NaNoWriMo Feature: Jacob M. Appel

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Jacob M. Appel, author of the novel The Biology of Luck.



Word on the street:  Bone, the one-armed super, can get you anything.

He sits in the forenoon sun, eyes closed but not sleeping, absorbing his beauty rays with a silver reflector, so that if his aluminum lawn chair weren’t planted on the Fillmore Avenue sidewalk, if his Hawaiian shirt weren’t clipped at the top with a bolo tie, if the shades resting in his tight-cropped hair didn’t boast a bridge of custom-made gold leaf, in short, if he were not Bone, but just another olive-skinned cripple at the curbside, you might make the gross mistake of feeling sorry for him.  He seems so harmless, so overtly innocuous.  It is difficult to imagine, at first glance, that this emaciated creature is the kingpin, the Alpha and the Omega, the man who has connected the sorts of people who know each other.  But it would take only one blink of a lizard’s eye, one snap of Bone’s calloused fingers, to supply you with anything, absolutely anything, contraband and coveted.  Bone is the Wells Fargo wagon of the looming millennium.  He can get you high, he can get you screwed, he can get you shot.  He can arm your band of mercenaries with Kalashnikovs and M-16 rifles, load them onto state-of-the-art personnel transports and deposit them within hours in the mudflats off the Guatemalan coast or Havana harbor.  He can wipe clean your record as a pedophile, elect you to the legislature, have your political opponents’ families dismembered with machetes.  If you have the money, if you have the need, if your personal welfare depends upon securing a year’s supply of napalm or nude photographs of the Queen of England or fucking identical twins simultaneously, if your fetish is panda fur or celebrities’ tampons, if your talisman is World Series rings or severed human tongues, if you crave early Christian relics or your employer’s wife or a particular print at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bone can make it happen.  That, at least, is the word on the street.

Craft Notes
The Biology of Luck is a novel built largely on secondary characters.  My protagonist, Larry Bloom, is a ne’er-do-well writer and tour guide who lives largely inside his own imagination while wandering New York City–a cross between Leopold Bloom and Walter Mitty.  Bone is one of his fantasies, but also an actual character in the novel.  The challenge in this passage is creating a character who is simultaneously both plausible and larger-than-life.  As a general rule, this project stands at the center of all of my fiction–including the short stories in Scouting for the Reaper and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets.  I want to shape characters who are memorable and unusual, but not so unusual that one cannot relate to them or, at least, relate to the fantasy of them.  Anyone who has lived in a city like New York (if there is any other city that is like New York) has encountered someone, a doorman, a cabbie, a street vendor, who seems infinitely resourceful.  Bone is both my tribute to these indispensable men and women and to the inept sops like myself who depend so heavily upon them.
1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

Finding passages by famous writers that are brilliant enough to copy verbatim yet obscure enough to not be recognized.  And you have to be careful…If you’ve pinched a few pages of Tolstoy, for example, but your novel is set in downtown Manhattan (as mine is), even an offhand reference to Moscow or the Tsar is bound to raise suspicions.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

In third grade, Miss Spillman reminded me to take the cap off the pen.  This guidance has proven invaluable…

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

It took me 18 months to complete my novel and another 11 years to publish it.  For much of that time, the only existing copy gathered dust in the trunk of my car.  When a colleague contacted me about a publishing opportunity with Elephant Rock, I literally had to retype the entire manuscript into a word processor in order to submit it.  The experience makes me wonder what else of value I might have stashed away—and how many novels may be languishing in parking lots and auto graveyards across America.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?
Friends don’t let friends drink and write.
Suggested Reading

Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle–two great magazines brimming with literary wisdom; I find these far more helpful that any craft books on writing.


Jacob AppelJacob M. Appel is the author of the novels, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, which won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award, and The Biology of Luck (2013). His story collection, Scouting for the Reaper (2014), won The Hudson Prize.  Other collections include The Magic Laundry (2015)  and Phoning Home: Essays (2014).  Jacob’s short fiction has appeared in more than two hundred literary journals.  His prose has won the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award on four separate occasions, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He practices psychiatry in New York City. More at