A Few Words with the Ubiquitous Jacob M. Appel
by Sequoia Nagamatsu
“One of the precepts I share with my students is that writing has to be a fulltime job. That doesn’t mean a writer can’t have another job or career, but if you want to be a physician and a writer, that means you have to be willing to work two fulltime jobs.”
Jacob M. Appel has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. His short story, Shell Game With Organs, won the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest in 1998. Another story, Enoch Arden's One Night Stands, won first prize in the New Millennium Writings competition in 2004. A third story, The Ataturk of the Outer Boroughs, won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom short story competition. Appel has also won annual contests sponsored by Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers' Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His story about two census takers, Counting, was short listed for the O. Henry Award in 2001. Other stories received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and 2007.
Appel holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was honored with the Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He also publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the Hastings Center Report, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, The Providence Journal, The New Haven Register, The Albany Times-Union, Orlando Sentinel and many regional newspapers.
SN: Considering your varied and accomplished background, when did creative writing first come into play for you? Did you discover that you wanted to be a writer somewhere along the way during your professional training or was writing always a constant fixture in your life?
JA: I suppose I’ve always wanted to be a writer—even before I had any meaningful understanding of what that meant. I remember writing novels on vacation during elementary school and then being upset that my parents wouldn’t let me send query letters out to agents. But my first serious efforts at writing occurred in high school. I had several excellent mentors, including the late Neil Maloney, also a mentor to the gifted playwright Dan O’Brien, whose character, James Flanagan, in “The Dear Boy,” is clearly inspired by Maloney. However, it was six years later, during the first semester of law school, that I made a more serious commitment to writing professionally. There is nothing like the prospect of practicing law for a living to drive any sane person with a shred of creative energy to seek an alternative calling. Shortly afterwards, I took two years off from my legal training and earned an MFA at NYU—one of the few professional decisions that I’ve never second-guessed. Although I fully understand that an MFA is not the right choice for everyone, nor unfortunately is it an opportunity available to everyone, I don’t think I could have enjoyed the limited literary success that I’ve had without that experience.
And certainly there are many lawyers turned writers. In terms of the literary world, Skip Horack, Scott Turow, and Ben Fountain come to mind (and then there’s John Grisham at the other end of the spectrum). Now, many of your stories seem to deal with medical issues and situations (and you’re also a physician and bioethicist). Your story, Shell Game with Organs, for instance evokes feelings of selfishness, responsibility, and guilt that almost anyone can identify with (esp. if they've spent considerable amount of time in hospitals with loved ones). Can you describe the relationship between your professional life and your creative life?
It’s interesting that you mention “Shell Game with Organs,” because I wrote that story many years before I actually became a physician and a bioethicist. To the degree that medical experiences have shaped my stories, they are the product of the influence of my father, a nephrologist, and my mother’s father, a psychiatrist. Growing up as I did in a culture of medicine, their experiences inevitably shaped mine. But I make every effort to keep my professional life separate from my literary life. Many of my colleagues at the hospital don’t even know that I write stories—and I never incorporate experiences with my own patients into my fiction. (On rare occasions, I have done so with my nonfiction, after obtaining overt permission from the patients involved.) I do recognize that there is a wonderful tradition of physician-writers, kept alive today by individuals like Chris Adrian and Danielle Ofri and Ethan Canin, and I’d love to someday be considered part of it. But I can’t help thinking that this is a “selection effect” rather than a “treatment effect”—meaning that these men and women aren’t great writers because they’re physicians, but rather that the same character traits that drove them into medicine also made them skilled observers of humanity and therefore talented writers.
Ah, Danielle Ofri. I really love the Bellevue Literary Review and how Ofri and many of her collegues integrate the spirit of story telling (and in turn observation) into the teaching and practice of medicine. Jumping off from my last question: You've written literally hundreds of stories (w/ quite a bit of range). Overall, would you say there is such thing as an Appel story? What do you think makes your work yours? Or do you go into a story (or a particular contest submission) with the intent to try something different?
I’ve now published 215 short stories—for anyone out there keeping track. When I set out to write a story, my goal is to write something as unlike the previous stories I’ve written as possible. Obviously, while this may be a useful technique, it doesn’t necessarily result in stories as thoroughly dissimilar from one another as I’d like. So I imagine there is an “Appel story” in the sense that a computer or a discerning reader could recognize my writing in a pile. At least, I hope my voice is so distinctive. Maybe I flatter myself. One feature that my stories do share is a common geography and a common genealogy. The towns they take place in (most often Creve Coeur and Pontefract, Rhode Island and Laurendale, Virginia) and the families who appear in them (such as Sucrams and Pastarnacks and Limbergs) are designed to form a consistent and overlapping world. If a college student were inspired to read all 215 of my stories and put together a
collection of family trees and maps, he or she would likely have a great term paper for a contemporary literature course.
Hmm, maybe I’ll offer this great map challenge to some of my creative writing students! So, you've been at this for quite some time and have really made a name for yourself as a notable short story writer (among many other things). Someone would be hard pressed not to come across your name if they are submitting their own work to journals and contests. Your output, to put it mildly, is impressive (and a bit intimidating). And writing is just one aspect of what I imagine to be a busy life. How do you balance writing with your other work?
One of the precepts I share with my students is that writing has to be a fulltime job. That doesn’t mean a writer can’t have another job or career, but if you want to be a physician and a writer, that means you have to be willing to work two fulltime jobs. Of course, one of the reasons I am able to generate so much creative output is that I don’t actually view writing as work. Needless to say, there are particular moments when it feels like work—on weekend mornings, for example, when it would be much easier to sleep late. But on the whole, I enjoy writing immensely, probably as much as addicts enjoy cocaine, which makes it much easier to sit down at my desk every morning. If you don’t like writing, you’re not doing yourself any service by pursuing it….
