Conversations with Creative Writers:
JACOB M. APPEL
Winner of Prize Americana, Jacob M. Appel is the author of Shaving with Occam, published by Hollywood Books International, an imprint of Press Americana. This novel tell the story of the first nineteen years of Henrietta Brigander's life, which were distinguished by matchless luxury: summers at Newport and Saratoga, outings on her father's yacht, cotillions on the dance cards of Kennedys and Vanderbilts. Then a schizophrenic break followed by a series of devastating financial setbacks left her destitute on the streets of New York City. Yet Henrietta never looks back and carves out a niche for herself as "Granny Flamingo, aka The Mad Bird Lady of East 14th Street." But when she suspects one of her fellow psychiatric patients has been murdered, Henrietta is forced into yet another role—that of relentless detective.
We talked to Jacob about his novel.
Where did Granny Flamingo come from? She's such a unique and fascinating protagonist.
I can't really explain how Granny Flamingo happened. What I can say is that if I ever had a fairy godmother, I would want her to be Granny. She is far wiser than anyone around her and brings good cheer to all. As I wrote the novel, I often wondered who Granny would want to play her in the film version of her life story, should that ever come to pass. I suspect Hollywood would prefer a zany older character actor like Ruth Gordon or Cynthia Harris, but Granny would have none of that. She'd want Rosalind Russell. But who wouldn't?
You work as a psychiatrist. How much of your real-life experience informed the plot and characterizations?
Although the specifics of the novel are entirely fictional, I have made every effort to capture the lived experience of individuals like Granny Flamingo. Although I do not suffer from severe mental illness myself, I have worked with patients who do in a wide range of settings over many years, including in a psychiatric emergency room and on an inpatient unit, and one of my hopes was to capture the experience of patients with authenticity and humanity.
What's your favorite scene and why?
My favorite scene is the courtroom scene in which the judge, who is possibly also a former classmate of Granny Flamingo's, must decide whether to appoint a conservator to manage Granny's affairs. Granny views her soliloquy as in the spirit of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and I admire her efforts to speak truth to power. We should all be so brave.
The glossary is comprehensive. Why did you think it was important to include such a thing?
The glossary is one of my favorite parts of the novel. To me, it offers insight into how Granny Flamingo sees the world. On the one hand, she regrets that others do not share her wealth of obscure cultural knowledge. On the other hand, she wants to be helpful and educate the world to the best of her abilities. I will also note that, with the passages of time, many of the references do grow obscure, so this affords the reader an easy guide to the novel as well.
What do you hope readers take from this novel?
I am a great admirer of Granny Flamingo. I am in awe of her resilience, her ingenuity, her optimism, her humor, and her insight into the human experience. Our psychiatric hospitals and our streets house many individuals with such gifts. I am hopeful that this novel helps remind us of the humanity of such individuals, makes us more curious about their experiences, and helps us to connect with them.
Interested readers can see the press release here and buy the book here.
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