The Writer’s Handful with Jacob M. Appel

Mondays + Writers = finally something to look forward to.

Week nine (sorry we missed last week, on the road) of The Writer’s Handful welcomes Jacob M. Appel, the author of many things, among them the much anticipated and exciting new novel The Biology of Luck, forthcoming from Elephant Rock Books. Funny, smart, bold—this book (The Biology of Luck) is just another indication that this industrious and prolific writer is definitely someone to watch!

Welcome Jacob!

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

Yes.  I wrote six progress notes on psychiatric patients at my hospital.  Also a few dozen medication prescriptions.   They were not terribly literary.  When I return home, I will likely write something that I hope has more artistic promise….

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

I wrote an obituary for my first grade teacher.  Unfortunately, she was still alive and not particularly appreciative when I gave it to her during class.  In fact, it earned me a visit to the school psychologist.

What are you reading right now?

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.  It’s better than it was in high school.  Amazing how much his writing has improved in twenty-five years!

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

Be optmistic.  Change into clean underwear before going on a date.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

Leona Helmsley dog.  $12 million would go a long way…..


Jacob M. Appel is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Biology of Luck, and the forthcoming short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper.  His most recent novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award.  He practices medicine in New York City.

Duck Day 2012

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the launch party of the brand new essay anthology, BRIEFLY KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS BY A LOW-FLYING DUCKI know, great title, right? Full disclosure here: I have a piece in this anthology about my mom, my cat, September 11, 2001, love, loneliness, a cabin in the woods, students, black squirrels, Tom Waits, coffee. And the publisher is the publisher of THE TEMPLE OF AIR, Elephant Rock Books.

But anyway. The launch was a celebration of these essays, but also a celebration of stories, story telling, and story sharing. This anthology is a collection of 23 pieces curated from more than 300 that have been told as part of the long-running, once Chicago, now international, live story series 2nd Story. (Shout out here to Megan Stielstra and Andrew Reilly who edited the book and are part of the driving force of this story telling collective.)

So last night, there were three truly remarkable readings. Eric Charles May read “A Cautionary Tale” about an ill-fated night when he might have ended up in more than a heap of trouble just because he (a black man) happened to be with a drunken (white) woman when she did something really stupid. (That’s all I’m gonna tell you.) Molly Each read the hilarious “A Prostitute Comparison” about an expected evening in the red light district of Amsterdam. And Deb R. Lewis–well, I still find myself getting a little damp-eyed over Deb’s piece “Why I Hate Strawberries” about the very, very bad deeds of her grandfather and the lasting effect on his family.

All in all, a good night. And today? Today I am doing my best to try to help promote BKUBLFD by encouraging anyone who might be thinking about getting a copy of the book to go over to and buy one TODAY. (Duck Day, get it?) If we have a good showing of it, this little book put out by a lovely little publisher might just get a leg up in the world of a million titles. And speaking of a million, this morning BKUBLFD was ranked at one-million-something on the Barnes & Noble sales rankings. Right now, at 5:56 PM central time, it is ranked at something like 181. Not bad! Thanks to all of you who have already put in your orders.

What else can I tell you? Oh, I know. Quack.

A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends ~ Another Wonderful Book by a CCC Fiction Department Alum

It’s Tuesday night, AWP starts tomorrow, and the literary happenings are starting to happen in Chicagoland. We just got back from a fabulous release party for the brand new book by Stacy Bierlein, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-BoyfriendsThere were beers and wine and goodies and books and t-shirts and people. Lots of folks gathered around a few rooms of a really gorgeous house in Evanston owned by Amy Davis (The Writers Workspace) and Lee Nagen (Fisheye) and we celebrated the new book, its author, and publisher (also mine) Elephant Rock Books. Stacy read the title story; we laughed and we sighed, and it was really a very, very good time.

