The Illusion of Authenticity: An Interview with Jacob M. Appel

by Jessie Van Rheenen

Jacob M. Appel is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including the recent story collection Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana. His short fiction has appeared in over two hundred literary journals; he also publishes in the field of bioethics and is a practicing psychiatrist in New York City. This year alone, Appel will publish four books, a confluence he describes as “an embarrassment of riches.” So far in 2017, he has released a story collection and a novel: The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, winner of the 2016 Howling Bird Press Fiction Award, and The Mask of Sanity (Permanent Press). Forthcoming are The Liars’ Asylum (Black Lawrence Press) and a second novel, Millard Salter’s Last Day, out in November 2017 from Gallery Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint.

During the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Washington, D.C., I sat down with Appel over coffee for a discussion of his approach to absurdity in fiction, matriarchal families, the value of MFA programs, the illusion of authenticity, and expanding fair use.

JESSIE VAN RHEENEN: I want to open with the language of your stories in Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana. There is a lot of liveliness in the sound of the sentences and in the way people speak, as in “the “rhythm of the meat” as a woman tenderizes mutton in “The Butcher’s Music,” or a border patrol agent’s circuitous love story in “Boundaries.” I wonder how you see the language of your characters and the language used to describe the setting in terms of crafting the larger landscape. Do they work together, or does one tend to build from the other?

JACOB M. APPEL: It’s interesting you ask that. If I can answer that—and I don’t think I even can, though it is a very legitimate question—it’s a very Aristotelian view of how you build a story. You gather together lots of pieces and make them into a whole. For me, stories are written far more Platonically; there is the concept of the story, and a sense of how the pieces fall into place to put it together. And that’s not to say I don’t have some overarching framework, but I don’t think, This is how the language is going to work. I probably did when I started out. Now it’s all internalized. It’s the difference between driving a 1950 Chevrolet, where if you know what to do you can take apart the engine and put it back together, and driving my Honda, where once you take off one part, it’s hopeless. All the pieces were designed by other people, and I should be so lucky to have other people design the pieces, but it’s sort of a seamless whole.

JVR: The attention to detail in particular comes through in these stories. I notice the food imagery quite a bit—and maybe that’s my own interest—but you describe a Christmas feast, for instance, and more domestic intricacies that together create backdrops in the geographically diverse locations of the Canada-Vermont border, San Francisco, and Lawless County, Arizona, to name just a few.

JMA: Now that you mention it—I never thought of this before, so I’m having a revelation during our interview—maybe you shouldn’t trust the detail. Maybe Chekhov is very spare on detail and tells you a true story, and maybe I can’t really tell you a true story, so I just clutter it with interesting details and distract you.

JVR: I’ve read that you’re a fan of Karen Russell’s work. Your fiction also plays with absurdity and strangeness, if not always to the fabulist level of Russell’s. But there are certainly twists of the bizarre; at the same time, there are unexpected moments of violence, like the avian massacre that kicks off your story “The Punishment,” or the more subtle violent potential of a toddler with pica who ingests safety pins in “Saluting the Magpie.” How do you approach striking that balance—not going too farcical or slapstick with the absurdity, and on the other hand, not overly dark?

JMA: There’s a great short story I read when I was a lot younger by Lucas Cooper called “Notes to the Alumni,”1 and it’s a parody of an alumni magazine where people write in and say what they’re doing. Only it starts off with perfectly normal things, and as it goes along the things people are doing become stranger and stranger and more personally revealing and inappropriate for an alumni magazine. What I love about the story is there’s no point where you can pinpoint where it makes that transition. Similarly there’s a George Harrar piece, “The 5:22.” He’s a great writer. It was in Best American Short Stories, I want to say about ten years ago, in which life stories could change on one of the characters, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when it goes from the real to the non-real. I really admire stories that do that—when you look back and you can’t find that line.

JVR: I was thinking back to “Jury of Matrons,” your story published in The Greensboro Review issue 99 that won the Robert Watson Literary Prize. When I was reading through submissions and came upon that one, I was immediately drawn into the family dynamics and the vision of a lone boy surrounded by female relatives. In this collection too there seem to be similar threads around female characters holding families together. What leads you to write about these matriarchal family structures and iron-willed women?

