Animals surround David James Poissant. At first, dogs, cats, birds, rats, guinea pigs and a team of reptiles filled his childhood home. Today, these animals – along with a few more exotic creatures – weave in and out of his short stories, echoing themes and serving as catalysts for the characters’ actions. Although he never set out to write an animal-themed collection, time and again, these creatures crept into his narratives.
“I think it’s amazing the way we interact with animals in the natural world,” he says. “We relate to animals, but we also use animals and we abuse them, and I think we do that with people, too. We love people, but we often use them and take them for granted.”
The stories in Poissant’s debut collection The Heaven of Animals dig into the lives and complex psyches of the human animal, addressing issues such as the loss of a child, divorce, mental illness and broken relationships. He pairs these plots with unforgettable details tinged with the surreal such as a glowing baby, a talking wolf, a woman riding a bison.
Poissant’s dexterity with craft is lauded by critics and peers, including novelist Brock Clarke.
“Jamie’s stories, for all their seriousness, are amazingly open to me – open to possibilities and hope for their characters, and open to possibilities in terms of form,” he says. “The stories often read like the latest, best version of American realism, but they then sometimes veer into surrealism, into absurdity. The stories always have the capacity to surprise – to surprise their own characters and to surprise their readers.”
A university professor and contributor to magazines such as The Atlantic, Playboy, One Story and Glimmer Train, Poissant began the journey a decade ago with a mind full of aspirations. He explains how his stories evolved from draft to publication, voice to character, animal to human.
Tame the voice
For Poissant, each story is a unique writing experience. “What the Wolf Wants,” a magical realism piece, came out fully formed in a three-hour writing burst with minimal revision. But it took years for Poissant to complete “The Heaven of Animals,” a story about a father’s cross-country journey to reunite with his dying son. Poissant first had to discover the correct voice, the “proper register of grief and longing and love but also fear.”
Voice and plot drive each story’s draft development.
“If I have a story where I get the voice right, then I can keep changing what happens in the story,” he says. “If I have a story where I’ve got a really interesting plot but I can’t hear a voice, it doesn’t matter that the story is interesting. Without character, it’s just an anecdote.”
Sometimes a story will appear in Poissant’s mind but fail to manifest itself on the page.
“You think you can see this great scene or hear this great voice,” he says. “And you sit there waiting for this idea to travel from your brain, down your arm and into your fingers and out into your computer. And by some weird metamorphosis what comes out is nothing like the gorgeous thing that was flitting around in your mind.”
When this occurs, Poissant makes the decision to push forward with a first draft or wait for a new idea. Yet he also cautions writers to never throw away a story, as it may come to fruition later.
“You’re told a lot of the time in your life to stick with something, don’t start something you’re not willing to finish. And I don’t think that’s always true of writing,” he says. “Sometimes I think you do have to abandon those half-baked projects.” Abandon them, and then return to them when the time is right.
Once Poissant finds a compelling voice, he tries to write the story as quickly as possible and captures the character through “method writing”: “living that moment in the character’s head” down to the smallest nuances of tone, scene description and metaphor choice.
He also follows the same advice he gives to his students: “Start as late in the story as you can and get out as fast as you can.” During revision, Poissant often condenses the opening scenes of his drafts from three pages to three sentences, allowing the story to begin close to the action and end soon after the climax. He believes an ending must complete a “contract with the reader,” usually made in the opening moments of the story. This contract promises that the story will end once a certain event occurs: The father reaches his son, a husband confronts his wife, an affair comes to an end.
“It doesn’t mean that in every story the character has to change,” Poissant says. “But I think the protagonist has to be offered the opportunity for change and the character has to make a choice.”
Despite dark subject matter, his stories are marked by a sliver of hope in the end.
“For my characters, I just can’t embrace a dark view of the world for them,” Poissant says. “I think a story has to end honestly. If I have a story that ends too darkly, it just doesn’t feel honest to me. I try to thread hope into my endings without making them unrealistic. I want there to be joy there along with the sadness.”
