A Conversation with Jacob M. Appel
E. Branden Hart: We’re here today because you asked me to review your novel, The Biology of Luck. Out of curiosity, how did you find out about Empty Sink Publishing?
Jacob M. Appel:
I wish I could answer that. The truth is, a lot of people email me all sorts of things all day long now that I have five different publishers—actually, six now—for six different books. They periodically email me things that might be of interest, and the ones that look interesting I just reach out or respond to.
Perfect! That’s a great answer–I’m glad you found us interesting, and I’m glad you found your way to us. Before we get into the book, let’s talk a little bit about your accomplishments. In addition to writing award-winning novels and short stories, you, and I’m going to try to do this all in one breath: are a revered and publishing bioethicist, are a psychiatrist at Mt. Sinai, hold degrees from Brown University, Harvard Law School, Columbia University, and NYU. The Biology of Luck is your second novel, and you’ve also written and produced several plays. And you’re a licensed New York City tour guide. Am I missing anything?
My grandmother actually believes most of that, and I’m still charged two-fifty to get on the subway. But no, I try to lead a busy life, and hopefully I’m succeeding now that I’m halfway to the end of it, the way things work.
I think the most striking thing that I do is that most of my day is spent as a psychiatrist, and the great thing and the frustrating thing about being a psychiatrist is that people tell you the most amazing stories in the world, stories that if you actually told them to a stranger, they would find breathtaking. But the nature of being a psychiatrist is that you can’t tell them to a stranger, and you can’t write about them. So whenever I sit down to write, I’m forced to detach myself from what I heard during the day and make sure whatever I write is completely fictional. If I ever have any doubts that I imagined it or think I may have heard it somewhere, I can’t write about it.
And that’s got to be incredibly difficult for someone in your position. As a fiction writer myself, an enormous amount of what I write, whether it’s conscious or not, is drawn from experience in my life. Any kind of experience I have is fodder for some fictional piece, and so it must be difficult to divide your life into the things you can’t write about, even though you find them interesting, and the things that you have to draw on because otherwise you might implicate your patients.
Absolutely. But the most frustrating thing, probably, is that patients will occasionally read my books when they become aware of the work I do, and it is human nature to look for yourself in other people’s writing. There is a doctor in my hospital who insists that one of the characters in one of my novels is based upon him, even though I met him after I wrote the book. But he did say that he must be the basis for the character. So knowing that, occasionally, I will come up with something completely fictional that is purely imagination as far as I can tell, and then it will strike me that one of my patients, if they read this, would think that this relates to them or is based on them, even though it isn’t. And even then, I can’t write it, and that’s probably the most frustrating part of the experience—the appearance of “based on something,” even if it’s not, has to be corrected.
That must be challenging since that is a hallmark of good writing—that people everywhere, no matter where they’re from, can identify with people from the story. And if you want to see in a character a certain part of yourself, or if you want to see that character as based on you, good writing that relates to a wide audience makes that very easy to do. I can imagine that has to be frustrating, especially when you have people who are examining your work and want to find a reason to have themselves immortalized, for lack of a better word, in what you write.
Absolutely. And psychiatry is also challenging because, intuitively, one might think my patients would never want to be written about. But one of my patients probably would like to be written about. It makes them feel more important—it makes them feel valued in the world. So, at a personal level, they would feel good, I would feel good, but it’s really bad for their long-term therapy.
I first began writing fiction, I would say, in a very amateurish way when I was in high school. And the story I tell everybody, because I’m still very proud of it: when I was fifteen, I sent my first story to a journal. It’s actually a lovely journal and still in print: the journal Nimrod. And I didn’t hear back from them, so I eventually had my mother call. I pleaded with my mother to tell them she was my secretary, and she did, but they didn’t accept the story, unfortunately. The joy of this story is that I submitted seventy-nine more stories to Nimrod over the course of literally the next twenty-five years. And finally last year, I got a phone call from Francine Ringold at Nimrod, certainly quite a senior figure in the literary world now, saying “Yes, we decided to publish your eightieth submission, and I recognized your name—you submit here a lot.” It was very vindicating after eighty tries to finally make it.
