A Conversation with Adam Schuitema
by Christopher Wolford
CW: So I guess the real question is do you still have that tape and do you still know all the words to "Blame It on the Rain?"
AS: Unfortunately, no to both. I've never been great at memorizing lyrics, but there's something about that seismic time of one's life. I can remember my 8th-grade locker combination--36-0-22--and I do still know all the words to "Ice, Ice Baby."
CW: Which has to count for something I think. Does music play a role in your writing? Do you lift ideas from songs ever or listen to smooth jazz when you sit down to flesh out a short story?
AR: Hey, jazz has played a role. With my first book, Freshwater Boys, I was listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme over and over and over. They're lovely but low-key and slow. Anything too frenetic would get my ideas twisted. And I can only write to instrumental music or else the singer's words will conflict with my own.
With my second book, a novel called Haymaker, I did that thing so many of us writers have done: I made a playlist that I basically fantasized was the soundtrack to the film version of my book... a film version that would never, of course, be made. I wouldn't listen to it while writing, but it was great for long drives, brainstorming on the highway. It was also great during workouts because the adrenaline of the book-to-movie fantasy helped out on the elliptical. There was this old Whiskeytown song called "Revenge" that I always imagined as the song during the full-length trailer of the movie, but the teaser trailer featured "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World" by the Ramones.
CW: That's funny. I brought up jazz cause that's what I listen to when writing. Vonnegut was a big jazz guy too. That's actually where I learned it from and it definitely works.
That Whiskeytown song really gets the blood pumping. Ryan Adams' punk leaning tunes are great, old and new. It was always nice when he'd pepper one or two into his solo and Cardinals albums.
Did you ever cast the film in your mind?
AS: I always imagined the mayor of Haymaker as Edie Falco. And there's this old, gentlemanly cowboy character that I saw as Sam Elliot, but that would be total typecasting.
It's funny, though, because earlier today I was going through images of character actors in relation to a novel I'm drafting now. I have a bulletin board with images of people I envision as the characters, most of them everyday people taken by photojournalists. But I couldn't figure out what this new character I'd created looked like. I settled on David Harbour, who plays the cop in Stranger Things. Speaking of which, the Stranger Things soundtrack has been playing a lot while I've been working on this draft. Lots of spooky electronica to set the mood.
CW: You know, I didn't watch that show until just a couple months ago. There was so much hype when it first came out and I knew if I watched it then I wouldn't be able to experience it without picking apart every little flaw, real or imagined. So I waited and it was totally worth it because I loved everything about it, especially the soundtrack.
Have you approached this new novel any differently now that you have that first one under your belt?
AS: That's the thing--I feel like I'm back at square one. At least when it comes to short stories I can rely on the fact that I've written a few dozen or so, and often I can rely on certain techniques and approaches that have worked in the past. But I've still only written one novel, so tackling the second means an entirely new round of world building, a new approach to point of view, to a timeline, etc. The one thing that does help is the personal psychology of it all. The process feels huge and overwhelming, and this first draft feels like the roughest thing in the world, but I can remember feeling and believing all of these things with that last novel. It took a very long time, but I made it to the other side and was happy with the result. So the new novel is sort of fueled by faith.
CW: I just realized you're the first person I've interviewed who has a kid. How has being a parent impacted your writing?
AS: It’s funny that I’ve never thought much about this, but the impact is evident. My daughter wasn’t born yet when I wrote most of the stories in my first book, Freshwater Boys. That one was very much from the perspective of boys and young men, derived from my own life experiences at the time. But more of my recent work plays off the parent-child dynamic, specifically a young girl's perspective. My new book, The Things We Do That Make No Sense, is dedicated to my daughter. It includes a story that’s set during the Spanish Civil War and is from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl who’s living through bombings, the adults around her suddenly useless as guardians. The last story in the collection is from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl who’s trying to discover secrets from her mom’s past. In a way I suppose I’m imagining what my daughter, in these situations, would be thinking and feeling. How does she view me and my wife and the wider world? Having a child taps us back into elements of our own youth that we may have forgotten as we vicariously cycle through those experiences again.
CW: It seems like young adult books are much more popular now than they were when I was younger. Is she a big reader and do you ever read anything she picks up? How did you view writing, and literature in general, when you were her age?
AS: Most of the reading she's been doing of late has been for school, of course, so now that it's summer she'll have time to read for pleasure. She's starting to get into teen books with darker, horror elements. And graphic novels, especially coming-of-age stories, are important to her. You know, when she was younger I used to read to her virtually every night, and it was one of the most satisfying aspects of my entire parenting life. I'd never read the Harry Potter books until I'd read them to her, so we discovered that world together. And I got to read a lot of classic YA lit that I'd missed when I was growing up, like Harriet the Spy and A Wrinkle in Time.
One of my great shames and great confessions is that I was not a huge reader growing up. I mean, I was pretty average, I guess, but most writers discuss having been "voracious readers" when they were young, which makes sense, of course, but I was sort of a late bloomer as a reader. Decades later, I feel like I'm still playing catch-up. But reading with my daughter helped quite a bit.
CW: You are not alone there. It can feel a little alienating in the literary world when you talk to writers who have basically been reading since they were born and have this endless list of names and titles you've never heard of before. I latched onto a couple books when I was a teenager (Catcher in the Rye, Winesburg, Ohio) but didn't really start reading regularly until college, especially fiction.
AS: I remain an insecure reader. I have to really structure my reading and set aside time for it. I try to read something from a magazine, then something from a story or poetry collection, then something from a novel. And I try to rotate between reading something recently published, reading a classic work, and re-reading a book that I'm fond of. Although, these days most of my reading focuses on new books by writers I know. It's a great problem to have--to be inundated by the success of writer friends--but there are a lot of other books I need to read that are piling up around me, as well.
