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Protean novelist is comfortable on the edge


Author Jacob M. Appel and the cover of his new book “The Man who Wouldn’t Stand Up”, a satirical romp through Gotham starring Arnold Brinkman, a mild-mannered botanist and political liberal who catapults to infamy after refusing to stand up to sing “God Bless America” in memory of fallen soldiers at a Yankees game.
Polymath? Renaissance man? Jacob M. Appel’s résumé stretches the definitions, just as his fiction expands the boundaries of the novel, and his personality, simultaneously driven and laid-back, defies labels.

This 1992 graduate of Scarsdale High School is a psychiatrist, an attorney, a bioethicist, an award-winning novelist, playwright and writer of over 200 short stories. (And when we say “prizewinning,” we don’t mean one or two, but more than 20.)

He has nine graduate degrees: an M.A. from Brown, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and M.F.A.s in creative writing from New York University, and playwriting from Queens College. Oh, and an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

“I really like school,” Dr. Appel says in a characteristic understatement. But he is no dilettante hiding out in academia to avoid the real world. “All the degrees are really useful to me professionally,” he said in a recent interview in the Inquirer’s office.

In his day job, he is the psychiatric liaison to the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, consulting on issues at the intersection of psychiatry, law and ethics. He has taught medical ethics at New York University, Columbia, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and has published numerous articles on aspects of bioethics in professional journals. He provides what he described as “informal legal opinions for the hospital when they don’t want to go to the legal department,” on issues such as what to do when patients can’t make decisions for themselves. He believes it’s vitally important for all doctors to take courses in medical ethics.

Intern days

When Appel was in high school, and also after his first year at Brown, he was an intern at the Scarsdale Inquirer. Even at a young age, his brilliance and satirical bent were evident, as he turned out polished, well-researched stories, including his favorite, about parking scofflaws, in record time with no apparent effort.

One day, desperate to keep him busy, I told him that I had heard that the village manager was diverting Scarsdale tax dollars to aid the Contras in Nicaragua. I told him to look into this rumor, (wholly invented by me) and write a story about it. In no time flat he was back in my office with a hilarious piece about Scarsdale’s “scandal.”

Another time when he finished his work too quickly, he amused himself (and me) by drawing an illustrated map of what the village would look like in 30 years, extrapolating from the preoccupations and headlines of the 1990s.

He’s not only clever, he’s also sweet: Back at Brown, he sent the Inquirer staff a bouquet of flowers, wishing us “Happy spring.”

Appel continues his astoundingly busy life and is so productive that this story about him kept being postponed, awaiting some new publication. By the time he appears at the Scarsdale Library next week, I’m sure he’ll have a new project in the works.

— Linda Leavitt

Appel is not in private practice as a psychiatrist because, he explained, “I’m not very entrepreneurial.” He prefers to work with people who are “really sick and really need psychiatric care. In private practice you see people who just need a friend or a slap on the behind.”

In February 2010, Appel was a speaker at the Scarsdale Forum’s Sunday series, discussing such moral conundrums as the right of access to health care and the right to refuse health care, who can make such decisions for a patient and on what grounds. His book of essays on medical topics will be published by the University of South Carolina Press in May. In the past he’s contributed essays to trade journals and dozens of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press and The San Francisco Chronicle. 

Appel also teaches creative writing to first- and second-year medical students. His goal is not to make the students better doctors, he explained, but rather to inspire them to reflect on and write about what they’ve learned in med school, contributing a medical perspective to the humanities.

As the writer-in-residence at Yeshiva University, Appel teaches creative writing to Orthodox students who have had very little exposure to literature. “I’m the most secular person in the world,” he said, though he has written a Jewish-themed “Rabbi Kappelmacher Mystery,” called “Wedding Wipeout,” which he says got good reviews in the Jewish press — and from his grandmother.

“Yeshiva is a different world,” said Appel. But the fiction he assigns his students there “emphasizes common denominator of humanity.”

Neither of Appel’s first two novels featured a doctor protagonist, but the next one, called “Mask of Sanity,” is about a sociopathic doctor. The twist on the doctor as all-knowing savior should intrigue Appel’s growing number of fans.

His first novel, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up,” is a satirical romp through Gotham starring Arnold Brinkman, a mild-mannered botanist and political liberal who catapults to infamy after refusing to stand up to sing “God Bless America” in memory of fallen soldiers at a Yankees game. When the crowd-scanning TV camera focuses on the seated Arnold, he impulsively sticks out his tongue and instantly becomes the most reviled anti-patriot in the country. Protestors and news crews camp outside his apartment, demanding an apology that Arnold refuses to give.

When even his wife and friends weary of the spotlight and waver in their support, Arnold goes on the lam, where his attempts to avoid publicity and arrest grow ever more desperate and his companions in adversity ever more bizarre. In his acute social observations and satirical treatment of mainstream values, politics and news media, Appel’s novel is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

The satire in “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up,” written in 2003-04, appeared to be a bit too sharp for American publishers, who considered it a negative challenge to American values. Appel went through four agents — two of them “very prominent” — but none of them could place it with commercial publishers. For a few years it languished in the author’s desk drawer. Then he took it out, dusted it off and sent it to Cargo Publishing in Scotland, where it was not only accepted but won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. “The UK’s premier prize for debut novelists” came with a £10,000 cash award along with publication.

