Disclaimer: Below, the weirderary mailman Gary Cunningham interviews Jacob Appel, a New York City writer and doctor. Gary’s questions and opinions do not reflect the opinions of weirderary; they only reflect the opinions of the United States Postal Service, and, by extension, the United States Government.
I’ve checked out your website and read some of your short stories. I’m not exactly involved in the world of writing and art, but it seems like you are able to create a lot of well-received work. How much mail is involved in your process?
I started writing in the pre-Internet era and I’m proud to say that I’ve done my part to keep the Postal Service solvent. I’ve received more than 21,000 rejection letters — that’s not a typo — but the last ten thousand or so of them are actually email or electronic rejections. I miss the good old days of being able to post my rejections on my walls. The walls of my apartment are still plastered with rejection letters, many from notable literary figures in their own rights. So I can look up from my kitchen table and see Joyce Carol Oates urging me to try again next year. Alas, posting email rejections is not very much fun. The good news is that I still submit many of my stage plays via postal mail. And I also write a lot of fan letters to other writers. Finally, I give away a large number of my books–to fellow authors, to libraries, to readers with whom I’ve struck up an acquaintance. Postal mail still remains the best method for sending autographed books. Have I given you any free, autographed books yet? If not, pass along a mailing address and I’ll send you a package.
That’s great that mail has played such an integral part in your career. And I’d like to take some credit that I delivered one of your books to Jessica and the gang. There definitely has been something lost with the rise of electronic mail, even in the day-to-day life that used to be dictated by the mailman’s arrival. Technology has made life more convenient in many ways, but doesn’t that sometimes make it harder to create problems in your stories (most characters can Google their ways out of problems now)? As someone who’s written through the rise of the internet, do you see a big difference in how technology is handled in stories? Do you feel more of a need for your stories to address the life-saving smart phones everyone seems to have these days?
Great stories are generally about barriers between people. The paradigmatic example is the love story. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, social conventions provided these barriers—so Elizabeth Bennet may love Mr. Darcy, but she cannot tell him directly. In contemporary fiction, these traditional social structures no longer exist, so other barriers must be created: self-consciousness, ethnic or class differences, interloping ex-lovers, etc. Unfortunately, devices like email and cellular phones break down barriers very quickly, making it difficult to create tension. I teach my students that they want their characters to interact in person, whenever possible. Letters, with their inherent reflection and delay, are a reasonable substitute. Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece, Clarissa, comes to mind. But many modern works, like Bellow’s Herzog and Byatt’s Possession, also rely heavily on letters. I try to minimize the use of phone calls in my fiction—and, as far as I can recall, I’ve never had a character send a text message. For the record, I don’t own a smart phone myself. Or any cellular phone. Maybe that explains why there are as few as possible in my stories. Or maybe I prefer letters because I used to collect stamps as a child.
I have mixed feelings on stamp collecting. It seems like those stamps could be put to good use. I understand that you live in New York City. I used to deliver mail in a small town in Virginia, and I made a lot of personal connections along my route. Now that I work in Tampa, I hardly know the names of the people I deliver mail to (except the weirderary people, of course). It’s like, the more people there are, the less people I know. Do you think living in a big city impacts your writing? Also, do you have a PO Box or do you have an actual mailman or mailwoman who delivers the mail right to your door?
I can relate to what you say about the differences between mail delivery in a large city in a small town. I grew up in a quiet bedroom suburb and we knew our letter carrier extremely well—he delivered our mail for over thirty years with amazing efficiency and good cheer. My parents would easily have trusted him with the keys to our front door. Now I live in West Harlem in New York City and we rarely have the same mailperson two weeks in a row. I will add with sadness that that the Manhattanville Station Post Office in Central Harlem must be the most poorly run facility in the country; in my experience, they misplace nearly as many packages as they deliver on time. The chaos of this post office actually provides the opening scene for my novel, The Biology of Luck. Fortunately, I believe this is an exception. My hometown post office was a bright, friendly place. So too, incidentally, is the main post office on 34th Street in New York City—although I am distraught that they have ended 24-hour counter service. When I was a medical student, working 18-hour shifts, nothing brought me more joy than ending my day with a visit to the post office at 3am to mail out a short story. In my grandmother’s time, of course, they delivered mail in NYC three times a day, so we’ve both missed out on the Golden Era of postal delivery.
Even though I live in New York, I rarely feel as though I live in a big city. More often, it feels like a giant movie set. Except when my local tax bill arrives. Then it feels like a very big city with an equally large budget.
Oh boy, tripling up on a route sounds great. I would definitely learn more about the people I deliver to. Right now, I feel like I deliver more coupons and junk mail than anything else. I have complex feelings regarding the commercialization of the mail system; it takes away from the personal feel I could get if I knew the mail I was delivering was directly intended for the person it was being sent to (and the occasional letter that I end up reading in order to figure out who it goes to would probably be more interesting), but it also keeps me employed. It’s kind of like the balance I imagine writers feel between targeting an audience and exploring artistic ideas. Is that something you think about as you write? When does the audience or the idea of publication come up when you’re working on a story or novel?