Love the monsters
All Poissant’s stories find the balance between showing and telling, allowing actions to speak while still delving deeply into characters’ minds.
“The writer shouldn’t tell the reader how to interpret everything, but that doesn’t preclude the writer from being honest about how the characters feel emotionally,” Poissant says. “In a sense, my characters wear their hearts on their sleeves for the reader, but they have a really hard time communicating with each other.”
Characters drive Poissant’s stories in the midst of emotionally charged circumstances. To create believable heroes and villains, Poissant gives them a measure of both good and bad qualities that readers can relate to. The first story in the collection, “Lizard Man,” explores a father’s guilt for injuring his gay son and severing their relationship.
“He’s kind of a monster,” Poissant says of the father. “He’s very homophobic and cruel. But my goal in telling that story is to say, how can I make you relate to a monster? How can I make you feel what it’s like to be him? For me, writing is less about making the character ‘likeable’ [than] it is about showing the reader that I, as the author, love these characters, and arguing to the reader to love these people. Empathize with them. Understand they’re human even if they do bad things. This could be your neighbor, your father, your mother, your friend. This is what it means to live.”
The characters and stories are largely from his imagination and not based on personal experiences.
“I do tend to write very much away from myself,” he says. “There’s the saying ‘Write what you know,’ there’s the saying ‘Write what you want to know,’ and somewhere along the way I heard the saying ‘Write what scares you.’ And that really lit a spark for me.”
When Poissant first began his career, he tried to write only “safe” stories that he wouldn’t be embarrassed to show his mother. But he soon learned to overcome the fear of criticism.
“You have to push all of that aside and not think about judgment and write a hard story. Write the darkest things. Write the weirdest things,” he says.
One of Poissant’s most poignant stories, “The Geometry of Despair: Venn Diagram,” examines the death of an infant and the effect it has on her parents. After the story’s publication in The Chicago Tribune, Poissant received sympathy cards from readers who assumed the account was based on true experiences.
The characters in “Venn Diagram” so profoundly affected Poissant that he wrote a sequel to the story, “Wake the Baby,” published six years later in American Literary Review. He is now working on a novel that picks up the story 30 years after the child’s death.
“Sometimes I think I’m done with a story, but the characters keep talking to me,” Poissant says. “Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about them, these imaginary friends I’ve created for myself.”
Train the animal
Poissant broke into the writing world through sheer determination. Ten years ago, he was a high-school teacher in Georgia with no publications and no literary connections. He began attending local readings where he eventually met Marc Fitten, who was then managing editor of The Chattahoochee Review. Fitten allowed Poissant to work in the magazine’s submissions or “slush pile,” an experience that opened his eyes to the publishing world.
“I noticed immediately that so many of the stories in the slush pile are not ready,” he says. “They’re potentially great stories, but they could just use a few more drafts. If you’re going to send something out, it has to be perfect.”
He soon recognized the importance of clean, short and professional cover letters. He also realized the essential qualities required for publication: patience and endurance. The Chattahoochee Review publishes about 18 stories each year and rejects thousands.
Poissant’s own stories were rejected by dozens of magazines before publication. Today, rejection letters cover his office corkboard.
“It’s never easy being rejected, but you can also try to find the sort of perverse encouragement from it,” he says. “Look toward it and say, ‘All right, there’s one more for the big board.’”
Attending the University of Arizona MFA program also transformed Poissant’s work, allowing him time to write and receive feedback from peers and published writers. He continued his education at the University of Cincinnati doctoral program in English and comparative literature, which gave him valuable teaching experience in the competitive job market. His education jumpstarted his publishing career: In the course of six years, he wrote and published more than 30 stories.
While working as a creative writing professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Poissant polished the stories that would form The Heaven of Animals. The book began as a marketable collection of realist stories with a uniform length. But with his editor’s and agent’s guidance, it became a collection of Poissant’s strongest work, including experimental pieces, short shorts and longer stories that showcase his versatile voice.
Perhaps most notably, the collection shows Poissant’s bottomless imagination, a zoo teaming with stories.