I think that’s something you’ve spoken about in other interviews: the power of persistence. I was speaking to another aspiring writer the other day who had never submitted anything out of fear of rejection. I tried to convince her that rejection is something you have to embrace—you have to learn to love rejection because it is going to happen, and it’s going to happen often, but it’s those few times that you get acceptances that make it all worth it.
The analogy I use is a game sociopaths play trying to pick up women. This really, really sounds disturbing. But there are men who go to bars and ask women out, not with the goal of accepts, but to count how many failures they can get in one night, how many women will turn them down. And they do this because they’re sociopathic men—it makes them immune then to rejection in life, and able to voice this sociopathy and charm people in certain ways. Now it’s a very bad approach, I think, to your personal life or for romance, but in some ways, it’s a very good approach to writing. If you have one story that you value immensely and send that to the world, to one journal, that rejection’s going to be crushing. But if you have twenty stories you value a lot and send them to a hundred journals, every one rejection is not a big deal. It’s sort of like if you stand on one nail, it hurts a lot, but if you lay down on a bed of a thousand nails all placed closely together, they all support you and you can barely feel it.
I think both are very good analogies for writing, and in general, I think it’s fair to say that most successful writers who take their craft seriously may not necessarily be sociopaths, but do have what you might consider an abnormal world view, and sometimes a little bit of a masochistic streak inside them.
I have learned the hard way that whether or not writing is accepted or rejected has a little bit to do with the quality of it, and a lot to do with factors in the universe that you have no control over: which editor happens to read it, what space they have available to them, who you’re competing with, and you have to have a really thick skin to accept that much of it is completely out of your hands: all you can do is sit back and hold your breath.
The story of “The Biology of Luck” really comes out of that. The novel sat in the trunk of my car for about nine years. It had been submitted to one agent and a couple of publishers very early on, and they turned it down—said it was unpublishable. And I knew I was going to send it out again at some point. I rode around my car with it to the point where I had it on both the paper and a computer, but the computer I had it on no longer ran, and there were no other computers like that—it used old floppy disks. So I had to retype the entire novel to send it out again.
Other writers are actually proponents of that method of revision. In retyping it, did you find that you were more keyed in on revising it as you did that, or was it simply an autonomous task that you performed just to get it done so you could get it out there again?
Well, the strangest thing happened. I initially thought I would just retype the manuscript—I was really happy with it as I remembered it and sent it out. And then I discovered that I was missing a chapter—that somehow, through all of this, one of the chapters wasn’t printed, and was unrecoverable. And I had to either write a new chapter, or do what I actually did, which was redesign the entire novel to accommodate for a missing piece of it. And that forced me, materialistically, to change the novel drastically. I don’t recommend this approach to other people by the way—do not lose that middle chapter.
It is a little bit more of a destructive approach to the creative process. But at the end of it all, do you think the novel was better for it?
It’s a hard question. The novel was definitely different for it—it is a very different novel now than it was then. And I will say, clearly, nobody was interested in it before this happened, then a publisher became very interested in it after I changed it, so I guess it must have been. It’s hard—I liked them both, but they were very different animals.
In the novel, Larry Bloom is a New York tour guide and spends his time at night writing and working on this novel that he’s writing for the girl of his dreams. And he’s got a somewhat busy life, but I would imagine not near as busy as yours. So tell me a little bit about your writing style and how you write.
Sure, but I want to jump back for one second just to make sure nobody walks away with a comparison. I’m less concerned about being compared to Larry Bloom. I am not the basis for Larry Bloom, nor is anybody I know, but that I could live with. I mean, he’s not a successful guy in life, but I have a thick enough skin to handle that. What I’m more concerned about is that the girl of his dreams, Starshine, provokes women that I’ve known very peripherally in life to call me and say, “You based a character on me.” And I want to emphasize that there is no real person out there that Starshine is based on—I cannot emphasize that enough. It is amazing how many times this happens. People I’ve literally not seen in a decade have emailed me and said, “You know, I’m completely flattered, but this is not an accurate portrayal of me,” and I want to say, “It’s not a portrayal of you at all!”
