In his latest book, “The Saddest Toilet in the World,” journalist and author Sam Apple tackles a careful science: potty training.
Released last week, the book reveals the antics of a runaway toilet. It is inspired by Gogol’s story “The Nose,” which was introduced to Apple by another celebrated writer years prior.
“My dad, Max Apple, is a great and well-known writer. He taught me how to appreciate the absurd from a very young age,” Apple says. “I’ve always loved Gogol’s ‘The Nose,’ a story about a nose that leaves a man’s face. Also, we were doing construction when I thought of the idea. Our toilet had been moved out of the bathroom and was sitting in the middle of another room.”
Both father and son teach at the University of Pennsylvania, where for the past five years, the younger Apple has taught undergraduates science journalism and creative writing. His father’s memoir, “Roommates: My Grandfather’s Story,” was made into a 1995 film starring Peter Falk.
In “The Nose,” the missing appendage is discovered inside a bread loaf. “My dad once found a nose pencil sharpener for sale and sent it to me inside of a roll,” Apple says. “I was in college at the time, and, until I discovered the nose, I couldn’t figure out why my dad was sending me bread in the mail.”
With illustrations by Sam Ricks, “The Saddest Toilet in the World” portrays the life of a renegade. Appropriately, it slips in a wink to renowned conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who saw the lowly bowl as more than functional; in the book, the runaway toilet’s adventures include a visit to a museum displaying a porcelain urinal.
This isn’t Apple’s first screwball. His freshman title, “Schlepping Through The Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd” (Ballantine, 2006), became a YouTube sensation, ultimately attracting more than 500,000 hits.
Apple earned his bachelor’s at University of Michigan and an MFA at Columbia, and among his various forms of writing, favors long-form science feature articles and comic short stories.
His work has also appeared in The New Republic, Wired, TheNewYorker.com, Tablet, McSweeney’s, New York Times Magazine and elsewhere. He is the author of another memoir, “American Parent: My Surprising and Strange Adventures Through Babyland” (Ballantine, 2009), and was named a finalist for both the PEN America Award for a first work of nonfiction and the Koret Award for a Young Writer on Jewish Themes. His short story, “Country Living” won the Upload Fiction Award.
Wanting to get to the core of things, The Times of Israel interviewed Apple, who shared more about his personal and professional world.
The book features a husband and wife potty training their son. Is that you and your wife in the book?
Definitely not my wife. My kids say the dad looks a little bit like me. I wonder if Ricks did that on purpose. I’ll have to ask…
Did you and your wife have trouble with potty training your children?
Nothing out of the ordinary. But I do remember being mystified by how kids can find toilets scary, and that’s perhaps the real origin of the book.
Could you describe your collaboration with Ricks and what surprised you about it?
I love Ricks’s illustrations but we didn’t collaborate directly. I would send my notes to my editor — the great Karen Nagel at Simon & Schuster — and she would take it from there.
I really had no idea how Ricks was going to solve the problem of how to show a toilet walking — or doing anything at all. But I think he did it very convincingly. And he added a lot of great comic touches to the art. I didn’t even notice a few of them until I got my hands on the actual book.
I made a number of suggestions — probably an annoying number of suggestions — but even when he used my ideas, he made them far better.
Are there more children’s books ahead?
I hope so. I really enjoyed writing this one, but there’s nothing really in the works at the moment.
How did keeping adults in mind impact your writing of this book?
As any parent will tell you, reading the same children’s book over and over can be painful if you don’t like the book. So, I was hoping to write something that adults could find amusing as well.
How does parenting play into your writing?
I spent years telling bedtime stories, so that was excellent preparation for writing a children’s book. Unfortunately, I can’t just write down the bedtime stories and turn them into a book. I’ve tried to do that and the stories are just too weird and meandering.
And how does parenting your nine-year-old son and your two seven-year-old daughters compare with teaching?
‘I always think that one of the great things about teaching is that my students, unlike my kids, actually listen to me’
I always think that one of the great things about teaching is that my students, unlike my kids, actually listen to me.
I always say that writing fiction is important because it’s one of the only chances you get to really tell the whole truth — at least about what it’s like to be a person. My nonfiction has mostly been about science and health in recent years. I hope my articles do a tiny bit of good by drawing attention to health issues.
What do you enjoy about your work?
Writing isn’t always fun, but when I hit on an idea that makes me laugh — like an indignant toilet leaving home — there’s nothing more fun than playing with the idea and exploring all of the comic possibilities. That’s true if I’m writing for children or for adults. I also do science journalism and I love talking to researchers about their work.
Do you have a daily writing routine?
Not really. I drink an alarming amount of coffee. If that doesn’t do the trick, I try to rest for a few minutes rather than stare at the screen and hope something good happens.
Have you noticed your writing evolve over time?
I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think my style has changed very much but I think I’ve grown more patient. I’ve learned that I have to let some ideas slow-cook for a long time before they’re ready for public consumption.
Is your father among your trusted readers?
I often show him drafts of my work to get his advice, but that’s about it. Every now and then I’ll also give him feedback. My sister, Jessica Apple, is a terrific writer, so we all bounce drafts around. I suppose it’s the family business.
In the New York Times, you published a humor piece on conceptual Halloween costumes. Have you ever actually worn any of them to a party?
I didn’t try the costumes myself, but I did inspire my neighbor, Matilda, to go as “raining cats and dogs.” She hung stuffed animals from an umbrella. It was a big hit. I do hope to one day go as “lap of luxury”: tape fine cutlery and a bottle of expensive wine to groin.