Jacob Appel
Bioethicist and Writer
02:30

Write About Extraordinary People, and Other Fiction Tips

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Don’t write stories about “ordinary people who think in ordinary ways,” and don’t spoon-feed your readers answers to moral dilemmas.

Jacob Appel

Jacob M. Appel is a bioethicist and fiction writer. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

Appel has also published short fiction in more than one hundred literary journals. His short story, Shell Game With Organs, won the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest in 1998. His story about two census takers, "Counting," was shortlisted for the O. Henry Award in 2001. Other stories received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and 2007.

He is admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.

Appel contributed a Dangerous Idea to Big Think's "Month of Thinking Dangerously," advocating that we add trace amounts of lithium to our drinking water to help reduce the suicide rate.

Appel is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.

Transcript

Question: In stories like “Hazardous Cargoes,” how do you create a voice that’s radically different from your own?

Jacob Appel: Well, it's interesting.  Hazardous Cargoes is actually a story, for those in your audience, about a man whose job it is to drive a flock of penguins across the country.  And in the course of the story, the truck of penguins overturned.  This was actually a real incident.  I cobbled out of a newspaper a number of years ago and it sat in my desk for a long time.  And walking to work every day, or living my life, periodically these penguins would come back into my mind and the challenge was to capture the voice of the man who drives penguins.  And part of the challenge of that is, there is a famous writer, who I won't mention here, who says you should never write stories about truck drivers unless the truck drivers think like Proust.  And I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. 

I am not a fan of stories about ordinary people who think in ordinary ways.  I am deeply devoted and a big fan of people's stories, but ordinary people who think in extraordinary ways.  Not because there are millions of people out there leading ordinary lives because ordinary lives don't make interesting stories.  Your challenge is to find the extraordinary person who matches the extraordinary facts of a situation that you're going to explore.  And often it's not just a matter of coming up with that voice, but match that voice to the facts of the situation. 

Question: As a writer and bioethicist, do you believe writers should consciously dramatize modern ethical issues? 

Jacob Appel: Well, I think on the one hand, fiction is a very powerful tool to show us the issues and writers should not be afraid to explore these questions.  On the other hand, you don't want to write issue-driven stories.  And the thing you most don't want to do is you don't want to write issue-driven stories in which you've solved the problem, or offer an answer to the issue. 

The distinction I make, and this is purely a matter of case, but I think if you compare probably the two great African-American male novelists in the 20th century, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright is, in some sense, a more didactic writer, if you look at "Native Son," the first of the three **** of "Native Son" is a beautiful lyric work, the second is a lyric work that is driven by issues, and the third is somewhat propagandic and gives you an answer to the question. 

In contrast is Ralph Ellison who shows you in its full panorama the challenges of African-Americans in the early 20th century, but doesn't give you any answers.  And I think history will show that Ellison's "Invisible Man" is a far better and more lasting work than Native Son.  I think for writers out there, you want to show people the issues, or show people the questions, but you don't want to offer them answers, let them come to the answers on their own.

Recorded on March 1, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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