So you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a bioethicist, a fiction writer, a playwright, a licensed New York City tour guide, you’ve published 215 short stories and you have nine graduate degrees. Do you really exist?
Maybe. Schopenhauer wrote, “The world is my representation” (“Die Welt ist meine Vorstellung”), which suggests that I exist only as long as you exist to appreciate my impressive literary talent and rudimentary knowledge of German. However, Schopenhauer is dead, and also a rather tedious read, so he may not be the most promising authority on the subject.
I have discovered that I exist to the IRS and the folks who issue jury summonses. Less so to the girl I had a crush on in tenth grade and to many major Manhattan literary agents. But assuming I do exist, I am indeed the author of 215 published short stories and I do have nine graduate degrees. Alas, none of that reduces my subway fare or helps me self-assemble an exercise bike.
But nine graduate degrees?
It’s actually not that impressive. At last check, there’s a fellow in Michigan named Michael Nicholson who has twenty-seven degrees. William & Mary sociology professor Ben Bolger has at least eleven. But I am ahead of James Franco. Of course, as the Wizard of Oz says to the scarecrow, “We can’t give you a brain, but we can give you a diploma,” so I wouldn’t place too much weight on my academic credentials.
The truth of the matter is that I like learning new things. And I must harbor deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. Why else would anyone earn nine graduate degrees?
Do you have plans for any more degrees?
Secretly, my dream is to get a Ph.D. in linguistics, but don’t tell my parents. They’d much rather have grandkids. And there’s a perverse part of me that wants to go to dental school, so I can open a dental office and hang all of my other degrees on the walls.
Where do you find the time?
I actually have a factory of undocumented immigrant laborers who write my stories for me in return for a bare minimum of food and shelter. I’ve modeled my career on the American citrus industry.
Do you do anything for fun?
Tell us about your new novel, The Biology of Luck.
It’s really good. Think ice cream, and kittens, and the Emancipation Proclamation, and summer rain, and being hugged by your grandmother, and reading the metaphysical poets in bed with your spouse, and hiking in the Rockies on a clear autumn day, and the first time you saw the ocean, and a torrid affair with Brigette Bardot at age 18—all rolled into one. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But it’s substantially better than the New York Post and Internet pornography and that insufferable Thomas Hardy novel you had to read in high school, which counts for something.
What do you hope to accomplish with The Biology of Luck?
I like making people uncomfortable in order to get them to think “outside the box.” As human beings, we have an unfortunate tendency to conflate the familiar with the necessary, or even the inevitable, when the reality is that many of our social conventions are utterly arbitrary and often pernicious. So I suppose I want people to read this novel and then to lead their lives differently—or, at a minimum, to live their lives more reflectively. Needless to say, I’d be lying if I didn’t also hope to be the next over-the-hill writer to be propositioned by Marie Calloway and later dissected by people half my age, writing in on-line venues I didn’t know existed. Ah, to dream the impossible dream. I’d also settle for a Pulitzer.
The role of physical appearance plays a large role in The Biology of Luck. What’s that about?
In an ideal world, people would be judged solely on the content of their character, rather than their physical appearance. In an ideal world, it would also rain lollypops and resources would be distributed according to need. Since we don’t live in that world, I think there’s something to be said for candor on the subject. Why do we tell little girls to value education and industriousness, when they will gain far more social and economic power by being pretty? (That’s an odious reality, but that doesn’t make it any less real.) The book also tackles the less-discussed subject of male physical appearance. Does anyone really think John Edwards would have made it as far as he did if he looked like Toulouse-Lautrec?
So this is a novel of ideas?
Absolutely not. Nobody likes reading other people’s ideas. This is a comedy of manners. The ideas are carefully embedded so the reader won’t recognize them. Like subliminal ads for popcorn.
It’s also a highly experimental novel, isn’t it? A novel that includes a novel within a novel written by one of the characters about the other….