That being said, having a very busy life, particularly as a doctor, you have to find ways to sort of slide your writing into the rest of what you’re doing. And on the one hand I actually think it’s a good thing to do something else besides be a writer full time—I don’t know how people are writers full time for two reasons. One: if my writing never sells at all, I don’t have to worry about starving, or having my apartment sold out from under me. As a doctor, it’s a really easy job. People think medicine is a hard job, but writing is a much harder job. In medicine, if you show up at the hospital, sick people show up at the hospital. You don’t have to drum up any business—it’s automatic. In writing, you’ve got a blank page, you have to generate. So, on that score, I think it’s very good to have something else.
Also, if you spend all you time writing and don’t live in the world, it’s very hard to come up with meaningful ideas or an understanding of how non-writers live, and yet non-writers want to read about non-writers. So, in that context, I do a lot of my writing at the hospital. I tell people if you walk into the nurses’ station at the hospital, you see all those doctors in white coats typing away at their desks, probably half of them are writing their novels. But you have no way of knowing that. And I do spend a lot of time, literally, in the hospital while medical things are going on around me working on snippets of creative writing.
One of the most disturbing moments in my—probably one of the most disturbing moments of my life, although I didn’t realize it at the moment, I realized it in hindsight—was I was actually working on a different novel at one point in the nurses’ station at the hospital late at night, and a patient coded and died in the nearest room. And they’re having a code call, people running around with crash carts, and I’m sitting there working on my novel, completely tuning it out. That’s what medicine does to one, I guess.
I think people are going to find that notion very interesting, because a lot of writers struggle with the idea of, “What I’m doing is not as valuable to the world as, say, someone who is in the medical field, or is a firefighter, or a police officer. I think a lot of writers struggle with the idea of, “What am I contributing to society?” especially if they’re full time writers. And it’s interesting to see that you had a moment when you were so invested in writing that something that was obviously very important—a critical event happening around you—faded into the background.
And I will add, because you say that many people doubt their value as writers, and I find at one level that’s true. At another level, I do a lot of lecturing in medicine, I do a lot of lecturing to groups on writing, and very often, people who are doctors come up to me and say, “I know you’re a writer. How do I get into writing?” Never once has a writer come up to me and said, “How do I become a doctor?”
In general, I think people understand that writing does contribute to the world—it offers something that we as human beings need, especially the world of fiction. But when you’re speaking with someone at a class reunion who’s a world-renowned surgeon, and you’ve just got this novel riding around in the back of your trunk, it’s kind of difficult to be proud of what you do. So I think it’s interesting that you live a kind of juxtaposition of those two very different worlds, where you’re very clearly making a difference in the lives of your patients, and yet you find it so important to be able to write the fiction that you write.
Yeah, I definitely don’t think there’s a dichotomy where the two are mutually exclusive, and I think many people who are very successful writers also do other very meaningful things in the world.
One of the things I wanted to ask about your writing style was something you mentioned in an interview with Emily Schultze. You said that you think many writers “start writing too soon”—that they start a piece of work before they even know what it’s about. As a writer, that’s certainly something that I’m guilty of, although I do find that I enjoy writing more when I’m not exactly clear on how things are going to end up. That being said, how do you approach your projects, and when do you know you’re ready to start writing them?
The analogy I always use is, if you were going on a family vacation, you would decide where you were going and the travel time to get there. You wouldn’t get in your car, drive outside your home, and then along the way decide where the trip was taking you. And yet many writers put down the paper in front of them and brainstorm and throw out every idea and let the story lead them. At least for me—and there’s no correct answer for everybody, there’s no royal road to geometry, so to speak—but for me, I really want to know where I’m going.
What I’ll often do is I’ll write a couple of paragraphs to start off, to get me in the feel of the story, the voice of the character. But then I map out in my mind exactly where I want the story to go, to the point where I really know what the ending of the story is, before I write anything else. And that can often take two months, three months. I can walk around the city thinking about the story before I start writing, and only when I have a pretty strong structure—this will be a certain number of scenes in the story, these are the major events—do I start writing. And there’s still a joy of discovery—you discover the minor details, you discover the minor connections, after the first draft, you discover the subconscious or latent connections you didn’t even know were there. But I don’t think you should discover what happens in your story when you get to the end of it—you as a writer should know that much earlier on.
