A gangly Chinese American girl sets her heart on marrying Yao Ming; an eighty-four-year-old woman is beset by Alzheimer’s; a teenager battles her mother over her love of shotput. These are some of the characters that people Max Apple’s most recent work, the inventive, witty, and wise story collection The Jew of Home Depot.
Raised in the 1940s in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, home crowded with three generations, Apple—known as Mottele in his youth—translated the world into Yiddish for his grandmother. In addition to his numerous books, he has written several screenplays, including Roommates, based on his best-selling memoir about living with his grandfather. He also teaches writing and is currently on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s been ten years since your last book, twenty if we’re talking about fiction. Have you been working on the The Jew of Home Depot for the past ten years?
I’m slow but not that slow. I’ve been teaching full-time for all of those ten years. So I teach and I’m a father and I do other things. I don’t have to write all the time. I think the world gets on fine without me writing all the time, or not so fine. Life goes on; real life is more important.
People have said that your work skewers daily Jewish life, that you’re a satirist. What do you make of this description and do you think that holds true with these new stories?
I don’t think about that as I’m writing. I think of myself as a realist. You don’t write for all people; those are just labels like how we’re a Democrat or a Republican. The part of me that’s a teacher might think that way. But I have to turn all that off; when you’re a writer you really do use the other side of the brain.
Most of the characters in this collection are Jewish and so are these stories. But your first story, “Yao’s Chick,” is about a Chinese American family. This got me thinking: What makes a story Jewish when we’re not dealing with religion? What might be the difference between a Jewish story and an immigrant story in your work?
My parents were born abroad; my grandparents spoke Yiddish at home. Yiddish was my first language. I’m pretty familiar with the immigrant world. And I see it in the Vietnamese and in the Polish as well. It’s not specifically Jewish, you’re quite right.
A previous book, I Love Gootie, was about my grandmother. Everybody hated that title but that was an immigrant book. The ethnicity that flavors it, of course, is in the specifics, which are Jewish. But it’s also the big immigrant stories that are universal.
Your characters, whether they’re running the pharmacies, or car washes, or junked-car lots, or dealing in diamonds, they don’t really grapple with issues of who they are or where they come from. I read a piece you wrote for the National Foundation of Jewish Culture, where you refer to yourself as both Max and Mottele. You say in that piece that identity is really someone else’s problem.
That’s true. I’m like my characters. I don’t worry about that either. I grew up with my parents, grandparents, and my sisters all living in a house together. There’s the ethnic Jewish world in the house. Outside was Protestant America. It was also an immigrant neighborhood. Our particular area was Polish immigrants; our house was unique in the Polish world, because we were Jews. My grandpa was an Orthodox Lithuanian Jew. I played baseball and if my friends came around on Shabbat, my grandpa went after them, even though they weren’t Jews. I was living in both those worlds.
The wider community was mostly Christian Reformed. Calvin College was in Grand Rapids, one of the capitals of Christian Reformed, which also has its own kind of nuttiness. So to them, I’m part of the Polish immigrants. I was mostly Mottele in my mind, but I was called Max in school.
The whole Max Apple thing, it’s probably psychoanalytic, but I was probably middle-aged before I really felt comfortable being called Max Apple.
In describing what these characters do for a living I realized that most of them are selling things, or they’re rabbis. And you actually teach, so you’re peddling learning in some ways.
You have hit on something big. My grandma was one of the great influences in my life, and she wanted me to have two stores. My wife teases me about that. But I kind of have them. I’m a writer; I’m a teacher. I’ve always thought of writing as the second store. And the first store is teaching, making a living.
You mentioned I Love Gootie, which is the story of your grandmother, and Roommates, which is the story of your grandfather. Can you talk more about your grandparents’ story and the story of that generation’s aging? This plays out a lot in The Jew of Home Depot.
I find the stories are fiction but the characters in them are not. My mother has had Alzheimer’s for eighteen years. Alzheimer’s is heartbreak. My mother is all the way in California now, but for many years she lived with us, and it was painful. But it was sometimes comic; we tried to make the best of it. The story “The Adventures of Dementia” gets close to the comical and in “Strawberry Shortcake” I tried to get at exactly what it’s like without the comedy. I thought it was important. I told you I was a realist!
With my grandfather there was the obvious physical relationship of living as roommates; it’s a powerful one. I’m named for my uncle who was killed in an automobile accident before I was born. He was about twenty-three. So I was in many ways like a son to my grandparents too. It was a very close relationship on all sides. They were taking care of me, but I was conscious even as a child—because my grandmother didn’t speak English—that I had to take care of them too. I was explaining the world I lived in to them. I’d come home and translate stuff from English into Yiddish for my Gram. I’d read the newspaper, and then tease her, and as I learned fancy vocabulary words I’d come home and teach her, talk Shakespeare to her. And she would answer in Yiddish saying even a monkey could do that if he had that many hours in school. We had a lot of fun.
My daughter Jessica wrote an essay on Nextbook a couple of months ago about my mother. She helped raise Jessica and my son Sam, my two older children. My first wife was sick, and she died. I’ve written about my grandparents and now Jessica has written about her grandmother. When you’re raised with grandparents, it puts a different texture in your life.
So what was it like seeing the relationship with your grandfather played out on the screen?
This, I did backwards. I wrote a one-page essay once for the Times and a producer bought the film rights and paid me to write the original screenplay based on that one-page essay. So they owned it and they could do whatever they wanted with it, which included making us non-Jews. They didn’t want a Jewish movie; they didn’t want me to be a teacher. In the film, the character based on me is a doctor. I remember the producer saying, “How are we gonna dramatize a teacher? Are we gonna show you grading papers?”
It wasn’t my life. I never, never thought [the movie] would be made. I only started to worry when I found it would be; I didn’t want my grandpa to be known as a goy. Turning my feelings and the close family life I had into another kind of story bothered me so I talked to my editor and I told him I was going to write a book that was the real story. I wanted to get it right.
On the other hand, I liked the movie. Peter Falk told me when he read the screenplay, he said, “This guy is Jewish!” I hadn’t known Peter was Jewish; I’d always known him as Columbo. But actually Peter played him just right.
Jennifer Gilmore’s latest novel, The Mothers, was published by Scribner in April 2013. She is also the author of Golden Country, a 2006 New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award, and Something Red, a New York Times Notable Book.