more deeply than entire series of less refined work.

Maybe our readers will be disappointed that there’s not some magical component to your writing (schedule or otherwise), but I personally see it as heartening that you don’t keep it consistent. It makes me feel a lot more secure in my own writing non-pattern. And, hell, since you brought it up first, it’s only fair that we bring to the table that most trite of all writing questions: why write? If we can accept our own non-importance, relatively, in the sphere of western culture that we create in (and I think we can accept that, or that we should if we haven’t), then why do we do it? Or, I suppose, why do you?

In Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, Penny Sycamore writes plays because a typewriter is delivered to her home by mistake.  That’s probably the best reason I ever heard.

My reasons are much more mundane:  I want to impress the girl who broke my heart at sixteen.  Keep in mind I don’t want to impress the woman she became, but the girl she was, who no longer exists, which is an impossible feat, hence I keep on typing away.

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)

Alexander Cendrowski is a lemonade and ocean enthusiast pursuing his MFA at the University of South Florida. His fiction has recently appeared in Word Riot, The Legendary, and Perversion Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @CendrowskiAlex. His favorite color is none of your business [Editors’ Note: it’s purple].