Making sense of our stories: In Michigan's literary landscape, Adam Schuitema shines

Adam Schuitema's newest book, The Things We Do That Make No Sense, delves into familiar territory: many of its stories are set in Michigan, including in Grand Rapids. Opening with a tale set in Creston and ending with another that partially takes place in Heritage Hill, this book by the Alger Heights author draws inspiration from our city to create unforgettable characters who remind us of the power of the written word.

Last year, when Rapid Growth asked our city's literary leaders who their favorite Michigan authors are, it came as no surprise that Adam Schuitema made the list. Schuitema, who lives in Alger Heights and is an associate professor of English at Kendall College of Art and Design, has long been a prominent figure in the literary landscape of Grand Rapids—not to mention Michigan and the country. His work has twice been named Michigan Notable Books by the Library of Michigan and has been featured in everything from The Washington Post to the Chicago Book Review.
The author of Freshwater Boys, a collection of short stories, and the novel Haymaker, Schuitema's recently published book, The Things We Do That Make No Sense, delves into familiar territory, for both the author and the reader: many of the stories are set in Michigan, including in Grand Rapids. Opening with a story set in Creston and ending with a tale partially set in Heritage Hill, this latest work from Schuitema draws inspiration from our city to create a book that, as the author says, explores the "rituals—grand and small—in which humans partake; the peculiar gestures we hope will forge meaning or help us glean some sort of understanding."
Filled with unforgettable characters—a woman who slips her son's old baby tooth into her mouth as he's led away to prison, a girl in a tunnel playing an invisible piano while bombs ravage the city above—The Things We Do That Make No Sense is filled with a welcome and genuine humanity, with characters whose lives may be different from ours in circumstance but are overwhelmingly familiar in their beauty and ugliness, their joy and isolation.

We recently got a chance to interview Schuitema, who spoke to us about The Things We Do That Make No Sense (which you can pick up locally at Books & Mortar in East Hills and at Schuler Books), where he goes in Grand Rapids for inspiration, politics and literature, and a whole lot more.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of The Things We Do That Make No Sense! What is it like to see this published? I’d imagine it’s a bit like the literary version of giving birth?


This is my third book, and I don’t ever want to take publication for granted. Writing and publishing a book usually takes several years and is always full of stress and doubts. But there’s that special day—Book Day, like a birthday—when a box arrives at your house because the publisher has sent you 15 copies of it, hot off the press. And all of the clichés about holding your own book in your hands, placing it on your shelves among the books of great writers you admire… they still hold true.


What inspired this collection of stories?


Like most story collections, the pieces were written individually—like songs—but then over the course of months or years I started to see threads of connectivity, and like songs becoming an album, a story collection becomes more than the sum of its parts. The title of the book refers to two things. First, stories are usually about trouble, and a lot of times the troubles in our life are self-inflicted. Many of these characters have made bad decisions that they know make no logical sense, but here they are, and now they must deal with them.


But doing things that “make no sense” is also a reference to the acts and rituals that we all perform to help us make sense of the world and our lives.


On your website, you say that, “at the heart of these stories are the ritualsgrand and smallin which humans partake; the peculiar gestures we hope will forge meaning or help us glean some sort of understanding.” How do you see this happening in your own life?


There are these big moments in our lives that we mark time by, that fill up old photo albums or at least make up much of our memories: holidays, weddings, funerals, etcetera. And, in many respects, the acts and gestures we perform during those moments are things we’ve learned from our family or our larger culture, and we do them without thinking about them. An alien observing us from outer space might think the behavior is illogical or absurd, but for us they have great importance and provide structure and comfort.


At the same time, we as individuals do tiny things on a daily basis that make sense to us and perhaps only us. Each story in the book centers around some ritualistic behavior that might only make sense to the character, even if they could never explain it. In one, a girl is trying to track down a wax sculpture made many years ago of her famous mother. In another, a man is at a chili cook-off, retracing the steps he took the previous year with his father, before that father went missing. And in another, a girl in a bomb shelter is playing with a set of piano keys on the ground, pretending she hears music, trying to block out the war outside.


How is the experience of writing a book of stories different from writing a novel? Do you like one more than the other?


With stories you periodically have a sense of completion, of accomplishment, and sporadic moments of success. With a novel, you’re sort of crossing this massive desert without those little oases to refresh you and keep you going. A novel, for me, is much more of a struggle, but the sense of satisfaction when reaching the other side is far greater.


