Interview conducted by Erin Stalcup
Erin Stalcup: I’m so pleased that the American Literary Review will be publishing your story “Wake the Baby” in the Fall of 2012! The writing world knows you as David James Poissant, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you as Jamie, and as a friend. The best way for me to describe the stories of yours I’ve read, or heard you read, is that they each feel like a distinct texture. Some, like your story published in One Story, “Refund,” are pure, devastating realism. Some, like the story I heard you read at the National Society of Arts and Letters award banquet in Clearwater, Florida, “100% Cotton,” (which wound up being published in the Summer 2011 issue of The Southern Review) are starkly realistic, but also a bit strange: in that story a man seeks to get robbed because his deaf father was killed when he couldn’t understand a thief’s instructions. Some stories are even stranger than that: Lizard Man, your single-story chapbook, which also won the Playboy College Fiction Contest, involves dragon tattoos, a dirty child holding a blue balloon, an alligator, a child thrown through a window, and a torrential storm. And, your magical fairy tale (which could be read as a real-world Appalachian allegory, almost) appears in the current Fairy Tale Review. I’d describe your stories on a spectrum from the familiar tragic to the surreal comic to the otherworldly fantastic. Do you consciously try to stretch your writing into different modes—is each story a place to purposefully explore something new? Or does your range just naturally occur?
David James Poissant: If I have a style, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know whether that, the not-knowing, is a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t think it’s bad, necessarily. I can’t say that I consciously attempt to stretch myself or to challenge myself to write in different modes, though I will say that nine times out of ten, when I sit down to begin a story, I know the direction in which I’m headed—not how the story ends, never how the story ends, but whether I plan to enter the woods or stick to the sidewalks of realism. I think that this is less a product of any personal choice or any stylistic tic as much as it’s a byproduct of my reading habits. I’ll pick up a collection by George Saunders or Aimee Bender as quick as I will one by Charles D’Ambrosio or Lorrie Moore. I read widely. As a result, story ideas arrive both zany and grounded, and I do my best to write them all. Whether they’ll all find a home together one day, I don’t know, but, on their own, I try to make each what it is the best I can without worrying about larger questions of mode or range or which kind of writer I am. In a recent interview, Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and Hot Pink, said, “I was taught that there’s this division between realism and experimentalism, and I think that the other writers whose work I admire, as well as myself, we sort of don’t care about that anymore. And it’s not because it was ever irrelevant, it’s just that now the point of experimentalism seems to be to still tell a good story and to move people.” That sentiment strikes me as just about right. I’m wary of experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but I think that the best of the genre, works like Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father or A.S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest,” get at the truth of life and longing just as earnestly and honestly as anyone working in more familiar modes.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is a seismic shift from where I stood in grad school. At the University of Arizona, I was entrenched in the realism camp, not because the program incentivized such ideologies but because, somewhere, I’d gotten the idea that one must plant his flag and stick to his territory or else. Then, I was in Atlanta for AWP in 2007, and Redivider was sponsoring the AWP Quickie Contest, a contest for stories written on a postcard-sized slip of paper right there at the conference. I put more thought into the thing than probably the contest designers intended, but I wound up winning with “Knockout,” a short-short about a husband and wife who intend to resolve their marital differences by erecting a boxing ring on their front lawn and beating each other up. The neighbors come out to watch, and, of course, the story turns ridiculous, but I hope that the story gets at some weird—if exaggerated—truth about how we interact with one another and how far we’ll go to get what we want. I like stories that do this, that work toward truth with a capital T in some sideways way rather than head-on. You look at a novel like Aspects of Love by David Garnett, and it’s just this disaster of bad dialogue, characters discoursing on who they are and what they want. Then you read Lady into Fox, which McSweeney’s brought back into print in 2004, and you see just what Garnett was capable of when he quit trying to be so proper about everything. Anyway, that story, “Knockout,” writing it, somehow that tripped a switch, and it wasn’t long before I was writing about glowing babies and talking wolves alongside the realism that I still kind of think of as home base.
ES: I think that’s so well said. I really appreciate your sense that all storytelling is that, telling a story, whether it’s in a mode that seems familiar, or a form that feels invented on the spot. The phrase “experimental”