Jacob M. Appel’s new book, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, published by Howling Bird Press, features eight stories about ordinary people navigating the line between everyday life and the chaos lurking in the shadows. Appel shared his thoughts in a recent interview with Cease, Cows.
Chuck Augello: How would you describe your collection, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, to someone who hasn’t yet read it?
Jacob Appel: I’ll confess I’ve always had a hard time describing my books. Or other authors’ books, for that matter. It’s a bit like describing my deceased grandfather, who was a fascinating person, but whose essence I can’t convey if you didn’t meet him while he was alive. I can tell you facts about him, describe him physically, even share his favorite jokes….in fact, I’ve written an entire essay collection largely centered around his idiosyncrasies… but that still doesn’t fully do him justice. Similarly, explaining that Middlemarch is about a wealthy woman who makes a bad marriage and talented physician who never lives up to his aspirations is technically true, but not particularly clarifying. I think it’s safest to say that Topless Widow is a collection of strange stories by an equally odd author, and to leave it at that.
CA: Several stories address challenges to the human body as it ages. Was this theme intentional during the writing of the stories or only apparent afterward?
JA: I’m a psychiatrist by profession, so it’s dangerous to ask if any particular choice was intentional. Moreover, I’m a fiction writer, which means any answer I offer is probably only a half truth, at best, and might even be an outright prevarication. What I will confess is that I’m getting older by the day and this certainly weighs upon me.
CA: The story “One Wish” is a take on the familiar genie-in-a-bottle tale. How did you approach the challenge of making a familiar story-type unique?
JA: I generated this story the same way I produce all of my stories: I called upon the personal genie I have imprisoned in a bottle in my sock drawer and demanded that she write me something I could sell. While she plugged away at the typewriter, I fantasized about Barbara Eden. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, if you don’t consider anybody except me.
CA: This is the ultimate cliché question to ask a writer, but I’ll ask it anyway. How do you get your ideas, and more importantly, how do you differentiate between ideas that can grow into stories and those destined to remain only ideas?
JA: Those are secrets of the trade—which actually means I have no clue. I just ruminate over ideas until they somehow gel into a cohesive whole. Writing is a miracle. Like falling in love. It just happens. One of my greatest fears is that next time it won’t happen. That’s the difference between being a doctor or a lawyer and being a writer. If you’re a physician or an attorney, patients and clients show up. Inevitably. The planet teems with sick, litigious people. But if you’re a writer, there’s no guarantee another good idea will arrive. That doesn’t stop some people, of course….
CA: How do you know when a story is “done?” Are there specific things you look for to see if the work has reached its full potential?
JA: I’m not sure a story is ever “done” – it could always be better. But if you’re asking when I know to stop writing, it’s usually when my carpal tunnel syndrome flares up. Or, on occasion, when I run out of quarters for the pay typewriter in the library basement.
CA: Your biography is impressive: attorney, physician, and bioethicist. How does your experience in these fields influence your fiction?
JA: The great advantage of being a physician or an attorney is that it reduces one’s chances of starvation. This is particularly helpful as a writer of fiction, as starvation is the default career path of many authors. So my advice to aspiring writers is, “Go to medical school….”
CA: You’ve published over two hundred short stories. What do you find attractive about short fiction as opposed to the novel?
JA: The best thing about writing a story, is that if it doesn’t work out—which happens to me rather often—it’s easy to throw away your draft and to start a different project. At worst, you’ve lost a few months of labor.
CA: After two hundred published stories, what motivates you to keep writing fiction?
JA: A deep-seated feeling of inadequacy. And also my life-long dream of being interviewed by Cease, Cows. Now that I’ve achieved my goal, I may hang up my ballpoint pen for good.
CA: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
JA: Give away as much work as you can possibly afford. So if any of your readers are interested in a free electronic copy (PDF) of The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, they can email me at email@example.com.
Chuck Augello is Head Editor of Cease, Cows. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.