ABOVE: DAVID JAMES POISSANT. PHOTO COURTESY OF ASHLEY INGUANTA
In his debut story collection, The Heaven of Animals (Simon and Schuster), David James Poissant introduces us to a menagerie of characters, often on the brink of loss, looking in the rearview mirror of their lives. We meet them in suburban parking lots, swamps, neon-lit motels, or driving from the East Coast to the West, in tales both realist and fantastic. From the cousins who are secretly in love to the father estranged from his gay son, to the parents of an actual glowing baby, these are men and women struggling to find resolution and figure out which way is forward. They are vivid because, one senses, the writer really loves them.
Told in honest and inventive prose, The Heaven of Animals is not afraid of the beautiful but painful complications of the heart. We spoke with Poissant about the lines between the brutal and the tender, regret and hope and how real-life places can be the playground of the imagined.
SARAH HERRINGTON: I lost sleep reading these stories and got teary at the end of "The Lizard Man," your opening tale. Did any of the stories break your own heart?
DAVID JAMES POISSANT: There was a moment at the end of "The Amputee" when the main character, a man going through divorce and estranged from his Mormonism, sits on the floor, waiting for a cat that will never come back. He realizes he can no longer pray, but can hope. I think that's the most I've upset myself writing a character. I related to parts of his religious struggle, growing up in the Baptist church and then spending much of my young adult life figuring out what I believe. In that way, my heart was with him. I want him to be happy and hope he will be.
HERRINGTON: You have such empathy for your characters. It really translated to me feeling for them, even though they aren't all people I'd actually want to hang out with.
POISSANT: I get frustrated when I feel a writer doesn't love his or her characters. I love mine. A lot of my stories are about atonement, characters trying to come to terms with things they regret. Even if they don't know how to say they are sorry, you can feel it.
HERRINGTON: Do you tend to enter your stories through character?
POISSANT: Actually, setting is usually the entry point for me. Down to the parking lots. I love place. I try to stay true to it. While the people are fabricated, often the locations are not.
HERRINGTON: There's such a rich sense of setting throughout the book, and many of the stories unfold in Florida, Atlanta... Are you from the South?
POISSANT: I am and I'm not. I was born in Syracuse, New York; we moved to Georgia when I was six, and I grew up in the 'burbs outside Atlanta. It was definitely a culture shock at first being from the north. Since then I've lived in Arizona, Ohio, and now Florida. But many of my stories are set in actual places I've been to. In "Last of the Great Land Mammals," that park Big Bone Lick was a real park.
HERRINGTON: [laughs] No way. That place with the bison?
POISSANT: Yes, all real. And "The Amputee" is set in the exact apartment complex my wife and I lived in, in Tucson, Arizona, with the horseshoe parking lots and a pool, street lamps and palm trees. I see the location in my memory, then place the characters there and follow them to see where they go.
HERRINGTON: Sometimes they go to shocking places, like that moment when the girl near the pool just takes her arm off.
POISSANT: [laughs] Yes, there's a lot of truth in the setting and emotion of the stories and then you exaggerate a bit, like when a wolf comes to the window or a bloated sick alligator shows up in the backyard. When I first set out to form this collection I only put the straight realist stories in and took out the fantastic ones. I worried they were too strange. But the editor who was interested wanted to see everything and she, luckily, ended up keeping a lot in.
HERRINGTON: Do you feel the dividing line between realist fiction and the absurd is an actual one?
POISSANT: I've always loved both and questioned the line between the two. I love Chekhov and Raymond Carver, but also Aimee Bender and Karen Russell. I'm happy this became a "best of" collection, blurring the genre lines.
HERRINGTON: What makes a story strong to you, regardless of genre?
POISSANT: For me, the number-one thing is voice. Also, I don't like to be bored. Not to say things have to be action-packed; the language can lead me. But I love when there's no slack in the sentences. I'm working on a novel now and am trying to hold myself to that same standard of a high level of line-by-line interest even though there are so many pages. It's not easy!
HERRINGTON: Is there anything you've learned about loss and atonement through writing these stories? How do we come to terms with what we can't get back?
POISSANT: Perhaps I've learned that the only way to continue after loss is to keep moving forward. In the poem from which my title story takes its name (James Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals"), Dickey imagines the afterlife of animals who, in this life, were prey to predators. In their heaven, they continue to be hunted, but there is no pain: "They fall, they are torn, / They rise, they walk again." I don't think we ever get over certain losses, and there are some cruelties for which we hope to be forgiven but for which we can never truly atone. In the face of these, we have little choice but to move forward, rise and walk again.
THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS IS OUT TODAY.