So you mentioned writing the first draft, and using the methods that you use, about how long does it take to write a first draft. How long did it take to write the first draft of The Biology of Luck?
It’s interesting—in terms of actual time in front of a computer, if you added it all up, probably only a couple of weeks would be my guess. But if you took into account the amount of time I spent thinking about the novel and mapping it out in my mind, about a couple of years. I think the ratio that I spend thinking about a particular scene and the amount of time I spend writing it is much higher than a lot of writers. So certainly for a short story I’m writing, it will take me two or three months to figure out the story in my mind, and literally a week, two weeks at most to actually write the story.
And then how long does it take you to edit it?
Well one of the advantages of mapping out the story in my mind is that the editing process is much more of a line-editing paragraph by paragraph approach. So I can edit the story and do minor rewrites in another week or two. That being said, often I will have thought about a story for a month and a half, and after a month and a half I will realize, you know, there are such large structural flaws in the story, it’s just not going to work, and I will discard it. Or I will figure out a major glitch in it, rethink the entire thing, so I will spend another month thinking about it.
I like to think of this as prewriting, rather than rewriting, and for me, the prewriting process is a much more pleasurable one and a much freer one. Because once you write something down, there’s something in human nature that makes it much harder to get rid of. You become very attached to it. If you’ve only thought it out in your mind—even though it’s just as real—it is much easier to discard it.
You’ve written plays, you write articles about bioethics, you’ve written short stories, novels–what’s your favorite thing that you’ve written?
My favorite thing honestly is probably a play called The Resurrection of Dismas and Gestas, which, unfortunately, has never been staged. It has been sent out now five hundred times, it has gone through multiple agents, it has come close to being produced at a number of theaters, and it’s never seen the light of day. But I keep dreaming the impossible dream.
I think in a broader level, I really love writing plays, because if you write a novel or a story, you really don’t get to see the reader’s experience. People occasionally write you a kind email, or they write a review on Amazon, but that’s very much filtered—you don’t get to experience what they’re experiencing. When you stage a play, and I’ve had, I think, twelve plays produced now, and you get to go to the theater, incognito—people don’t know what playwrights even look like—and you sit in the back and watch and get that joy of seeing other people enjoy your work, which is a really amazing experience.
That’s something I’ve never thought of before, in that, I can’t walk into a library and catch thirty people reading my book and just sit there and watch their reactions. And even if I could, I would have no idea what part of the book they’re reading unless I was standing over their shoulder, which I think we’ll both agree is the kind of behavior that might get people admitted to your practice. So it must be exhilarating to see the reaction of the audience to what you’ve written—whether they laugh at the right parts, become excited when they are meant to, whether they clap at the right parts, so I can understand the pull of something like that.
Absolutely, and you can also get it to some degree if you’re reading something aloud at a store. But there, the audience is far more concerned about how they’re perceived. You don’t get the honesty you get if you’re sitting in the back of a theater, which is really magical. Or painful, if nobody laughs and the entire audience is stone-cold silent until the intermission, and then none of them come back, which has happened to me.
It is a more immediate kind of rejection. Even though you’ve already had the success of having the play produced, it must be a little more painful than seeing bad reviews on Amazon or having bad sales for your book, because I think a lot of the pleasure in writing comes from having acceptance from the publisher. And if you get that acceptance then that often means more than whether or not the masses “get” it. But plays are so much about the relationship with the audience and the reaction of the audience that seeing that not come to fruition has got to be heartbreaking.
I was just sitting here thinking though that my experience with playwriting and with fiction—and you asked me what my favorite work is—is very much shaped by the process of what’s accepted first and what takes a longer time to build. And my career has been very much a nuts and bolts, built up from the ground approach. There are some writers who instantly become very successful, they sell their first book. I am now on—I’ve lost count—I think I have eleven books under contract now, or out. But they’ve taken years and years to get to this point, and each one gets a little bit more attention. I finally, as of this morning, my first hardback book came out—literally, a few hours ago, the shipment arrived. So it’s a much more incremental process—so you really do get to appreciate the experience more. If you sell your first book to a large publisher, you may walk away thinking, “Well, everybody does this.” I now know that everyone doesn’t do it, and that makes things a lot more rewarding.
