David James Poissant on Compression, Tension, and Writing Scared
"I guess what I’m saying is that I just love short stories, period."
Award-winning writer David James Poissant spoke to Oxford Exchange about the authors he most admires and the moves that make a great story. He also shares some advice for aspiring artists, discusses his apparent superstardom in Italy, and offers some deceptively profound thoughts on plumbing, tension, and writers that glow in the dark.
Mike Matesich: You just got back from Europe. Tell me all about it.
David James Poissant: It was surreal. Festival America was pioneered by Francis Geffard, the greatest friend to American fiction in all of France. The festival featured an amazing slate of over 50 American writers in French translation. I was paired on one panel with Dan Chaon and Ann Beattie, which was pretty much a dream come true. It’s thrilling, but more than a little nerve-wracking, to speak alongside writers you grew up reading, writers whose stories you teach in class. I also got to travel to Switzerland for L’Amerique a Oron, and to Italy for a three-city book tour.
In some ways, the Italy trip was the wildest. The events there were so well attended. The book seems to be selling surprisingly well. I hadn’t known this, going in. But, when I got there, all of the bookstores were just jammed. My social media was blowing up. Vanity Fair wanted an interview. In the two years since The Heaven of Animals came out, I’ve never experienced anything quite like that.
MM: What is it, are you like a sex symbol over there or something?
DJP: Not at all! I think that Italian readers—for whatever reason—I think they’re maybe more receptive to experimental writing. They love Calvino. They love George Saunders. And some of the work in my collection is a little out there—glowing babies and talking wolves, etc. I don’t know, something just clicked over there. It was incredibly flattering to have crowds at the readings.
MM: When I first read your collection, it floored me. It was a couple years ago, and I was living in Nashville. I found it in Parnassus—probably drawn in by the Carver comparison or something—and I just tore it up. I recommend it to everybody.
Which was great, until recently, when a customer came in and was looking for something that followed in the Southern Gothic tradition. We were sold out of Heaven, but I had my personal copy in my office and she seemed super interested in our events and our space. So I said, Oh, here, please, just take mine and bring it back whenever you come to one of our events . . .
DJP: And of course . . .
MM: And of course that was three months ago, and she’s now a ghost. I’m hoping it’s because she loves the book.
DJP: Maybe she’s Italian.
MM: Had to be! But anyway, I’m up in Nashville, it’s 2014, I’m in my first “real” job, and for the first time I sort of found myself caught up in this very mundane, routine existence. Everything in my life had led me to this, and it seemed—terrifyingly—that I wasn’t going anywhere else, that this was going to be the rest of my life.
But then your book came along, and it’s talking about these tough, dirty, and violent real life things that I really connected to—he way that you treated these characters and situations with this palpable, incredible sense of hope. And that stood out. I really needed that at the time. You don’t see that so much in fiction today, the hope. Because it’s tough. How do you balance those completely opposite things?
DJP: Well, first of all, thank you. Second, that speaks a good bit to what I wanted for the book. I got really lucky in finding an editor, Millicent Bennett, who shared that vision. We both love realism, but our worldview isn’t one inclined toward life as consistently cruel or monstrous. And, that can be tough, shoehorning anything that looks like hope into legitimate literary fiction. George Saunders is a master of this. Marilynne Robinson is amazing. But, if you’re not them, and you’re not careful, you risk cheesiness, or, worse, small-mindedness. Now, I’m definitely speaking from a position of privilege. I have a good life, and no reader wants to hear me say, “Hey, everyone should just be happy.” False hope is no hope at all. In reality, there are people who suffer immeasurably. Simultaneously, not all who suffer embrace hopelessness. Then, there are those who are hopeless despite having good reason to be happy. So, trying to write the world as it “really is” gets complicated. Really, you can only write the world as it seems to one character at a time.
So, when it comes to fiction, there’s bad writing that celebrates false hope, and there’s bad writing that inflicts manufactured despair and contrived conflicts. I’m always trying to avoid both of these pitfalls. My goal is to deliver hope and despair as appropriate. Some stories call for a little more sadness, some for a little more hopefulness. Some readers find hope in The Heaven of Animals, while others have told me the book’s horribly depressing. Others gravitate toward the humor. Really, the way someone takes a book may say more about the reader than the writer.
