Don’t Quit Your Day Job, and Don’t Stop Taking Chances: An Interview with Jacob M. Appel
A professional bioethicist, writer with more than 100 publication credits, licensed New York City sightseeing guide, and scholar with multiple degrees in the fields of writing, philosophy, medicine and law, Jacob M. Appel is something of a modern day renaissance man. His story, “Saluting the Magpie,” published in Fourteen Hills 17.1, has received much acclaim and was also a finalist in Glimmer Train's “Family Matters” competition and a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. Naturally, Fourteen Hills had to catch up with the illustrious Appel and ask a few burning questions.
Fourteen Hills: At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to write?
Jacob M. Appel: I suppose I originally came to writing for all of the wrong reasons: I grew up in a commuter suburb (the sort that Hemingway once described as “a town of wide lawns and narrow minds”) and I remember watching the lawyers and businessmen boarding the city-bound train each morning and thinking, “I don’t want to do that!” So the initial appeal of writing was that it’s one of the few jobs in which you can achieve great success without changing out of your bathrobe. Only later did I realize that there’s magic in being able to capture the truths of the world on paper. (I’m told a writer also gets invited to good parties, but I don’t actually like parties, although I do enjoy pinning the invitations to my refrigerator.)
Fourteen Hills: Has your background as a professional bioethicist influenced your
writing, or are the two practices separate for you?
Jacob M. Appel: I’d like to think that the two practices are separate. I certainly don’t make a habit of writing “bioethics” stories or issue-oriented stories more generally, although I did have a piece in The Seattle Review a number of years ago about a couple deciding whether to keep a critically ill daughter on life support. At the same time, the reality is that most of my stories feature individuals confronted with grave moral dilemmas, and while these are often far-removed from the medical setting, I’ll concede that the narrative frequently reflects the mindset, and sometimes even the structure, of a bioethics consultation.
Fourteen Hills: In your story "Saluting the Magpie," [see issue 17.1] a married couple's relationship becomes strained as they grapple with their young daughter's sudden urge to swallow small objects. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Jacob M. Appel: The most immediate inspiration for this story is a mentor I had in medical school, a gastroenterologist, who owned a collection of slides depicting X-rays of strange objects that patients had ingested over the years: automobile parts, cutlery, small appliances, etc. On a broader level, I recognize that Gillian, the wife in “Saluting the Magpie,” is a composite of all the women I’ve dated and all the women I’ve wanted to date, while the husband is a composite of me at various moments of incompetence and stupidity in various relationships with those women. That’s the backdrop for most of my stories: “Boy longs for girl. Boy dupes girl into falling in love. Boy makes a complete and utter mess of things,” or occasionally, “Boy longs for girl. Girl proves too smart to fall for boy’s duping. Boy makes a complete and utter mess of things.” As a psychiatrist, I’ve come to realize that most of life follows this pattern.
Fourteen Hills: The story ends at a surprising, yet delightfully satisfying, standstill, when the narrator walks into the kitchen and finds his wife doing something quite unusual. We don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read your story yet, but needless to say, it incorporates the element of plausible surprise that so many writers desperately try to achieve in their stories. What process did you go through to come to this ending?
Jacob M. Appel: The take-home message from life, at least from what I’ve learned so far, seems to be that the vast majority of human beings are usually only a few inches from the proverbial edge. Gillian’s actions in “Saluting the Magpie” may seem extreme, but they are a perfectly rational response to a thoroughly irrational world. (Anybody who thinks life makes sense really hasn’t been paying attention.) I wish more writers were trying to achieve plausible surprises; far too many aspiring writers, I fear, focus more on the plausibility than on the surprise. Fiction workshops encourage this approach. As I get older, I’ve learned that taking chances is essential to succeed as a story writer—but taking chances also means generating lots of failed stories, and many writers are afraid to do that.
Fourteen Hills: You mention in a BigThink interview that you have accumulated "more than 20,000 rejection letters" in your writing career. Some might see that as a daunting figure, and yet it is also a beautiful symbol of your dedication to the craft of writing. And just a simple Google search brings up the fact that you've won more awards and competitions than anyone could shake a stick at, so clearly, you are doing something right! Do you have any advice for writers, in regards to staying motivated and not giving up?
Jacob M. Appel: The first rejection letter is the hardest. By the 20,000th, one hardly notices. And maybe that’s the key to this entire business: the more balls one has in the air, the less discouraged one is if one of them falls to the ground. Obviously, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of relentlessness: If a story is rejected by a journal, submit that same story to ten more journals the same day. But it’s also important to think about the big picture. One should plan on becoming a successful writer over the course of a career, not over the course of a few years. And, needless to say, don’t quit your day job. It’s much easier to write, I think, when you don’t have to worry about starvation.
Fourteen Hills: What is next for you in terms of writing projects? Any ideas you
are working on or upcoming publications we can watch out for?
Jacob M. Appel: I have new work coming out soon in Pleiades, Subtropics, Gettysburg Review, and Western Humanities Review. And, as always, I am working on my novel and a new play. My secret dream, for what it’s worth, is to write the book for an off-Broadway musical. So if there are any successful teams of composers and lyricists out there, looking for a third-wheel to tag along for the ride, they should not hesitate to contact me at email@example.com.