That leads to another question I wanted to ask you. In the world of writing today, a lot of people, and I speak from experience here, when they grow up, they dream of writing a novel. And when you’re ten, fifteen, even twenty years old, sometimes that seems like an impossible task. When I finished my first novel when I was twenty years old, my immediate thought was, “Well, I’ve written a novel, now it’s going to get published, because not everybody can do this.” And while it’s true that not everybody can do it, a lot of people are doing it. And so you quickly realize that just because you’ve completed a work doesn’t mean you’re entitled to success. I think a lot of aspiring writers don’t understand the incremental nature of success that comes with it. We hear stories about people getting six-figure advances and don’t realize that those are few and far between.
So it sounds like you’re the kind of writer who has really worked at it, who has really put himself out there, submitted time after time after time, built your success slowly based on your previous work. All that being said, what’s the best piece of advice you can offer a writer hoping to break through in the publishing industry? And let’s skip the standard answer of “read as much as you can, as often as you can”—everyone knows that one by now, or should.
You know, I can answer this fairly straightforwardly with the expression “all news is good news.” The more people who read your writing, the better off you are. So a lot of people ask to read your book for free, or can I have a desk copy, or can I have free copies for my class, and the natural instinct of many writers is to say, “Of course not.” If I had a supermarket and you walked up to me and asked if you could have free apples, I would say no. So why, if I’m giving a book reading, and you walk up to me and say, “I’m not going to buy your book, but would like a free copy,” would I give one to you? And the answer is because each person you give a copy of your book to, not only do they think, “Wow, he’s much nicer than some of the other writers I’ve met,” they feel more obligated to read a free book than a book they paid for, and they’re far more likely to recommend it.
So one tidbit I’ve learned: I do a lot of readings in bookstores now, and I always make a point of going up to the cashier and buying a couple of copies of my book, so they can actually see the money that I’ve paid, and then giving the copies to them—to the cashiers themselves—and actually signing it for them. So they actually see an author taking his own money and buying them a book. Anyone else who goes to that cashier for months and months and asks for a recommendation is going to get my book recommended.
And there’s something about that—not quite sure what it is—but there’s something about it that makes it a more personal relationship with the book. For example, a few months ago I was asked to read a novel by a great author, James Hanna, and he sent me an ARC of it, and there was something about getting that copy of something that very few other people had read, straight form the author himself, that made it a more personal experience with the book.
You know, when you first contacted me, I was very tempted to tell you to send me a physical copy of the book for the same reason, but I just happened to be at a point where I was in between books, and I needed something new to read, and I wanted to make sure that I was able to read your book before the next issue of our magazine came out. So I think you’ve hit on something big there: a lot of authors concentrate on money, on royalties, on the number of books that are sold, and what comes their way, but what you’re saying you do is connect with your fans by, essentially, giving your work away.
I think that you build a writing career piece by piece over the years, through good will, and the kinder you are to people, whether it’s offering to blurb their books, or offering them other kindnesses—whenever I get invited to do a reading, I invite another writer to come read with me. You expand your fan base—you meet their readers, they meet your readers—and sort of building a general goodwill in the literary world will help you in the long run.
Your approach is something that aspiring writers need to embrace because a lot of success for aspiring writers is going to come not from the big publishers, but from the independent publishers, and I think a lot of new, good work comes from those publishers. What do you think is lacking in the large publishing houses that the indie publishers “get”?
I think there are two things. One, I don’t think the large publishers have a very good sense yet of who is buying their books and what they’re looking for. I think Coca-Cola, or General Motors, can tell you exactly who buys their soda, who buys their cars, and why they do, and much of the publishing industry is very viscerally based. The publishing and editorial staffs don’t ask themselves, “Did I like this book?” They ask themselves, “Do I think other people would like this book?” without evidence one way or the other, and make their decisions accordingly.
