Last month, prizewinning author Jacob Appel received a letter from Nancy Krim — his 12th-grade English teacher at Scarsdale High School — and a copy of one of his old creative writing assignments.
“I’m glad my writing has gotten better since,” the 45-year-old Appel said, “but it certainly showed the same mindset. ... It was very clear, even in 12th grade, that if I was going to be a novelist, I was going to be a comic novelist.”
A comic novelist he is, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Appel interned twice at The Scarsdale Inquirer and graduated from SHS in 1992, the first of many academic milestones. He went on to achieve nine graduate degrees, including an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a J.D. from Harvard Law School and an M.F.A. in fiction from New York University.
While academically oriented, Appel called himself a “terrible high school student,” recalling the time he chucked a metal flagpole out of a window to prove a point to a teacher. “Besides being typically awkward and foolish and all those things high school students are ... I caused trouble,” he said.
Today, Appel is a bioethicist, psychiatrist and teacher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in fields of creative writing, neurology, physical diagnosis and interviewing, among others. He works three emergency room shifts each week at Mount Sinai and regularly supervises residents in the school’s outpatient program uptown.
Appel’s writing career is equally flourishing. His short fiction pieces have been published in more than 200 literary journals and claimed a staggering number of awards, including the Writer’s Digest grand prize and first place in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction.
His fifth collection of short stories, “Amazing Things Are Happening Here,” is as impressively wide-ranging as his suite of careers. The book, set to be published in April by Black Lawrence Press, explores topics from murder to alligator rodeos with a smart, polished hilarity.
The unifying theme, which Appel attributes to his career in psychiatry, is “how close all of us walk along the edge — the edge of sanity, the edge of our lives,” he said, “how easy it is for one misstep, one small push to push us over.”
While his writing credits abound, Appel said he had trouble selling this collection of stories for several years. “When I sit down to write a story, my primary criteria is to write something as unlike my previous stories as possible,” he explained. “That creates a very wide range of subject matter, but much less unity.”
So if unity isn’t the goal, what is?
“To get people to see the world sort of in the way I do,” Appel said, “to be aware of our vulnerabilities in that way, maybe to make them a little more empathetic.”
Oftentimes, the writer dovetails professional demands with publicity tours. Last year, he appeared at roughly 40 book events.
“I’m a psychiatrist, so I’m almost a real doctor,” he joked. “You wouldn’t want a gallbladder surgeon that operated one day a month, but a psychiatrist who practices three days a week and uses his other time to think about the human condition actually might not be such a bad choice.”
Appel writes at home and on the go, sometimes even between patients, “whenever I can cobble together a few hours.” The trick, he mused, is having a storyboard in mind before sitting down to write.
To that point, Appel often quotes prolific short story writer Grace Paley, who said she did her best writing in the bathtub. “She would think through what she wanted to do while she was relaxing,” Appel said, “and then when she had a chance to write, she knew what she wanted to [say.]”
One of Appel’s newer stories, “Canvassing,” centers around the presidential campaign of U.S. Congressman John Anderson, who died in 2017. The story follows a boy named Josh and his high school crush Vanessa, as they scour their small town for campaign signatures.
Someone got a copy of the story to Anderson before he died, and the former congressman sent Appel a letter of appreciation. It now sits framed in his office.
“I have to say, as an obscure fiction writer, you don’t get very many fan letters,” Appel said. “Getting a fan letter from a presidential candidate is pretty exciting.”