David James Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The 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.