Conversation with Fiction Writer Jacob Appel, by Boston Accent's Justin Goodman
Jacob Appel is a physician, lawyer, bioethicist, NYC tour guide, and writer. He’s an athlete of the academy, with two novels, an essay collection, and four short story collections under his belt. A very impressive man who could take himself to court over medical malpractice and struggle the entire time about the decision, if it was called for. We interviewed Appel over email after he contacted us about reviewing his most recent collection, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, a quirky and acute series of romantic failures and successes amid, among other things, climate change and resurrection.
What Appel isn’t widely known for, and perhaps should be more so, is his activism. Particularly in regards to the African country Eritrea, where “the rule of law has been replaced by the rule of fear” (NSFW) due to the leadership of president Isaias Afwerki who actively tortures the press, writers, and other dissidents. While we hope you enjoy the interview, we equally hope you familiarize yourself with the Kim Jong Un of Africa, whose country is torn and whose residents contribute to the refugee crisis and, perhaps, should Appel’s wit and sincerity affect you as it did us, you can help to make this violation of human rights an issue that ends in 2016.
Boston Accent: Without fail, you're asked in your interviews about your degrees (which are many), your publication credits (which are many), and your ontological condition (which remains unverified). While I enjoy the answers, I'm counting on your Appel charm to appear regardless, so I'll skip the Turing test. Appropriately, I want to start off with your sense of humor. You obviously love jokes and, in fact, stories like "Sharing the Hostage" (Einstein's Beach House) and "Measures of Sorrow" (Miracles and Conundrums) end on O. Henry-esque rim shots. And you described your stories for Einstein's Beach House as “comedy of manners,” poking fun at urban socialites. But Miracles and Conundrums has a different, distinctly Jewish, sense of humor—comparing the aforementioned stories is enlightening. What is your relationship to your Jewish background, if any? How seriously do you take humor?
Jacob Appel: Humor has served the Jewish people well for centuries: It disproved the blood libel, undermined the Inquisition, staved off countless pogroms, saved Anne Frank, and prevented the Holocaust. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an embellishment. (You didn’t think you’d get an Anne Frank joke in the first minute of this interview, did you?) But for a people whose cultural lifecycle recently consisted of eating root vegetables and being chased around the Pale by Cossacks, a good joke now and then never hurt. And jokes are free. As you many know, during the Middle Ages, the only two occupations open to Jews were usury and comedy—and my ancestors weren’t good at math. However, I read somewhere that all Ashkenazi Jews are first cousins within thirty generations, which lets my mother boast to gentile friends about Cousin Freud and Cousin Marx and Cousin Einstein.
I do take humor very seriously. Far more seriously, my former Hebrew school teachers will tell you, than I take Judaism. After all, you can be a good comedian and still enjoy shrimp. Many of the great novelists of the twentieth century—William Styron, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene—used humor to leaven deeply powerful social commentary. Even Melville shared a whale joke now and then. I fear today, with some notable exceptions, literary authors are becoming an earnest and dour lot. I can think of several recent, blockbuster novels, which I shall not name, that are about as much fun as a date with Adlai Stevenson. Who was Jewish, by the way. Or, at least, he was circumcised, which means you can never rule it out for sure…
BA: What's comedy without a little Anne Frank, right? But I find that interesting in particular because you have a reputation for espousing non-traditional views (assisted suicide, genetic modification of diseased embryos, bestiality, and so on). Remarkably serious topics that would be hard to fit a joke into, especially as a physician who deals with people suffering from them; "Invasive Species" (a story as much about assisted suicide as about the extremes of grief) doesn't end on a funny note, but a hallucinatory one. And this is a trend in your stories. As Cohan says in "Invasive Species," "Today, we've come to view invasives as a threat, but that hasn't always been the case." None of your conclusions are conclusive. They tend to balance the "today" and the "hasn't always been" to imply that something will change. Do you find this inconclusiveness lends itself better to social commentary?
JA: When I taught bioethics at Brown University, I had a reputation for neutrality; even though my views drift toward the left of the spectrum on many issues, I was always delighted when, at the end of a semester, conservative students—often a minority at top universities like Brown—would wonder whether or not I shared their opinions. Of course, my teaching wasn’t neutral at all; rather, my bias presented itself in how I set the agenda. The same is true of ideas in fiction. Writing a story about assisted suicide that creates ambiguity around the issue is in itself an act of social commentary. That being said, I am not a fan of novels or stories “of ideas.” A few brilliant writers, like Dostoyevsky and Camus, manage to pull off the idea-driven novel, but in the hands of most mere mortals, idea-driven work falls flat and reads as propaganda. The last thing I want is to write a short story more suited for placement under someone’s windshield wipers. Rather, the goal should be to tell good stories, and sprinkle in a few dangerous ideas like arsenic.