And here’s the thing. Stacy Bierlein was a student at Columbia College Chicago in the Fiction Writing Department some years ago. We had a class together when we were both younger women. Amy Davis took classes there, too. In fact, Amy was involved in a really fine literary journal called Fish Stories, the first lit journal I was ever published in back in the day. Lee printed the journal. Jotham Burrello, the founding father of Elephant Rock Books, came to Columbia College as a graduate student in Fiction Writing after having worked for The Atlantic Monthly. Dan Prazer, editor for Elephant Rock Books was a graduate student in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College, too.

You might think that what I am getting at here is something akin to nepotism. But that is not my point. Not at all. My point is this: the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago grows great writers, publishers, editors, and literary folk. It was so very many years ago that I was in class with Stacy, years and years since Jotham and I became colleagues. Amy published me in the 1990s. But it isn’t like we’ve been all hanging out together smoking dope in a basement and putting out little newsprint paper zines full of a bunch of half-baked stories by our buddies. We’ve grown up. We teach and we write and we cultivate writing communities in Chicago, in California, in Connecticut. We make good and real product. Books that are reviewed well, work that we are all very proud of.

You may recently have become aware of some confusion around the future of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago; you may have heard that the long-time chair of the department, Randy Albers (a mentor to so many) recently was informed that his chair contract will not be renewed. There is no scandal here, by the way; Randy has been praised highly by the administration and by his colleagues and his students.

But I don’t really want to get into any of this right now. What I am really trying to say is that I sat in this living room with a bunch of folks I have known for a long time, and some I’ve only come to know recently (Bill Shunn of Tuesday Funk Reading Series, Mare Swallow of Chicago Publishes podcasts), and some I don’t know at all, and we all leaned in to listen to Stacy read, to hear her story, to witness this first book launch of a fine debut. And it dawned on me that we were all there because of the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. We might have become teachers and writers and publishers even if we hadn’t gone to Columbia, but we did, and we are. And as Amy added to Stacy’s thanks to us all for coming, she mentioned this Fiction Writing connection, and really, I hadn’t thought of it before then. But then I thought how much I wished that Randy might have been there to celebrate with us (he had his own presentation going on at Columbia tonight) and how good it would have been if our college dean knew about all of this fine and important publishing stuff by past students, how good it would have been for the provost to hear, too, and the president. Because this is what happens when you have a good, strong, writing program. You help produce good, strong, writers, publishers, editors.

Congratulations, Stacy. Congratulations, Elephant Rock Books. Congratulations, Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago–you did it again.

On Politeness (and its Absence) In A Writing Life

Years ago, when I was a recent graduate from the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, I sent my newly minted thesis out to a small (but not tiny) press. I’d met the managing editor at a conference, and shared a nice conversation with him about books, writers, and the nightlife of Chicago (where the conference was being held.) He encouraged me to send him my manuscript.

♦Sidebar: I was in my twenties and taught aerobics as an avocation. I was wearing a short black skirt, smoky tights, and high heels. Perhaps this combination of things is what really compelled him to invite me to keep in touch.♦

I sent the manuscript with all the high hopes of a new writer. I will be discovered; I will be reviewed well; I will win prizes; I will beat the odds and even make some money here. Someone will buy the rights for the book and make it into a smart, poignant, slightly edgy independent film. The film will be reviewed well, win prizes, etc., etc., etc.

You know what happens next. Months pass without a word. Finally, though, a fat packet of manuscript pages comes back in the mail stuffed in an envelope addressed by my own hand. The dreaded SASE of days gone by: the one we had to pay the extra postage for so our manuscripts could be returned (no electronic submissions in those days, no discs or easy, cheap printing and photocopying. Each manuscript was precious, costly, and re-sent.) In the pages of the manuscript was also this note—not, by the way, written by the publisher who kept glancing at my legs when we met, and held my hand a little longer than was necessary when we shook hands goodbye—“Blah, blah, blah, no thanks, blah blah blah.” (Okay, those quoted words aren’t accurate. The message is, but the words are paraphrased.) What was really said, though, in the note written by someone I am rather certain was a summer intern, a slush pile reader (judging from the snarkiness and odd formatting of the typewritten page) was this: “While it is clear that you care deeply for your character, your audience cares less.”