JMA: That’s a good psychological question. This is why I don’t go to therapy, because if I went to therapy they would ask questions like this. They would unravel me, and they wouldn’t be able to put me back together again. Like Humpty Dumpty and the king’s horses. But it’s a really insightful question, and the short answer is I did not grow up in a family like that. I always wanted a little sister as a kid; I got a brother instead. He’s aware of that. But my serious romantic relationships for the most part have been with women who for whatever reason come from various broad matriarchal families, and I sort of coopted their families into my stories. But it’s not a Freudian phenomenon.

I wouldn’t say “This is Aunt Mary” or “That’s Uncle Fred,” but conceptually you watch people in action and you absorb their way of seeing the world. And matriarchal families are more interesting. Patriarchal families do nothing. They drink beer and go fishing, but I don’t like stories like that. I think there’s a large range of stories taking it on; there is nothing left to be said about fishing, deer hunting, beer drinking, or any of the traditional men’s activities, unless you come up with a very novel way of doing it, which I rarely see. And yet journals publish those stories over and over again. I promise no deer-hunting stories. Not even from the deer’s point of view.

JVR: I want to talk about how you like to put your books together, and how you group your stories. In Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana, for example, what do you see as uniting the stories? How are these ten works in conversation with one another?

JMA: Unfortunately there is a material explanation, not an ideological answer to this. With Black Lawrence, I wrote six collections, and so I’ll write the stories for those six collections. Then the challenge became coming up with collections of the right length. A lot of this is how long the stories are, and stories that don’t overlap in terms of themes or details in ways that are trivial but annoying, and I’ve already made some mistakes. One of my collections has two different characters with the same first name, and that’s the kind of thing you try to avoid. But inevitably when I publish 220 stories, there will be overlap like that. So a lot of it is material rather than some philosophical combination. The goal is to have one large collection, say, The Collected Second-Rate Stories of Jacob M. Appel. Which would not be a bad title. Someday. Posthumously. After the lightning strike.

Most of the work I’ve done has unfortunately been materially constrained. I dream of that day when it’s not. I was just thinking on a different score. You could be like Dorothy Kilgallen. Do you know who that is? Dorothy Kilgallen was the only person to interview Lee Harvey Oswald before he was killed, and she went on to a career as a television panelist. So if I get struck by lightning on the way out, this would be your big moment. You should be rooting for that. I want to publish my eleven books, and I will have no more burden, and you will be a celebrity.

JVR: I’m hoping it doesn’t end that way!

JMA: It’s your backup plan. Karen Russell is probably hoping it ends that way. Who’s this guy who always mentions me in interviews? When her husband sends me a dead fish, I will know the truth.

JVR: It’s difficult not to be struck by your prolific writing and publications but also your work in other professional fields. Am I off if I say that you have ten degrees at this point? What does your writing schedule look like?

JMA: I’ve got to count—I have a law degree, a medical degree, a Master of Bioethics, two MFAs, three other master’s degrees and an MPH, so nine plus an undergraduate degree.

It’s sort of like the women who describe having small children and how they cobble together an hour here, an hour there. It’s sort of the same only I don’t have any children, so at the end of the day they get adult children, and I get nothing. I admire the people who get up every morning and write for three hours every day, but I don’t really think very many people do that. I think a lot of people claim they do that. I write whenever inspiration strikes and time is available.

JVR: Do you have spaces that are more conducive to writing where you feel you’re able to do better work?

JMA: Sometimes I write in the nurse’s station at the hospital. All the other doctors there are doing the same thing, so you show up and you think that all those people writing at the computers are working on patient care. They’re all writing their novels. Once years ago, I was on the upper floor of the hospital. I found an open computer and it was a quiet night, and then a patient in a nearby room coded. And suddenly the patient is dying, there are all these other guys in white coats, and I have no idea what’s going on. I’m just writing my novel, don’t mind me! That was a strange experience.

JVR: Turning to your collected personal essays in Phoning Home, I enjoyed the way a lot of these pieces explore childhood and memory—including an impressive leap from lime Jell-O to genetic testing in “An Absence of Jell-O.” In that vein, I’m curious how you approach those essays compared to your fiction. I recently taught a Tim Bascom article from Creative Nonfiction in which he talked about how fiction writers invent and add layers, whereas nonfiction essayists use the opposite approach: it’s a process of deletion and chiseling down the experience to selective memories. Do you think that idea captures some of your process?