One of the most powerful writing panels I ever saw was a panel at the William Faulkner William Wisdom Society meeting in Louisiana a few years ago, with editors who were discussing why they rejected manuscripts, and the gist of it was, “I really liked this book, but didn’t think anyone else would.” And I think smaller publishers are willing to say, “I really loved this book. I’m going to go out on a limb and trust that if I loved it, other people might.” And I have found that with several of my books now that have sold far more than I would have expected, to be honest. I think The Biology of Luck, which is put out by a small- to mid-sized publisher and is a very personal operation, has done as well as, honestly, many first-time novels put out by large publishers. We’re in three-hundred and fifty libraries now. We’ve done pretty well.
It’s interesting to see that these smaller publishers seem to be where a lot of the unique, emerging voices are coming from. Reading The Biology of Luck, my first thought was, “I’m really, really glad that somebody grabbed this, because I know a company like Random House, Simon & Schuster, probably wouldn’t have given it the time of day. And that’s very discouraging to me, and I’m sure it’s discouraging to other people as well.
Absolutely. I was able to do a book tour with readings in fifteen cities. Had I been on the list of a major house, I probably would have been able to do one reading in New York. So I think there’s also a lesson for people to learn that, even if your goal is to publish with one of the big publishers in the long run, maybe that’s a goal for your fifth novel, after you’ve already built up the fan base and have an infrastructure to market yourself, rather than hoping for that with your first novel. Your first novel may come out, they won’t have the infrastructure to support it, and nobody’s going to want to publish your second book, and you’ll end up with a small independent publisher anyway.
Before we get into my questions about The Biology of Luck, some standard questions for you: Who are three writers or artists you admire most?
So, I’d like to try to pitch people who are not mainstream names, because I feel like it does them well to have their names mentioned. The certain somebody that comes to mind immediately is Kevin Brockmeier, who wrote The Brief History of the Dead. He’s probably my favorite short story writer out there today—his imagination is just transcendent. Elizabeth Graver is another short story writer I really admire. “The Mourning Door,” which was in the Best American Short Stories a few years ago, was a phenomenal story and a brilliant collection. And probably Dan Chaon—I think “Among the Missing” is just a truly brilliant and underappreciated book—appreciated by the critics, but has not gotten as wide an audience as it should. And I would finally add at a very personal level, as someone who inspires my writing, it would not be a fiction writer, it would be the playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose plays I find you go see one of her plays, you come home, and you can write for hours.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could take one book with you, what would it be?
That’s easy. My father has one of these books, and you open the book up, and inside is a bottle of scotch. If I’m on an island, then that’s what I need—just with a refillable bottom.
No need to read—just need scotch to pass the time.
Exactly. The truth is, I would do very poorly on a desert island. By nature, I’m a very social person, and I think books are designed not for you to lock yourself away and read, but designed for you to read, experience, and interact with the world, having your worldview and experience informed by what you read. So I’m not sure there would be much value to being alone or reading if you’re trapped on a desert island forever.
A lot of people who answer that question pick novels that you have to unwrap, unravel, and read multiple times to really get the meaning, and The Biology of Luck is certainly one of those novels, due in part to the unconventional narrative structure. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Basically, you’ve got a novel within a novel, and very quickly, it is clear that the lines of reality are getting blurred, as events in both narratives sync up. How much of The Biology of Luck is your way of exploring your own beliefs about the tenuous nature of reality?
As a psychiatrist, I have to say that anything I’ve written at a subconscious level is certainly there, but it probably wasn’t what I set out to do. Although I think the experimental nature and the interlocking narratives were a huge part of the book, what I was really interested in doing was finding a way of retelling parts of the Ulysses story and the Ulysses romance in a modern setting. So I really started with that, and I won’t tell people the ending, but I started with the ending of Ulysses and tried to build that ending in some way into my book, and then work backwards psychologically.
And there certainly are connections with Ulysses—Joyce and Ulysses are mentioned in the story, and I think you could do an entire class on how this is a modern version of Ulysses. But one of the other comparisons I could draw—have you ever read Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale?
I have not, but I guess I should now.
It’s a beautiful book where New York City is a main character. It’s the setting, but it is also described so well that it becomes a main character, and that was the first thing that struck me in The Biology of Luck, was that New York City is one of the main characters, and I love books where intangible things and ideas and places become characters. It was clear that your experience as a tour guide helped to inform your descriptions. Were you an actual tour guide, or are you just licensed?
