Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories, many of which have been anthologized, and has won numerous prizes. His nonfiction has appeared in many newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
To read an excerpt from his story “Einstein’s Beach House” and an exercise on writing backstory, click here.
In this interview, Appel discusses living stories in his mind, the inherent subjectivity of narrative, and jumping forward in time at a story’s end.
This story’s plot has a strong pulse. If you read the end of each section, you can see how each ends with a complication: the father deciding to sell fake tours, the arrival of Einstein’s aunt, the threat of losing the house. How did you create such a tension-building structure? Is it something you do naturally or through a particular kind of revision?
Jacob M. Appel
I think much of this comes out of the writing process itself. I like to end my day’s writing at the conclusion of a scene; in fact, most of my stories are written roughly on a scene-a-day basis….so if you count the number of scenes in a story, you can often surmise how long I took to write a first draft of that particular piece. (I prefer to “live” the story in my mind as I write—sort of like method acting, only without leaving my chair.) I also prefer to stop writing at a point of particular tension, so I have a crisis to resolve when I return to the story at the next session. Fortuitously, these two preferences combine to create a synchronicity between the scene breaks and the most dramatic moments in the story. At least, the two elements come together like this when things are going well—when they go badly, my writing reads more like a daytime soap opera.
The story raises the possibility that the house really was Einstein’s beach house, something that becomes the basis of legal claims, and yet the story doesn’t ever really settle the issue—or perhaps it does. When I returned to the story’s opening to figure out who was right, I realized that you established definite possession of the house in the first paragraph without—and I looked at this paragraph several times—any kind of definite proof, just the narrator’s say-so. It’s such a delicate trick to pull off, and I’m curious how difficult it was to arrive at.
Jacob M. Appel
All narrative is inherently subjective. That’s the only valuable lesson I think I learned in law school. Readers often have a difficult time accepting this. For instance, a few deeply-misguided readers of my first short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, concluded that I was a bigot because I used several racial stereotypes; these readers seemed unable to distinguish between my personal views, as the author, and the disturbing prejudices of the limited third person narrators. In Einstein, the narrator tells the story from a great distance, but carefully withholds information from us along the way. We never know for certain whose house it is. As in many of my stories, characters “lie their way toward reality”—spinning tales that may turn out to be true.
The end of the story jumps forward in time briefly to the narrator’s adult life before returning to the moment of the story. This is something that, as a writer, I often feel compelled to do at the end of a story, and it’s certainly a technique something that a number of writers use (Alice Munro and Richard Ford for example). But it’s also a move that feels like it might have the potential to become artificial, a crutch to lean on when we can’t quite figure out how to end a story. Your ending works quite well, but I wonder if this was this something you were wary of?
Jacob M. Appel
I’ll take any comparison to Alice Munro or Richard Ford with both a broad smile and several billion grains of salt, but thank you! The reason I jump forward in time—and I imagine the reason that other, more established authors do as well—is that one wants to garner the maximum of meaning from each narrative. Readers want to know: Why is this story important? Does it matter? But often the importance of a narrative is not clear for years or even generations. I’m reminded of the poetry of the brilliant Philip Larkin (eg. “MCMXIV”), in which the power derives not only from what he describes, but from what we know, unspoken, comes afterwards. Yes, it’s risky. But writing is a risky business. If you’re too risk-averse for a flash-forward, you might try a career in accounting.
You have one of the most dizzying bios I’ve ever read. By my count, you hold ten degrees, you’re certified to practice law in two states, you’ve published fiction in more than 200 journals (a number so astounding that I can’t quite wrap my head around, especially since your stories are not short), and you’ve published pretty extensively in journals dedicated to bioethics. How have you managed all of this? Do you ever sleep? Are there cloned Jacob Appels—as in the film Multiplicity—doing your work for you?
Jacob M. Appel
It turns out there actually is another writer named Jacob Appel, an economist who co-wrote a book called More Than Good Intentions. I am NOT him. That does not stop well-wishers and detractors from mistaking us on many occasions…..I cannot speak for the other Jacob Appel, but for myself, I keep writing because I like doing it. The day I stop enjoying my time conjuring up imaginary worlds, is the day I’m ready for them to put a pillowcase over my head. (That’s the bioethicist in me speaking, possibly with his tongue in his cheek.)