As its title suggests, The Heaven of Animals contains a menagerie of creatures—from bees to bison to wolves to iguanas. Yet, the human characters within David James Poissant’s debut story collection are often wilder and more disorderly than the animals they encounter.
In “Lizard Man,” two men literally wrestle an alligator while figuratively wrestling with the burdens and regrets of fatherhood. In “Last of the Great Land Mammals,” a man and woman struggle to make sense of their complicated affair before a herd of bison. And the main character of “Amputee” faces his loneliness, and his capability for compassion, while desperately searching for his neighbor’s lost cat. These characters become overwhelmed with emotion, make unpredictable decisions, and let their instincts guide them. They are dangerous to others and, perhaps more often, to themselves. Of course, that is what makes them so remarkably human. “When I’m writing from a character’s point of view,” Poissant says, “I try to put myself in his or her head. Even if what they’re doing is indefensible. It’s my goal for a reader to see why my characters think they want something, even if they don’t want what the reader would want.”
Though his characters are often at loose ends, Poissant himself seems to have things pretty well figured out. The stories in The Heaven of Animals have been published in some of the best literary magazines in the country, including The Atlantic, One Story, The Southern Review, and Glimmer Train, and several have been anthologized in New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices. Our interview took place the day after his terrifically successful book launch during the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference in Seattle. Over a hundred people showed up to hear Poissant, and his friend and fellow writer Jennifer Percy, read at the Elliott Bay Book Company, and by the end of the night, The Heaven of Animals was completely sold out. The following afternoon, we sat at a table in the bustling conference center to discuss surprise endings, the importance of revision, and—of course—animals.
The Rumpus: I just loved this book and obviously lots of people at your launch last night did, too. I wanted to start by asking you about how these stories are arranged. The first and last stories feature the same characters, as do the two in the middle, which combine to form “The Geometry of Despair.” Did you write “Lizard Man” [the first story] and “The Heaven of Animals” [the last] at the same time?
David James Poissant: No, I didn’t. Originally, my agent and I were trying to put together a really safe, marketable book. So when we pitched the collection, it was all my realist stories in the fifteen-to twenty-page range. Then when my editor, Millicent Bennett, acquired it for Simon & Schuster, she said, “I love these, but there are a couple that are weaker. Do you have any other stories?” I told her I had about sixteen other stories, but that they ran the gamut from novella-length to short-short, and that some were really weird and included glowing babies and stuff. She said, “I don’t care, just send me all of them.” And she read them and gave me feedback on all of them. She said, “Let’s just make a book of your best. Who cares if they don’t all sound the same?” So, I was thrilled to do it that way.
We spent weeks deciding on the perfect order, which is sort of crazy. I can’t think of the last time I read a collection in order that didn’t announce itself as a linked collection. But the one thing that never changed, from the time when I sent it to my agent to when she sent it to Simon & Schuster, was that we all liked the idea of starting with “The Lizard Man” and ending fifteen years later with “The Heaven of Animals.” There’s something appealing about the bookends of it, about the concept of leading readers out of the South, where a lot of these stories take place. But no, when I wrote “Lizard Man,” I had no idea there’d be a sequel. I just couldn’t get [the main characters] Dan and Jack out of my head. And I thought, How did Dan’s trip to Baton Rouge go? It probably would not have gone well. It couldn’t have, right?
Rumpus: Probably not, but when you read the end of “Lizard Man,” it still feels like a moment of hopefulness.
Poissant: Yeah, so I wanted to re-explore that. And it was the same thing with “Geometry of Despair.” I didn’t think there’d be a “Wake the Baby.” That came about a few years later, and was actually my editor’s idea. She said, “I think these would go really well together.” The original title of the first one had been “Geometry of Despair” and it had been changed to “Venn Diagram” for an anthology, so we decided to just call the whole thing “The Geometry of Despair,” which plays on the geometry of the two stories. We just thought it worked.
Rumpus: I think it works really well. Is that something you’ve tried before—a kind of exercise you give yourself?
Poissant: It hasn’t been yet, no. Usually, when I finish, I think I’m done. And then sometimes a few years later, the story pops back up. But those characters—Richard and Lisa and Michael, the baby—are three of the characters in the novel that I’m finishing right now, which takes place thirty years after the story.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting. So, people will be able to read these stories as precursors. What’s the novel about?
Poissant: It’s a big Southern family drama, totally realist. It takes place about thirty years after “Wake the Baby.” Richard and Lisa are reaching retirement age and they have two sons, Michael and Thad. Michael, a pharmaceutical rep, lives with his wife in Dallas and Thad lives with his boyfriend in Brooklyn. Thad’s kind of a bum who feeds off of his boyfriend, who’s a famous painter in Brooklyn. Out of the blue, Lisa calls her sons and says, “We’re going to retire early and sell the family lake house in North Carolina. Come spend a last week with us.” So, the sons are trying to figure out why their parents have decided to do this, and there are also tensions within each of the three couples. On the second day of this week, a tragedy occurs in the lake community, which sends ripples through everything. You know how when you get family together for a week, all hell breaks loose? That’s what happens.
Rumpus: Is this the first novel that you have attempted?
Poissant: No, I tried to write a novel in 2003. It was not good so I turned to stories, and I applied to MFA programs and concentrated chiefly on stories for a while. Then, when the story collection was done, I had two ideas for a novel. I started one and it fizzled out after about fifty pages, so I started this one and then I knew I had it.
Rumpus: I always have questions for people who are attempting novels after an MFA program, because usually in workshop you get a lot of feedback on stories. But then creating the form and structure of a novel, even coming up with the idea to start it, can seem kind of intimidating. Did it feel that way to you?