The other reason many of my stories are inconclusive is because, at heart, I am a wishy-washy person. What easier way to protect oneself against criticism than to avoid taking a stance? Once I’ve mastered this approach with fiction, I intend to pursue national office. My followers are going to model ourselves on the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s. We’re going to be the Know Less Than Nothings. We’re going to make Donald Trump look like Paul Wellstone. Do I have your vote?
BA: If you plan on re-instating the entirety of the Alien and Sedition Acts, then you can count on my vote; I love dangerous ideas. However, speaking of aliens and creating ambiguities, the piece from which the new collection draws its name stands out to me. Not because the characters discuss the issue of abortion directly, or because it’s probably the closest to romance you get. It's not even that "Red Ziggy" is an alien; that's actually the least strange since, I assumed, this was inspired by David Bowie. These are weird.
But Red Ziggy seems closest to how you've described yourself as a professor. He has a reputation of neutrality and people tend to think he agrees with them, but his opinions drift towards the left. This is getting into the tricky territory of autobiographical detail, but, to boldly go where everyone has gone before, do you find yourself most reflected in Red Ziggy? For him, the miracles and conundrums seem to be the impossibility of full understanding while somehow implicitly comprehending love and life (that "the simplest of earthly life forms might contain mysteries grand enough to defy an eternity of painstaking observations"). As a scientific, lawyerly, and literary individual (all of which rely on observation and notions of factuality), does this improve or conflict with those responsibilities?
JA: You’ve outed me. Like Red Ziggy, I’ve also been sent by the denizens of a distant planet to observe the moral quirks of earthlings…. Okay, that’s not exactly true, but sometimes I feel that way. I do think there is a part of me in Red Ziggy, also in the protagonist in “Measures of Sorrow.” They are psychological outsiders, befuddled by their fellow human beings even when they are in the thick of the action. (Sort of like the governesses in nineteenth century British novels.)
I think the catharsis for many of my characters occurs when they stop trying to figure out the ways of the world and accept that some mysteries are beyond understanding. I do not mean this in a religious sense, merely that they develop a fundamental awe of the inexplicable. The most talented figures in law or medicine are able to recognize and accept that some matters defy concrete explanation. Any medical or legal code that doesn't account for the power of love or the fear of death is bound to fail. (Or, at a more concrete level, try explaining to a stranger why you love your spouse. Or describe your deceased grandparents to your children. In both cases, nothing you say will prove adequate.) That being said, I think the world could learn a lot from folks like “Red Ziggy”; if I do run for President, he will likely be my ticket mate.
And I’m not sure what benefit there would be in enacting the entirety of the Alien and Sedition Acts, because I believe at least one (and possibly both) contain the proviso that the laws will expire in 1801. (See, Mr. Rothschild, I was paying attention in eleventh grade history!)
BA: We resolved your ontological condition, after all! I'll alert the other lit mags right away. Speaking of "Measures of Sorrow" first, though, you've described your writing as (at least) absurdist, which, naturally, makes me think of the master of absurdism, Samuel Beckett. The narrator's thesis in "Measures of Sorrow," quoted below:
According to Beit Hillel, the precise number of tears to be shed before the messiah's arrival was fixed. Those not wept in one generation would inevitably pour forth in another. A second school, Beit Shammai, rejected this interpretation. These rabbis maintained it was the volume of tears, not their number, that was predetermined.
is even seemingly crafted from one of the most memorable lines from Waiting For Godot, said by Pozzo: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”
Pozzo, though, is generally referred to as the antagonist of the play. Perhaps the same could be said of your narrator. He looks down on Ollie, tries to cut his Caribbean identity into a neat shape (like with the thesis), and there's the moment near the end when he wants to watch Ollie talk to the girl because of an implicit hope for Schadenfreude. The same argument could be made about every narrator; Red Ziggy is removed from the abortion conversation and "The Resurrection Bakeoff”’s narrator is cruelly skeptical of his mother-in-law's hopes. I'm inclined to think the notion of being a psychological outsider isn't necessarily a good thing; what does it mean to you to be a psychological outsider, Mr. President?
JA: You don’t ask easy questions, do you? If you’d like to become a psychiatrist, I’d be glad to write you a recommendation.
