"The Heaven of Animals: An Interview with David James Poissant"

September 24, 2018

 

 

David James Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The AtlanticThe Chicago TribuneGlimmer TrainThe New York TimesOne StoryPlayboyPloughsharesThe Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. His writing has been awarded the Matt Clark Prize, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, and the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, as well as awards from The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic Monthly and Playboy magazines. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.

 

His debut short story collection, The Heaven of Animals, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. He is currently at work on a novel, which is also forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

"The Heaven of Animals: An Interview with David James Poissant" is an interview conducted by Zach Gerberick and was featured in The Southeast Review Vol. 35.2.

Your short story collection The Heaven of Animals was published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster. What I admire most about those stories—and your writing in general—is how they push the limits of sentiment while never quite drifting into sentimentality. I guess what I’m saying is all of your stories have a heart to them, and not just a narrative pulse but a strong emotional core, yet they always evade melodramatic territory. What’s the key to finding that middle ground?

 

The key, I think, is in the revision. A decade ago, when I first began writing seriously, I erred on the side of either irony or nihilism. Neither mask looked good on me. Most of my characters were angry or else disaffected. No one felt things. Personally, I’ve always been kind of a sappy, emotional guy, but I was afraid to let my characters touch the hem of that garment. So, they moved through my stories doing bad things unrepentantly and angrily and were granted no absolution. Mostly, my characters were dartboards for the reader’s judgment. Luckily, none of these stories were ever published.

 

Then, in my first workshop in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, my professor, Aurelie Sheehan (check out her fantastic story collection Jewelry Box from BOA Editions), urged me to “risk sentimentality.” She wasn’t encouraging me to write sentimental stories, of course. But, if a first draft doesn’t at least risk sentimentality, then the story will never likely entertain sentiment to any extent. The reader will have trouble extending empathy or grace to the characters because it will be clear, from the prose, that the author never bothered to extend empathy or grace. And these are not easy to layer in after the fact. So, I quickly went from being an author of sentiment-deserts to an author of sentimental oceans. But, that was okay. I learned, through revision, to tone the sentiment down (in the hope of sidestepping the dreaded charge of sentimentality).

 

Now, empathy, for me, has to be there from the beginning. It’s got to be part of the DNA of a story’ structure, voice, and tone. Finding that “middle ground” you mention, for me, is just a matter of making sure that, when I overdo it, I look for places to tone it down.

 

It’s tough to discuss these things in the abstract. To get specific, there tend to be far more tears and crying fits between characters in early drafts. As a story grows and becomes more complicated, those scenes will feel overwrought. Subtlety and subtext usually win out. And, while showing often beats telling, sometimes it’s more effective to just tell the reader that a character is profoundly sad, rather than describing a crying jag.

 

 

It seems like a large amount of apprentice writers attempt to, either consciously or unconsciously, emulate other authors. As for your fiction, although I can pick up on some likely influences (Carver, Saunders, Hempel), it seems to possess its own distinct voice. What is your experience with being influenced by other writers while maintaining your own voice? Was it something you had to consciously work on, separating your voice from your idols? Or was it something you never thought twice about, something that came naturally?

 

I think that it’s easy for a well-read writer to peg any writer’s voice—any but his own. I have no idea what I sound like. I’m not sure I can face my own work with that level of objectivity. I can definitely say that I spent a lot of time, early on, reading Carver, Hempel, Robison, and all of the Barthelmes. I love what often unfairly gets called “minimalism,” the spare voice, the economy of style, the ability someone like, say, Amy Hempel has to sink a knife in your heart with a sentence.

 

I grew up in Georgia, and I have a special place in my heart for Southern Literature. I learned a lot reading favorite Southern writers: Flannery O’Connor, Jill McCorkle, Edward P. Jones, Michael Knight, Barry Hannah, ZZ Packer. Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is kind of a masterclass in the short story. For years, Algonquin’s New Stories from the South was my bible. I miss that anthology so much.

