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The Biology of Luck: A conversation with Jacob Appel

07/09/2014 12:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014
  • Elan Barnehama Author of the novel FINDING BLUEFIELD, @elanbarnehama

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novels, The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up, and The Biology of Luck (2013). His recent publications are Phoning Home (May 2014), a collection of essays informed by his advanced degrees in medicine, law, and ethics, and a story collection, Scouting for the Reaper (February 2014), which won the Hudson Prize. His prose has won numerous prizes and awards and has appeared in more than two hundred journals and he's been short-listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Nonrequired Reading (2007, 2008), and the Pushcart Prize anthology (2005, 2006, 2011). He practices psychiatry in New York City and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide. More at www.jacobmappel.com

Here's my interview with Jacob Appel on writing and his novel The Biology of Luck. Click here to read The Biology of Luck Excerpt.

Elan: What was your inspiration for writing The Biology of Luck?

Jacob: All of my life, I've enjoyed watching beautiful women on bicycles and fantasizing about their lives. Who doesn't? Only in this case, my fantasy got out of hand, so I passed it along to a character who could write about these fantasies more effectively

For the record, Larry Bloom is nothing like me, except that we're both licensed sightseeing guides. And Starshine is not based upon a real person. Let me spell that out: If you're a woman I know socially, perhaps someone I dated in high school or college, and you believe you were the inspiration for Starshine, I assure you that you are not.

Elan: So, Larry Bloom is not you. How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters, in your story?

Jacob: Much less than one might imagine. I write about people I'd like to meet, rather than people I already know.

Elan: Why do you think - and I'm asking both the psychiatrist and the writer - that readers want to assign authors and other real people to characters to fiction? I find that few readers believe writers who deny the connection.

Jacob: Writers are not to be trusted. Especially fiction writers. We make things up for a living. So readers are probably wise to dismiss our denials. That being said, people have a knack for thinking of themselves as more important than they actually are. This is a form of healthy narcissism, but it can lead to projective identification. What that basically means is that most people who know an author want to see themselves in that author's work. That's why it's probably wise not to socialize with authors. Actors and politicians get invited to better parties anyway....

Elan: Your main character, Larry Bloom, leads us on a around New York City one single June day. Some readers will be inclined to hear and echo of Joyce's Ulysses - and a nod to Homer's Odyssey. But the novel quickly becomes Larry Bloom and Starshine's story--a wonderfully odd and funny and observant love story. And you've structured the novel so that it is Larry Bloom telling the story in his novel within your novel. Can you talk about connections between The Biology of Luck and Joyce? *And, what made you choose to structure the novel this way?

Jacob: I've always been awed by Ulysses. I took a brilliant class with Professor Daniel O'Day over the summer at Columbia more than twenty years ago, and he got me hooked (my mother, incidentally, wrote a thesis on Joyce's eyesight). I am pleased to say there are at least one hundred references to various aspects of Ulysses in The Biology of Luck, but I'm not willing to divulge them. I leave those to the critic. (Although I should note that the ending of my novel makes more sense if you read the last page of Joyce's novel.) I probably should make a list at some point, so I don't start forgetting them.

Elan: I love the title. How did you come to it?'

Jacob: I'd like to say it "just came to me" but it's actually inspired by a complex combination of genetics and good fortune.

Elan: In what ways does your work as a psychiatrist change or influence you when you write fiction? And is the reverse true?

Jacob: I spend all day hearing amazing stories, and medical confidentiality prevents me from sharing them with anyone. I suppose that drives me to be more imaginative in my fiction -- I challenge myself to create lives more unusual than the ones lived by my patients, which often isn't easy. At the same time, I sincerely believe that being a writer makes one a better physician. A late mentor of mine, Professor Edward Beiser of Brown University, used to tell his bioethics classes, "I wouldn't want a doctor who hadn't read and understood Macbeth." What he meant was that it's easier to understand human nature as reflected in literature than to recognize it in life, and yet one needs to understand human nature -- Macbeth's ambition, Lady Macbeth's guilt, etc. -- in order to connect with and help patients.

Elan: With all you do, what made you want to writer fiction, and novels in particular?