I think being a psychological outsider is the condition of perpetually being unable to lose oneself in the moment. So, at the most reductive level, you go to a friend’s wedding, and while you watch the ceremony, you reflect of the couple: They love each other… but they could easily have fallen in love two different people and been just as happy…. and they have a 50% chance of getting divorced…. and will she really visit him in the nursing home every day if he grows old and sick before she does? You get the picture. A more sophisticated version involves living on the constant lookout for the blind spots of others—seeing their foibles, even if they don’t, cataloging their futility in your mind. If you do that all the time, you’re well on your way to being a psychological outsider… and possibly a competent short story writer... albeit a painful date and a helluva rotten babysitter.
I am sincerely surprised, by the way, to learn that Beckett pinched that bit about the tears from me. I genuinely thought he was above that. I suppose that’s what one gets from trusting foreigners.
BA: Beckett's unscrupulous, I suppose. I like to consider myself a painful date. But the questions get easier from here, promise. Miracles and Conundrums was unlike your previous writing in its use of genre: Sci-fi, cli-fi, (religious) fantasy, and arguably gothic ("The Orchard"). It makes sense, given that you've described it as "being unable to lose oneself in the moment," that these stories don't really focus on the genre aspect. What inspired the transition from literary realism though? Do you read "genre fiction," as it is dubbed?
JA: “It gets easier from here, promise,” is what we tell the patients in psychiatry before we shock their brains, so forgive me if I’m wary….
I don’t read “genre” fiction, at least as far as I know, but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective: If one writes westerns, my stories about East Coast suburbanites are genre. But I have to confess that Miracles and Conundrums does not reflect a break with the past, but is rather an artifact of organization. Many of these stories appeared in literary journals long ago, before some of the stories included in Einstein’s Beach House, but I’ve collected the less traditional stories in this volume. In fact, “Shell Game with Organs” (1998) was among my first stories published in a major journal. Way back in the days when I thought that publishing a handful of great stories would win me glory, power, and a date with Sophia Loren. Since then, I’ve realized that it will take me a lot of great published stories to garner a date with Sophia Loren. Glory and power may require another novel.
Wait—the above is a lie— I actually did write a mystery novel a few years ago. Wedding Wipeout. It's a mystery with a Jewish theme, and I wrote it because my nonagenarian grandmother (who is still with us at 95 years) primary reads Jewish mystery novels, and I wanted to dedicate a book to her that she might actually enjoy reading. Does that count?
BA: Absolutely. Although I don't doubt the public good of a date with a matinee idol, Aristotle probably said something about that, and People Magazine is fairly comforting for some people. You'd make headlines without a date with the whole "cleaver murderer" thing, however, with someone probably comparing you to Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.
Was Miracles and Conundrums similarly formed? It came together only after you started preparing it? And if your research is that extensive for short stories, I'd be curious to know how it is for novels. I believe you have at least two novels waiting for a publisher. Was it the same process for them, and for your published novels, The Biology of Luck and The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up? Or was it more intuitive?
And, while I'm flattered, I don't want to be too relentless an adoptee grandson. Makes me sound like the one no one invites to Thanksgiving. So, on a closing note, what was the strangest thing you decided to research that you think more people should look into and know about?
JA: I actually have three novels waiting for a publisher. If you know a commercial publisher interested in buying them, I suspect my agent will offer a buy-two-and-get-one-free discount or something similar. I also have a completed non-fiction book waiting to see the light of day. I’m optimistic I will place them all eventually; my only fear is that it may be posthumously. Incidentally, neither of the novels you mention required much research. The Biology of Luck is about a day in the life of a New York City tour guide and I happen to be a New York City tour guide; The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up is about a self-righteous curmudgeon and I happen to be a self-righteous curmudgeon.
You’ll forgive me if I end on a heavy note. I don’t want to squander an opportunity to draw people’s attention to overlooked human rights violations, such as the brutal torture of dissidents and writers in the so-called country of Eritrea. Your audience should research the dictator, Isaias Afwerki. (And then write to your Congressperson to urge the CIA to kill him.) Unlike Anne Frank, this is not funny, because it is ongoing. I try to mention it in every interview because nobody else seems to care.
BA: I'll make sure to include this information; an admirable goal. And unfortunately, I know no such publisher, but if I bump into one then I'll certainly mention you.
Thank you for your time and humor throughout this interview. Do you have any last words? Either of wisdom or of wit?
JA: It has been my pleasure. I ask only that people say of me what Leo Rosten once said of W.C. Fields: "Any man who hates dogs and small children can't be all bad."
Check out Jacob Appel's website here.