CW: Any books you just can't seem to bring yourself to start? Any you started several times but can't seem to finish? I can't count the number of times I've tried reading Kerouac’s On the Road and Dharma Bums. My eyes glaze over every time.
AS: Both On the Road and Dharma Bums are books I've read multiple times, but they're books I'm afraid to go back and read because I'm pretty sure I won't like them this time around. They can be pretty seductive if you're a young, white male with delusions of grandeur. I think (I hope) I've outgrown them. It's probably a good sign for you that you resisted from the start.
I have a terrible habit of making myself finish any book I start, no matter how much I hate it. I've wasted so much time. I'm sure this says something about my personality... something related to guilt and religion and masochism. So now I'm really leery to start anything that I know is going to be a slog. I own a lot of anthologies that I'll probably never read, and a lot of Collected Works of So-and-So that I own because I feel like they fill out my library and because I value some of the individual works within them, but I'm never in the mood to read dozens and dozens of stories in a row by the same author. Looking at my bookshelves right now, I'm probably never going to push through the Collected Fictions of Borges or The Portable Dorothy Parker (which, at 600 pages, is just barely portable). I will never, ever read this 773-page copy of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
CW: Those 500 plus page novels can be taxing. I had a roommate several years back who set out to read Gravity's Rainbow and I swear it took him half a year to finish it. I just don't understand why you'd do that to yourself. It seems maddening.
As a teacher, what're your thoughts on making young adults read the "classics" in school? Do you think this plays a pivotal role in turning off young adults from reading as they get older?
AS: Well, you're right to put the scare quotes around "classics," because that's where most of this tension exists. There are myriad classics that all of us--at any age--should ideally be exposed to. Even if it's a challenge, even if it fails to connect naturally at first, I'd never say that teenagers shouldn't read Shakespeare. But the canon is rapidly shifting, as it should, not only to include more women and people of color, but to include more genres. Putting more writers and works in the spotlight brings in more readers. Graphic novels are appearing in a great number of high school and college classrooms. The best of them are as important as any art form, and they can serve as "gateway literature," winning the trust of the students and making them comfortable with the coursework so that they engage more enthusiastically with the rest of the reading list. I taught a Dystopian Literature course a few years ago, and I felt it was important to have a blend of "classic" and contemporary... stuff that's "critically acclaimed" besides texts made into blockbuster movies. So The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta were read alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid's Tale.
CW: Did our current political climate influence you to teach that class?
AS: I actually taught it a couple years ago. It was terribly prophetic. On election night, one of my students, a young woman, tweeted, "Thanks @AdamSchuitema for having us read The Handmaid's Tale last year so I know how to prepare myself for the possible future."
CW: I heard Amazon actually sold out of Nineteen Eighty-Four at one point. It's interesting how we turn to fiction as an escape, but when normalcy is disrupted, it becomes a place to better understand the present and hopefully prevent a grim future. What do you hope readers can take away from your writing and apply to their own lives in relation to this current mess we're in?
AS: Nineteen Eighty-Four is a masterpiece but it's terribly grim, and during that Dystopian Lit course there was a class-wide gloom that grew over the course of the semester. We used to watch puppy and kitty internet videos now and then just for the sake of our sanity. The new Handmaid's Tale series with Elisabeth Moss looks fantastic, but I can't bring myself to watch it.
I never want to preach to my readers. Haymaker dealt with politics, but I hope it wasn't a political book. My novel-in-progress involves the effects of climate change, but I still want first and foremost readers to respond to characters and story. Of course, like any artist, I want the person who's exposed to my work to see their world at least a little differently than they did before. Almost all of the great writers I know have a keen sense of empathy. The process of writing characters whom I "disagree with" or whom I wouldn't like in real life forces me to humanize them. I guess I'd hope that my readers come away with the sense that we don't have it all figured out, we don't know exactly what everyone is going through, and our conflicts contain so many shades of gray that we need to resist quick and easy judgments. The older I get, the less certain I am about so many things.
CW: What would you say has been the most difficult character or character trait you've tackled so far?
AS: Haymaker is about a small town that's chosen by a libertarian organization as the place where hundreds of its members will move in order to shape the politics to their liking. But it was important for me when telling the story that each side--the locals and the libertarian outsiders--have members on who act nobly and members on their side who act terribly. And in those scenes where political philosophy is debated by characters, it was challenging--though also kind of fun--to write the dialogue so that I was arguing each side as strongly as I could.
CW: Have you noticed a similar divide amongst the people you live around up in Michigan? It feels like it's becoming more difficult everyday to have a civil discussion with people who disagree with your viewpoints. There's this very "us versus them" mentality. It's a little heartbreaking.
AS: Oh yeah, it's everywhere. And at the same time, most of us--consciously or not--insulate ourselves from the other side. In where we work, where we live, how we curate our social media. Which is why I think the conflict for that novel was compelling to write: the two sides were thrust together, forced to be neighbors, forced to communicate.
Get to know even more about Adam and his work over at adamschuitema.com.
Michigan seems to be a literary hotbed these days. Throw a book any direction in the “Great Lake State” and you’re bound to hit a writer or two. Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s just one of those things. Either way, Michigan can consider itself lucky to count Adam Schuitema as one its own. I recently had the good fortune to sit down with Adam and chat about all sorts of things: the first album he ever bought, his new collection, and how being a parent has affected his writing more than he even realized.
Christopher Wolford: What was the first album you ever bought?
Adam Schuitema: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which is sort of impressive considering a few years later I'd be recording Milli Vanilli off the radio onto cassette.