JMA: Yeah, I think that’s a really good description. My motivation may be different from his in the sense that he may be thinking of it as shaping a great work of art, and I think of it as shaping the image of how I want people who don’t know me to respond to my piece. And so a lot of my paring down is paring out things that I don’t want the world to know. As you can already tell, I’m a very difficult interview because I try not to share anything personal, so I have a deflective answer. If people ask about my personal life my answer involves Karen Russell and Sophia Loren, which is clearly not the case. So in the same way it is a matter of covering up what I don’t want the world to know. It is constructively neurotic. That is not a psychiatric term, but it works.

JVR: Going off of that idea of the constructively neurotic, “Hearth and Home” is one story in Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana that stayed with me and kept resurfacing. As a character describes after moving back to the U.S. from abroad: “in the states, connections could be sudden and furious—maybe because they were so few and far between.” In this and many of the other stories, there seems to be an inviting in of the chaos and ambiguity. The pieces are not too clean, where everything is tied up in a bow at the end. Given your other professional fields of medicine and bioethics and law—which sometimes get cast, perhaps not rightfully, as more clean and clinical—I wonder how that work informs your writing, and how a certain openness in storytelling might also reflect back in your other fields.

JMA: I think in all of the fields I’m involved in people aren’t very put together and the world isn’t very clean and black and white. And the law reveals that and medicine certainly reveals that. Most people are put together with a combination of paper clips and sealing wax, and it’s only a matter of time before they get too close to a flame and they melt down and their pieces start falling to the floor. And so my stories are sort of like that. I think people who are like that are interesting people who you want to spend time with. People who aren’t like that, people who are made of mahogany, are insufferable. I didn’t know them personally, but I imagine a dinner with the Apollo astronauts would’ve been one of the dullest things imaginable because these were guys who had been screened for all of the attributes that you or I would find desirable—and they screen those people out. So they get people who are not inherently temperamental or creative; they get people who are very stable under fire, and when the sky is falling, reach out to catch it. The characters I create, like me, are people who, as long as you don’t pull the string and unravel them, are fine. But once you pull the string, you’re done. You’re looking at my clothing now and thinking, where is the string? I did bring two identical sweatshirts, so in case one of them unravels, I have the other. I have a third identical one in my hotel room.

JVR: We’re here at AWP, surrounded by writers and writing programs. I understand you were a Visiting Writer at Augsburg University not long ago, and you’ve taught creative writing many places and have MFAs yourself. I’m interested to hear your take on the role of writing programs and how you see the current landscape for developing writers.

JMA: I loved getting MFAs—I have two of them, one from NYU in fiction and one from Queens College, CUNY in playwriting—but I think it’s important to go in with the right mindset. Then you do fine. Unfortunately people go into writing programs the way they go to dental school, and the difference is if you go to dental school, you graduate and you become a dentist. And no matter where you go, you will be a dentist, there will be demand for dentists. There are no starving dentists out there. If you find me a starving dentist, I will show you my teeth. In contrast, there are a lot of starving writers out there because it is not a professional degree; it’s a fulfillment degree, or an edifying degree. You learn skills and you meet people, but I think people go into it often with the wrong expectations. If you go in with the right expectations, that you’re going to learn something interesting, meet engaged people, and have some time to write, then it’s an extremely good choice. So I think it’s a matter of figuring out what you want to get out of it.

The other thing I’d say, with a grain of caution, is that I think writing programs do a very bad job of explaining to people what they can expect out of their program, often by design. The difference is if you go to dental school and they tell you everybody who graduates from here is going to be a dentist, that’s true. Creative writing programs admit people who they know are not going to make it professionally as writers, and there is a difference between encouraging people and misleading people. And there’s a wide range. There are some people who you read their material and you think, Wow, this person is naturally gifted, if they stick with it, they’re going to make it. But it’s rare. A lot of people fall in a range where if they work hard, they’re bright, engaged people, they will write something that is worthwhile, that is publishable. They may not win the Pulitzer Prize, but they’ll have a good book. But there are also people who have different skill sets, and they’re just not going to be professional writers. To admit those people is perfectly fine; I had a nun in one of my classes, or a former nun I guess she was, whose goal was to write stories for her nieces and nephews. And she was really good at it. The stories were great for family lore, but she had no illusion she was going to publish them. It would be a disservice to her to tell her that the stories were going to appear in The New Yorker.