Regardless, in my stories, bad things certainly happen. Characters die. Relationships dissolve. Characters try, and fail, to say I love you or I’m sorry. For me, the interesting question, after any tragedy, becomes: Can this character get back up and move on? And some characters do move on. And, for some, there can be no absolution, no resolution, no redemption.
MM: Because that’s life?
DJP: Well, because, sometimes, just living and moving forward and facing the future is redemption enough. Sometimes, I experience real guilt for leaving a character in the worst situation. Brig, for example, at the end of “Amputee.” I worry about that guy all the time.
Early on, when I was talking to Millicent about the book, she said something I’ve never forgotten. She felt that there was a desire, in the stories, to redeem the world. She felt that she and I could be a “world-redeeming team.” And that was huge for me, that idea, that hope. So, while many of the stories still feature sad endings, I do want readers to discover a certain kind of hopefulness at the heart of most of them. I hope readers find that refreshing.
MM: Well, I think it is absolutely refreshing. I found it refreshing when I read it.
But what’s not refreshing is the response that I’ve started to see to short fiction. We’ve talked about this before—you write short fiction, and that’s what I’m most interested in reading. But, generally speaking, most readers don’t seem to share that sentiment. I always try to recommend short fiction in our bookstore, and people grow uncomfortable. I’ll get this face from people where it looks like they are in literal, physical pain—and then they’ll shake their heads, and we’ll turn and stroll back over to the novels. Why don’t people embrace short stories more readily?
DJP: I’ve seen the same thing with readers and with book clubs that I’ve worked with. My mother, for example, reads several books a week, and she reads great, literary stuff, but very rarely will she read a short story collection—I mean, except for mine.
MM: And even after that one, I heard she was still firmly undecided about the form . . .
DJP: [Laughs] But, yeah, I’ve had the same question. With the increasing popularity of TV shows and with our shortening attention spans, you’d think short fiction would be more popular today. But, what I’ve noticed is that many people who do read, they aren’t the people with those short attention spans. They’re the people who want novels, and the longer the better. They tend to want something they can dig into and live inside for a week or two. They want to stay with characters and within a world for as long as possible. And even TV fanatics with so-called “short attention spans” relish the same. How else to explain Netflix binging? How else to explain dramatic series that go on for seven seasons with no end in sight?
Now, for me, I gravitate toward stories because, with good stories, they’re polished and every word is in the right place. I can finish a story in one sitting, then read it again. Reading, for me, isn’t so much about discovering a plot; it’s about relishing language and imagery and setting and scene. I love the short form. But, a lot of readers who aren’t writers would rather live in a book for a longer period of time.
And I don’t blame readers. I think that, good as most story collections are, some have let people down. Some collections remind me of albums, where there’s a clear “single,” maybe an “A side,” but the rest feels rushed. That can be disappointing.
In contrast, a number of recent collections, like Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, and Danielle Evan’s Virgins, have succeeded, in part, because every story is tremendous. There’s no filler. Every story deserves to be there. Plus, those stories cross over and help readers who may have thought previously that they didn’t like stories, because many of those stories function like mini-novels.
MM: You mentioned Adam Johnson, and you talked about this need to help readers. In the Fortune Smiles paperback, in an interview in the back, Johnson talks about the need to work to keep a fiction reader’s attention. He calls it “candy.” He says he has to keep feeding his reader candy. For you, what’s candy? What are those attributes or moves in a story that keep you on the line, that you enjoy most?
DJP: Every writer has different tricks. Some want to make you laugh on every page. Some want to make you jump. I want to give the reader something interesting to look at on every page. One of my favorite writers is Virginia Woolf, because she never stops feeding you landscapes and minutiae to marvel at. If I’m reading a book, and the dialogue or the character’s thoughts go on for too long, I feel unanchored. I feel like I’m floating in space. I like the concreteness and sensory detail of a leaf between my fingers, a wood floor under my feet, sand between my teeth. For me, writing, I always want to remind the reader that she’s moving through a world, seeing it and tasting it and hearing it. What is that color, and where are those voices coming from? Why is that spider missing a leg? That sort of thing.
I’ve also been told that I write stories that feel, sometimes, like they have multiple endings. That the story might have stopped here, or here, or here, and then it moves on to another scene that further deepens or complicates the plot and characterization. This can be a flaw, for sure, if a writer doesn’t know when to get out of a piece, but, sometimes, more is more. I never want to take my reader for granted. I want every story’s ending to feel earned. If I’m writing, and an intended ending doesn’t hit the mark, I say, Okay, one more scene. I’ll write as many as it takes until I reach what I feel is a perfect ending. This isn’t to say that I’ve succeeded every time, but I hope I’ve succeeded more than I’ve failed.
