PictureAn Interview with David James Poissant

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” has always bothered me, because it implies the writer doesn’t know what he or she is doing—hey, let me just try this out, and we’ll see what happens. Instead, forms we label as experimental are often the exact right form for the story being told, a conscious, thoughtful choice the writer makes. I really feel that way about your work, that you’ll use any structure to tell the story you need to, and you’ll leave reality if you must, because, as you say, that sometimes tells us more about life here in “the real world.” My quick intro above may have not made it clear that you have twenty-five published short stories, and you’re putting together your first collection. You say above that all your stories might not live in the same book, so how are you thinking about which of your various modes of storytelling will live between two covers? Are you aiming for diversity in the collection, or are you trying to have some clear thread run through each piece?  

DJP: The collection, which is finished and out to publishers for consideration, is one of mostly realistic pieces. A few magical episodes snuck in there, but, were the book to be picked up and an editor wanted those stories banished, I wouldn’t be offended. Likewise, if someone wanted to collect all twenty-five of the stories I’ve so far published, I’d be happy to have them all share page space. What the book as a whole looks and feels like is less important to me than the integrity of each story as it stands on its own. So, above, when I say all twenty-five, I guess that I really mean twenty, since I’m no longer crazy about a few of my stories that first saw print.

But, if the collection is published and reviewed, I feel like it could get slammed either way. Reviewers of short story collections seem to criticize a book when all of the stories are cut from the same cloth, and they seem to criticize collections that are too eclectic. Maybe story writers can’t win. I don’t know. For me, I just love stories. I almost never read a collection in order, and I almost never finish one before moving on to another. I’ll read a few stories, savor them, put the collection away for a while, read a few novels, read a graphic novel, a book of poetry, a few more stories from other collections or anthologies, and eventually I’ll get back to that first collection and read a few more stories from it. I finish collections, but it takes years, and often a new book out is a good reason for me to finish reading a writer’s last collection. In truth, I seem always to be reading twenty books at once. It’s not something I recommend or am proud of, I think that I just love variety. And because, as my wife puts it, I have a “freakishly good memory,” I can open a novel after having set it down a year before and pick up right where I left off. It’s a rare book that captures my attention and finds me reading straight through without stopping. The last two to do it, that I can remember, were Magnus Mills’The Restraint of Beasts a few months ago and Marilynn Robinson’s Home last year. So, in short, I guess I don’t care so much about the design or composition of the collection because I think that most readers, like me, seldom read stories in order, and that most readers don’t mind when the fantastic rubs elbows with the realistic between the covers of the same book. As the writer, I feel like my job is just to make each story its best. Everything else is marketing, and I’m happy to go along with anything that helps the book to find the widest audience, anything short of tampering with the stories themselves in some way that makes them no longer my own. Does that make sense?  

ES: That makes perfect sense—it’s in fact exactly how I feel about my own work, and the work of other writers, but I never know if people agree with me or not! I can’t wait until your book is out in the world, in whatever form. I want to talk a bit about a specific story of yours, “Lizard Man.” One thing I really admire about that story is that it’s simultaneously larger-than-life, full of bright colors and dramatic happenings, yet also very human, and very real. There are two main conflicts in the story: one character is dealing with the death of his abusive father, and the other is dealing with the fact that he abused his own son by throwing him through a window when he learned that he was gay. These very real conflicts are set against a backdrop of swamps and poverty, and I’m most impressed with how you treat problematic people with dignity, and allow them to tell stories of being hurt and hurting others. You allow your readers to empathize with people they might not normally have much compassion for. Do you consider that a goal of fiction? Should that be every writer’s ambition?

DJP: Erin, first, I take that as high praise, so thank you. Second, I can’t speak for every writer, but, in my own writing, my ambition is absolutely to present the reader with “unlikeable” characters that, by story’s end, the reader will, if not like, exactly, at least empathize with. Empathy, for me, is the magic word. I was brought up in a Southern Baptist church, and the thing that got me away from the church for a while was the church itself. The focus was seldom on empathy and often on sin. Instead of talking about how to love our neighbor, we were talking about why our neighbor was doomed to spend eternity in the fiery pits of hell. But I did love my neighbor, and I didn’t want to think about him or her in hell. Nowadays, my wife and I attend a Methodist church, and the focus there is on grace and love, and if that sounds cheesy, it’s at least life-affirming. I no longer believe in hell, and I’m not interested in stories that present a character who deserves it.

Many of my stories are set in the South because I grew up in metro-Atlanta and now live in central Florida. I’ve called the suburban South home for most of my life, and most of my neighbors have been middle-class and white and Republican. That’s what you see parodied in “Refund,” the One Story story you mentioned. It can be difficult to write about some of these characters without skewering them too hard. And when I’m watching John Stewart or Rachel Maddow and cheering them on, it’s easy to be dismissive of anyone who voted for Bush or McCain or who will vote for Romney. But, when you actually get to know someone who voted for Bush—when you have many people who voted for Bush in your family, and when these same people, given the choice, would strike down gay marriage, yet, in some ways, they’re very good people who do great things for the less fortunate members of their communities—then you’re forced to acknowledge that things are complicated, that people are multifaceted, and that all people are capable of good and bad regardless of the political party with which they are affiliated. For instance, I know this guy, a friend of my father’s, who is so racist I can’t even talk to him. He’s homophobic. He’s xenophobic. He’s ignorant of so many things that engaging him in conversation makes me furious. Yet, when this guy’s sibling abused and abandoned his teenage son, this guy and his wife took the boy in and loved him, seemingly unconditionally. It’s a long story, but, basically, they saved the kid’s life. So, how do you reconcile an act like that with the guy’s rhetoric? I don’t know. I still don’t want to have lunch with the guy, but I can’t help respecting this one tremendously loving thing he’s done. Then again, if the kid were to come out as gay, I can’t help wondering whether he’d be kicked out of the house. And, if he were, would that undo all of the good that came before? Would that mean that the love wasn’t love at all, or would it mean that we just don’t have enough good words, the way the Greeks did, for loves of many breeds? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but stuff like this pinballs through my head constantly when I write a story. My goal, then, is less to come out on some side of an issue, but to present reality as I see it, to keep it complicated, and to never play it safe. The voting booth is where I’ll push the button for Obama. I don’t need to push it in my fiction, and I don’t need to stick to the characters who would.