JVR: Most writers that I’ve encountered have their specific obsessions within the craft, whether it’s a certain form, a thread of research, or something tied to language or parts of speech or even punctuation. What is one of your current writerly obsessions?

JMA: Well the key to obsession is often you don’t know they’re obsessions. Only other people can point them out to you. I actually got a letter from someone very recently who’d read my collections, and noticed that many of my stories contained fake greeting cards of various sorts, or various plays on the kinds of cards you’d get. I have a character who gets a card congratulating him on his workman’s comp claim, and people getting congratulations on the death of their ex-spouse. So there’s a whole series of cards that probably could be marketed quite lucratively if you played your cards right, so to speak. Think about it: you could make a “Congratulations on Your Lobotomy” card and give it to your elderly relatives.

It’s the kind of thing you can add to a story that falsely conveys authenticity. There are writers who by nature are authentic in their writing, meaning they have a certain gift for capturing their world in a concrete way. I am not one of them. I am not Chekhov, I am not James Joyce. So you need to create these tags that give an aura of authenticity that isn’t really authentic. The difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton comes to mind; you can either be authentic, or you can work really hard to convey authenticity so you can achieve what you want to achieve otherwise. And I am definitely in the Hillary Clinton camp when it comes to writing. For example, one of the stories which comes to mind is in Scouting for the Reaper. There’s a story about a blind rabbit.2 I have the librarian arrive at work and it happens to be Shrove Tuesday, so you have people prank-calling about Shrove Tuesday. Now, it’s a random fact of the world. Of course, we live through Shrove Tuesday all the time; I’m not a religious Catholic, so I don’t celebrate it. But adding a detail like that to the story creates the illusion of authenticity. Making it a day when you don’t move your car for alternate-side parking brings the illusion of authenticity.

JVR: You seem to have a loyal online following—including one Goodreads reviewer who wrote that her idea of happiness would be if you were to marry one of her daughters—so I wonder what your experience is like developing your more public persona as a writer. How do you work to build your audience?

JMA: I send out a lot of free books. A lot of free eBooks, a lot of free library books. Free is the operative word. Writers don’t give away enough free things. The tobacco companies figured this out a long time ago; you give free cigarettes, people get addicted, they buy more of them.

The most important thing—which is actually not that important, but in relation to me is important—is I tell people if they’d like free electronic copies of my books, they should just email me. Electronic copies are free for me so they’re free for my audience. It’s if they’d like to send me fan mail, I guess if they’d like to send me hate mail, if they’d like to betroth me to their daughters…

JVR: I did see that about electronic copies on your website, Given all the fields you write in, what are your thoughts about fair use and the almost-everything-available-online world we live in?

JMA: I think copyright has gone haywire. Copyright was designed to give people a vested proprietary interest in their work and to create incentives for them to write, which makes sense. Copyright was not designed so that the heirs of Theodore Dreiser, eighty years later, can live off the proceeds. There is no reason to think that Dreiser wouldn’t have written An American Tragedy if his grandchildren couldn’t live off the profits—I’m assuming that it’s not in the public domain since I think it’s from the ’20s. So it’s gone absolutely haywire, and it’s large corporations like the Disney Corporation that are the driving force, not individual writers. Fair use should be expanded very liberally. The idea that you have property in your intellectual activity is not very persuasive; you have property in your intellectual activity because we said so. The legal theorist Felix Cohen writes extensively about this using the example of the brand name Palmolive. And brand names only have value because we decided they have value; if anybody could name their product “Palmolive” it would no longer have value. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I think people are far too protective about their literary work. Your goal as a writer is to build an audience, not to make $4.00 off an electronic copy of your novel. If $4.00 is that important to you, you should get a job at a fast food restaurant.

When you think of writing as a profit-driven enterprise, that’s where the trouble begins. My understanding is that the ancient Hebraic rabbis were not allowed to earn a living by being rabbis. They had a skilled trade as well to earn a living. So Rabbi Akiva, for example, was a blacksmith. I think the same logic would do well to apply to writers. That being said, if James Patterson has daughters he’d like to introduce me to, I’m very interested.

1. Published as “Class Notes” in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (Gibbs Smith, 1986). ^back

2. “Rods and Cones” appears in Scouting for the Reaper (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). ^back