I was a tour guide, but I never worked on the large red buses like Larry does—I only did walking tours. My experience was informed when I was a college student. I took what was then one of these famous New York classes with the late James Shenton, who was the Columbia University Historian of New York from, I guess, the fifties through the nineties. He’s probably most famous for putting himself bodily between the police and the protesters during the 1969 protest at Columbia and getting beaten on national television. But I took a class with him in what would have been the late eighties or early nineties on the literary New York of Whitman and Melville. And most of the class involved not just reading, but going on walking tours of New York City and finding the places in the narratives. And that really lasted with me when I was writing this book.
It’s very clear that your experience in New York and the experience you described contribute to the city coming alive in the way it does. I was talking to my father, who is a huge fan of Helprin’s novel, and I told him, “If you want to read another novel that brings New York City to life in a way that you probably never experienced, you’ve got to read The Biology of Luck.”
It’s amazing how beautiful you can make a piece of trash on the sidewalk. Your ability to bring the city to life with prose is outstanding. And that was one of my favorite parts of the book aside from the narrative and the story itself, was it felt like I was there. It was very tempting to go and buy a plane ticket to see all the places that Larry and Starshine visited as soon as I finished the novel.
Well I appreciate that. I have to say, I could not have written this novel if I didn’t really love New York. And I feel that I’m the luckiest person alive—or one of eight million lucky people—to live here. Not that other people don’t find their meaning elsewhere, but for me, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.
There is something about New York that is truly vibrant and magical and maybe it’s just knowing a lot about it and knowing the history and details of different places. Some people ask me what I would do if I weren’t a writer, and I don’t tell them I would be a psychiatrist, or a lawyer: I would love to be tourism commissioner for New York City. So if Bill De Blasio reads this interview, and is looking to fill an appointment (which I think may still be open), I am very much available and would be happy to do it for free.
We will make sure to mention that in the article.
Let’s talk for a second about Starshine and Larry. And I’m not going to ask the question I really want to ask, because I know you won’t answer it. But I do want to talk about the ending. We never find out exactly what happens. And I’m not going to spoil it for everybody, because I think the ending, especially the last line, is one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever read, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But was it always your intention to go with an open-ended ending—did you know how the book would end from the beginning?
I knew the last sentence of the novel—and probably only the last sentence—before I sat down to write anything else. I knew exactly what the ending was going to be, and in some ways, I wrote toward it. That being said, and I won’t ruin the novel’s ending for people, but I will tell them I do believe that people often think the ending of certain novels are purely ambiguous, but if they think about the novel over and over again long enough, I do think it points them in one directions rather than another if they incorporate what they know of human nature. But that’s just my bias. I think, for my part, I do know the meaning, because the answer was not designed to be purely ambiguous, but simply inclusively ambiguous, if that makes any sense.
It’s very interesting for me to find out that the last sentence was the first thing you knew about the book. One of the book’s characters, Ezekiel Borasch, is on the search for the great American sentence. Not the great American novel or short story—he wants to find the Great American Sentence. And the sentence that he comes up with is fairly benign, and I think Larry’s reaction to it is one of the most classic reactions in any book that I’ve ever read. In general, I found it very interesting that this character was on the search for the great American sentence. What does Borasch’s journey and goal reflect on your philosophy about publishing in the modern age?
I think all of us in some ways sit down thinking we’re going to write the Great American Novel, or a great literary work. If you didn’t think that before you started writing, most people wouldn’t be able to write—maybe if you’re writing in a genre for money, but not literarily. But as soon as you start writing, that hope evaporates. It doesn’t wait until you get to your publisher: by the time you get to sentence three, you can sense there is something different about what you’re writing than what Virginia Woolf is writing, or William Faulkner is writing. It’s very tangible. So in some ways, I tell people, and in my own mind as well, you want to break that down further and further.