Jacob: I've always wanted to be a writer. I know that sounds cliche, but it's true -- I can remember being three or four years old, even before I was able to read, and listening to my grandmother read aloud to me and thinking that I wanted to write books someday. In contrast, I never wanted to become a doctor. In third grade, we had to choose a future career, and my career was "Not a Doctor"; I even made a "Not a Doctor" poster. I didn't go to medical school until after I'd exhausted all other options. It turns out that I actually enjoy being a doctor. Very much. Although I'm a psychiatrist and some of the cynics among your readers may be thinking, "He's a shrink! He's not a real doctor." Of course, others of your readers may be thinking, "He's not a real writer!"

Elan: Going back to your Grandmother reading to you - I think this is the power of voice in interacting with the world. I think that children ask to hear books over and over because they are assured by the reader's, in your case your Grandmother's, actual voice. How do you define voice?

Jacob: My grandmother read to me from about the age of two through the age of seven or eight, every night, from books I only vaguely understood. She read Robinson Crusoe, Mary Poppins, The Collected Works of Jules Verne, but also Middlemarch, My Antonia, The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and a number of classic volumes on the anthropology and ecology of sub-Sahara Africa. So I absorbed the great writers of western civilization through the voice of an elderly Jewish mathematician. I now understand she skipped the sex scenes and inserts milder expressions for profanity, but I must have absorbed the gist of the works, some glimmer of meanings that still last with me, because I'll occasionally read a classic "I haven't read before" and I'll realize it was read to me in toddlerhood.

Voice, I tell my students, is what separates Philip Larkin from the mass of other ill-tempered English librarians drinking in the afternoon and leching after teenage girls.

Elan: Who are some of your favorite authors and are there particular reasons why you're drawn to them either individually, or a group?

Jacob: There are two sets of authors I admire. The first are my former students and mentees who are starting to carve out names for themselves in the literary world. CJ Hauser, who I taught at the Gotham Writers' Workshop years ago, just came out with a brilliant novel, The From-Aways. Go buy it! Brigit Kelly Young and Chanan Tigay are names to look out for.

Among the more established living writers I admire are Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Elizabeth Graver, and Chris Adrian. All push the creative envelope. And then there is the genius of Karen Russell. I have quite unrealistic fantasies of marrying her and playing house husband while she transforms western literature. If you're friends with Karen and you're reading this, now is your chance to introduce us and make history.... Of course, she might already be married, in which case you should leave me to my private dreams, because they don't hurt anybody.

Elan: What do people close to you think about your writing?

Jacob: I come from a long line of sober, responsible people. My father was a physician; my mother's father was a physician; my mother's mother was a mathematician; my mother was a biochemist; my brother is an intellectual property attorney. Dreaming up stories is not at the core of the family tradition. So let's just say they stand somewhere between amused and befuddled -- which I suppose makes them bemused.

"Rosie" (to whom The Biology of Luck is dedicated) has been my closest friend for more than two decades and is the person most supportive of my writing. She is also, for the record, not the inspiration for Starshine.

Some of my colleagues at the hospital are under the delusion that I'm a far more prominent writer than I actually am. I do nothing to dispel this belief.

Elan: You've written and published in many genres. Do you have any suggestions for writers starting out?

Jacob: Be relentless. Writing a good story or novel is necessary (or should be), but is not sufficient. There are a remarkable number of wonderful stories and novels on the market. You also have be to a full-time advocate, publicist and champion of your work. It also helps to be heir to a banking fortune -- in fact, I highly recommend that. But if you're not heir to a banking fortune, and I am not, then you have to submit your work relentlessly. In medicine, we warn patients, "Don't die on one doctor's opinion"; in writing, you shouldn't let your story or novel die on one editor's opinion, or even the rejection of one hundred journals or agents. I've acquired 21,000 rejection letters and counting. That is not a typo. So wear your rejections like badges of honor. Just don't wear them all at once, because that can be a fire hazard. Check out www.literaryrejectionsondisplay.com for the fellowship of other rejects. And keep writing. Oh, and the other thing beginning writers should do is buy my books. In large quantities.