Interview with Jacob Appel by TJ Murray

[Editors’ note: We interviewed Jacob Appel in our first issue, where he joked that it’d be weird if we continued interviewing him. So we did, and then we did it again, and now we did it again.]

000001-appelChoose between living forever (whatever that means to you) or dying forever (guaranteed no after life, so just darkness and darkness and darkness). And then say something about that.

That’s too easy a question, I think.  The harder question is choosing between living forever and never having lived at all.   The advantage of never living is never suffering—never waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, never reading a Samuel Richardson novel, never receiving twitter messages from Joyce Carol Oates.  But I suppose there are things one misses out on:  Paris in springtime, Greta Garbo movies, the prospect of a date with Karen Russell.  Of course, living forever has its downsides too:  no opportunity for a posthumous reevaluation of one’s literary work, all of that money squandered on burial insurance and pre-paid headstones.   And the realization that, even if I live forever, I’m still never going to have a romantic dinner with Karen Russell.

What it really boils down to is whether it’s worth outliving all of one’s friends in order to also outlive all of one’s enemies.   Which leads me to a question of my own:  If I didn’t exist, who would you be interviewing for this issue of weirderary?  If he or she were writer I admire, or I feel deserves more exposure, that might help inform my decision…

I think we were going to buy a creepy puppet and just interview that. The questions would be different though. Like, “I know that you move when no one is around,” and “What soul is in you?”

If you had a reset day, what would you do? (A reset day is when you have the next twenty four hours to do whatever you want and then everything goes back to the way it was and only you remember what happened [some people call it a groundhog day but I don’t know about that because of copyright issues.].)

I’d probably sleep late.  And maybe order an extra half grapefruit with breakfast.  I realize you’re hoping I’ll indulge in a slew of lurid and perilous fantasies—like sharing some candid reflections on hospital management with my employer or having an adulterous affair with a cheerleader—but I fear I’m far too dull for that.  And reasonably content with my little niche in the cosmos, I suppose.  You also have to keep in mind that I’m highly risk-averse and doggedly opposed to change of any sort—I make Holden Caulfield look like Sir Edmund Hillary—so if a reset day came along, I’d probably be afraid to leave my apartment. 

I would not worry too much about the copyright issues.  If we do get sued by the groundhog people, we can make this interview part of the reset day.  Which wouldn’t be so far from the truth.  After all, I keep getting interviewed by weirderary over and over again, but then everything returns to the way it was before, and I’m the only one who seems to remember.  I thought you promised that if I did enough of these interviews, I’d get to appear on Oprah.  Or at least a Phil Donahue revival.

We’re still trying to work through some restraining orders. 

Next question: gif or gif?

I’m tempted to wing it, but I truly have no idea what that question means.  I imagine if I were a politician, I might say, “Obviously, gif.”  (Gifs have something to do with computers, right?)  On the subject of winging it, I also haven’t read the last five volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, so if you ask me any questions about the ending, my answers may prove a bit off the mark.

I’ve never even heard of that book. How’s it end?

I believe Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy, Daisy does not marry Mr. Gatsby, Aunt Sally adopts Huck, Jim goes free, and the one-legged captain goes down with the whale.  It’s rather derivative.  There are also a lot of gratuitous references to sponge cake.  You’re far better off reading my short stories…

We’ll get to plugs at the end. 

Rapid fire questions: What’s your earliest memory? What’s your latest memory? What’s your middle memory?

I can’t recall. 

What I remember vividly, however, are several other people’s first memories.  For instance, I had a great aunt who grew up in New York City at the turn of the nineteenth century and used to worry about being trampled by sheep when she visited Queens.  And my second grade teacher’s most vivid memory of second grade was his own second grade teacher telling him that when he was in second grade—we’re talking three generations of second grades ago now—he had a teacher who had to climb a ladder to wind the mechanical wall clock each morning.  So all I remember of second grade is vicarious to the fourth degree.  (This sounds like a Borges story, I know, but it’s true.)  And I have good fifth-hand knowledge that one of Oliver North’s middle memories involved trading arms for hostages with Iran and then using the proceeds to fund rebels in Nicaragua, but I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.