 

Moving forward, I fell in love with W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, and George Saunders, all writers who do interiority incredibly well. When I read a story like Saunders’ “Victory Lap” in Tenth of December (my vote for one of the finest stories of the 21st century) or Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, all I want to do is write from the close-third of the claustrophobic inside of a character’s head.

 

I’ve also been enamored by the work of David Foster Wallace ever since I first read “Forever Overhead” as an undergrad way back in 2000. He was a big part of why I wanted to do my MFA at the University of Arizona, though I wouldn’t learn until I got there that most of the faculty hadn’t liked him or supported what he was doing at the time.

 

To this day, I read widely. I don’t think I’m unique in saying that I’m as happy reading Wallace or Stanley Elkin or Aimee Bender as I am reading Dorothy Allison or Toni Morrison or Bret Anthony Johnston. I like all of the modes on the continuum from realist to fabulist, traditional to experimental. The degree to which any or all of those writers have rubbed off on me is hard for me to gauge with any degree of accuracy. But, to the degree that I sound anything like Carver or Saunders or Hempel, I’ll take it, and I thank you for the generous compliment, sincerely.

 

 

One of my favorite things to read when I’m stressing out with classes, teaching, writing, relationships and everything else life throws at me is your essay on Glimmer Train, “How to Balance Writing, Family, Work, and Life: An Unhelpful Guide for the Perplexed.” Could you maybe explain to the readers your view on “balance”? Also, have you come up with any new insights, or have any new advice, on this whole balancing life thing?

 

I wish I had better advice, but I really don’t! The prospect of being a good husband, father, son, friend, employee, writer, and caretaker of my own health and mental well-being is daunting. It’s all a little too much a lot of the time. This past year, I’ve kind of let my health go. I’ve put on weight, and I’m way behind on dental cleanings, but I’ve gotten tons done on my novel revisions. Something always gets neglected, is what I’m saying. I try not to complain too much. I’ve got it pretty easy. When I was seventeen, I spent a summer shingling cabins in hundred-degree weather in Conyers, Georgia. Now that’s work. I can hardly complain about writing and teaching. All I mean to say is that, in order to do both well, something tends to get neglected. My best advice is to cut anything superfluous out of your life. I know few lives that have been ruined by a little less Facebook and a lot less TV.

 

A lot of writers I know seem to buy into and romanticize the notion that all writers must suffer in certain (maybe unnecessary?) ways. What are your thoughts on the suffering artist myth?

 

I think it’s just that, a myth. Some great writers have suffered and some haven’t. Some lousy writers have suffered and some haven’t. The one consistency I see across the board is that the best writers tend to be the best readers. (I’m not saying anything new or profound, here. I think that most teachers of writing would tell you that.) So, when my students tell me that they’re writing three hours a day but not getting better, I ask how much they read. If they only read an hour a day, I say, “Hey, flip those for a while. Write an hour a day and read for three. See what happens.” Francine Prose made a similar case years ago in Reading Like a Writer, which is a book I love.

 

A rich interior life, formed by reading, gives the beginning writer access to the imaginative undercurrents necessary to imagine one’s way into all sorts of suffering. For example, I’ve never lost a child, thank God. I’ve never wrestled an alligator. I’ve never seen a glowing baby or spoken to a wolf or been divorced or watched my partner die. But that didn’t stop me from tackling any of those conflicts in the collection. Certainly, some writers have suffered greatly, and that suffering allows them to write toward certain subjects with a power and authority that may be hard to fake. But the translation from life to the page is not automatic. I’ve often read work that was weak and implausible on the page, work the writer defended on the basis that this actually happened. But it didn’t feel real in the reading. Lived experience doesn’t guarantee compelling fiction.

 

Flannery O’Connor said the thing about how anyone who’s survived childhood has enough material to last a lifetime of writing, and I believe her.

 

 

From what I’ve read, you seem to be a man of faith and attend church regularly. What role—if any—does faith play in your writing?