As with your novel, Haymaker, and collection of stories, Freshwater Boys, the stories in The Things We Do That Make No Sense are set in Michigan. What draws you to write about your home state?


One of the oldest clichés in fiction writing is “write what you know.” This isn’t always the best advice, but as with most clichés, there’s some truth in it. I’ve lived my whole life in Michigan, so describing its landscapes, lakescapes, and culture comes pretty naturally. Keen observation plus precise language equals great description, and if you can accurately describe a place for readers—especially readers familiar with that place—then they’re more immersed in the fictional world and more invested in the characters and conflict.


Some of the stories in your new book are set in Grand Rapids; can you tell us about those?


A number of the characters live in our neighborhoods. The opening story is set in the Creston area. The final story is set partially in Heritage Hill. In between are references to other local landmarks, as well as a sense of the larger Michigan culture that inspires me and my characters, from Detroit sports to the Lake Michigan shoreline.


Are there places in the city you’ll go to write? Or go to for inspiration?


Lantern Coffee Bar is probably my favorite place in the city. Like magic, I get more work done in one hour there than in several hours at my home office. Great, comforting atmosphere. Great people. You sit, tucked away, in the lower level, underground, with the low lights and the dark furniture, and it’s easy to block out distractions.


What neighborhood in Grand Rapids do you live in? What are some of your favorite things to do there?


I live in Alger Heights and have been there so long that it’s the truest home I’ve ever known. Big sycamore trees. Sidewalks filled with joggers and dog-walkers and strollers. What I’m especially excited about are the number of Little Free Libraries popping up around the neighborhood. We installed one in our front yard last year, and I’m continually charmed by how often people are taking books and leaving books. Especially when families stop by and kids find something they like.


Haymaker, which was published in 2015, deals with politics, including debates about personal liberties and the role of government. What role do you think the literary community should/does play in the political sphere? I’m guessing you had more than a few interesting conversations about politics with readers of Haymaker?


Despite being about characters who are deeply divided by politics—to the point of violence, at times—I tried to write Haymaker so that the actual narration was neutral. In other words, characters would have highly charged debates, but I didn’t want the reader to feel like I was putting my thumb on the scale one way or the other. In terms of storytelling, I wanted the story to speak for itself.


But there’s no doubt that writers as a whole—being politically opinionated to begin with—are far more engaged, in often direct ways, with speaking out and speaking up since the election. AWP—the huge, annual conference of creative writers and writing programs—was, by chance, in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. And writers took advantage of that. There was an organized effort by many writers to meet with the staffs of their local member of Congress. And hundreds of us took part in a rally across the street from the White House that was, in many ways, an act of solidarity as artists and a reminder to ourselves that voices of compassion and justice are not less relevant in these times but more relevant.


We’d love to hear a bit more about your background: Where did you grow up? When and how did you first get into writing? Do you remember the first work of fiction you ever wrote?


I lived in Muskegon until I was about eight and then moved and went to school in Jenison. I wrote a lot of what would today be considered fan fiction: G.I. Joe and Transformers stories. I also wrote a piece with the spectacularly original title of “The War for the Golden Treasure,” which I illustrated and bound and that I think my mom still has somewhere.


You’re an associate professor of English at Kendall College of Art and Design. What do you love about teaching?


I’m extremely fortunate to be able to teach creative writing, to sit around a table with a dozen students and talk about these stories that have sprung from the minds of those in the room. Yes, we’re trafficking in make-believe, but we’re actually immersed in a deeply human and ancient endeavor, which is to create meaning through stories. To illicit emotions. To entertain.


My students are incredibly talented visual artists and designers, and their work pushes me as an artist, reminding me of that same drive I had when first starting out, helping me to keep tapping into that energy.


What are you reading now?


I just finished The Canopy, the latest of book by local poet Patricia Clark. It weaves observations of nature with contemplations about grief, and is equal parts devastating and lovely. I’m nearly finished with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which everyone is talking about and which is clearly a modern classic. And at night, before sleep, I keep making my way through Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy. It’s classic sci-fi, and despite being about 65 years old still feels fresh. And his writing is so crisp, so deceptively good.

Last question! What are you working on now?

I’m at work on a new novel, something very different from anything I’ve done so far. It’s set in the near future, about a tiny island nation that’s succumbing to rising ocean waters. After about a year and a half of work on it, I’m just now figuring out the direction for the story. When you’re in the middle of the process it feels daunting, but I’m trying to have faith that I’ve done this before and that there’s a good book somewhere on the far side of this desert.
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