1. David, what inspired you to transition from practicing medicine to becoming a writer?
I started writing when I was in my early sixties, the age at which many famous writers have died: James Joyce at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Kafka at 40 and John Keats at 25 to name a few, so it came as a complete surprise that I would start a second career as a writer. There was nothing in my past that suggested any writing ability, I did poorly in English composition in school, mainly because my handwriting was so terrible that I couldn’t read anything that I wrote and neither could the teacher. (The bad handwriting put me in great company after I received my medical degree!) I did read a lot as a kid. My sister and I were stuck on the shores of a lake in rural Manitoba every summer, and we read voraciously to occupy ourselves, particularly on the days that it rained, which was 80% of the time. This may sound ridiculous, but I didn’t learn to type until well into my fifties when the hospital where I worked computerized their medical records. My first story concerned a wonderful poodle that we had as a pet for many years. I wrote a eulogy to the dog, and suddenly I could read my thoughts on the page! Something clicked in my brain to write a short story and that composition, my very first, got published in a medical journal.
2. Over the last eight years you have had five books published, some of which have received critical acclaim and recognition. Your literary humor has also been published in several magazines. What is the key to crafting a good story?
I’ve always had a good sense of humor, a Jewish gene so to speak. I’ve loved Jewish comedians since I was five years old: Syd Cesar, Myron Cohen, Don Rickles, and Jackie Mason come to mind. My grandfather was a funny man and so were my parents and my siblings. Some of the stories that I write are just funny, other stories have a serious theme and an unhappy ending, but I use humor as a hook to keep the reader’s interest as my story develops. For a story to be truly funny, I’ve found that you must start with a platform, a premise or a situation, that’s what made Seinfeld so successful. For example, in “Tales of Unkosher Souls” I have a talking dinosaur appearing in the Garden of Eden; there’s an autobiographical story of my own circumcision; and a soul of a poor man finally makes it to heaven only to discover that God is on sabbatical.
3. Your most recent book, Tales of Unkosher Souls, was named one of the Best Indie Books
in 2021 by Kirkus Reviews. Are you surprised by your success?
There are literally thousands of books published every day in the US, so the competition is fierce. To be named a Best Indie book, it had to be rated in the top 2% of the 3000-4000 Indie books that Kirkus reviews every year. The review highlighted the combination of humor and magical realism paired with the ordinary life of these characters, but above all, these stories are fun to read.
4. Your first book, Looking Behind: The Gaseous Life of a Gastroenterologist, was a humorous collection of poems and short stories that reflected on your medical career. Was it a cathartic experience to pen that book?
That was the easiest book to write because it encompassed the humorous stories that I had stored in my brain from the forty odd years that I’d been in the medical profession: as a student, a resident and a gastroenterologist, and of course, being in that branch of medicine there was no shortage of funny happenings. I initially thought that I would write about patients that I’d encountered over those many years, but I soon realized I could make things much funnier if I embellished the stories here and there, and made them fictional. I also included some stories from my childhood, and some funny poems ala Ogden Nash.
5. How would you describe your writing style?
My writing is literary, there’s more character than plot. You won’t find any great mystery stories or crime novels in my work. I use magical realism in many of the tales, where fairy-tale characters show up in settings of everyday life. In my first novel, “The Myth of Dr. Kugelman,” Zeus comes down from Mt. Olympus to obtain a second opinion for his bellyache, and Dr. Kugelman (autobiographical me) discovers that he’s lactose intolerant. Whoops, I just gave away the whole story! In “Tales of Unkosher Souls,” there’s a story about a rock that’s celebrating his 2 billionth birthday. Then there’s the dybbuk (a wandering spirit) who comes from the shtetl in Ukraine to occupy the brain of his relative living in Brooklyn.
6. Which is more challenging to write — short stories and poems or novels? Why?
I don’t claim to be a poet, I just write funny rhyming stuff. The novels were the most difficult. It took me 4-6 months to write the first drafts, and a few more months before I had anything resembling a publishable book. I like short stories because they can be written in 2-4 weeks, and I get a much faster take on whether it’s going to be good or a pile of crap. It’s easier to be humorous for a shorter piece than to find humor throughout an entire book, but I succeeded fairly well in my novel “The Misadventures of Buddy Jones.” It’s about a redneck who meets a black history scholar at a Waffle House, and they take a road trip together. It won an eLit award for humor.
7. What are some of the themes or issues your writings like to examine?
How did man arrive on this planet and where is he going from here? Is there Heaven and Hell? Why do some human beings have a propensity for great compassion and some for great evil? Why do bad things happen to good people? I’ve always felt a compassion for the underdog and many of my characters are just that, unfortunate losers in life. In a country as affluent as the US, we have sick people who can’t afford medical care which makes it impossible for them to obtain medications and procedures that are truly lifesaving. My second novel, “The Plumber’s Wrench” is based on this theme. For many people, go get a job is not an option. If you’re mentally or physically unwell, how do you obtain employment so that you can get health insurance so you can get well enough to work? It’s a catch 22.
8. Which writers have inspired you?
Sholem Aleichem comes to mind. In “Tevye the Dairyman,” which was made into “Fiddler on the Roof,” the humor is hilarious, but the basic story is sad, one daughter leaves with a revolutionary, one marries a gentile and is never seen again, and one commits suicide. Some of the stories in “Tales of Unkosher Souls” are like that, funny but with unhappy endings, reflecting the human condition. Bernard Malamud is another writer who inspired me, I’ve patterned one of my characters after a talking bird that appears in his short story, “The Jewbird.” I’ve admired the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his famous quote: Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale. “The “Kugelmass Episode,” a short story by Woody Allen, typifies self-deprecatory, ironic, Jewish humor. I changed Kugelmass to Kugelman as the protagonist in my first novel. Some of my themes reflect the writings of Franz Kafka and the bizarre complexity of life, and I’ve employed James Joyce’s stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
9. What fuels your writings? Where does your voice come from?
For me, there is great satisfaction in turning a blank computer screen into a creative piece of work. I have an inner voice that seems to take over in my writing, almost like a dybbuk, but I like to think he’s a nice fellow, not an evil spirit. After I finish a story, I’m always surprised how it got there on the page. But seriously, as a doctor for over forty years, I have a unique perspective on the human experience. I’ve encountered the affluent and the poor, the intelligent and the ignorant, the lucky ones who survive and those that don’t. It’s difficult to find any explanation for the chaotic lives that we lead. I’m subconsciously looking for answers while putting words on the page.
10. Do you have any advice for fellow writers?
The more a person writes, the better you get at it. I wrote at least fifty short stories before I even attempted my first novel. I try to write at least three or four times per week, and when I’m really going badly, I’ll force myself to sit in front of the computer for at least an hour even if I only write one sentence. A writer must have faith in his ability, and it helps to have a completely misplaced optimism, because there’s an unbelievable number of rejections of your work. You have to get off the mat and keep punching.