Your question recalled for me the “dead letter” office. Does that still exist? A place where experts (like Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”) read returned letters in the hope of forwarding them. I think what you’re alluding to on a larger scale was that working for the Postal Service was once a craft, and like so many other professions, the modern world has streamlined many of the artistic elements out of the job. This is true in my field, medicine, as well. When patients complain about their doctors’ bedside manners, what they’re really saying is, “My doctor isn’t a craftsman anymore.” (For full historical accuracy, those letter carriers who delivered mail three times each day also carried tin whistles to announce the mail delivery in the era before electronic doorbells. People would hear the whistle throughout an apartment building and send their children, including my grandmother, downstairs to retrieve the mail.)
I will confess that I always write for publication. I realize there are some well-adjusted people out there who write for pleasure (and I suppose a few narcissistic ones who write for posterity), but I need the gratification of knowing other people are reading my ideas and enjoying my stories. Otherwise, it would the equivalent of delivering mail that was never to be opened.
I don’t know about the “dead letter” office; I just do it myself on the road. Honestly, reading the occasional letter is the only way I feel connected to the people along my route at all. That’s so fascinating about craft. Even the story of the mail deliverers with their whistles harkens to a time of connection. In that case, there’s a person making a noise for another person to react to, and the idea that children would run toward a man blowing a whistle would be crazy today.
Since I am interviewing for weirderary, I feel like I should ask about something weird. And you are a doctor in many ways. Are you allowed to talk about weird interactions you’ve had with patients or weird medical cases? If yes, what’s a weird interaction you’ve had with a patient? If no, can you imagine a weird thing that could have happened, but hasn’t?
I know what you mean about men blowing whistles and children running away. When I approach kids in my white box truck pretending to give away candy, it has the same effect.
Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about encounters with patients. Or write about them. This proves very frustrating, as some of the stories I hear and behavior I witness is truly fascinating. I can tell you about the psychotic woman from Florida who was under the delusion that I had been her psychiatrist, even though I’d never met her—and send me 3100 pages of threatening mail after I “stopped” treating her. All of the letters were hand-written, many fifty pages long. I can only imagine what our letter carrier might have thought had he opened one. She also sent over two hundred postcards.
The only weird thing I imagine is Sophia Loren showing up in my office as a patient, and then deciding that, since she finds my writing so brilliant, rather than being my patient, she’d prefer to get married. Of course, romantic relationships between physicians and patients are forbidden in psychiatry, and I’d probably lose my license, but it wouldn’t matter than much, because I’d be Mr. Sophia Loren. I suppose the moral of the story is that, if you plan on having a relationship with a patient, make sure it’s a wealthy and famous film star. So I suppose that would be weird. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. At this point in my writing life, I’d settle for Karen Russell sending me a fan letter.
I’ll try to figure out who’s in charge of Karen Russell’s mail and reroute some stuff your way. That must be hard to have such a trove of potential stories that would be illegal for you to write. Oliver Sacks seems to have gotten around that by calling it science, so maybe you can try that.
Thanks for agreeing to the interview. You had some fascinating things to say about both writing and the American Postal Service. I’d feel horrible if I didn’t at least ask how our readers could send you mail. Do you have an address that you don’t mind us posting?
And one final set of questions. You know so much about so many things; I feel like you know almost as much about mail services as I do, and that’s my field of expertise. I see you as a sponge for information, which seems like a major strength for a psychiatrist. Do you think that you have some perspective that allows you to pull in information? Do you have tips for people (writers or mail carriers) to become as aware as you?
I always welcome fan mail – as long as it doesn’t tick. I can be reached at:
Jacob M. Appel
140 Claremont Ave #3D
New York, NY 10027
Your readers should keep in mind that it is not wise to send unlabeled white powders through the mail. Accordingly, they should take the time to label any granular substances as sugar, cocaine, anthrax, etc.
I would be remiss if I did not give credit to the celebrated postal service employees who later became authors, such as William Faulkner and Charles Bukowski and the great postal bard, Cliff Clavin. You walk in the footsteps of giants—although, in all fairness, Faulkner wasn’t exactly a model employee.
I suppose I learn a lot about random things because I’m very curious. A person never knows when he can impress someone on a first date with his knowledge of the plot of Doctor Doolittle’s Post Office (an underrated young adult masterpiece, by the way) or Gail Haley’s children’s classic, The Post Office Cat. Not that I’ve found this particularly useful on any of my first dates…but it’s always good to have something in reserve. My wisdom for writers and mail carriers is the same: be persistent. The postman doesn’t always ring twice, but the great ones always do.
Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novels, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, which won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award, The Biology of Luck (2013), and four collections of short fiction. He practices psychiatry in New York City. (website)
Gary Cunningham is a mailman and model train enthusiast from outside of Richmond, Virginia. He will answer any post office-related inquiries through his gmail account at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s not married anymore, but he and his wife are amicable. He has four children, of whom he is extremely proud.