MM: You’re working on a novel now. The novel picks up with the lives of two characters we’ve seen in your collection, in the story “The Geometry of Despair.” Is the novel an extension of what you do in a story or is it a different animal?
DJP: In terms of the structure, you have to allow for more ambition and a much bigger scope. I tend to tell stories from one, maybe two, characters’ points of view. My novel tackles six points of view.
But, ideally, I want the language to be just as crisp and polished as my short story prose. Michael Cunningham, Percival Everett, Brad Watson, Elizabeth McCracken—these are writers who, at the sentence level, hold their novels and stories to the same high standard. For me, that part can’t change. I want the sentences in my novels to sing the same way they do, I hope, in my stories. Which is why my first novel has taken a while . . .
Still, it’s a novel that takes place over just three days. I love compression, even in novels. For me, the shorter the timespan, the greater the effect on the tension. The tension—the tension gets . . . tense.
MM: That’s what we’re calling this interview, right there.
DJP: Yes, please! The Tension Needs to Be Tense: An Interview with David James Poissant. But, seriously, there is increased tension when you shrink a timeline down and force the characters into enclosed spaces. That’s why so many great, gut-punching scenes in film and literature take place at dinner tables. The final pages of Roth’s American Pastoral. The long, uncomfortable meal in August Osage County. The dining room becomes a pressure cooker and so much gets revealed in character action and interaction.
MM: It gets mean. Carver was that way, right? And maybe that’s where your comparison to him comes from, because your stories do something similar: they put people under pressure.
I want to talk more about something related to that. Carver was published heavily in Esquire, and you’ve been published in Playboy—which, of course, beyond being giant lifestyle magazines for men, also both used to be giants in publishing great short literature. Which I’m fascinated by, because I’ll tell you, there’s nothing harder than to sell a man—like, just your everyday dude—on a work of fiction. It’s almost impossible. I don’t know if it’s a lack of patience or perceived utility or practicality, but it’s tough to do. My dad’s this way. I don’t think he’s ever read a novel. But here are these magazines that pride (or used to, anyway) themselves on publishing fiction that connects with this tough demographic. What’s the thing stories in those journals do that break down those potential barriers?
DJP: I don’t know. You know, I snuck into Playboy through the College Fiction Contest that they hold each year. A lot of writers were discovered that way—Michael Knight, Brady Udall, and Don Peteroy, to name a few. I can’t tell you whether my story would have been pulled from the slush pile otherwise. My best guess is that they’re looking for work that, yes, is still literary and hits you on the sentence level, but they also seem to like the kind of story that can be summarized in a single sentence.
T.C. Boyle is a master of these. Flannery O’Connor was a master. Take a Boyle story—a young woman gives another woman her driver’s license and, following a car crash, there is a mistaken identity. Or Flannery O’Connor: The one with the leg. The one with the Misfit. The one on the bus. Many of my favorite stories are the kind that can be referenced in a sentence. They’re not simplistic. They’re deceptively simple, and there’s an elegance in this. I love stories with big, fat plots full of twists and turns that nevertheless dead-end in surprising but inevitable ways. Of course, I also love small, quiet stories that are powerful and sublime in their economy. I guess what I’m saying is that I just love short stories, period.
MM: One of my favorite moments in talking to you was when we finally put the George Saunders panel together [Note: Poissant will appear with Thomas Pierce and George Saunders on a panel at Oxford Exchange in February.] You were so excited. Maybe almost too excited. What’s that like to be extremely talented in your own right but to still deeply admire the work of other writers—writers who are now your peers?
DJP: Well, I would hope that most writers, no matter how well-known they become, always remember the passion that led them to want to do this work in the first place. I’m in love with George Saunders’ work. And, for me, it’s exciting to finally be playing in the same sandbox as someone I really admire. Or maybe not even in the same sandbox. Maybe in adjacent sandboxes. Like, I can see Saunders’ sandbox in the distance, but it’s nice even to have that distant playground view.
It’s surreal, because you sort of worship these people for a while, then, eventually, you meet them and see that, oh, they’re just normal people. They’re people who work hard and write hard most days. Except for Saunders. I suspect he glows in the dark.
MM: Of course.
