When David Schuman was a twelve-year-old trapped in the New Jersey suburbs, he hit on the perfect formula for writing a best-selling novel — or so he thought.
"You would combine an animal on a rampage, a journalist or private investigator character and a beautiful scientist," Schuman recalls now, 30 years later. "I started a novel about a rampaging elephant. I didn't get very far. I realized there was more to a novel than combining loud elements."
After that experience Schuman decided it might be better to concentrate on visual art. In college he studied painting. "I did a lot of conceptual stuff I'm embarrassed about now," he admits. "I took a year's worth of issues of Cosmo and photographed myself leaping over it. I called it Leap Year." Art school led to a career as a commercial artist in New York City during which he estimates he was responsible for producing about 65 percent of the world's temporary tattoos.
Gradually, though, he returned to writing. Evan S. Connell's novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge were a revelation to him. "It was because of what he made the story of: the stuff of everyday life," Schuman says.
The stories Schuman writes now are full of that everydayness, combined with elements of whimsy — and nary a rampaging beast to be found. "I'm interested in the poetry of mundane things," he says, "the humor of mundane things."
This is how his Pushcart Prize-winning story "Stay," which was originally published in the Missouri Review in 2007, begins:
"When they asked, I told them I wanted the dog that would take up the most space in my house. They opened a heavy door, went into the back and came out with a giant. He shambled. He was tall and hairy, and his head nodded on his long neck like a horse's. He swung his gaze in my direction. His expression was frank. It said, Get me out of here. One of the attendants said, 'Do you know whose dog this was? That guy who set his wife on fire — his lawyer brought it in here and told us to put it down.' I put the dog in my small car. Getting him home was like moving a sofa."
Most of Schuman's published work has been very short short stories, what's known in writing workshops as "microfiction." They come in at around 200 words or fewer.
"I really like being able to manipulate words the way you can with something shorter," Schuman explains. "You can put one word against another word. You take out anything that's not vital, and it can feel vital the way a longer story can't."
Schuman's writing habit led him to Washington University's graduate writing program, from which he graduated in 2002. He stayed on for a third-year fellowship and is now the program's assistant director. He enjoys the university environment. "There's always this conversation going on," he says. "It's interesting. Well, they talk about interesting things, things that I'm interested in."
He doesn't regret his decision to relocate here. "Living in New York can be overwhelming," he says. "There's so much going on — it's like there's a party going on everywhere that you're not invited to, both metaphorically and literally. In this town it doesn't feel that way. It's more accessible. It's not dumbed-down, but it feels more inclusive and easier to be creative. My third year here, Melanie Fallon and I started up the Satellite Reading Series at Fort Gondo on Cherokee Street. We walked in and asked [proprietor] Galen Gondolfi if we could use the space, and he said yes. It's easy to do that here."
In theory, Schuman manages to fit in his writing between bouts of teaching and caring for his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Esmé (who, yes, is named for the Salinger short story). But he also does a lot of writing in his head.
"He's never not writing," claims his wife, Kim Dixon. "He has these little notebooks. We'll be driving, and he'll be like, 'Write this down!' and it'll be the weirdest thing."
Currently, Schuman is at work on a collection of short stories and is "very slowly" writing a novel. The stories aren't microfiction; during his years at Wash. U., some of his teachers (including Joy Williams, who is also one of his favorite writers) encouraged him to leave his comfort zone of describing mundane events and experiment with plot.
"Longer pieces have the ability to surprise you," he says. "It's like a mutant arm sticking out of the story. I write to surprise myself, to see what's going to come out."
He's reluctant to discuss any of his work in progress and will only say that the stories in the collection are linked in a way that will probably be obvious only to him — "I'm always interested in characters clawing their way out of loneliness" — and that the novel concerns a nudist colony in New Jersey.
"He doesn't want anyone to see what he's done, especially someone close to him," says Dixon. "He's probably afraid they'll ask, like I do, 'Is this about that time we went hiking?'" Still, Dixon is cognizant that she sometimes serves as her husband's muse. "It's so obscure no one would know," she admits. "But I like to joke that if there's not a reference to me, it won't get published."
Though Schuman remains a relative unknown, his colleagues and admirers hope for great things for him. "OK, I have to confess to this, I guess: I daydream about David Schuman's writing," Kathleen Finneran, author of the memoir The Tender Land and a fellow teacher at Wash. U., writes in an e-mail. "Don't tell him. I'll have to see him again in the hallway soon. But it's true. I do. His words have a place inside me and when they float into view in my brain, like words on an eight ball, I feel this shift inside me, a feeling of well-being that comes from an assurance that someone is seeing the world and saving it for us in all the right words."
As for Schuman, he sometimes daydreams about moving to a tiny shack in one of the more remote corners of the country. "I read a lot of short stories," he says. "Sometimes I wish I could turn all of it off and listen to my own voice. Sometimes I wish I were still a writer, but working as an accountant. I'd sit at a desk all day, just me, and then I'd go home and write under a bare light bulb and not tell anyone."