“Writer’s block doesn’t exist for me,” he says. “There are days and weeks and times when I’m not writing well, or everything I’m writing feels forced. But in terms of ideas for stories, those never stop coming. My problem is that I’ll never get them all written.”
Hillary Casavant is a writer in the Boston area and editorial assistant for The Writer magazine.
Taming the beast
As a creative writing professor, David James Poissant provides valuable feedback for aspiring writers. Step into his classroom for his top tips.
- Shocking the reader is easy. Irony is easy. Anger is easy. Walking the tightrope of sincerity, on the other hand, is tough. I encourage my students, as one of my first writing teachers, Aurelie Sheehan, encouraged me, to risk sentimentality in the name of empathy.
- There’s a lot of talk about how to develop characters in your fiction and about whether fiction is plot-driven or character-driven. I feel like a story must be both. You can’t develop a character until you know what a character wants, and you don’t know what a character wants until you have a plot or premise on your hands. A character is driven by want or need, that want or need is derived from plot, and it’s expressed in the character’s voice, regardless of whether that voice is delivered in first, second or a close third-person point of view. I encourage my students not to spend too much time thinking about or building their characters before they begin writing. I tell them to just start writing. I tell them: Character is what happens when plot meets point of view.
- Some writers write what they know. Some writers write what they want to know. I encourage my students to write toward what scares them.
Screen to Page
Movies offer valuable craft lessons for writers. Here are Poissant’s top five picks and what writers can learn from watching.
Children of Men
Pacing and the relentless forward movement of the story. Not to mention the number of striking images that, once you’ve seen the film, will never leave your mind.
The Darjeeling Limited
An incredible character study. Plus, it makes use of a delicious slow reveal. You learn the origin of the ache at the center of each brother’s heart gradually, over time. The movie also employs one of the best uses of flashback I’ve ever seen.
Some writers say that a character has to change by a story’s end. This story is proof that a character need only be offered the opportunity for change. Sometimes, a person looks change in the face, then looks away.
Inside Llewyn Davis
A picaresque and a quest and a road story. It makes use of so many narrative structural forms, and it does so marvelously.
Rachel Getting Married
A beautiful, sad, funny, gorgeous film. Watching the protagonist change and grow over the course of the story is a great lesson in character development. Plus, it’s an excellent example of compression, of how a story that encapsulates years of history can be fit into an arc that spans only a few days.
Excerpt from “Lizard Man,” The Heaven of Animals
by David James Poissant
I rattle into the driveway around sunup and Cam’s on my front stoop with his boy, Bobby. Cam stands. He’s a huge man, thick and muscled from a decade of work in construction. Sleeves of green dragons run armpit to wrist. He claims there’s a pair of naked ladies tattooed into all those scales if you look close enough.
When Crystal left him, Cam got the boy, which tells you what kind of mother Crystal was. Cam’s my last friend. He’s a saint when he’s sober, and he hasn’t touched liquor in ten years.
He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, but Bobby spins from his grip and charges. He meets me at the truck, grabs my leg and hugs it with his whole body. I head toward Cam. Bobby bounces and laughs with every step.
We shake hands, but Cam’s expression is no-nonsense.
“Graveyard again?” he says. My apron, rolled into a tan tube, hangs from my front pocket and I reek of kitchen grease.
“Yeah,” I say. I haven’t told Cam how I lost my temper and yelled at a customer, how apparently some people don’t know what over easy means, how my agreement to work the ten-to-six shift is the only thing keeping my electricity on and the water running.
“Bobby,” Cam says, “go play for a minute, okay?”
Bobby lets go of my leg and stares at his father, skeptical.
“Don’t make me tell you twice,” Cam says.
The boy runs to my mailbox, drops to the lawn, cross-legged, and scowls.
“Keep going,” Cam says, and slowly, deliberately, Bobby stands and sulks toward their house.
“What is it?” I say. “What’s wrong?”
Cam shakes his head. “Red’s dead,” he says.
Copyright © 2014 by David James Poissant. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.
Read Poissant’s “A Baker’s Dozen: Favorite Story Collections for Fiction Writers.” Originally Published