Don’t say that. Nobody wants to read an experimental novel. Unless there are also pictures of beautiful women or cute animals. Let’s put it is way: Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” This novel shatters two of them.
Are any of the characters based upon real people?
No. But as I have learned from previous publications, that doesn’t stop people from deciding that they are the basis for my characters. So note to ex-girlfriends and their attorneys: The character of Starshine Hart is not based upon you. Not even remotely. Shame on your egos for even thinking that.
In your novel, Starshine serves as Larry’s muse. Do you have a muse?
I’m far less constant that Larry. I have many muses…. If you’re a beautiful woman and you’ve sat next to me on a public bus, you probably qualify. I do have a longstanding “celebrity crush” on the stage actress Lauren Marcus, whose work is breathtaking, but the Internet says that she is happily partnered, so I’m going to stick to flirting with women on public buses for now. Of course, the Internet also has my date of birth wrong, so I’ve learned to take my online presence with a grain of salt.
Your date of birth is wrong?
Yes. This is not a joke. Some schizophrenic woman in Florida is obsessed with me, under the delusion that I used to be her physician, and she apparently changed my birthdate on various Internet sites to conform to her preferences. I tried to rectify the matter at one point, but I’ve given up. Can you think of a better way to foil identity thieves?
I’ve noticed you dedicate all of your books to “Rosalie”? Who is she?
I’ll leave that to the literary scholars.
How long did it take you to write The Biology of Luck?
I wrote it twelve years ago, over the course of one summer and autumn. And then I placed it in a drawer and showed it to no one. On a whim, I retrieved the manuscript last year and retyped it, then sent it to Elephant Rock. My publisher, Jotham Burrello, may have been the second person in the world to read the entire manuscript. It never made the rounds of large publishing houses or yellowed on the desks of literary agents. Nobody had the opportunity to water it down to bland jelly. I’ll confess I was as much dumbfounded as thrilled when Jotham told me he wanted to publish it….
So is this a path you recommend to other writers?
I’m not sure leaving a manuscript in a desk drawer for twelve years is the best way to make one’s literary mark. Unless one plans on committing suicide in the interim. In that case, I strongly recommend leaving a note that reveals the location of the manuscript.
I sense that you are being glib.
Never. I’m as earnest as they come.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring writers?
Be optimistic. Always change your underwear before going on a date.
I meant advice related to writing.
In medicine, I often warn my patients, “Don’t die on one doctor’s opinion.” I think the same applies to creative work – don’t accept the criticism of others at face value. Be relentless. Your work may be brilliant, even if your audience isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate that yet. Obviously, your work might also be drivel—but far better the world endure a lot of extra drivel than it lose a masterpiece ahead of its time.
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I would be plotting the overthrow of Isaias Afewerki, the dictator of Eritrea. It’s on my bucket list. I hope it is also on President Obama’s.
Do you have a personal connection to Eritrea?
None at all. I could easily have said Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. No human being is an island. If you haven’t heard of Obiang and Afewerki, I could suggest that you’re failing in your moral duty to bear witness as engaged human beings in a world where liberty is a rare commodity and extreme suffering runs rampant. I won’t suggest that, of course, because then you might not buy my book.
This interview seems to have taken a serious turn.
No need to apologize. We’re friends. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Not much. I’d just like to thank all the little people I crushed to get here. Except for Dr. Bumby, my tenth grade math teacher. Your class was boring and we didn’t learn any math, so please don’t consider yourself one of the people I’m thanking.
JACOB M. APPEL is a writer with more than 200 publication credits, a licensed New York City sightseeing guide, and scholar with multiple degrees in the fields of writing, philosophy, medicine and law. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize U.K. He’s won the Tobias Wolff Award, the Walker Percy Prize, the Kurt Vonnegut Prize, and others. Appel’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including law and medical journals. He is currently a practicing psychiatrist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he resides. The Biology of Luck marks his U.S. book publishing debut. Read his unabridged story at jacobmappel.com