On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.
This week we are chatting with David James Poissant, whose debut collection The Heaven of Animals was published by Simon and Schuster in March. Jamie made his One Story debut back in 2011 with “Refund”.
As Jamie’s issue editor for “Refund”, I am thrilled to now be able to introduce his collection to all of you. The Heaven of Animals is full of stories that linger long after you have closed the book and turned off the light. Many link thematically, parsing questions about love, redemption, forgiveness, and how we navigate the big moments, both tragic and absurd (often at the same time). As fellow One Story author, Lauren Groff, says of him: “David James Poissant is one of our finest young writers, with a taut and subtle prose style, a deep knowledge of craft, and a heart so vast it encompasses whole worlds.”
Many thanks to Jamie for taking time to speak with One Story about his collection.
Where were you when you found out The Heaven of Animals was going to be published and how did you celebrate?
It’s cliché to say I remember the day like it was yesterday, but I do, I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a teaching day, a Thursday in September, 2012. I teach fiction writing at the University of Central Florida. That semester, I had two back-to-back undergraduate advanced fiction sections, and for that class we had read Kelcey Parker’s story collection For Sale by Owner. Kelcey Skyped into the first class to discuss the collection with us, which went really well. I had fifteen minutes before the next class, so I decided to check my email. And what I found was an email from my agent, Gail Hochman. The subject line read: YOWEE ZOWEE. The email read: Call me! Good news!
You don’t get an email like that from your agent every day, so I knew what it had to be (we’d been shopping the book around all year), but I didn’t want to let myself get excited. Cautious, I stepped into the hallway. There were students everywhere hustling from one class to another, so I found a quiet corner of the building by a window and called Gail. She gave me the good news, that Millicent Bennett of Simon & Schuster wanted to acquire not just the collection but also my novel in progress. I didn’t cry the way I thought I might every time I imagined getting this news, but I started shaking, as in trembling uncontrollably. I’d been working on the collection for eight years, and it seemed impossible that the dream had finally come true, and not just with any editor, but with Millicent, an editor I’d met at Bread Loaf that summer and with whom I’d felt a deep connection. I was quiet so long, Gail asked if I was okay. “I’m shaking,” I said, and I remember Gail saying, “Oh, honey, don’t shake.”
By the time I got off the phone, I was late for class, so late I didn’t even have time to call Marla, my wife. Gail had cautioned me not to tell anyone but Marla for the next day or two, just in case, just until we were sure that it was a done deal.
I’ve been told I have a terrible poker face, which, that day, proved true. I stepped into the classroom. I don’t know what kind of look was on my face, but all of my students stared at me. They appeared concerned. One asked whether I was sick or something, and I just blurted it out, that my books were going to be published, at which point there were cheers and hugs. “But you can’t say anything!” I said. Then we Skyped with Kelcey, all of us pretending that nothing had just happened.
Later, when I would tell Kelcey about this, she’d say, “What? I would have just cancelled everything and gotten a martini.”
I wanted to wait to tell Marla in person, but I couldn’t stand it, so, after class, I called and told her over the phone. She laughed and cried, then hugged me hard when I got home. The next night, once it was official, we went out to dinner with our daughters. In some ways, I feel like we’ve been celebrating ever since.
One of the things that I’ve always admired in your writing (and I remember this from the first time I read “Refund”) is your ability to throw in the surprising detail without derailing the momentum of the story – these unexpected moments often then become intrinsic to the narrative. I’m thinking of moments like finding the alligator in “Lizard Man” or when Lily takes off her arm in “Amputee”. How often do you surprise yourself? And by that I guess I mean are these moments always part of the plan or do you stumble on them in the course of writing?
I absolutely stumble upon them in the course of the writing. I’m big on the craft philosophy of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” When I’m writing, I seldom know the direction in which I’m headed. When I begin to feel the story drag, or when I just feel bored, I try to do something big, something startling. I didn’t know that the alligator would appear in “Lizard Man” until I wrote that scene. I didn’t know what Dan would find inside the shoebox at the end of the story until he opened it. I didn’t know that Lily was an amputee until she took off her arm. Writing, I like to surprise myself. The trick, later, in revision, is to make sense of the surprises, so that the surprises, when they happen—and here comes another craft mantra—feel surprising and inevitable.