 

My history with faith deserves a Facebook status: It’s complicated. I was raised Southern Baptist, suffered a crisis of faith in college, married a Methodist, suffered another crisis of faith after my daughters were born, and now I’m searching. I don’t know what I would call myself today. I still consider myself a Christian, but I know plenty of Christians who would say I’m not Christian enough to be Christian. I’m politically liberal, I don’t believe in Hell as an afterlife option, etc. My wife and I attend a Methodist church, which is an okay fit for me. The Methodist church is big on social justice and human rights (for a good time, read some of the scathing letters the Methodist church, or its various pastors or bishops, sent George W. Bush during the terms of his presidency). The Methodist church is likely to split in the next few years over issues of full acceptance of LGBTQ members. I’m beyond ready for the split and ready to join the side that offers love to all.

 

Faith certainly plays a role in my writing. I feel like the fingerprints are there, all over every story. I try to keep things subtle, and I try not to write parables, but it’s there. Most of my stories deal with atonement. A character’s done something for which he or she needs to be forgiven. As someone pointed out to me recently, many of my stories are about someone trying to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” There’s something Christian in that, I think—the desire to repent, the urge to be absolved, the need to love and be loved.

 

A professor of mine once said, “To be a great writer, you need three things: talent, luck, and perseverance—and you only have control over one of these.” What is your reaction to a quote like this? Being a professor at the University of Central Florida, what’s your philosophy on teaching creative writing?

 

First, at the risk of repeating myself, I’d add a fourth: reading. I can almost always guess how much time a student spends reading when I first read her work. It’s like osmosis. The more you read, and the more seriously you read, the more your writer-brain soaks up the tricks of the trade. So, I’d say that being a good reader is first and foremost. What this looks like, in practice, varies from person to person. I was out to dinner with two different Pulitzer Prize winners over the past two years. (I say this not to namedrop. There’s a point here, I promise.) So, the first writer asks how much I read, and I say a book or two a week, and he tells me to slow down, to read fewer books and to read each with more care and attention. For a year, I worried I was reading too much! But I like reading, and I don’t have to read super-slowly in order to read carefully.

 

The next year, I’m out to dinner with the second guy. He asks how much I read. I tell him the same thing, a book or two a week. “Well, first of all,” he says, “I think you can do better.” He thinks I’m maybe a little lazy for not reading more books and not reading faster. Here are two award-winning writers whose work I genuinely admire. Which just goes to show you that of course there’s no magic number of pages and no perfect pace.

 

No one has a monopoly on wisdom, at least not on writing wisdom. But, to offer a thought, and at the risk of contradicting myself, both men were, in a way, making the same argument. Both were arguing that you have to read with care and passion. They just have different prescriptions for how to do that: less is more (vs.) more is more. Still, I’d love to get them in a ring. I’m picturing a Mortal Kombat situation where they bleed ink and shoot Pulitzers from their fists.

 

Second most important, in my opinion (and it’s just that, an opinion) is perseverance, for sure. Every teacher of writing can point to the student who was the real deal, the genius, the writer for whom language was a gift and storytelling was intuitive, and then the teacher can point toward the alcohol or drug abuse or laziness or lack of discipline or financial hardship or crappy life circumstances or bad luck that kept the student from being able to exploit that gift. It happens all the time. The writers who make it are always the ones who stick with it, but they’re not always the ones who were the most talented from the beginning. I don’t consider myself to have any sort of innate talent at writing. I didn’t even like reading until I was in college. But, once I made up my mind to do it, I worked hard, and I still work hard. If you can call writing hard work. Again, it sure beats sheetrock and shingles and hot summer days.

 

And, in the end, yeah, luck has a lot to do with it. We all know writers who deserve a wider audience. It’s not always fair, the way things work out. But what in life is?

 

 

Having written about glowing babies and talking wolves, what would your advice be to novice writers who possess a strong desire to work in a specific genre yet feel pressure—due to preconceived notions formed by academia, workshops, literary prizes, conferences, etc—to write what most would call “literary fiction”?

