Tag Archives: Einstein’s Beach House

An Interview with Jacob M. Appel

12 Feb
Jacob Appel's latest story collection, Einstein's Beach House, features characters who aren't always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel’s latest story collection, Einstein’s Beach House, features characters who aren’t always who they seem or claim to be.

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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

Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.)

February 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Build a Tension Machine

10 Feb
Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

There is an often-taught writing rule that backstory should be integrated into the present action. Don’t lump it altogether. Usually, this is pretty good advice, though I’ve read enough lumped backstory in excellent stories lately that I’m beginning to wonder if this rule isn’t trying to fix the wrong thing. The problem may not be chunks of backstory as much as backstory that doesn’t clearly connect to and build toward the present drama.

A good example of backstory that appears as a chunk and that also builds toward drama can be found in Jacob Appel’s story, “Einstein’s Beach House,” which first appeared in Sonora Review and is the title story of Appel’s latest story collection. You can read an excerpt from the story at Sonora Review.

How the Story Works

The story actually begins with more backstory than the excerpt shows (the excerpt picks up about two pages into the story). This story’s first paragraph is almost entirely backstory about a typo that led tourists to believe that the narrator’s house had once belonged to Alfred Einstein. In the excerpt, the section after the space break picks up on this backstory. Here is the first paragraph of it:

The two-story wood-frame bungalow at 2467 South Ocean Avenue had served my father’s family for four generations. Originally, “The Cottage” had been a “beach house”—a fashionable summer address for my great-grandparents—but after the stock market crash of ’29 forced my father’s grandfather from his Washington Square townhouse, the Scraggs took refuge on the Jersey Shore, and we’d been muddling along there ever since. I recently read in a magazine that, on average, it takes four generations to squander a large fortune; if that’s true, our family was People’s Exhibit A. My father completed our social descent when he eloped with Mama, a Jewish-atheist folk singer who’d dropped out of NYU to follow Jefferson Airplane on their West Coast tour. They’d met at Grand Central Station, on New Year’s Day, 1968, after my father absentmindedly wandered into the ladies’ restroom by mistake.

In the most literal sense, this paragraph tells backstory (or context), beginning generations before the present action begins. It’s the sort of passage that writers in a workshop might suggest cutting, but doing so would make some of the best moments in the story (the entire story, in fact) impossible to show. So, the question is how to keep the backstory and connect is to drama, which is where the readers’ interest naturally lies. That connection begins with the line about “four generations to squander a large fortune” and the narrator’s father in finalizing that “social descent” by marrying her mother.

Watch how, in the next paragraph, the story turns those two pieces of information into an opportunity for drama:

My parents had been a bad match from the get-go. Even at the age of eleven, I could sense this to be the case—and sometimes, while they were bickering, I wondered why they didn’t just get divorced. The fundamental difference between them was that, for all her superficial radicalism and musical aspirations, Mama could be ruthlessly practical when the occasion demanded it. But my father, rest his soul, teared up at Disney movies and never embraced a pipe dream that didn’t end in a pot of gold and a Nobel Prize. So the two of them argued about whether to withhold the tenant’s security deposit over a chipped mirror, and when to force Grandpa Byron into a nursing home, and even how much to tip the postman at Christmas. No decision was too trivial for a spat. At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.

The paragraph clearly describes the differences in temperament and philosophy in the father and mother. This is something that many stories do, but those differences are not the same as drama. It’s useful to think of them as a machine. Without a motor, they won’t run. They simply represent potential action. But when energy is applied (when the motor is switched on), the machine begins to work, grinding the characters together and producing sparks, tension, and drama. What is the motor? In this case, it’s Einstein’s beach house.

In a way, all of this backstory has been building the machine and the motor, and the rest of the story shows what happens when this machine is left free to run.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use backstory to build a drama-creating machine, using “Einstein’s Beach House” by Jacob Appel as a model. You can try these exercises in any order. In fact, they may make more sense in another order, so feel free to switch them around:

  1. Create the parts that will grind together. This is almost always done, as Appel shows, by bringing together characters that will, by nature, come into conflict due to their differences. The differences can be in terms of personality, age, gender, religion, politics, job, sports team affiliation, or just about anything that people form their identities around. It may be possible to write a story with two characters who are identical in every way or who always get along, no matter what, but it’s difficult to imagine. In many stories, characters that seem well matched are often revealed to be not so well suited for each other by the plot. Backstory usually serves the purpose of introducing these parts.
  2. Build the motor. This is, essentially, the plot. You’ve got two characters, but they’re still, awaiting some force to put them into motion. That force is the motor of the story. Appel uses the house and its uncertain origins. When visitors ask for tours, the narrator’s father and mother react quite differently, and those reactions supply the story’s tension. So, what motor can set your characters into motion and conflict? Regardless of what you pick, the result will probably be differing reactions, goals, and plans. The thing at the center of those reactions, goals, and plans can be anything: gold (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a tech startup (The Social Network), or a painting (The Goldfinch). It can be something desired, something necessary (food, water, shelter), or something intrusive (illness, neighbor, dog). When writing backstory, aim your introduction of the parts toward this motor.
  3. Switch on the machine. Once you have brought together the parts and motor, you can switch it on. Backstory often ends just before this machine begins running. Appel’s backstory ends with a kind of ready, set, go: “At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.” It’s clear that more will happen (the machine will create more tension) than simply slammed doors. How can you end your backstory on a similar note, summarizing the early workings of the machine in order to set up the highest tension and drama?

Good luck and have fun.

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