Tag Archives: direct address

An Interview with David James Poissant

28 May
David James Poissant's debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, has a

David James Poissant’s debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, has a “rogue touch,” according to Rebecca Lee in a New York Times a review.

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.

Michael Noll

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).

Michael Noll

The other potentially risky move is that the story directly addresses the reader: 

“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.”

I love that it sets out the stakes (will the marriage make it?), and I’m not sure if that could have been done so quickly without this passage. Was this passage always in the story? Or was it added in the course of revision? 

David James Poissant

One Story editor Hannah Tinti called The Heaven of Animals

One Story editor Hannah Tinti called The Heaven of Animals “Wild as two men wrestling an alligator, tender as a father stretching out on the floor next to his sleeping son.”

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.”

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Develop a Rapport with the Reader

26 May
David James Poissant's story,

David James Poissant’s story, “Stealing Orlando,” appears in the latest edition of Newfound.

A few years ago, the guest editor for The Best American Short Stories (I think it was Alice Sebold) wrote that she chose the stories while sitting on a plane. If a story could hold her attention in that hectic environment, then it was a good one. If it couldn’t, then it wasn’t. It’s true that certain kinds of quiet stories might not be great reads for an airplane, but it’s also true that most of us make up our minds about a story by the end of the first page or two. So, how can we make our own stories grab the reader? I’ve written before about writing quick-starting opening paragraphs. But there are other ways as well.

David James Poissant uses the opening paragraphs of his story, “Stealing Orlando,” to develop a rapport with the reader. You can read it now at Newfound.

How the Story Works

The story begins with an intriguing premise: the narrator’s wife wants him to dress up like Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown while they have sex. There are many ways to introduce such a premise, but Poissant uses a particular kind of informal language that draws the reader in. You can see it at work in the first sentence:

What happened was our marriage was falling apart, the way marriages do, and, in our falling, my wife Delia and I got real honest, because why not, because what did we have to lose?

Notice the phrases “the way marriages do” and “real honest” and “because why not”. This is how people talk in real life: we generalize, we’re ungrammatical, and we use flip phrases to to talk about things that could be embarrassing. There’s a kind of confessional tone at work, and it’s natural for the reader to lean in to listen. We’re naturally drawn to confessions.

In moments of honest confession, the speaker often tries to connect with the listener. Who wants to confess to something that is unimaginable to the other person? This is exactly what Poissant’s narrator does:

This was one of those nights where you both drink so much you feel closer than you are and safer than you are, and so you speak dangerously, say things that make it hard the next morning to meet eyes.

The phrase “one of those nights where” implies that we, the readers, understand what those nights are like.

Even the premise itself suggests a kind of intimacy between narrator and reader. Workshop teachers occasionally claim that stories should be universal, that they shouldn’t contain time-sensitive cultural references. Such references may or may not affect the story’s readers twenty years in the future, but they do make connects to its contemporary readers. What do we talk about most of the time? Movies and television. So, why not use those conversations in fiction? Here is how Poissant does exactly that:

This was a decade ago, after Orlando Bloom grew elf ears, but before the “Pirates” movies got so bad. Anyhow, it wasn’t elf Bloom Delia wanted, with his weirdo bow and creepy side braid, or swashbuckling Bloom with his muttonchops and creepy half goatee. No, Delia had a thing for Drew Baylor, the suicidal-but-clean-cut lead in what was—and pretty much remains—Cameron Crowe’s worst film. That was the Orlando she wanted.

This paragraph assumes that we understand its references: “before the ‘Pirates’ movies got so bad.” By giving the reader credit, the story draws us in.

Finally, the story actually addresses the reader directly:

And because this was a decade ago, my telling you this means I know how things turned out. As in, 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.

Those lines may seem risky (and perhaps they will turn off some readers), but they’re built on a rapport that has been developed over the first page of the story. Many readers will want to know what happened to the marriage, and the rapport we feel with the narrator is a big reason why we’ll keep reading.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s develop a rapport with the reader, using “Stealing Orlando” by David James Poissant as a model:

  1. Use informal phrases in the first paragraph. Stories can use many different ranges of language, of course, including the very formal. However, stories also don’t have book jackets and marketing teams. Readers can’t be lured in before picking up the story, as they can with novels. So, a language that implies some connection with the reader is useful. (Novels do this, too. Read the opening page of Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.) Try including phrases in the opening paragraph that generalize, are ungrammatical, or that cover up embarrassment or emotion. In other words, how can you add a few words to make the prose feel as if it’s sitting beside the readers, not lecturing to them.
  2. Refer to a shared understanding with the reader. You can use Poissant’s phrase as a starter: “This was one of those nights where…” This phrase can be taken in an honest direction by using an experience that truly is shared by most people. Or, you can use it to surprise the reader: “This was one of those nights where you end up shooting cats and showing up naked on your fiancé’s doorstep.” Obviously, most people have never done that, and the suggestion that we have is so ludicrous that we’re drawn in anyway.
  3. Use specific cultural references. A key to making this work is to suggest a shared knowledge. So, don’t just sprinkle in references. Instead, make judgments about those references that many people share (or, don’t share, if you’re trying to surprise the reader). Think about the narrative arc of a references. Poissant does this with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: they were pretty good and then they weren’t. Pretty much any cultural reference that has staying power will have an arc: people won’t feel the same about it the entire time. If you refer to those changing opinions, you give the reader a chance to fill in the blanks with their own opinions, which draws them in.
  4. Address the reader directly. Again, try using Poissant’s exact phrase: “I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no.” Replace the question about the marriage with a question that is integral to the premise or plot of your story. This won’t work for every story. However, in some stories, if you develop a rapport with the reader, you can also acknowledge the artificial nature of the story itself, and that admission will actually strengthen the rapport. You’re simply admitting what the reader already knows. You’re giving the reader credit for being smart.

Good luck and have fun.

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