Religion twists through many of your stories. From casual believers to doubters to fundamentalists to those who’ve run screaming away from it all. What is it about faith (or the lack of it) that interests you?
As a boy, I was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church. I’d like to say that this did some good things for me, but the experience was pretty damaging. I can’t speak to all Baptist churches, but the one in which I was raised espoused beliefs that promoted sexism, homophobia, and racism. In youth group, we were taught that the planet was only a few thousand years old. We were taught abstinence. Sex before marriage was a sin, etc. There was a huge emphasis on guilt and shame, on sin, particularly sexual sin, and on hell and what you had to do or say in order to be sure that wasn’t where you were headed. I can’t tell you the number of times, growing up, that I prayed and begged God not to send me to hell. It was, in short, a bad scene.
I went to college and stopped going to church, then fell in love with the daughter of a Methodist minister. This man didn’t talk about sin or hell. He smoked. He cursed occasionally. I went to church with the woman who would become my wife, and I saw that church, done right, could become a force for good, for social justice and helping those in need.
I still don’t call myself a Methodist and won’t until the Methodist church officially extends all rights and privileges to every member of the LGBTQ community, but my wife and I do attend a Methodist church in Orlando. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe in hell. My idea of God these days is God as Love. I’m not interested in any other kind of God.
So, all of that, in one way or another, probably informs everything that I write. I think that most Americans practice or used to practice one form of faith or another, or they at least believe in something, but this maybe doesn’t get written about as much as it could be in literary fiction. I’m happy to join that conversation in my fiction and nonfiction. I got to write about this a little in an op-ed for The New York Times last year. In response to the piece, I got hundreds of emails, which ran the gamut from people thanking me for my candor to people telling me I’m going to hell.
Currently, I’m at work on a novel that revisits Richard and Lisa, the characters at the center of “The Geometry of Despair,” one of the stories in The Heaven of Animals that deals directly with faith and faith communities. And, yes, that theme pops back up again in a big way.
Certain themes resonate throughout a number of the stories: death, loss and regret, the search for if not redemption, then forgiveness. At what point in writing did you realize you had a cohesive collection? And did you then keep parsing those same themes intentionally or are they simply where your interest was at the time?
I wish that I could say that I worked hard to shape a cohesive collection, but, really, it was a happy accident. For years, I just wrote stories, not worrying too much about whether they’d all find a home between the covers of the same book. In the end, it turned out that I’d been very much preoccupied with ideas of love and death, family and parenthood, and regret and atonement. Many of my stories surround a protagonist seeking to make amends for something he’s done and now regrets. Maybe because of my faith background, maybe because of my move from a philosophy of life preoccupied with shame and punishment toward a philosophy that celebrates forgiveness and redemption, I keep returning to these themes. I’m interested in empathy and in love. I want my readers to feel for my characters, to empathize with them, even if they’d struggle to extend empathy to such people in real life.
Speaking of those themes, you get pretty dark at times. I know you’re also a dad to two lovely and hilarious little girls. How do you find balance and do you ever struggle with bringing your work home?
Usually, I can turn it off. When I’m writing, I’m writing. When I’m teaching, I’m teaching. When I’m with my family, I’m with my family. But there are times my wife will catch me. I’ll be moody or distant, “there but not there,” you know? I’ll be stuck in the novel. But, then, one of my daughters will hug me or tell me a joke, and, when that happens, it’s hard to stay stuck for long.
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutant Ball on May 22nd?
I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other debs, and to meeting Colum McCann, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. But, maybe most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing my agent and editor again. Because I live in Florida and they live in New York, I’ve met each one only once. My agent and I met and talked for about ten minutes at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006. My editor and I met and talked for a few hours at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2012. All of our other interactions have been over email or over the phone. Which is weird to think about. These two women who have changed my life and to whom I owe so much, and I’ve hardly spent any time with them. If it weren’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t even remember what they look like! I’m definitely looking forward to celebrating with them, to raising a glass, to thanking them in person for all they’ve done for me and for my family.