Appel’s next novel, also written a few years ago, is “The Biology of Luck,” published in the USA in 2013 by Elephant Rock. In this case, a colleague at the Gotham Writers workshop put out the word that a publisher he knew was looking for original novels. Appel retyped it and sent it to Elephant Rock and it was accepted two weeks later.

The protagonist of this story is a jaded New York City tour guide, a job Appel knows from his own experience. (Yes, in addition to all his other credentials, he is a licensed city tour guide, a job he took while a graduate student. The tour guide test, he said, was as rigorous as the bar exam and medical boards.)

Loosely patterned on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the novel follows its protagonist, the unattractive, unlucky-in-love Larry Bloom, on one day in June, alternating between his attempts to edify and entertain a group of Dutch tourists and chapters of a novel he is writing about the day he imagines his beloved, the beautiful but hapless Starshine Hart, is having. Starshine, who is sleeping with both a superannuated Weatherman and the preppy son of a lawn chair magnate, thinks of Larry as a friend. But he hopes to win her heart with the novel he has written about her and is obsessing about a date they have that evening.

In an interview in the back of the novel, Elephant Rock Books publisher Jotham Burello asked Appel why he decided to have a character write a story within a story about another character, something that appeared to be a novelty in fiction. “Creating something entirely new is my goal whenever I write a story or a novel,” Appel responded, citing the influence of “the brilliant Tina Howe” at Hunter College, whose course he has taken eight times. “I always learn something,” he told the Inquirer.

In the interview with Burello, Appel also clarified what he meant when he called his novel a “postmodern love story”: “I meant that love itself is postmodern — hyper-aware, ambivalent, fragmented.”

Appel’s style is densely descriptive, and in its depiction of various neighborhoods, as well as the original characters and their varied ethnicities, jobs, neuroses and moods, it is quintessentially New York, in the broadly democratic tradition of Walt Whitman. In the interview with Burello, Appel refers to Whitman as “the patron saint of New York, of hopeless romance and of wandering.”

Appel’s curiosity ranges through all aspects of life and all kinds of people, and his research is thorough. So convincing was his portrayal of the botanist in “The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up” that a Scottish press release described Appel as “a prominent American botanist.”

Appel has fond memories of outstanding SHS teachers Neil Maloney and Julie Leerburger (English), Werner Feig and Eric Rothschild (social studies). “Julie Leerberger said I’m the first of her students to publish a novel, which made her very happy,” Appel said. “Eric probably doesn’t read much fiction but he actually read my novel.”

In addition to short stories, novels and essays, Appel has written 12 plays, one of which was produced at a repertory theater in Detroit surrounded by barbed wire. Playwriting is “more immediate and more collaborative,” he said — “you need a team of people to make it happen, you have to be a savvy business person.”

“Scouting for the Reaper,” published by Black Lawrence, won the 2012 Hudson Prize. The stories are about ordinary people confronting extraordinary events. “All of us exist not that far from the edge where our lives could fall apart,” Appel told the Inquirer.

Some of his stories take place in Scarsdale, but Appel said, “I don’t call it Scarsdale.” The Inquirer’s police report can be a good source of bizarre behavior, like “people leaving thousands of dollars on the kitchen table when contractors are working in the house,” he said.

One of Appel’s stories is about a couple whose marriage unravels as they try to find care for a blind rabbit. Another concerns a woman whose daughter has an imaginary friend. When the girl’s father bans the imaginary friend, the imaginary friend’s father shows up at his front door. And he’s working on another one about “Civil War deniers.”

How does he think of such things and does he really know such weird people?

Appel says his characters are not based on real people. Asked that question by Burello he responded, “I don’t wander around the city looking for interesting people to transform into characters. I sit in my apartment and imagine people whom I wish existed.”

“People have a habit of finding themselves in fiction,” he told the Inquirer. They’ll read one of his novels or stories and say, “Clearly that character was based on me.” A doctor he met years after he wrote one of his novels was nevertheless convinced that one of Appel’s characters is him.

And then there’s the why and the how of this prodigious output. “I write to impress people who no longer exist, like girls who turned me down for a date or teachers who gave me a bad grade,” he said. It’s not about wanting to impress who they are now, he explained, but who they were then, in relation to his younger self.

As for how, Appel said he enjoys writing so much it’s not like work. He limits distractions — he has no television and no cell phone. The list of prizes he’s won is as impressive as his output: He’s published short fiction in more than 200 literary journals, has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer's Digest grand prize twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by numerous literary magazines.

His work has been short listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013. 

While he’s pleased about all prizes, he’s never been discouraged by criticism. “I had 21,000 rejection letters,” he said. “I kept them all, until a person I was romantically involved with said they were a fire hazard.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


January 10, 2014