Poissant: Oh yeah, I’m still intimidated! I still don’t know that I know what I’m doing, but I’m having fun. It’s a lot of flailing around. But it’s that way with stories, too. They’re just not quite as long. Usually, for me, I don’t know where a story’s going. But with this novel, I knew that if I didn’t figure out the end after about a hundred pages, I’d just keep writing forever.
Rumpus: And are you still working on stories?
Poissant: Oh yeah, I’m always writing essays and stories on the side.
Rumpus: You’re so prolific!
Poissant: People keep saying that, but I feel lazy. I always feel like I could be doing more. I always feel like if I haven’t written four hours in a day, something must be wrong with me.
Rumpus: Is that what your typical day looks like?
Poissant: Not always. It was before I had kids. Now that I have kids, some days I’ll get four hours, some days I’ll get no hours. I just do my best.
Rumpus: Do you have multiple projects going at the same time?
Poissant: I do. I mean, chiefly it’s the novel right now because it’s under deadline. But when I get an idea for a story, I’ll try to sneak one in. Essays, too.
Rumpus: And it seems to me, since you had so many stories that didn’t make it into this book…
Poissant: I hope there will be another collection! There were a couple that we thought were good enough for The Heaven of Animals that just got too long. So I already feel like there are some good ones in the hopper.
Rumpus: To you, is there a difference between writing realist stories and “glowing baby stories”?
Poissant: It doesn’t feel all that different when I’m writing them. Though, I would say, although I have a long weird one that I’m working on right now, for the most part, the weirder ones for me tend to be shorter. I love writers like Karen Russell or Kevin Brockmeier who can pull off that conceit and sustain it for so long. I haven’t quite figured out how to do that. Things start to collapse in on themselves—it’s like I don’t trust myself to carry on the more absurd premises for too long. But it’s something I want to try. There’s one story I’m working on now in which I feel like I can maybe do it. We’ll see.
Rumpus: One story that I love in this collection is “Last of the Great Land Mammals.” A lot of your stories have great endings, but this was an ending that really stuck with me. It’s a realist story, but it ends on an almost magical note. When you were writing, did you see that ending coming or did it surprise you?
Poissant: It surprised me! Well, the thing that surprised me most was finding that place. It’s a real place. There’s a Big Bone Lick State Park in Boone, Kentucky and they really do have a herd of grazing bison. You can walk through the woods for half a mile and see the bison behind this really high fence. I like to give my characters someplace to go, some destination, some grail. So, I knew those characters were walking toward something, but when they got to the bison, I thought, This is where the relationship ends, but how? It didn’t seem enough to just have a yelling, screaming match between the two of them. So I thought, What’s she going to do? And she just started walking toward those bison. I was like, Oh shit! I rewrote that scene a lot of times because I thought, Is this realistic? Would this happen? Would a bison let you do this?
Rumpus: It reads very realistically. I love when she gets close and can see its filmy eyeball!
Poissant: They do have these big, scary eyeballs.
Rumpus: So, when you go to a location like that and think to yourself, This would be a great setting for a story, do you take notes?
Poissant: No, I don’t really take notes. My wife says I have a freakishly good memory. I remember snatches of dialogue and things I see. A lot of my stories are set in places I’ve been. You know, I went to San Francisco for a week and just remembered everything I saw and wanted to set a story there. Most of my stories are really fictionalized—the characters are not me, the plots are not things I’ve gone through—but having a real setting, like a place that I know well and have seen, helps me. I don’t know why, but if I can see the place, I can make up the stuff that happens there. I’m not as good at fictionalizing setting. So, pretty much every place in this collection is a real place I’ve been.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the collection’s title. Almost all of these stories have animals in them—when did you recognize that as a theme?
Poissant: When I was still in grad school, in 2006 or 2007, someone said, “All your stories have animals in them.” I thought, Oh yeah, they do. I like animals. They asked if I was trying to write a collection like Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti or Creatures of Habit by Jill McCorkle. I started thinking I would, but then when I sent it to my editor, we looked at it and decided, you know, it doesn’t have to be a gimmick. We don’t have to force every animal story into this collection. For example, there aren’t any animals in “How to Help Your Husband Die.”
So, I let that go. Also, we didn’t want to overly push the animal thing on the cover, but I like the way the lettering on this one is a suggestion of animals. The Heaven of Animals is also the title of one of my favorite poems by James Dickey. It’s just a beautiful title and I liked it, so I stole it.
Rumpus: Is there anything about that poem that specifically spoke to you?
Poissant: It imagines a heaven for animals in which there’s predator and there’s prey. For the predators, heaven is this constant leaping off of a branch and tearing the prey. For the prey, heaven is being torn, but then rising and walking and being torn again. It’s a disturbing image, but the beauty of resurrection coupled with the violence of death—I don’t know, that speaks to me.
Rumpus: Did you grow up with pets, or do you have any now?
Poissant: I did! I had every pet under the sun. Not at the same time, but from age three to when I went away to college, we had a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a parakeet, hamsters, gerbils, mice, freshwater fish, saltwater fish, brackish cichlids, a snake, a turtle, a frog, crabs, and lizards.
Rumpus: That’s incredible. Do you think that was encouraged by your parents, or influenced by them in some way?
Poissant: No, I think they tolerated it. They loved the dog, but the rest were mine. And now we just have a dog and a fish tank. I love fish, I really do. We have a big freshwater tank. I can just sit and watch them for, like, an hour. It’s very peaceful.