DJP: In a way, every writer is just someone who’s gotten lucky in all the ways I’ve gotten lucky. Most of us just work hard, read a lot, and get really, really lucky.
MM: Well, it’s such a chaotic industry. There are all of these uncontrollable forces. You don’t just check off all of the boxes and then—poof—you’re a published, well-known writer. There’s no yellow brick road to follow. It takes courage to devote yourself to a life like that. How do you stay sure of yourself?
DJP: Most writers aren’t sure of themselves. I remember—and I don’t think she’d mind my saying this—but, when Lauren Groff was writing her third book, Arcadia, I remember talking to her one night for over an hour. She was worried about it. She suspected it might be unpublishable. Of course, it was brilliant. I mean, she’s Lauren Groff. She’s never written a bad book, but that doubt and struggle was something she was dealing with even after two critically-acclaimed books.
That conversation was a gift. It was instructive. I got to see a writer far better than me dealing with anxiety and uncertainty, and I recognized that the anxiety and uncertainty that I was facing was totally normal. To lose that anxiety, to lose the doubt that makes you question everything, to grow complacent as a writer, is probably to invite trouble. In writing, as in science, as in faith, as in just about anything that’s worth doing or thinking about, it’s the questioning of everything that pushes you to do your best. It’s the questioning of every comma and sentence and scene that makes the writing strong.
MM: So, as an artist, is that what you’re after? Just the ability to keep doing it? To never settle? Or is the reward the chance to connect with the largest audience possible (Italian and otherwise)?
DJP: It is amazing to have an audience. Writing is lonely. And, when the book’s finished, it’s not like you can even relax and enjoy your own book. I don’t know an author who can read his or her own work for pleasure. Once you’re done, you’re so exhausted by the work, and you have so many hundreds of competing versions of the piece running through your head, you’re never able to see it objectively again.
The real reward, for me, is reading the work to others and seeing it connect with them, seeing the tears in their eyes or hearing the laughs rise from their throats. I’ve heard it said that all writers secretly want to be rock stars or standup comics, and I think that’s true. Because people connect emotionally with comedy and with music. I don’t have music, and I’m only sort of funny. What I have are words. But I sure get a lot out of reading and connecting with an audience. Because, at that point, it’s not about me. It’s about the work. Telling stories that move people, and getting to see a reader’s reactions in real time, that’s beautiful, and that reminds me why I got into this writing thing in the first place. Because I was that reader, that listener at the back of the room, entranced. All writers, as Saul Bellow is said to have said, are just readers moved to imitation. We all wanted to be part of the conversation. Getting to participate in the great enterprise of literature, no matter how small the stage, is truly an honor.
MM: Well, you’re a teacher, too, in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida, so you’re participating in more ways than one. And since you’ll be speaking at OE about craft, I want to talk about that a bit. You mentioned the hard, obsessive work that it takes to be a writer. So, what’s your role in the classroom? What can a professor really provide to her students? Especially when there’s so much debate as to whether or not writing can actually be taught?
DJP: Writing can be taught. I know it because I learned how to write in a writing program. So did Flannery O’Connor and ZZ Packer and Chris Adrian and Antonya Nelson and a lot of other writers I look up to. Sure, there are some things you can’t teach directly. You can’t teach passion, exactly, but passion can be modeled. You can’t teach endurance, but endurance can be encouraged. You can’t teach a facility with language, but you can compel students to turn off their TVs and read, read, read.
What you can teach is craft. Through close reading, workshopping, editing, and line-editing, you give students the tools they need to become better writers. After two or three years, students leave grad school with a toolbox and a utility belt and maybe even a cape. I don’t believe in the Muse, and I don’t believe in genius. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. I treat writing like a trade. You go through your apprenticeship. You learn your craft. You get a job. You go to work every day. Some writers will succeed. Some, like most restaurants and small businesses in America, will fail. As I tell my students, what you do, as a writer, is no more elegant than plumbing and makes you no more special than the person who fixes your toilet. And, by the way, the person who fixes your toilet is probably going to make way more money than you will. Because, at the end of the day, when the toilet’s out, guess whose work suddenly feels way more important than yours?
Humility, coupled with the ambition necessary to keep going, is something I try to model for my students. Living in that tension is hard for them, and for me. But—beyond teaching them the elements of the craft itself—it’s maybe one of the better bits of advice I have: Keep humble and reach for the stars. Write what scares you. Write like you mean it.