I contacted Adam Schuitema not long after finishing Freshwater Boys. His stories were so vivid, his writing so compelling, that I knew I had to ask him about their construction. It relieves me to know that I was not the only young boy out there who spent hours using his Star Wars and GI Joe action figures to construct elaborate plots and stage epic battles.
Adam, could you tell us a bit about your background as a writer?
Though I used to be embarrassed to admit this, I’m now proud to say that action figures played a large part in my becoming a storyteller. Like so many guys of my generation, I grew up surrounded by Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, and I was always interested in things like creating elaborate storylines and long stretches of dialogue for the figures (in addition to, of course, having them shoot and blow each other up). Some of my earliest fiction was what you’d now call fan fiction—taking these existing worlds and characters and creating my own narratives for them.
By high school I got more serious about writing and was winning the fiction awards. But when I went off to college I was both spooked by the idea of becoming a writer (which seemed as likely a goal for anyone as becoming an actor or professional athlete), and was becoming interested in other things. I earned my bachelor’s degree in elementary education, which may have had some effect on the coming-of-age stories I’ve come to write.
Eventually, I went back to school to study creative writing. I received my MFA and Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, studying under Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon.
The stories in Freshwater Boys are imbued with a tangible feeling of authenticity. Is there any degree of the autobiographical in them?
The majority of the characters—and most of the overarching conflicts—are invented. Where I think the feel of authenticity comes from is two areas: place and anecdote. I’d say about ninety-nine percent of the settings are real places. While drafting the stories I’d often get in the car and drive around or walk around the areas I was writing about so that I could snag all of those little details that lend credibility to a work.
Anecdotes can work in the same way. Often by taking a really small event—that we’ve experienced or that was experienced by someone we know—and making it a part of a character’s past, we can create the illusion of characters existing before we as readers came upon them… before we read the opening page.
New Era, Michigan is my favorite story out of the entire collection and it is the first selection. Did you have any say in what order the stories were presented?
The stories as they appear in the book are in the same order that I’d originally placed them in the manuscript. The editor was really good about trusting that I’d already put a great deal of thought into how they were arranged.
This is so important to me, and it’s why I rarely enjoy a “collected” or “selected” group of stories or poems by a writer as much as I do one of their collections that was written and published during a distinct moment in that writer’s life.
Was there any rhyme or reason behind the order in which they are presented?
The early stories of Freshwater Boys focus on pre-adolescents going through puberty who are on the verge of so many changes. The fourth story, “Debts and Debtors,” is a father-son work where the boy gets a glimpse of the ugliness and complexity of adulthood. Then the next series of stories focuses on grown men trying to figure out what being a man means. And then in the final story, the title story, I bring together the two again: the world of boys followed by the world of men.
Many of the stories in the collection were previously published in short fiction publications like Glimmer Train, Orchid, and others. When you were considering them for the anthology did you make any significant changes to the stories or did you keep them pretty much intact from their original forms?
They’re really close to their original forms, outside of some minor corrections here and there, as well as some suggestions by the editor to smooth out small parts of the language. There were no big changes related to plot or character or even titles.
There were, however, more stories in the original manuscript, and the editor and I had to do some negotiating to determine which would make the final cut. Some, in retrospect, had no business being in the final version and I’m glad they’re gone. There are maybe one or two short-shorts that I wish had made the cut, as they would have complemented some of the other narratives already present.
Out of the eleven stories, which is your own personal favorite?
My favorite is “Sand Thieves,” the second story in the book, for a couple of reasons. It was the first story I workshopped when I went off to grad school, though of course it was a much, much rougher draft. But up until that point I didn’t know what types of stories and settings and characters I wanted to focus on. It sounds terribly cliché to say I hadn’t “found my voice,” but I did sense that some of my colleagues were doing great and interesting things that tied their various stories together in some way, either through place or subject matter. And I wanted that, too.
When I wrote “Sand Thieves” I felt like I’d finally found what was most interesting to me at the time: stories about boys and men trying to figure out what it means to be a man, and settings that were draped along the shores of the Great Lakes. Those two things are right there in the title itself: Freshwater Boys.
“Sand Thieves” is also important to me because it all stemmed from a eulogy I have for my grandfather. I talked up at the pulpit about how he used to “steal” sand from the state parks along Lake Michigan so that he could create a little beach for our family’s tiny little cottage on a tiny little lake. And that central premise—combined with both memories and invention—led, in a way, to the entire book.
Don’t miss our review of Adam Schuitema’s collection of short stories, Freshwater Boys.