Of course, as soon as I take on the point of view of a sexist or racist or homophobic character in my fiction, my first impulse is the worry that a reader will take the voice of the narrator for my own, but I work hard to ignore such worries. Once, at a kind of famous writers’ conference, I read from a story in which the narrator makes light of his dog’s death. The episode garnered both laughs and frowns. Following the reading, the conference director looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not as nice as you look,” and I wanted to say, “No! No! I am as nice as I look. Nicer, even!” I wanted to explain my heart for animals, how many pets I’ve had, how, watching Hurricane Katrina footage, it was the shots of stranded dogs and cats that got me sobbing. Still, a few people couldn’t get over that story or get that, reading it, I was in character. If you’re a pretty good reader and your first-person narrator is kind of an asshole, then the risk you run, reading, is coming off as kind of an asshole. Still, I think that most readers can separate the author from the narrator, and anyone who reads “Between the Teeth” and thinks that I’m a dog-killer or reads “Lizard Man” and sees the story as an endorsement of Dan’s behavior throwing his son through a window, well, that person is probably not the best reader for my work.  

ES: First, you look like the nicest guy on the planet, and you are in fact nicer than you look, I’ll vouch for that. Second, bravo; I love your answer above. It echoes a lot of the conversations I’ve been having lately with my parents and friends and students and strangers on Facebook . . . there’s so much hate being expressed by so many people these days, it’s hard to know what to do in the face of it. Lots of us want to share love and share kindness, those of us who are Christian and those of us who aren’t, but it’s also hard not to turn the hateful into a parody of themselves, it’s hard not to hate them back. And I really want to believe we can write our way through that, into seeing the complexity and wholeness of people. Thank you: you really help me to continue to think about the state of our country, and the potential of fiction writing. I’ll quickly mention that your story published by The Atlantic, “The Heaven of Animals,” which I just read when visiting my mom (and her Kindle), is a sequel story which explores the relationship between Dan and his grown son. It’s a beautiful story, very different than “Lizard Man” but equally powerful, and I was thankful to revisit these characters, and empathize newly with them. I list some links below, for readers who want to access your magnificent stories. I’m going to shift to some practical territory now: your current job—a tenure-track gig teaching creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida—is what many readers of this blog aim for. What’s it like to get the thing you’ve been working toward for many, many years?

DJP: Landing the job at the University of Central Florida was a dream come true, not just because it means working in an MFA program but because it means living in Florida. When you grow up in Georgia, most of your family vacations take place in Florida, so the state—from the panhandle to the warm springs, from great cities like St. Augustine and St. Pete’s, to the beaches and fishing and manatees and amazing birding opportunities—has, for me, always been associated with paradise. Even having lived here a year, I still take this place for paradise. I was setting fiction in Florida long before I lived here, and I’m very happy to call this big, weird state home.

But, to answer you more directly, it’s been extremely gratifying and humbling to see six years of hard work culminate with a job teaching fiction writing to graduate students and undergraduates at a really good, really big (third largest in the nation after Arizona State and Ohio State) university. I never expected to land an MFA “gig” before having a book, and, frankly, I don’t know how I got the job. I knew no one at UCF, and, in a market of job descriptions advertising 3/3 and 4/4 job loads, plus positions loaded down with composition teaching, UCF looked to me like one of the year’s best jobs. I didn’t expect to get an AWP interview, and I didn’t expect, then, to get a campus visit. But somehow I did, and somehow I got the job. And it’s proof of something, I guess. Proof that there are still good jobs in this market for writers without books, which is good; proof that it’s not all about connections or inside candidates, which is reassuring; proof that, if you write your ass off and keep publishing and apply to enough jobs (last year I applied to 97), then you might just land on your feet, which, I hope, is inspiring.

Of course, getting the job and keeping the job are two different things! My goal now is to keep writing as close to every day as I can. I love teaching, and I love writing, and I’ve managed, pretty well, this first year, to do both as well as I can. Sometimes the teaching takes over and I worry about the work, but not to the degree that school took over the last few years while I finished up work on my PhD at the University of Cincinnati. Those years were both the greatest and the hardest of my life, but I think that they prepared me really well for the job market and for my first job. Given the chance to do it again, I’d do it the same. The first collection is finished, and I’m more than halfway through with a second. I’m also deep into a novel begun in 2011. The novel’s my priority, at this point, my hope being to finish it sometime next year. It’s straight-up realism, a big family drama set—where else—in the South.

ES: Thanks for ending with hope for all of us who want to make lives out of teaching and writing. I’m of course very much looking forward to reading your collections and your novel. In the meantime, readers can access your incredible stories in many places:Lizard Man is available as a c