I accepted that I wasn’t going to write the Great American Novel, or even the Great American Story, but for me, if I could write one brilliant sentence, I would be pretty happy, and then I took it to the ultimate extreme. Someone who has given up the hope of the rest of that and focuses on just the sentence. And I think a lot of us, for better or for worse, do lead our lives that way—we get so focused on solving one particular problem we lose complete sight of the larger world that we live in.
This happens all the time in the hospital, where you have specialists working on different parts of the human body, and they will stop thinking about the patient and start thinking about the kidney or the gallbladder. And they will come up with a great plan for curing the kidney or the gallbladder, even if it involves killing the patient. Or even if the patient is already dead. And so it is that perspective that I was trying to satirize.
It’s interesting because when I read the last sentence of the novel, I didn’t realize it was the last sentence. There’s an interview in the back of the novel, there’s a study guide, so there are a few pages after that one and I assumed I was reading the end of a chapter. When I moved to the next page and realized that was the last sentence of the novel, it struck me that it really was a beautiful sentence. And again, I’m not going to spoil the entire thing, because it’s such a striking end to the book.
I rarely get letters about my novels and my writing from random people, certainly not the kind of letters that express strong opinions. But I’ve gotten a number of emails and several actual handwritten letters from people saying things to the effect of, “Your ending was unreasonable. If I had written this novel, here is how I would have ended it.”
Well, those people are idiots.
Yeah, I generally write back to people, but I don’t answer those.
Yeah, just ignore those people—they aren’t worth the time. Because to me, that last sentence sums up everything anyone needs to know about not only writing, or life, or love, but also about America today. It really did strike me as a very philosophical way to end the book, because if you step back and focus on not just what happened next, but on what it means—what that very last sentence means, what those three words that Starshine says actually mean—there’s so much meaning there, and I found it very symbolic of our world today. So ignore the naysayers.
What I do find very amusing: in the interview at the back of the book, I make a facetious remark that if people didn’t like the ending, I’m going to write a sequel if I’m paid enough money, and that was intended as a joke—obviously there is not going to be a sequel to this novel. Anybody that gets to the end of this novel should understand why. But people have written to me very seriously asking about the sequel, and are very disappointed when I answer politely telling them that.
It strikes me as odd that someone would read this book and expect the story to continue—it’s obviously very self-contained and it’s clear that, at the end, you have given us what we need to know to take away what we need from the story—we don’t need anything else. So I think the people who do want the sequel, who want to know what happened—while that’s natural, they probably didn’t really get it, and maybe reading it a second time would help that, maybe not.
I appreciate that, and I think you’re probably right.
So what’s next? Any projects in the works that we should know about?
Yeah, I have a bunch of books that are already done that are coming out. I have an essay collection that came out today, and I have a short story collection [Einstein’s Beach House] coming out with Pressgang in November, and then, because fate has brought everything together at once, I have a second short story collection [Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets] coming out with Black Lawrence in February.
But what I’m really excited about is that my agent is now marketing—knock on wood—a revision of the first novel I ever wrote. And I started writing this over twenty years ago now, and I’ve been working on it on and off for over twenty years, and it’s finally come together. It’s about a college professor, who eventually becomes a high school teacher, who discovers through his research that the civil war never actually happened. It’s actually a hoax perpetrated on the American people. And on one level it’s a satire of Holocaust deniers and global warming deniers and the like, but I also think it’s a very nuanced and complex novel, and I’m thrilled that after twenty years, it’s finally done.
That sounds incredible. It’s right up my alley and the type of speculative fiction that I really enjoy. And much like The Biology of Luck, I think it will give you an awesome opportunity to comment on the world today.
That’s what I’m hoping. And it’s a question of, now that I have an agent—who I do adore—but when you have an agent, their goal is to sell to the largest publisher out there, and to the individual writer, my goal is to sell to the person who is most likely to read and promote my book. So hopefully we’ll reach a nice common middle ground and someone at a mid-sized or larger publisher will want to take the book under its wing, because it is such a strange book, without someone invested in it, it will vanish—I can feel that. But I will certainly send you a copy if and when it ever comes out.
I would love to read it.
E. Branden Hart is Executive Editor of EmptySinkPublishing.com. He lives and works in San Antonio. His fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Calamaties Press, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology, which is available on Kindle and in paperback by XChyler Publishing.