David James Poissant’s debut story collection The Heaven of Animals received a rave review in The New York Times. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.
To read an exercise on developing a rapport with readers and Poissant’s story “Stealing Orlando,” click here.
In this interview, Poissant discusses why there is no such thing as a timeless story and why directly addressing there reader is a natural convention in stories.
The story does a couple of things that might get called “risky” in workshop. The first is that it directly references pop culture. Plus, it’s a very specific reference—Orlando Bloom in the film Elizabethtown. I’m curious what your thinking was about this reference. I guess you could have written, “My wife wanted to have sex with a famous movie star, so I stole a promotional cutout with his picture on it.” What impact does the specificity of the Orlando Bloom reference have on the story?
David James Poissant
In workshop, we often hear about concrete details, about specificity, about “no ideas but in things.” Then, when it comes to pop culture, we often hear the dictum about avoiding concrete or specific brand names and pop culture references. I think the theory here is that you can better give your fiction a “timeless” quality if you don’t pinpoint an era too specifically with the name of a TV show or song or actor, or whatever. Or else, some people feel that, acknowledging the American entertainment industry, you pollute your literary story with low culture stuff. I think that both of these are bogus reasons to avoid cultural references and time-specific touchstones. Even if you leave those things out, a story will never feel timeless. Let me repeat that: No matter how vague you are, you have no shot at creating a sense of timelessness.
Already, stories are marked by pre- and post-cell phone usage. Having cellular phones easily available to most residents of the Western world has dramatically changed how living writers shape plot and plausibility in contemporary narratives. If you have a character hurt in a car accident and have another character run for help instead of pulling out a phone, your reader won’t think, Oh, this is timeless! She’ll think, Oh, this must be set before 2000 but after 1920. Then, the reader will waste time and energy focusing on minor details and trying to ferret out clues that reveal the story’s time period more specifically. Point is, your story is always marked by time. And, besides, what makes historical fiction more “literary” than contemporary fiction set in the current time period? Also, look at the classics. The Great Gatsby is full of its time period’s pop culture. Great fiction doesn’t have to look away from reality. Instead, great fiction can grapple with reality, even if that reality is Hollywood (Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust) or pop music (Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine).
“I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no?
But I’m not going to tell you, not yet, because where’s the fun in that?
And also because read, you lazy motherfucker, read.”
David James Poissant
I love to address the reader directly. Think of Jane Eyre‘s “Reader, I married him.” I don’t know why this convention has been discouraged by some in contemporary fiction. Maybe because it sounds old-fashioned? I don’t know. But, in a sense, all stories are told, so all stories have an implied listener or listeners. Denis Johnson makes great use of this convention, addressing that “you” in both Jesus’ Son and The Name of the World, two of my favorite books.
As for foregrounding what’s at stake in a narrative, I think that some stories do better to set up the bowling pins on the first page, while some stories make great use of what screenwriters call a “slow reveal.” For this story, because it’s so weird and meandering at times, I wanted to put some heat on it and let the reader know pretty quickly what she’s reading for. I believe that those lines, or something close to them, emerged in the early drafts of “Stealing Orlando.”
I’ve previously asked David Gordon and Melissa Falcon Field about writing sex scenes. Gordon uses a lot of specific details. Falcon Field focuses on what the scene means to the characters. You do something a little different. There are a lot of details, but they’re told in summary (“edible panties, sex toys, food, porn, food-porn, once the lubed length of a Harry Potter wand”). There’s a lot of lead up to the sex, but the sex isn’t actually shown. Was that always the case? Or did you write the actual sex and then think, in revision, “Hmm, maybe not?”
David James Poissant
I think that a lot can be implied when writing sex. I wanted to get the point across that there was an imbalance in these characters’ sexual appetites. I wanted to convey an energy and carnality that makes the narrator uncomfortable. But, I rarely want to make my reader unnecessarily uncomfortable. So, here, I decided that I could name some objects and ideas, then leave the sexual acts themselves to the readers’ imagination, rather than having to describe the sex acts themselves along with the implementation of those objects, etc. Additionally, trying to stay in character (when writing in first person) means saying what this guy would say and skipping over the parts he’d skip over. He probably wouldn’t go into too much detail if he was already kind of shy about what they’d been doing in the bedroom.
I love the story’s ending, the way it jumps forward in time and then flashes back again. What made you save that final piece of dialogue between the characters for the end? Why not end it with “Some things, they end just this way”? To my ears, it’s not as nice an ending, but it could work. How did you know where to end it?
David James Poissant
First, thanks for the kind words. That ending, it was the hardest part of this particular story to get right. I played around with the end a lot and moved things around in the story’s chronology many times. The airport scene is the last scene that I actually wrote. I realized very late in the process that these two ought to have one more scene together. But, in the end, there was something more fulfilling about ending with the two committing to one another, even though we know that the commitment is doomed to fail. So, jumping around in time provides that tonal shift, or whatever you want to call it. The trick, then, was to avoid playing the moment for irony’s sake. I wanted to end on a note closer to melancholy sweetness than irony or cynicism. If I’ve hit that note with this ending, then I feel like I’ve done my job.