David James Poissant
David James Poissant’s 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. His writing has been awarded the Matt Clark Prize, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, and the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, as well as awards from The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic and Playboy magazines. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.
Tell us a little about your background – geographic, economic, familial – and your earliest experience/engagement with literature?
I grew up poor, at first. My father was a roofer and a short-order cook juggling three jobs to make ends meet. This was in Syracuse, NY. We were too poor for much furniture, so our bookshelves and toy shelves were cinder blocks with planks between. And there were nights when our dinners were what my mother called weird meals. An egg, a piece of bread, a pickle, some blueberries. My brother and I thought they were great. We loved weird meals. Only later did we learn that weird meals meant my parents were out of money and that we were eating the only food left in the house.
Just before I turned six, my father took a job in Atlanta, and we moved from New York to Georgia. After that, my upbringing was Southern and suburban and solidly middleclass. In some ways, I’m a Southerner, though I never picked up the accent, so no one would know that I spent twenty years of my life in Atlanta.
Growing up, my mother always read to us, but I was a resistant reader until college.
What made you want to write and which author/s inspired you to consider pursuing a career as a writer?
Writing came late for me. I was interested in the visual arts for years. I even began college as an art major. But, the more I read in college, the deeper the hook sank, until, soon, I was reading all of the fiction I could get my hands on. In high school, I’d read mostly comic books. In college, I devoured The Great Gatsby, then read the rest of Fitzgerald, a good amount of John Updike, most of Flannery O’Connor, and numerous short story anthologies. I also read—and still read—a decent amount of poetry. Sandra Meek, a poet and professor at Berry College, where I did my undergrad, was supportive of my work and urged me to keep going, which meant the world to me and which is probably a big reason I’m still writing today.
As Saul Bellow said, writers are readers moved to emulation. The more I read in college, then after college, the more I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know any “real” writers. So, in 2004, three years out of undergrad, I signed up for a creative writing class at my local community college. The class was taught by a living, working writer, Jack Riggs, author of When the Finch Rises and The Fireman’s Wife. He was the first published writer I’d ever met in person. I was thrilled to meet him, and he was incredibly helpful at getting me started early on. He got me reading Mary Hood, and her work would go on to become important to me. Later, I took a summer course with fiction writer Bret Anthony Johnston. He was the first person to demystify, for me, the path to publication, from pursuit of an MFA to finding an agent. Once I saw that there was a clear path to publication, I knew that all I needed was to get better at writing fiction. So, I spent the next year reading and writing short stories and novels. Then, I applied to MFA programs.
But, early on, yes, it was Sandy, Jack, and Bret who kind of lit the path for me. I’m grateful.
Once you became serious about writing and decided to ‘dismantle your life and start over’, you moved to Tucson and beyond. How did this initial decision impact your writing, and tell us a little about the journey which brought ‘The Heaven of Animals’ into being.
The move to Tucson was a good one for me, for my wife, for our marriage, and for my writing. Marla and I were twenty-six years old, but, in a way, we were still kids. Leaving our home state and family and friends, plus living on one meagre salary after having had good jobs in north Georgia, forced us to grow up, work together, and to be honest about what we wanted out of life. I began writing in earnest, and I haven’t stopped since.
I had the good fortune to meet my dream agent, Gail Hochman, early on at the 2006 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and she waited patiently while I finished the collection over the course of the next half-decade. After that, I began work on the novel that I’m currently finishing. Once I got through the first 150 pages of the novel, Gail helped me to tighten those pages, then we sent the collection and novel partial to publishers. We got several rejections and had one near-miss before Millicent Bennett came forward from Simon & Schuster and acquired both books. That was a dream come true.
‘Whatever helps you get good words on the page, you should do. Whatever helps you to get lousy words on the page, words that you can later revise into good words, you should do.’
You mentioned in your interview with The Rumpus that ‘most of [your] stories are really fictionalised’ and the characters and plots are not drawn from your personal experience, so where do the ideas and inspiration come from?
That’s a tough one. The settings are absolutely pulled from real life. But I’m not comfortable writing fiction that cuts too close to the bone of personal experience. Or maybe it’s that I worry that I’ll be too sympathetic to the “me” character in my stories if I pull my fiction from the stuff of real life. Whatever the case, setting fictional stories in spaces I know well helps me to generate the characters and conflicts that arise from, well, from my subconscious or from wherever these things arise.
When discussing your writing with The Orlandoan, you stated that ‘you see everything as a story’ and that ‘anything that happens, or could happen… is ripe with narrative potential’. How do you start? Do you begin with concepts, or discourse, or characters and situations, or some blend of the above? Or is each story a different journey?
Every story is absolutely a different journey. Some first drafts I get down in a week or a day. Others take a month at a rate of a page a day. Some stories are nearly finished after the first draft, though most I work at, off and on, for years, finishing a draft, revising, getting discouraged, putting the story away for a few months, pulling it back out, revising again, getting discouraged, putting it away, and on and on until the story is done or else abandoned.
As for how to begin, I can only speak to my own idiosyncrasies. I like to tell students that I can offer advice, but my first commandment, in workshop, is: First, to do no harm. Which is to say that what works for me may not work for you, and that’s fine. Whatever helps you get good words on the page, you should do. Whatever helps you to get lousy words on the page, words that you can later revise into good words, you should do.