And there’s the rub for a lot of writers (even very promising ones). You have to be willing to give yourself to your writing and put in the time (and passion certain helps there).
In addition to your fiction, you also write plays (and many of your stories have incredibly evocative dialogue that almost begs to be acted out). How does being a dramatist influence being a fiction writer and vice versa? Have you ever written a play that began as fiction?
I’ll be the first to admit that I write plays for all the wrong reasons. I like working with people, particularly the sorts of creative souls who gravitate toward theater, and short story writing is an inherently solitary profession. So part of the appeal of playwriting is that you get to take part in a project much larger than yourself. On a more practical level, I think it’s very important to figure out what genre will serve as the best vehicle for a particular story at the outset. Every story cannot be conveyed equally effectively in every genre. Some stories are best told as haiku, others as epic films—and others not at all. Figuring out which genre
suits a particular story best is probably half of the battle. Of course, the more genres you have in your arsenal, the more battles you have a chance of winning.
You recently won the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press (in addition to securing several finalist spots). Again, congratulations. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one out there that has been awaiting a Jacob Appel collection. Considering your output and accolades, I'm surprised a collection didn't appear a long time ago. Can you describe your process in picking and choosing stories for your collection submissions? Were all the submissions completely different or was there some overlap? And what, for you, is the most important aspect of a successful short story collection?
Thank you for your kind words. And I also want to thank Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence Press for selecting my collection and for being so supportive of it. One reality that I’ve come to recognize over the years is that it’s darn difficult to sell a short story collection. I suppose I’ve increased my chances somewhat by having ten complete short story collections ready for publication. There is no overlap, by the way. The most challenging aspect of putting together a collection for me at this point, ironically, is making sure that I don’t mistakenly include any overlap between collections. I wish I had some wisdom to offer on why certain stories go best with others in a collection, but it’s more a matter of instinct. My goal is to make the stories in each collection as different from each other as possible—which I realize runs against the grain of the people who run large publishing houses. But I don’t understand why any reader would want to read ten very similar short stories.
As someone who successfully wears many hats (professionally speaking), what advice can you offer writers in terms of continuing to pursue their writing while juggling other aspects of their lives?
I highly endorse relentlessness. Keep writing, keep submitting. Don’t take any rejections personally. A deeply misguided editor at a now (deservedly) defunct journal once wrote me a note in response to one of my submissions that read: “I suppose some people might find this sort of writing amusing. I cannot imagine why.” I subsequently placed that same story in a far more prestigious venue, while that editor’s journal is no longer in print. The moral of this tale is to press onward or you risk turning into a pillar of salt. “Shell Game with Organs,” for example, was rejected 75 times before Jodi Daynard had the good sense to publish it in the Boston Review. In total, I have now acquired slightly more than 25,000 rejection letters. I also urge aspiring writers not to forget how fortunate they are to have an opportunity to write and to live in a society with a free and thriving literary culture. The few aspiring writers who do “make it” (whatever exactly that means) have an ethical obligation to give back in meaningful ways to the aspiring writers who have not yet made it. Any author who lose sight of that moral obligation or develop an air of entitlement should be forced to stand on the steps of the New York Public Library wearing a sign that reads: “I do not matter” (and they should be treated accordingly.) The world needs kind people far more than it needs successful writers.
What are you currently working on? Any other book projects or plays in the works?
I have a couple of novels in the works, but who doesn’t? I’m also working on a play about two sisters engaged in forging collectable autographs. And it goes without saying that I’m well into a new batch of stories….Alas, my secret dream is to write the book for an off-Broadway musical, so if any teams of lyricists and composers are searching for a marginally cooperative book writer, they should feel free to track me down. If they’re far more successful than I am, that would certainly be a selling point….
And finally, can you leave our readers with a list of five writers and/or books that you have found to be influential?
I am particularly fond of books that offer personal exposure (not of the exhibitionistic kind, but rather those that reveal vulnerability). Three memoirs that do this extremely well—all in very different ways—are Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt, Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart and Emily Rapp’s Poster Child. Selecting only one of Kevin Brockmeier’s works of fiction seems a bit like a literary version of Sophie’s choice, but I suppose—if forced—my favorite would be Things That Fall from the Sky. I’ll also pitch Shirley Jackson’s breathtaking short novel, The Road through the Wall, which remains, in my opinion, both the most powerful indictment of suburbia ever written and the most underappreciated American literary work of the post-war era.
Brockmeier and Jackson are also personal favorites of mine (and you’re certainly right about picking and choosing from his work). I might have to go with The Truth About Celia. Anyway, thank you for your time. And we look forward to reading your forthcoming collection.
Sequoia Nagamatsu was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and Oahu, Hawaii and was educated at Grinnell College in Iowa. A former large-scale event planner and endangered forest activist, he is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale where he also teaches composition and introductory fiction and poetry. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, The Bellevue Literary Review, West Branch, Redivider, The New Delta Review, Gargoyle, elimae, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories (New Internationalist, Oxford). He was named a finalist for the 2012 Jaimy Gordon Fiction Prize from Third Coast and was also named a finalist for the 2012 Cutbank Chapbook Contest. He is currently working on a post-apocalyptic, family-oriented novel involving shape shifters and a short story collection revolving around death, disconnection, and life on the periphery. He occasionally blogs at http://sequoianagamatsu.net