Grand Rapids author’s first story collection all MichiganPublished 10:15am Wednesday, February 24, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Grand Rapids author Adam Schuitema’s collection of 11 short stories about Michigan boys and men grappling with themselves and against nature to understand manhood publishes April 13.
“Freshwater Boys” will be published by Delphinium Books and distributed by HarperCollins.
Schuitema (pronounce the first part “sky,” not “shoot”) wrote the stories, which fit together as snugly as jigsaw puzzle pieces, while in graduate school at Western Michigan University, where he earlier completed a degree in elementary education.
He is at work on a novel, “Haymaker,” about a fictional Upper Peninsula town and its interaction with outsiders – and not, since he and his wife, Jennifer, have a 6-year-old daughter, a story collection called “Saltwater Girls,” he joked in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon from his office at Kendall College of Art and Design, where he is an assistant English professor and teaches creative writing.
Jennifer, his high school sweetheart, is a third-generation florist and manages a Grandville flower shop.
Being a parent will probably impact his future work, such as a recent story he wrote, “Gunplay.”
Adam earned his MFA and Ph.D. from Western Michigan University.
He wrote his stories over five years before graduating with his Ph.D. in 2007 from WMU, where his mentor was Stuart Dybek, known for setting stories in Chicago.
Dybek said, “Michigan … is our Third Coast, and writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison, who have best evoked its landscape and character, have fittingly laced their Michigan stories with its rivers.”
“I need to read more of his work,” Schuitema said of Harrison, who visited Dowagiac in May 2003.
Hemingway, of course, wrote two dozen short stories in the 1920s and ’30s with Nick Adams as protagonist.
Most were collected in a 1972 book, The Nick Adams Stories, about adolescence.
Taken as a whole, they chronicle a young man’s coming of age in a series of linked episodes. The character is partly inspired by Hemingway’s experiences, from his summers in Petoskey to his service in the Red Cross ambulance corps in World War I.
Schuitema enjoyed Hemingway’s short stories, “In Our Time.”
Born in Big Rapids, Schuitema lived in Muskegon, where his parents grew up, from ages 1-8.
Then he lived in Jenison, graduating from high school in the suburb west of Grand Rapids.
Though only 34, Schuitema detects the difference in his students’ musical preferences to download individual songs which interest them, where he’s from the older school of liking to listen to albums.
His short story collection is like a rock record in that regard.
As his doctoral dissertation, 16 stories were pared down to 11 for his first book, edited by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, formerly of the New York Times.
One advantage for the emerging author in publishing individual stories in a variety of literary journals is the feedback and “instant gratification” that eludes a writer toiling in solitude over a book.
His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous magazines, including Glimmer Train, North American Review, TriQuarterly, Black Warrior Review and Crazyhorse.
His credentials as a Michiganian are indisputable when in “Deer Run” he mentions “The Grays, which may make animals crazy from a sky full of clouds the way some go crazy from a full moon.”
With The Grays, a sunny morning clouds over so fast it’s “like the curtains came down,” he said.
Michigan’s stubborn sunless spells factor into four deer breaking free “from the narrow confines of Plaster Creek, an urban waterway running through Grand Rapids that’s as filthy as it sounds” and making a run for freedom that carries them across golf courses, graveyards and on a collision course with highway traffic.
His clash between nature and civilization is as evocative as Active Hybrid, the Richard Hunt sculpture by the Mill Pond.
While his stories seem to overlap seamlessly thematically, they’re about a wide variety of disparate topics that resonate with anyone who has inhabited the so-called Water Winter Wonderland, from the beaches that make up the world’s largest freshwater coastline to runner Evan Rumishek navigating dangerous snow and ice to prove his worth to his wife in “The Lake Effect.”
In “Camouflage Fall,” Toby Sheparski disappears into the woods. A harrowing search ensues.
For a first effort, critical acclaim has been swift.
Publishers Weekly in January praised Schuitema’s “many moments of crisp, effective prose,” such as a “flashlight seemed like a thin dagger compared to the huge chunks of darkness.”
“Nature is not only somewhere to explore, but a place to hide,” wrote Michael Zadoorian, author of The Leisure Seeker and The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit.
“In his Michigan, deer frolic through urban areas, old men pilfer sand dunes and the woods are the best place to hide your Playboys. From childhood to adulthood, these guys struggle to do the right thing, searching the woods, gazing out at the lake, sifting the ashen sands for clues to how to become the men they need to be.
“It’s the literary equivalent of an early spring leap into the still-icy waters of the bay. Shocking, refreshing, cleansing. The best way to rouse a spirit drowsy from an endless, arduous winter.”
Schuitema wanted to write about the landscapes and did not initially think of them fitting together.
With the second tale, “Sand Thieves,” coexisting with repulsive Great Uncle Lucien in a world otherwise lacking a male role model, he recalls thinking, “This is the kind of story I want to write.”
While the lakeshore was an initial theme, “The coming of age happened organically,” Schuitema said, “a happy accident.”
Landscapes serve as recurring characters.
His boys and men wander forests, sometimes finding tranquility, sometimes tragedy.
They climb and descend dunes and confront the Big Lake, that vast horizon serving as a kind of world’s end, where things pass away or come to life.
Novels, he realizes now in trying to write one, “are a much longer trek” in isolation.
When he was younger and first realized, “I want to be a writer,” he thought that meant “needing to live by the mountains or the ocean. Writers are lucky compared to other art forms in that you can work your craft while staying where you are.”
He was guilty, as are many Michiganians, in taking Lake Michigan’s splendor for granted.
“We’d be in Grand Haven or Holland and say, ‘Why don’t we come here more?’ ”
Running along the lakeshore made him gaze at the Great Lake differently than he had as a boy.
Schuitema knew he wanted to write since he won contests in Jenison, but he also feared “nobody can do this for real. It didn’t seem like a real possibility. I got a degree in elementary education, but I didn’t go that route, either, after graduation. In my 20s, I did marketing and communications. Writing about office furniture.”
But Adam couldn’t imagine a future confined to a cubicle, so he went back to Western for night courses.
“There’s a lot of interest in creative writing from the students,” he finds, with his media-savvy charges somewhat surprised to find that their online passions for illustration and photography carry over into writing, which can be taught with detail and description, though the “magic” of “trajectory” is tougher.
“Writing, at its best, is a visual art form,” Schuitema said, adding that they are particularly adept at seeing beauty amidst ugliness.
Though a lifelong mitten resident who has never lived anywhere else, Adam has traveled abroad, from Mexico to Europe.
Like Dogwood Fine Arts Festival visiting authors, Adam prefers to write his first draft in longhand because he feels the words physically flowing.
It makes him less likely to linger over his “bad penmanship” or reread his rough road.
His rough draft he likens to “building a road through the jungle, just getting through the trees.”
Removing stumps and preparing for paving come much later in the process.
“There’s no right way” to write, Schuitema knows.
With a novel set in the UP, he tends to head for Lake Superior, even in the dead of winter, and “hole up” in hotel rooms for long, uninterrupted stretches of productivity.
Maybe it will when he hefts his first hardback in hand, but right now, “I don’t think it’s sunk in,” he said of April 13.