Animals Appear out of Nowhere: An Interview with David James Poissant

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David James Poissant’s debut short story collection, The Heaven of Animals (Simon & Schuster) was released last year to great critical acclaim. Among its accolades, the collection was named one of Amazon’s Best Short Story Collections of 2014, One of Atlanta Journal Constitution’s 9 Best Books of 2014, Best Short Story Collection of the Year by Tweed’s Magazine, Winner of GLCA New Writers Award for Fiction. That’s certainly a lot to celebrate—and hopefully the recognition doesn’t end there.

In this interview, conducted by Dana Diehl, Poissant discusses a wide variety of topics—from empathizing with despicable characters, to the seemingly inherent human need to identify with animals (chiefly their pets), to the ongoing process of idea generation and submission for publication that goes into crafting a coherent collection.

These stories introduce us to people who are deeply flawed, sometimes unforgivably so: a father who throws his son through a window, a man who runs over his wife’s dog. But by the end of each story, I find myself empathizing with these men and women. What attracts you to writing about the flawed? How does your relationship with these characters change throughout the writing process?

Well, the fact that you empathize with these people is great news! That’s absolutely what I was going for—am always going for. Sometimes I get there in a story, and sometimes I don’t, but my editor and I tried to leave the times I don’t out of the collection. Only fifteen stories made the cut for this book. Another twenty or so were left on the cutting room floor.

Part of writing, for me, is engaging with the challenge of finding the humanity in even the most despicable people. People do bad things. We all do bad things. Each of us is capable of great cruelty. And love. For many, that balance is out alignment. My fiction is never an attempt to bring a flawed character into a false sort of alignment (I want to present reality as it is and my characters as they are), but my fiction is often an attempt to stretch the reader, to get a reader to offer compassion—or, to use your word, empathy—to the kind of person to who, in real life, the reader would be less likely to extend that same grace.

Animals, as the title of the collection suggests, haunt these stories. They’re in zoos, in homes, on the television sets. The worlds you create are populated by them. How would you interpret the role of animals in your collection?

That’s a great question. Often, I begin a story with no plans to introduce an animal. And, often, an animal just wanders onto the page. There are exceptions, of course. Some stories don’t mention animals, and, in some, as in “Me and James Dean,” the plot hinges on an animal’s welfare. Often, though, animals appear out of nowhere and find places for themselves in my fiction, probably because I just love animals so much. I’ve had a menagerie’s worth of pets in my lifetime. As I write this, my fourteen-year-old Chihuahua sleeps in the next room.

When it comes to my stories, though, I hope that the animals are more than set pieces. Also, I hope that their involvement in the stories is never heavy-handed. I’m leery of stories in which characters learn life lessons from nature or animals. For the most part, nature is indifferent to us. We’re at odds with the natural world, and most of us exploit it toward our own ends. What my characters learn, if they learn anything about the natural world in these stories, is that, as humans, we haven’t been very good stewards of the earth. Some characters are bothered by this. Others remain indifferent. But the fact’s there, always: the world in which we live is home to far more living things than us alone, and, as humans, we don’t tend to live alongside other creatures easily. We don’t tend to live alongside other humans easily.

We, meaning humanity, look so often to animals as metaphors or symbols for our lives. There’s something really interesting about this connection we try to form between species that, as you say, are so often at odds with us. What do you think is behind this drive to connect with or liken ourselves to animals?

I think that humans are always in search of connection. We want love. We’re desperate for love, approval, and loyalty. We find it, or think we find it, in animals. Dogs rarely betray their companions, so we love them for it. Every cat owner I know thinks that his or her cat is incredibly smart and intuitive, when most research will tell you that most dogs, and even pigs, are way smarter than cats. I think that we see in animals what we want to see and what we seldom find in our human companions. Because our pets come to depend on us, we feel a kinship to them. Human relationships are much messier and far more fraught with complications. Human friendships blow up far more often than those between people and their pets. What I’m saying, this isn’t new or even particularly insightful, but maybe it speaks to the ways that my characters, at times, look for connection or validation in the animal world when they can’t find those connections with other human beings. For example, Cam can’t make amends with his father, but he can try to save the life of his father’s alligator.