 

I mean, you should write what you want to write. I just don’t know that you need an MFA degree in order to write erotica or fantasy or crime fiction. Commercial fiction tends to be guided by trends and formulas. (Literally, if you want to write a Harlequin romance novel, you have to follow their formula scene by scene and page by page.) You learn the formulas and apply them. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about destabilizing formulas, defamiliarizing narratives, and transcending genre. Some say literary fiction is all about character and genre fiction is all about plot, but that’s an oversimplification, I think. Literary novels can be expertly plotted, but they’re rarely formulaic. As a teacher of writing, I fear formulas. Formula isn’t art. It’s painting by numbers. But it’s even more complicated than that.

 

The “canon,” for lack of a better word, is always expanding. Fiction is a house of many rooms. Some of those rooms are fabulist, some realist, some metafictional, etc. For me, literary fiction tends to be less about subject matter than it is about work at the sentence level. Just stop writing bad sentences, and there’s a good chance that you’re moving in the direction of what we call “literary.” For example, I’m a huge sci-fi fan. I love Philip K. Dick, but even Jonathan Lethem, Dick’s biggest champion and defender, will be the first to tell you that half of Dick’s fiction is garbage, and that lots of his work is weak at the sentence level. Labels are useful until they aren’t, but I
would argue that much of Dick’s work falls short of “literary” on account of the careless sentences and the lack of respect he shows words. (Not that I blame him. He was getting paid by the word, and he was broke, so I get it. He pumped books out. Still, we can’t ignore how uneven his output was.)

 

Now, read “Nirvana,” the opening story in Adam Johnson’s last collection, Fortune Smiles, which won the National Book Award and the Story Prize and is, by all accounts, a book of literary fiction. The premise of “Nirvana” could have come straight out of a P.K.D. novel. Still, Dick never could have written that story, not because he couldn’t have thought up the premise and narrative arc, but because Dick never could have written those sentences. He didn’t have the chops. I love him, but he just didn’t. Johnson’s book, though. It’s a thrilling collection, and it’s proof that a story collection can contain disparate stories that don’t all feel of the same
ilk. (There’s even a ghost story in there.) So, the distinction is hazy at times. I consider myself a writer of literary fiction, even when I’m writing about glowing babies. And I’ll admit to having a tough time when work comes across my desk that smacks a little too much of what we call genre.

 

Here’s a good example: In an undergrad class, once, I made a somewhat prescriptive suggestion. The workshop came to a screeching halt. I was informed that the suggestion wouldn’t fly. Why not? Because, it turned out, the story was steampunk, so the thing I was encouraging the writer to add—or get rid of, I can’t remember—wouldn’t work, as that addition—or amputation—would violate the parameters of the trope. This was 2011. I had no idea what steampunk was. I was given a crash course on the genre, but that accusation—that something that might make a story better couldn’t even be considered because of the whims of some genre—that really bothered me. It still bothers me.

 

I feel fairly strongly that a story always has to work in the service of the story. If you’re working, instead, in the service of a genre or trope—if you’re refusing to let a piece become the better piece it wants to become out of loyalty to certain preconceived genre limitations—you’re probably no longer writing literary fiction. If you can’t, say, adjust the age of a character to fit certain motivations because you’re writing “New Adult” instead of “Young Adult,” you’re letting genre dictate what’s best for your story.

 

That, or just concede that, in that case, you’re writing for a market. Which is fine. If you’re in this business for the money, more power to you. Just know that there’s not a lot of money in books to go around.

 

Me, I’m more interested in writing for art’s sake. I’m not saying I’ve produced great art. I’m trying. I know I’ve never published something I wasn’t proud of at the time, and I’m glad that I can say that, if nothing else.

 

And, hey, sometimes, writers get lucky, and a literary book hits just right and winds up being both marketable and a thing of excellence. Still, if I had to choose between reading (or writing) a marketable book with no literary merit or a literary book with no marketability, I’d pick the literary book every time. Because I like good sentences. And I get bored with predictable formulas. And, if I want something Christian, I’d rather read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood than a book labeled “Christian” in which no one can curse and every epiphany is provoked by a Bible verse.

