David James Poissant is the author of The Heaven of Animals: Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2014). His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.
This interview was conducted via Skype by Interview Editor Patrick C. Dennis. Of the process he said, “David James Poissant was a pleasure to interview on Skype. He is a very kind and passionate person about his work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his collection of short stories.” In this interview, he discusses his first collection, his evolution as a writer, and his submissions process.
Superstition Review: The Heaven of Animals features a massive crocodile in a kiddie pool, bison, bees, wolves, and a lost cat. The collection juxtaposes animals against the humans who take center stage, and in the end the humans are far more wild. What led to the exploration of the theme of wildness within these stories?
David James Poissant: I grew up with a lot of animals. I've always loved the natural world. I loved camping and fishing and things like that, but I also just have a soft spot for animals. Growing up I had a dog, cat, birds, turtles, snakes, fish, guinea pigs, and hamsters. Any animal that has ever existed and has been tamed by man I probably had as a pet at some point in my childhood. So even when I tried to write stories without animals in them, they seemed to keep wandering onto the page of their own free will. At first I thought it was somehow cheating to let them in there, and then I realized that there was no reason that they can't be there as long as I'm not using them for something gimmicky. The more they started to wander in, the more I realized that they could help me in working toward this theme that humans are just as wild, or more wild, of creatures as animals. I don't know if I would go out on a limb and say exactly what I ever meant to say by any of the stories as a commentary, but I think you are onto something in terms of the wildness of humanity and the ways in which we try to tame one another. Often the characters who try to tame each other are usually disappointed, the father who tries to make his son not be gay, or the girlfriend who tries to take care of her boyfriend with mental illness. Often they find that they are fighting nature, and fighting the natural order of things is often a losing battle.
SR: The characters in The Heaven of Animals are broken-down people who are looking for some sort of relief from their inner demons. In “Lizard Man,” the father seems to have lost everything he cared about since threw his gay son through the front window of his home. In the “Geometry of Despair” we see a marriage struggle after a couple loses their newborn. Could you explain this attraction to characters who seem to be suffering?
DJP: I am often asked by my students what they should write about, and some writers will say write what you know, others will say write what you don't know, others will say write what you want to know, and then still others, and I find myself in this camp, will say write what scares you. For me, writing towards suffering, toward death, toward violence, toward the end of love, toward the dissolution of family, those are the real things that scare me and I think, in some ways, I write in the hopes that maybe if I write them down, those nightmares won't come true in my own life. I think that you have to walk right up to that fire and almost put your hand in it, and that is when you get stories that really impact the reader. There has to be something that you’re not just risking for the reader, but for you as the writer. If you're kind of scaring yourself, then you’re probably going to scare the reader. If you’re not taking any risks or chances with your own emotions as a writer, then you're probably not asking the reader to do much work, and I think the best stories are the ones that ask the reader to suffer through the story with you.
SR: In your story, “What the Wolf Wants,” a man lets a wolf in through his window and they have a short conversation at his dining room table. The wolf wants his slippers, a gift from the man's deceased brother, and he refuses to leave until he has them. I particularly enjoyed this piece since I understand how we can get attached to possessions. What inspired this story?
DJP: The sibling is mourning too late the loss of his brother, realizing the ways he took his brother for granted. That was a story that started for me as a weird thought experiment at first. I woke up one morning and immediately had this strange idea for a story which had this sentient wolf that could sort of talk, that had been let into this guy’s house and he's asking for things. That absurdity only got me so far and then I started to think, well, what is this really about? What is this encounter with the wolf a metaphor for? I realized that there had to be something deeper and more concrete at the end of that tunnel. For whatever reason the story just revealed itself to me as being about loss, regret, and grief in the way that the wolf is sort of punishing the brother for holding onto the one thing that he didn't want from the brother in life. It is almost like the world is saying that you don't have the right to this item that you have made sacred, when you sort of profaned it during the brother’s life, and so it is taken from him as a sort of penance or atonement. For me, a lot of these stories are about atonement. They are about characters, whether through religion or not, trying to kind of atone for their past sins, or if you don't like sins, cruelties to others.
SR: I have heard that you will soon be releasing a novel. In addition, you have written several well received essays and published this selection of short stories. When you began writing what genres attracted you? How has that changed as your career has advanced?
DJP: The more I keep writing, the more I have been getting interested in nonfiction. I have been doing some op-ed pieces, some little rants for The Times and for The Good Men Project, and I have been writing some personal essays, most recently for the Story Prize Blog. I am already sort of conceiving a collection of personal essays in which I talk about my upbringing in the Baptist church, kind of my Southern Baptist boyhood that I kind of ran screaming from in my late teens. I have these ideas for a collection of essays, and I have lots of other stories. From the collection of 15 stories here, I think I picked from about 30 to 40 stories and I have published stories since then. So there might be another collection in the works, but really for the next year of my life, probably for all of 2015, I will be working on revising this novel that I have been working on for three years. Hopefully, with the publishing date of that novel, we are thinking 2016, and that will also be from Simon and Schuster.
SR: I really loved how you ordered the stories within this collection. You open with “Lizard Man,” a story about a father who has lost his family due to his inability to accept that his son is gay, and you end with “The Heaven of Animals” where we revisit those characters 15 or so years later, where the father attempts to journey across the country in order to be with his son before he dies from AIDS. Can you describe your process in ordering the collection? Did you always intend to frame the collection this way, beginning and ending with the same characters?
DJP: The one thing that never changed from my conception of the collection, to passing the collection onto my agent, to then reordering the collection with my editor, was the idea of book ending the collection with those two stories. When I wrote “Lizard Man,” I didn't know that a few years later I would be writing “The Heaven of Animals.” Just like when I wrote the first story of the Venn Diagram series, I didn't know there would be a “Wake the Baby,” but sometimes the characters won't leave you alone and you have to continue to explore their stories. I felt that it was nice to open with “Lizard Man” because I felt that it was one of my strongest stories, and to close with “The Heaven of Animals,” because I felt that it was another one of my strongest. I always like that surprise in a collection when you are reading and thinking all the stories are different, and then you suddenly come across a story in which there are characters you have seen before. It is like a nice surprise, especially if it isn't announced. A collection I love that does that is by Bret Anthony Johnston, called “Corpus Christi: Stories,” and there are three stories in it that concern the same characters, the first, middle, and last stories. I didn't have a middle story, but I liked opening and ending the collection with the same characters. I also liked that the majority of the collection takes places in the Southeast where I grew up, and that last story kind of leads the reader out of the South and to the West coast, and how it sort of hints for the reader that in the future not all my work will be set in the South. That's just sort of a personal thing for me. The other thing that I really didn't notice till after I put the collection together is that the collection kind of opens with a sunrise and closes with a sunset there with Dan looking at the horizon. A little bit of symmetry.
SR: What is most important to you when titling your work? What do you try to capture in these titles? How did these titles lead you to name your collection The Heaven of Animals?
DJP: Every story is different. Sometimes I came up with the titles, sometimes editors came up with the titles for me, and when I would already have a title and they'd suggest one, I'd say, yeah that's much better. With the title story “The Heaven of Animals,” I just kept thinking about the line in there about Dan talking about how he told his son that there was a special heaven for dogs or whatever it was, and I loved that title “The Heaven of Animals,” but it was also a James Dickey poem. I didn't know if I was allowed to steal that title, and so when the story was accepted by Michael Curtis at The Atlantic Monthly, I just told him. I said “You know this is a poem title, is that okay?” and he said “yeah of course, titles are not copyrighted.” Then when it came time to title the collection, I was actually sent out with two possible titles. We were thinking it might be called Lizard Man or we were thinking it might be called The Heaven of Animals, and then I just really liked The Heaven of Animals, and luckily my editor liked the title too. I thought it worked for the whole collection particularly well, since there are so many animals in it, and because so many of the stories concern faith or the ideas of spirituality.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that changed the way you look at writing?
DJP: I have had a lot of help along the way. I mean I did an MFA, I did a PhD, and I have a lot of writer friends. So I have gotten lots and lots of advice, and some advice has stuck and some hasn't. Some advice is good for certain times in your life and not others. One piece of advice that has always helped me was early on when I was first writing. I was reading a lot of really dark stuff. I mean fiction I still like, but writers like Tom Franklin, Cormac McCarthy, John Singleton, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah. Writers who weren't sentimental at all, and I wanted to be that kind of a masculine writer. I wanted to write those sort of gritty Southern Gothic male narrator stories. That really wasn't being true to myself or what I most liked to read, it was being true to this idea of what you had to write if you were a Southern male writer. But in my free time I was reading work that spoke to me a little more. Works like those by Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, and George Saunders. People of that nature who are more interested in empathy and sentimentally. And so one of my first work shop teachers in my MFA program, Aurelie Sheehan, she's the author of a number of really great books, and I had turned in a particularly gross out story and she said, “You know Jamie, I get what you are trying to do, and you are always talking about how you are afraid of coming across as sentimental, but you’re not even close to sentimental. I wonder how your stories would read if you weren't so afraid of it, just risk sentimentality every now and then.” That advice just hit me so hard, and so now what I always try to do is ere on the side of sentimentality, because you can always dial it back in a later draft. You can write a very sentimental sappy story and then dial back the places where it is sort of dishonest or pathetic, but it is really hard when you write a real disaffected or flattened narrator, or really gritty over the top story, to then somehow insert that nod toward love or hope. So that's advice that I took to the bank and it hasn't failed me yet.
SR: Browsing over your acknowledgements page, I noticed how varied some of the magazines were, ranging from Playboy to The Atlantic to Glimmer Train to Willow Springs. Could you describe your submissions strategy and how it has changed over the years?
DJP: Early on I would pretty much just send anything to anywhere. I didn't really have a strategy, but that kind of caught up with me when I realized that I was having work taken quickly by small places and I thought, you know I wonder if this stuff could have potentially wound up in bigger magazines or magazines that pay. There is nothing wrong with small magazines. Willow Springs and The Chattahoochee Review continue to be two of my favorite magazines that I still send work to today, and I have got another story coming out in Chattahoochee Review this year. At the same time, there is something to be said for sending to the smallest magazine after you have given New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Esquire a shot, simply because you want the most readers and it doesn't hurt to get paid a little bit of money too for your work. So my strategy now tends to be to send to the bigger places first and then trickle down to the places that are smaller that you really like. I would still never send work to a magazine that I don't like, that I wouldn't be proud to have my work in. I love and respect the design and the content of every magazine that I have been published in.
SR: What is your relationship with your editor and how do you feel that this relationship benefitted the collection that you have published?
DJP: I am in a lucky position. I know some people don't get along with their editors, most do, but some don't. I know some collections or novels get orphaned. Meaning that one editor acquires it for the house and then that editor ends up leaving or being fired, and so then some other editor has to take on the project. I have one writer friend, and I think she worked with three different editors in a row on one of her books, and I can't imagine how hard that must be. I'm lucky in that my book was acquired by Millicent Bennett, a Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster, who saw it all the way through from beginning to end. She let me be very, very picky about the cover art, and we worked a lot on getting what we thought was the perfect cover for the collection. We spent a lot of time discussing almost forty stories and deciding which of the fifteen would be perfect for the book, what should be cut and what should stay. She helped me find things that, even though they worked in the stories originally, had to be cut or adjusted; perhaps there were too many unintentional parallels between stories. I have a habit of using the same phrasing, not realizing that I had used it. She helped me with the order so that we didn't bunch up all the funny ones or all the too weird ones, and in the end she let me be absolutely neurotic about every bit of punctuation and how every sentence read to the point that my agent who was getting carbon copied on a lot of these emails, when we saw her in person when we all got together in New York for the One Story Celebration night my agent was just laughing at us and was like “you guys were debating about commas.” She thought it was funny, but that's the kind of writer I am and that is the kind of editor I have, where in the end not only do I not want a single typo in the book, but I want every sentence to read just right, and that was important to me and important to my editor. So we are kind of wonderfully anal retentive together.
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
DJP: I don't know. That is hard. I think so many people when they answer that question that eventually there is a self-mythologizing thing that goes on. You'll hear writers over the course of their careers answer that question and the answer will change until they have kind of created this whole myth. What I know for sure is that early on that I wasn't a big reader. I was very slow to get to reading. I didn't start reading until second grade, which by today's standards I think would have wound up putting me in one of the special ed. classes. For whatever reason, I was a little slow to develop on that front and then I was a pretty resistant reader, and it drove my mother crazy because she is a librarian. Finally she got me to read comic books, and not the good stuff, not like the good graphic work that is being done today by Alison Bechdel or Craig Thompson. I was just reading X-men and all the X-men titles, but at least it got me reading and gave me a sense of pacing and narrative arc, and kind of soap opera, because all comic books are basically long running soap operas. Then, I don't know, I got to high school, in eleventh grade we were assigned the novel The Great Gatsby, and something clicked in me. I loved that book so much. I read it in two nights, which for me at that age, at that time, was a lot of reading. I promptly forgot how much I loved it, and I got to college. There I was assigned to read The Great Gatsby again, and it was like holy cow I forgot how much I loved this book and how intensely complicated and confusing these characters are and how three dimensional and how they are all really deeply flawed, and how there is really no hero in that novel. I loved it and I didn't look back, I just read everything that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, all the novels and most of the stories, even his really bad play called “The Vegetable,” and I changed to a English major and started reading as much as I could. For a while, in college, I wanted to be a poet. I wrote a lot of bad poetry. I think I wrote one short story in college and got it published in the school newspaper, and then I taught high school for four years. While I was teaching high school I was kind of writing on the side, writing a lot during the summers, but mostly I was just reading. Reading contemporary short stories just ravenously, just scouring the shelves of the library and bookstore for all the collections I could find and just reading through them. I found a lot of great stuff. I remember being very impacted in that period by the work of Flannery O'Connor, Lorrie Moore, and all the new stories from the South anthologies where I first read Bret Anthony Johnson's work, Kevin Wilson's work, Brock Clarke's work, and Joe McCorkle's work. At some point, you know, it’s what Saul Bellow said “all writers are readers moved to imitation,” and I started writing my own stories. Finally, after a few years of that I told my wife that I wanted to disrupt our lives entirely and have us both quit our jobs and move across the country and do a MFA at University of Arizona.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
DJP: It depends on the day. I don't have a single space in which I write. On weekends, I'll write at my office at school. I can't usually write at school on weekdays because students will knock on the door even when it's not office hours. I will sometimes write at Starbucks, and there are a couple of other coffee houses in Orlando that I will write at. I used to write a lot at Waffle House. I wrote most of “Lizard Man” at a Waffle House in Tucson, Arizona. I write just about anywhere except at home, because with a wife, a dog, two kids, TV's, and books everywhere, there are too many distractions and I won't work well if I am at the house. Other than that, a variety of coffee shops and my office at school are where I write.