I’m most excited about other people’s false memories.  For example, I can’t wait until my seventieth high school reunion, when the girls who turned me down for dates at sixteen will no longer remember if we dated or not.  In my eighties, I’m going to have been the most popular eleventh grader ever… (I suppose a therapist might find that alarming, which is why I don’t see a therapist.)  I may also start remembering winning a Pulitzer or two to boost my self-esteem.

I hope you remember to do that. Sometimes, I get scared and think I might be an old man confused into thinking he’s my age. I don’t know how to convince myself that that’s not the case. Any advice?

I can tell you, as a physician, that the trick to life is setting very low expectations.  We do that all the time in the hospital.  If a surgeon tells you that you have a 20% chance of surviving an operation, but you do, you leave thinking she’s a great surgeon; in contrast, if she tells you that you have an 80% chance of surviving, and you die on the table, your heirs conclude she’s a butcher.  So I’d apply that reasoning to your “chronological issues”:  Tell people you’re eighty and they’ll start complimenting you on how spry you are for your age.  To widows in their seventies, you’ll be the most amazing thing since Errol Flynn in tights.

That seems like good advice. 

Pick one: 7 or orange?

I can’t help suspecting that there is a hidden meaning lurking behind these questions, possibly that I’m an unwitting subject in an study of consumer habits related to numbers and fruit.  Or that by choosing the wrong option, I’ll find that I’ve agreed to donate a kidney to a member of the Saudi royal family. 

What is far more concerning to me is that you may think these questions are merely weird, but the government email reviewers will suspect we are communicating in a secret code.  So “7” might be the equivalent of “one if by land” and “orange” a substitute for “two if by sea.”  Knowing the government, I think they’re less likely to recognize our plans if we just hold them out in plain sight.  So instead of “7” or “orange,” I’m choosing “Let’s meet at the 7-Eleven in downtown Harpers Ferry and take over the federal arsenal.”  (My worst fear is that to some of your readers, unschooled in American history, this entire message might read like a secret code.)

Do I get to ask any questions?   How about:   John Brown—hero or terrorist?  (I think it would be fun if wierderary started tackling emotionally-charged issues of the 19th century.)

IMHO, “John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of …” (Wikipedia).

This is a two-part question: I know that you move when no one is around. What soul is in you?

You are mistaken.  I hardly even move when people are around.  That is why I nearly failed gym in high school. 

The good news is that the soul in me once belonged to Grover Whalen.  (A friend challenged me to reference Grover Whalen, Minnie Pearl and Deanna Durbin during the course of this interview—so I’m now one third of the way there.  I’m also supposed to use the word “epexegetically” twice.)

Incidentally, I urge you not to believe everything you read on Wikipedia.   Except the article that mentions my torrid affair with Sophia Loren.  

Jacob, thanks for getting interviewed. Do you have any books or events or anything you want to plug?

It was my pleasure, as always.  I look forward to many more… I sense that my interviews in weirderary are going to be my lasting contribution to American literature.   Maybe next time we can do a Town Hall format and take questions from undecided voters in swing states, or you can solicit one question from each of Jay’s elementary school classmates.  You know, something normal. 

I do have a new story collection being published next month:  The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street is being published by Augsburg College’s Howling Bird Press.  And I have a novel, The Mask of Sanity, due out with The Permanent Press in the spring.  Most important, if any of your readers would like complimentary PDFs of a few of my recent story collections, or merely want to chat about Minnie Pearl or Deanna Durbin epexegetically, they should feel free to email me at jacobmappel@gmail.com.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of two literary novels, six short story collections, an essay collection, a cozy mystery and a forthcoming thriller.  His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award and was published by Cargo.  His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2014.  His essay collection, Phoning Home (University of South Carolina Press, 2015) won the Eric Hoffer Book Award.  Jacob is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and an attending physician at Mount Sinai Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital, and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.  

T.J. Murray is a writer and cartoonist from Hornell, New York. He is pursuing his MFA at the University of South Florida. His work has appeared in Hobart, the Rumpus, theEEEL, and elsewhere. He is an editor for weirderary and cohost of First Draft, a live lit event in Tampa. twitter: @tjmurray83