How did you become a writer? I wish I could claim I'd had a great epiphany like Martin Luther in his outhouse or that I'd had a typewriter delivered to my house by accident like Penny Sycamore in "You Can't Take It With You," but I have no such dramatic story to offer. I suppose I became a writer because I was always afraid of not being a writer -- of ending up one of those hopeless souls out of John Cheever's stories, boarding the 5:48 train to Westchester. I watched those unfortunate men and women disembarking from the commuter train as a child, returning to the safety of a town with (to pilfer from Hemingway) wide lawns and narrow minds, and I am so glad I did not become one of them. How can you argue with a job you can do in your bathrobe?
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I've been very fortunate to have a series of brilliant teachers -- essayist Andre Aciman, playwrights Tina Howe and Richard Schotter, bioethicist Edward Beiser -- who have taken the time to share their wisdom. I also had a handful of high school teachers (among whom Julie Leerburger, Eric Rothschild and Neil Ginsberg remain living) who tolerated and even encouraged my unconventional ways. I'm reluctant to credit any living writers with influencing me, because I'm not so sure they'd want the "credit"; among the dead, Phillip Larkin has certainly been a profound influence. His appreciation for disappointment and diminished expectations dovetails well with my own innate cynicism. (I can overlook his politics for his poetry.) I'm also a great admirer of Willa Cather, whose slow banishment from the canon is a cause for considerable grief, as well as Shirley Jackson, whose sudden resurrection merits much joy.
When and where do you write? I'm a psychiatrist at a busy New York City hospital, so I do a lot of my writing in the nursing stations. So do many of my literary-minded colleagues. When you see a doctor typing away in the emergency room, odds are 50-50 that he's working on his novel and not a patient chart.
What are you working on now? Seducing Sophia Loren through my prose -- she hasn't responded to my novels yet, but I tell myself she's just playing hard to get. On the subject of novels, I have two novels on my agent's desk--one about a sociopathic cardiologist and the other about a teacher who discovers that the American Civil War is a hoax. If you're a publisher interested in buying them, please be in touch. I'm also scribbling away on more stories, all well below the radar screen.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not really. I'm fortunate in that I always have another bad idea for a story or a novel up my sleeve--although it often takes me several hundred pages and months of work to realize how truly deplorable my idea is.
What’s your advice to new writers? Marry wealthy. And if you marry wealthy, ask your spouse if she has a younger sister who'd be interested in meeting a ne'er-do-well physician-writer in New York City.
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 and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the H. E. Francis Prize, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award in four different years, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology on numerous occasions. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. His second novel, The Biology of Luck, was short-listed for the Hoffer Society's Montaigne Medal. Jacob 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.