Two of the stories in this collection follow Dan and Jack, a father and son. The first time we meet Dan, in “Lizard Man,” the story is in the first person, narrated by Dan. When we see these characters again in “The Heaven of Animals” the story is in third person, limited to Dan. Why did you choose to approach these two stories from different POVs?

When I wrote “Lizard Man,” I didn’t know that there would be “The Heaven of Animals.” Dan Lawson just wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t get his story out of my head. I wondered what happened next, and, a year after “Lizard Man” was published, I decided to find out. I had the feeling that the reunion in Baton Rouge could not have gone terribly well (though I still see Dan’s decision to attempt that, to go to Jack, as a victory, regardless of how it turned out). I decided to pick up not where that story leaves off, but years later, once enough time has gone by that both men have changed and now face new conflicts.

Part of the decision regarding point of view involves chance. In “Lizard Man,” Dan’s voice came to me in first-person present tense. It arrived that way, and that’s how I wrote it. Whatever voice shows up, that’s typically the voice in which I write a piece. But, when it came time for the follow-up, I knew the second story would be bigger, larger in scope. I’d be further mining the terrain of memory. That, for me, required a more lyrical voice than Dan’s voice. I wanted to crank the imagery up a notch, as well as the poetry of the language. While Dan’s third person point of view in the collection’s title story is still a very close third person point of view, I felt that by putting the voice in third, I could cheat a little and give the language an upper register that Dan doesn’t have. I could zoom in on past moments and give them a luster (via nostalgia) more easily in third than if I had to do so with Dan’s speaking voice.

We often see the past through rose-colored glasses, and there is an almost mythic quality to Dan’s version of events from the first drive. Having the story in third allowed me to both celebrate that mythos and undercut the power of myth through Dan’s perpetually failing quest to replicate the first drive with the second drive. Dan seeks to reproduce, almost exactly, the drive he made with Jack a decade before, all the while unable to see that, to quote The Great Gatsby, “you can’t repeat the past.” The distance between the two drives is lost on Dan. For much of the story, he can’t yet see that he’ll never recapture those days. As a writer, I don’t know that I could have pulled off that effect had I been in Dan’s head in first person.

Do you have any advice for writers working toward their first story collection?

Story collections are a lot of work! My advice to beginning writers who love stories is to just write as many stories as you want about whatever you want. Write in all directions. My fiction travels the spectrum from realist to really weird and fantastical. If I’d felt that I needed to stick to one of those modes (or “voices”), I wouldn’t now have the collection that I have. Likewise, don’t force a game plan or a conceit. If one evolves, okay, but don’t force it. I tried for years to only set stories in the South, because I fancied myself a Southern writer, but when I wanted to set stories in Ohio or California, I felt trapped. Eventually, I let go of those hang-ups and just wrote what I wanted to write. After some time, I thought that I had to force an animal into every story (so that I’d have enough to fill the collection), and I worried when a story came and went without the presence of wildlife. In the end, it didn’t matter, since my editor was keen to publish my best stories, regardless of whether the stories had animals in them.

The best short story collections, for my money, are the ones with the best stories in them, regardless of whether those collections are linked by place or theme or voice, or not. I’d rather read a strong collection in which every story is strong, if very different, than a great idea for a collection in which the execution is marred because some of the stories feel forced to fit a linked theme. That said, there are many great linked collections out there. And they’re more marketable, usually, than looser collections. If you have one in you, go for it. But don’t be afraid to let yourself stray from your intentions. Some of the best stories you write will be things you never thought you’d write.

Most important, though: publish your stories before you look for an agent or a publisher. If the majority of your stories have first been published in quality magazines and journals, you’ll be able to make a much stronger case for your work. Few publishers are interested in collections of unpublished stories. Also, just because you have ten or fifteen published stories doesn’t mean that you necessarily have a finished collection on your hands. I had to publish nearly thirty-five stories before I had enough strong ones that worked well together as a solid first collection.

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Dana Diehl is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She currently serves as editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review.

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