At a party (no, make that many parties, conferences, literary gatherings) and I am excited about the upcoming (or recent) release of my short story collection, The Temple of Air. I tell friends and anyone who might be interested, and many other folks who probably will not give—as they say—a shit. Still. It is a big deal. These stories have been published in various journals and anthologies, have garnered nominations and won awards and have been collected, sifted, re-sorted, reworked, and rearranged, inserted, excerpted, tweaked, covered in coffee stains and ink, been made into a nest by the cats to sleep on in the sun. A whole lot of work went into this book. And my publisher, Elephant Rock Books, is a new kid on this block, just starting out, trying to take its place and make its mark.

All very exciting stuff, yes?

So when I tell folks, I do get the wide smile, the hearty congratulations. And then I get this:

“Who’s doing it?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Who is the publisher?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Did you (will you) make any money?”

In literary-circle talk, that might mean “Is this somewhere I can send my work?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this a big deal?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Have you broken through?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this an important book published by an important press?”

The question is the literary equivalent of turning a plate over to look at the hallmark, of checking the label in a fancy dress, of glancing at the price tag inadvertently left on a gift.

The question—“Who’s doing it?”—is, in my opinion, rude. Especially in this day and age when publishers can be found in the most inauspicious places, when book lovers are doing all they can to make books live, when little known presses are making big, important or highly-desired and widely-read books like The Lord of the Misrule, American Salvage, Go the Fuck to Sleep, The Time Traveler’s Wife and so many more titles. Rude especially in this day and age when big publishers—the ones who can make those folks who ask the “Who’s doing it?” question draw breath, smack their lips, bat their eyes and follow you around once they know you have an “important book” coming out from an “important press”—when these big publishers are spending thousands (millions?) of dollars of their acquisitions budgets on books by celebrity darlings and abstinence ex-witches and governors going anything but rogue.

What matters—what must matter if we who love and write and read books get to be part of the equation, the occupation—is the publication, not the publisher, yes?


A reader who asked me if she could read one of my published stories, and more recently, another reader of my book (which, by the way, she did not pay for but won in a readers’ website giveaway—clearly she had not read the description of the book or perhaps she would not have entered the contest, would have cleared the way for someone who did want this sort of book to win it) told me (and others) what they didn’t like about the work. One told me directly, as in: “I really didn’t like the magic at the end of the story. It isn’t the kind of thing I go for.” Another wrote a review (if you follow me on Facebook, you probably have seen my comments on this) for the readers’ website about the overuse of cuss words and drug use. She gave it two stars.

She is, of course, entitled to her opinion. (As is the woman who said what she said about magic in the story.) Some might say that this is merely honesty. I would posit that it is in fact, rude. If a person baked a cake and you asked for a slice would you tell that person that you thought it was too rich? That it was not to your liking? If you answer yes to this question, let me break it to you—you are not being helpful or constructive, you are being rude.

You say: “Thank you.”

You say: “I don’t usually eat pistachio,” if you must.

You say: “Wow. There is a lot here. I’ll save the rest for later.”


That’s all I’m saying. I’ll save the rest for later.


As always, thanks for reading. -PMc←

“The Bones of the Book Glimmer…” ~ A Review from TNB

I have just found out that The Temple of Air was reviewed in The Nervous Breakdown. Such a stellar review. So thoughtful and positive. A great way to have my review cherry popped.

Here’s a snippet of what the reviewer, Leah Tallon, wrote: “The bones of the book glimmer in the spirit of Winesburg, Ohio. McNair’s sentences are free flowing and emotionally charged, electric power lines running straight to your brain. Each word is honest and relatable.”

Not bad, eh?

I would encourage you to read the review in its entirety if you are willing, and I also remind you that while the book will be officially launched at Women and Children First in Chicago on September 9, 2011, advanced orders are being taken at Elephant Rock Books.