David Schuman’s prose chapbook Best Men simmers with questions about why people act the way they do at weddings. Over the course of five stories, Schuman introduces a diverse cast of unconventional “best men” who find themselves swept up in events beyond their control. At once surprising and suspenseful, Best Men upends popular notions of wedding ceremonies, while also demonstrating the packed power of shorter stories.
As the director of the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, Schuman’s passion for teaching creative writing was evident throughout our conversation. Schuman always encourages the students in his classes to experiment with their prose, and he matches this enthusiasm with his own captivating and eclectic writing style.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What inspired you to bring together the stories in Best Men as a prose chapbook?
I was trying to write an abecedarian short story about best men at weddings. It was going to be like, “Adam said this. Bob did this. Curt got too drunk, etc.” I usually need to play some kind of game with myself to write anything at all, but in this case I got tired of the game and put it down. But then I was on this sort of self-imposed writing retreat at a friend’s rented house on Lake Michigan, and I happened to open that file and started revising. Soon enough it became clear that each best man should have their own story. I dropped the alphabet conceit pretty quickly, but then the rule became that I would play around with genre, riff on adventure stories, absurd stories, fantastic stories. Maybe that’s a lack of a rule, really. I actually wrote quite a few more than made it into the eventual chapbook.
My favorite short collections often feature a writer experimenting with something a little bit different than what they usually do, or maybe focusing specifically on a theme or formal conceit in a way that could feel redundant over a longer collection. Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, for example, or more recently Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine, or, since we’re talking about chapbooks, Sabrina Imbler’s Dyke (Geology), which I taught last year, are some books I’m crazy about. So when I decided to work on a chapbook, I wanted to have some organizational principle that would draw me in and that ultimately would form the “question” of the project.
Two of your stories, “Iowa and “Ring Bearer,” take place in rural, sparsely populated areas, and “ Ring Bearer” features wolves as wedding guests. Another story, “Sunroom,” occurs within the confines of a nursing home. What role does setting play in your writing?
When I was in college I happened on Richard McGuire’s “Here” in RAW magazine, and it’s influenced the way I think about setting, and life, so much. He looks at one tiny corner of a room and, using this ingenious graphic layering, presents it throughout time, from prehistoric to post-apocalypse. We exist inside of a space that countless other living things have occupied before us. We walk inside of histories. We live in harmony with or in opposition to our surroundings, usually both. We are always either insiders or outsiders, again often both. I’m a New Jersey native so I’m an outsider in St. Louis, even though I’ve been here close to twenty years. I feel like that creates part of the tension of my life and so that’s something I think about a lot in my work.
The insider/outsider dynamic you describe can also be mapped onto the tension of proximity and distance. In your final story, “May,” the characters swim in the ocean, where, “From this distance, the city is nothing but a futile story mankind is telling itself.” How does narrative tension influence your storytelling?
A few years ago, I was on a boat off a barrier island in South Carolina, a place that rising seas will erase sooner rather than later, and there were all these giant mansions built on the beach and the captain said, “I call that unreal estate.” I loved that, because the mansions are telling one story, but that story is so tiny next to the story the ocean is telling. So much in life is this narrative that we’ve constructed and we believe if we adhere to it, we will be happy, successful, etc. But those constructs are just veneers that cover up the chaos of truth. I like writing stories where the chaos slips out of the cracks in our narratives.
“May” is crafted so well it is difficult to tell initially which sentences contain clues about the fate of the characters. For example, the “female” protagonist is “comforted by the aqueous muttering of a broken toilet in one of the stalls” and that small detail, so easy to overlook, has tragic consequences for her male love interest later. How do you envision or predict the reader’s experience?
I like creating a sense that the “danger” is coming from one direction but then pulling the rug out from underneath that assumption. “May” was a strange story for me because I don’t often write in that fabulist mode. But I wanted to hold off on revealing that the story was set in a fantastical world, so I had fun leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that once that final revelation happens, the reader recognizes they’ve seen traces of it all along. And I also love when a reader is forced to transfer their sympathies from one character to another. The man selected by the protagonist thinks he’s playing a certain role, but that role is far from his outcome in the end.
Speaking of roles, what is the role of the “Etiquette for Groomsmen” chapter selections that accompany your stories? I am intrigued by this excerpt from Chapter 13, the Send-Off in particular:
“Fun idea! Purchase white unpainted architectural 1:100 scale model figures… Have the guests toss the figures in place of rice as the bride and groom dash for the doors of their waiting limousine. Imagine their delight as a white rain of humanity falls upon their shoulders, a miniature rapture in reverse.”
I imagined these bits and pieces were parts of a larger book that nobody gets to see, and I wanted the pieces to be curious enough that a reader would really wonder what that book was, where it came from. I didn’t want a reader to be able to say, “Oh, I know exactly what this is.” I thought it would be a great way to give a reader a different kind of space, a “landing pad” as they made the leap between stories, even if these pads aren’t constructed of totally solid material.
“Small Best Man” follows the spirit of “Etiquette for Groomsmen” with its absurdist tone. The best man is “a sixteenth-month-old baby in a tux” whose only language consists of repeating the phrase, “walla-walla.” What question guided you in writing that story?
One of my favorite structures is the snowball, those stories that just take on more and more as they roll, that become unwieldy to the point of, “How can this be maintained?” “Small Best Man” was an opportunity to start with a premise that was unlikely, but not necessarily impossible, and then just keep adding more layers of absurdity until something broke. I often don’t know how to end a story until I break it, at which point, if I’m lucky, something reveals itself. In this case it was that there was an emotional heart beating under the layers of absurdity, and it was a heart I could plunge a knife into and twist.
By David Schuman
Published August 11, 2021
Laura Evers is a PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis. Born in Cincinnati, she now calls Cleveland home. She serves as an Editorial Assistant for RHINO, a poetry journal based in Chicago, and helps edit the Poetry for All podcast hosted by Abram Van Engen and Joanne Diaz. Her work has appeared in Postscript Magazine, Overheard Literary Magazine, Whale Road Review, The Rumpus, and the Cleveland Review of Books.