 

As for my students, undergrad or MFA, I just want them to see their projects become their best selves, which usually means prodding those projects in a literary direction, away from escapism and in the direction of what it means to be human. If that inclination makes me a grumpy, old-fashioned lit-fic guy, so be it. But, my definition of literary fiction remains broad. I was happy to see Kelly Link named a finalist for the Pulitzer, and I was rooting for Karen Russell to win in the weird year of no Pulitzer Prize.

 

 

You’ve been working on a novel for some time now. Do you care to tell us a little about it? When will we be able to get our hands on it?

 

I’ll never tell.


Okay, I’ll tell. I’ve been working on the novel for about five years now. I’m deep into revisions, and I think it’s going well. I’m hoping for a 2018 pub date, but we’ll see. My mantra is: Better better than sooner.

 

The novel is an offshoot of two stories in the collection. In the collection, there is a married couple, the Starlings, who lose a baby to SIDS. The novel picks up thirty years later. The parents, recently retired, have two sons. Both sons and their partners visit the family lake house for a week one summer. They’re told, to their surprise, that the house is for sale. Neither son can afford to buy it. They want to know why this is happening. Then, a tragedy strikes the lake community that sets the week off in a series of unexpected directions. It’s a novel about family, about marriage, about open secrets, and about economic advantage vs. disadvantage. And, because it’s me, it’s also about faith and sexuality. And, if all of that sounds a little dry and academic, I can promise you plenty of sex and drugs and foul language.

 

 

Could you tell us one thing you love about writing a novel that you don’t get while working on short stories? And vice versa?

 

With the novels and longer stories, I love what can be done with interiority. A writer like David Foster Wallace pulls it off in “Forever Overhead,” a story that unspools over the course of pages but that, in the story’s reality, takes place in the mind of a kid over the course of mere minutes while the kid summons the courage to dive from a diving board. Me, I’m no D.F.W., so I need lots of room to make time work that way. A novel gives me that permission. I linger on things in my novel that I wouldn’t linger on in a story.

 

With stories, though, I love how punchy an ending can be. A truly great story feels like you’ve read it in one breath, and, when an ending works, it often punches you in the gut. I rarely feel that way reading (or writing) novels. They’re rarely as punchy, rarely as flashy. It’s hard to find a novel with a really killer last line. With stories, there are so many.

 

 

I thought we’d end on a lighthearted note. Do you have any embarrassing stories about writing that you could share with us? Maybe a humorous workshop experience? Or an awkward encounter with a well-known writer?

 

I learned early on: Never pretend to have read a book you haven’t read. I only did it once. I was young. I was stupid. I wanted to impress a writer whose work I love. I wanted to impress him by pretending I’d read a novel he mentioned by one of his favorite writers. This did not end well. I didn’t get called out on my shit so much as I could see that he could see that I hadn’t actually read the book, and that he was embarrassed for me, which was somehow so much worse. I can handle animosity. Pity, though—pity’s a tough pill to swallow.

 

It’s true, then, what they say about honesty being the best policy. There are too many great books for even the fastest reader to read in a lifetime. Don’t be embarrassed by all the books you haven’t read. I’ve never read Moby-Dick. I’ve only read one novel by Jane Austen. I’m not ashamed. Shame sucks. Forget shame. Just do your best.

 

No one has a monopoly on advice, but here’s mine:

 

Work hard. Write well. Be nice.

 

Publish the work you’re proud of, and put the rest away.

 

Don’t spend too much time complaining. If you’re a writer, you’re already lucky. If you’re getting to write, and publishers are willing to publish your words, and readers are willing to read those words, then, in my book, you're very, very lucky indeed.

Zachary F. Gerberick received his MFA in Creative Writing at Florida State University. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in River TeethNew SouthWater-Stone Review, among other journals.

 

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload