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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Whatever Happens, I’m Having a Good Time: An Interview with David James Poissant
David James Poissant’s debut collection (Ed. note-Out Today!!!), The Heaven of Animals, promises us a book teeming with wildlife, with metaphysical questions, with people yearning for answers, and the stories deliver. A key strength of Jamie’s fiction is that in one breath he can both make us laugh and raise what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” Take, for example, the opening of “Me and James Dean.” The story concerns a husband and wife and the wife’s dog—the titular James Dean himself, an “old beagle with a nose like a coke fiend’s.” The story’s first line possesses Nabokov’s compression and dark humor, delivered in a spot-on contemporary voice to rival the best writers out there today: “Jill’s had James Dean since college, a gift from her parents before they died—car crash—which makes him extra-special to her, a last link to her ancestry or something.”
Jamie and I attended the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where we met and became friends. He arrived to our first class in the program without a pen, and he asked to borrow one. I handed him a spare Bic. Then, he said very politely that he was sorry to bother me, but could he borrow a piece of paper, too? He made me laugh that day, he made me laugh when I read his first story for workshop—a story in which he coined the genius term “ass font,” for the ubiquitous script on the derriere of sweatpants, shorts, and the like—and he has been doing so ever since. I had the pleasure of editing his work during my time on the editorial staff at The Southern Review. Watching his collection burst into the world is, for me, like viewing a time-lapse movie made from an event I observed in full; I had read many of these stories in manuscript form and in literary magazines over the years, seen them evolve, and now relish the treat of finding them collected and presented so beautifully.
I talked via email with Jamie about ring-tailed lemurs, the spiritual realm, and the importance of voice.
Cara Blue Adams: How did you select the stories for the collection? And how did you choose an order? The opening and closing stories are perfect bookends—the first (“Lizard Man”) gives us a father/son relationship and the last (“The Heaven of Animals”) picks up that relationship fifteen or so years later—and it occurs to me that reversing their order would make this a very different book. I’m curious about how you planned the collection’s arc.
David James Poissant: What’s the Facebook expression? It’s complicated? There are so many answers to that question. When I originally conceived of the book, it included several stories that didn’t make the final cut. My thought was that the “safest,” most marketable collection would be one that included all of my realist stories of a uniform length. So, no short-shorts, no longer stories, and definitely no glowing babies. But after Millicent Bennett acquired the book for Simon & Schuster, she insisted that we worry less about safe and more about excellence. “Let’s just make this a book of your best,” she said. And I’m so glad that she said that.
Together, we read through about thirty stories that I had published between 2005 and 2012, and another five or six that I’d finished but had yet to publish at the time. We settled on seventeen stories that I knew intuitively were my best, and, in the end, we had to lose one of those because the book just got too long. But I hope to see that story along with a few of the others, and some new ones I’ve written these past two years, in a second collection on down the road. And I’m thrilled to see this collection turn out so wide-ranging. If nothing else, it’s certainly a more interesting book than it would have been otherwise. Some of my favorite writers (Ron Carlson and Stuart Dybek spring to mind) have been sandwiching short-shorts between longer stories, and allowing the magical to brush elbows with the real in their work for a long time now. I’m glad to have gotten the chance to structure this book similarly.
The order of the stories was tough, and Millicent and I spent a long time on it. We didn’t want all of the saddest stories lumped together. We didn’t want all of the weirdest stories lumped together. And we didn’t want to create a pattern, like: long, long, short. We juggled stories for a long time, which, in retrospect, is kind of funny, because I can’t remember the last time I read a collection from beginning to end. I tend to skip around.
But the one thing that never changed, the one thing my agent loved from the beginning and my editor loved from the beginning, and that I’m thrilled to have kept, was this idea of “Lizard Man” and the title story as bookends. I love when a collection gives you characters that you don’t know will reappear, and how, when they reappear, it’s a gift. I hope my readers are happy to see Dan again fifteen years later in the closing story. I also like how the last story leads the reader out of the South. Much of this book is set in the South, and I love to write about the South, but I enjoy writing about Tucson too, and Ohio, and other places I’ve lived in and visited. Ending that way almost felt like me giving myself permission to write whatever (and wherever) I want after this.
CBA: The book’s final line—“It would come, the end, when blue met blue”—has a gorgeous metaphysical weight. The question of faith is alive in these stories. How do you engage this perennial (and perennially difficult) theme?
DJP: Well, I’m someone who believes in God (as Love, as something good, not something to be feared), and someone who’s also pretty skeptical when it comes to organized religion (I’m currently at work on an essay that tackles the trauma of my Baptist upbringing). But faith isn’t straightforward. I often feel like I’m living in that tension of wanting to believe but also doubting. A good friend of mine, the essayist Laurie Uttich, puts it best. She says, in one of her essays, “If I don’t believe in God, I feel alone, but how can I believe in God without feeling abandoned?” I think that most believers, if they’re being honest with themselves, feel exactly this way much of the time. I wanted to explore that tension here, particularly in “Venn Diagram.” Lisa relies on faith to get her through the worst year of her life, and, near the end, she seems to have it all together, but of course she doesn’t really have it all together. Richard, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with God, but something comes after him. Something won’t quite leave him alone.
But, thank you for the kind words. I like for my work to have “weight,” as you say, but of course I hope to escape its becoming heavy-handed. To any degree that readers feel that I’ve succeeded in this, I’m grateful.
CBA: Animals prowl your pages. Alligators, wolves, elephants, armadillos, seals . . . sometimes they are glorious, other times, as one character says, “Nature is a fucking monster.” Where do you come down on this? What’s your current favorite animal story or fact?
DJP: Well, you forgot bison, but they’re a not easily offended animal, so you’ll probably be okay.
One of my favorite animals is the ring-tailed lemur. They’re indigenous to Madagascar, but they’re kind of a zoo staple, so you’ve probably seen one. They look like really svelte raccoons with long, thin tails. One of the pieces that didn’t make it into this collection featured a lemur, but he didn’t fare too well by story’s end.
But my absolute favorite animal is the manatee. I live in Florida, and almost every winter, a friend of mine and I kayak and swim with them. They’re the sweetest, gentlest creatures, and I really worry that they won’t be around for much longer.
CBA: Your characters are often funny, and they do bad things, but they have a fundamental decency. Is achieving a balance of humor, poignancy, and truth a consideration as you write or is it a natural outgrowth of your worldview?
DJP: I don’t know. I feel like you’re asking me if I’m really as fundamentally decent as most of my characters, and I hope that I am. I’m probably better, as an author, at extending empathy to my characters than I am, as a fellow human being, at extending empathy to people in real life, and I absolutely wish that this were the other way around.
But, yes, there is literature out there that turns me off, art with too dark a view of the world. I don’t mean to slap a happy face on everything. I know that the world can be a dark and cruel place for many people, and I’m writing from a position of privilege, I absolutely recognize that. But I also believe that an artist can get bound up in an unrealistically bleak or hopeless view of things.
If I’ve achieved a balance in these stories, it’s probably not so much attributable to my own worldview as it is to my reading habits. I love the work of writers who walk that tightrope well. For me, these days, George Saunders is the best balancer out there. I also love what Rebecca Lee said recently about endings in fiction, which was: “Every life ends, and everything runs toward its end, but in the meantime, how much happiness can be withstood? Narrative, or at least one type of narrative, seems to be about just that, and it’s the deepest sort of quest for a writer—to find the perfect sad ending with so much happiness in it that it is almost indistinguishable from a happy ending.” I wish I’d said that. For me, that says it all. Lee’s collection, Bobcat, was one of my favorite books of 2013. It’s such a good book.
CBA: You were born in Syracuse, New York, grew up in metro-Atlanta, and have lived in Tucson, Cincinnati, Kentucky, and Orlando. How do you locate yourself in relationship to Southern writing?
DJP: You know, I’m a week away from delivering an AWP panel paper on just this topic, and I still don’t know where to begin with it.
In some ways, having lived in New York for six years before moving to Georgia, I feel like an impostor in the South. I never picked up the Southern accent. I never acquired a taste for country ham or for green beans with ham in them. I also grew up in the suburbs, and I’m not sure how different growing up in suburban Atlanta is from growing up in suburban Ohio or suburban Rhode Island.
My wife, on the other hand, is a true Southerner, born and raised in North Georgia. Her family lives in Dallas, Georgia, and Silver Creek, Georgia, and she lived for a long time in Ellijay, Georgia, so I know a lot about rural and small town Georgia from her and from spending time with her friends and relatives in those places.
And, growing up, many of my summers and spring breaks were spent in Florida. Both coasts, Gulf and Atlantic, and the Florida panhandle in particular, are mostly junky, billboard-strewn strips overrun with restaurants and dive shops and junk shops and souvenir shops, and even though I know that I’m supposed to hate them, there’s something that I respond to so deeply in these places, something about the juxtaposition of beautiful ocean and white sand beaches, and then these towering hotels, the junk and cars and noise. It’s ugly, what we’ve done to the coastlines, but they’re what I grew up with, and I can’t help being nostalgic for them (see Frederick Barthelme above) whenever I’m away from them.
But, when I write about the South, I try to contain my stories to specific places in the South as opposed to “the South” in general, because, of course, there are many Souths. Big Bone Lick State Park in Boone County, Kentucky, the setting of “Last of the Great Land Mammals,” for example. Been there. Totally real place. Totally real bison.
CBA: Speaking of the South, I had the pleasure of editing two of these stories—“The Baby Glows” and “100% Cotton”—during my tenure at The Southern Review. This felt serendipitous, because you turned me on to many of the Southern writers I now love, including Mark Richard and Jill McCorkle, and when I joined the staff of the magazine, you told me stories about its rich history. Each change we discussed carefully, thinking about the pacing of the story and the rhythm and cadence of the paragraph, the sentence, the clause. How do you approach the process of revising? The editorial process?
DJP: And I can’t thank you enough for taking those stories! You were never afraid to take a chance on the weirder ones, which has always meant a lot to me.
As for revision, every story’s different. I never send out a story until I believe that it’s done and polished. But, often, an editor gives me feedback, and I see that the story’s not done, it’s not as strong as it could be. Usually, I’m thrilled to get edits. I love to see my stories made stronger. Sometimes, I’m too attached to a draft, and it takes some time for me to gain objectivity, but I usually get there. I remember that you and I went back and forth several times on “100% Cotton.” I wanted to preserve some of the jokier moments, but you wanted me to resist the easy laughs. We pulled back on the humor a bit, and the story’s definitely stronger for it.
But, yes, voice is important to me, and that voice is always tied to the rhythms of sentences. Sometimes, a magazine editor will edit a line to fix a split infinitive or undangle a modifier, which is fine, but I’ll often want to edit their edits, so that the thing being fixed is still fixed but additionally stays true to the narrator’s voice, if that makes sense.
As for the collection as a whole, I’ll probably look back in five years and see weaknesses that I can’t see now, but I can honestly say that after almost nine years of working on this book, it’s as good as I can get it at this point in my life, and I can live with that.
CBA: Lorrie Moore has said, “A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. A novel is a job . . . But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” You write short stories and flash fiction, both on display here, and are at work on a novel. What are the unique demands and rewards of each form?
DJP: The challenge of a novel is that you can’t hold it all in your head at once. At least, I can’t. It’s just so much book. The upside is that while my novel may take me three years to write, the writing has gone much faster than the collection (which took almost nine years). With stories, each one has to be imagined, drafted, revised, and sometimes the revisions take years. A novel feels more of one piece, and so you’re always working toward a single end. In that way, perhaps it’s faster, though it’s longer. But I’m speaking very specifically to my own process. I’m sure my experiences don’t hold true for every writer.
CBA: Tell us a bit about your novel in progress.
DJP: So, I wrote “Venn Diagram” and “Wake the Baby,” two of the stories in The Heaven of Animals, with no plans to return to those characters. But I just couldn’t shake them. The novel picks up about thirty-five years later. Richard Starling is a physicist. Lisa Starling is an ornithologist. They’ve spent the bulk of their careers at Cornell and enjoyed summers at their lake house in North Carolina. Their sons, Michael and Thad, are now grown and in their thirties. Michael is a pharmaceutical rep married to an elementary school art teacher. They live in Texas. Thad lives with his boyfriend, an up-and-coming painter, in Brooklyn. Then, one summer, Lisa calls her sons out of the blue to inform them that she and Richard are retiring early and that the lake house (which was always supposed to stay in the family) will be sold. The sons and their partners are summoned to North Carolina for a final week together as family, and, as tends to happen whenever family gets together for a week, things get tense. When a tragedy strikes the lake community, it reverberates through the lives of these six characters in a way that causes them to question not only why they’ve come here, but what comes next and whether they still want what they thought they wanted when the week began.
It’s a long novel (growing ever longer) told in six roving, third person, limited omniscient viewpoints. I don’t think that I had a sense of my undertaking’s ambition when I began, and I hope that my reach hasn’t exceeded my grasp. Whatever happens, I’m having a good time.
CBA: I spot trace amounts of dirty realism, magical realism, and minimalism in this voice, though it is all your own. Who are some of your influences?
DJP: I try to read widely, and it’s hard to say who has influenced my work. Several of the early reviews have compared the stories here to those of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and I’m thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath as those two giants. In terms of other writers whose work I look to for inspiration, here’s a short list: Marilynne Robinson and Michael Cunningham for what they can do with character interiority, for letting you step so deep into the muck of their characters’ minds that you worry you’ll lose a shoe. Lorrie Moore and Ron Carlson for their ability to temper life’s terrors with humor and wit. Charles D’Ambrosio for the pacing of his stories, that patient, narrative unravelling. Amy Hempel for her gleaming prose and her ability, with a single sentence, to put an icepick in your heart. Rick Bass, for his breathtaking imagery and celebration of the natural world. Chris Adrian and Karen Russell, whose stories surprise me and make me shake my head in wonder. Frederick Barthelme, who writes about a South I recognize—there are many versions of “the South,” but his is the one I know best, and he writes it better than anyone I know—and whose novels Tracer and Bob the Gambler are two of the finest books I’ve ever read. George Saunders for his humanity, for the grace that he extends to his characters, and for the empathy that he demands of his readers. Recently, Percival Everett, who I came to late and now I can’t stop reading. And, of course, Carver. I do love Carver.
To the degree that any of those writers have, in some small way, rubbed off on me, I’m grateful. If they haven’t rubbed off on me, I hope that one day they will.
David James Poissant is the author of The Heaven of Animals, a collection of short stories published on March 11, 2014, by Simon & Schuster. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the Best New American Voices and New Stories from the South anthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.
Cara Blue Adams’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Narrative, The Missouri Review, The Sun, The Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, and she has been named one of Narrative’s 15 Below 30. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Coastal Carolina University.