As for me, beginning a new piece, I tend to listen for a voice. In the past, I’d often start with a conflict (what does the character want, and what stands in his or her way). This can get you through the plot of a story, but this doesn’t necessarily give you character. Character is what happens when plot meets point of view. So, these days, I prefer to start with a point of view, which is to say a voice. Once I have a voice, or feel like I have it, I can move toward some tension, some conflict, which may then steer me toward plot. For me, its’ easier to write long and edit, if the voice is there, than to have a compelling storyline without a distinctive voice. Trying to insert character or voice after the fact is a challenge.
You previously stated that you often ‘don’t know where a story’s going’, though you may know the ‘direction in which [your] headed’. How do you balance the intuitive and inventive with the more conventional formal concerns?
Well, I don’t, always! I have many, many failed stories and a few novel beginnings on my hard drive, work with which I never figured out where I was going, fiction that never quite took shape. I try never to throw anything out, because maybe an idea will be sparked and I’ll be able to return to a piece with a new angle and fresh lens. The trick, for me, is always to have a bunch of irons in the fire, always to be working on a novel, an essay, and several stories at the same time. When I lose steam with one, I move to the next, then back to the other when I feel the tug to do so. If I force myself to stick to one thing until it’s “done,” the process is joyless, and that surfaces in the work. I think that you can tell when a writer is tired of a piece, when his or her heart isn’t truly in it, you know?
‘…when it comes to revising, I believe that your best friend is time. It’s easy to fall in love with ideas. It’s easy to fall in love with early drafts. But, put a story away for a month or two, and you’ll open your eyes to a whole new piece of fiction.’
In light of the need to write away from home due to familial distractions, when you are developing and editing your stories in café’s or libraries or more public spaces, are you able to switch off from the world around you? Or do you still find yourself observing and generating new ideas for future stories?
Yeah, once I’ve begun writing, I’m pretty quick to go into a kind of trance state that tunes out the world around me. I use earplugs, which turns noise to a dull roar, like white noise. I like that background hum. Somehow, it’s generative. Silence kills me. And music. I love music, but not so much when I’m writing. If I can hear lyrics, my mind will latch onto them, and I’ll wind up hearing the music instead of the voice in my head.
You read very widely and when it comes to writing, you state that you ‘just do [your] best’ and ‘try to make each [story] the best [you] can without worrying about larger questions of mode or rage or what kind of writer [you] are’. In terms of your work, does this freedom to move between styles eliminate possible restraints?
I don’t know…when I was starting out, I was resistant to anything that didn’t smack of unadulterated realism. For me, it was all Carver and Updike and Flannery O’Connor. But even in O’Connor, you’re touching the hem of the magic or the mythic, just a little. Certainly, she presents an off-kilter world, a world in which men walk around in gorilla suits and you need only to name evil to watch it appear alongside your wrecked car. So, maybe O’Connor opened the door for me. Soon, I was reading Donald Barthelme and Aimee Bender and George Saunders, and then I wanted to write like them too. There’s a fine line, of course, between emulating and imitating, and I’m trying always, first and foremost, to sound like myself, but who knows what one sounds like? Who knows what that even means? I don’t think that any author can look at his or her own work entirely honestly and say: I sound like him or like her, like this writer over here or that writer over there.
‘A smart, trusted reader who gets you, who gets what you’re going for, is, in a word, priceless.’
You mentioned that ‘Sometimes, [you’re] too attached to a draft, and it takes some time for [you] to gain some objectivity, but [you] usually get there’. Can you explain a little about your revising methods, and perhaps offer some advice into how other aspiring writers may tackle this aspect of writing?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, when it comes to revising, I believe that your best friend is time. It’s easy to fall in love with ideas. It’s easy to fall in love with early drafts. But, put a story away for a month or two, and you’ll open your eyes to a whole new piece of fiction. That solid throughline looks suddenly like a snapped spine. Those round characters read flatter than trampolines. The vivid imagery you were sure you inserted looks disappointingly dust-covered and dull.
It’s also exceedingly helpful to have a reader or two whom you trust. They don’t have to be other writers. My wife is my first reader, and she doesn’t write. But she knows my work. She knows me. She knows when I’m phoning in emotion and when I’m engaged with a character on the page. She can tell. She’s almost never wrong, and she’s definitely right more often than I am. When I don’t listen to her, it’s usually to my own detriment. A smart, trusted reader who gets you, who gets what you’re going for, is, in a word, priceless.
Tom Wolfe stated in his interview with Harpers that writers should be more like reporters and Emile Zola referred to the study and reportage of what she termed ‘human beasts’ where ‘fictional characters are intended to seamlessly reproduce the real world’. Is this something you aim to achieve in your own work?
Hmm, I don’t know. That argument requires that we all agree on what the real world is. And, since we’re unlikely to do that, ever, I’m happy enough to attempt to give the reader one character’s perspective on the world. Or, hopefully, many characters’ perspectives over the course of my career.
Which isn’t to say that every story represents my outlook on life. In one of my stories, the main character comes to the conclusion that there is no God. I believe in God. But that realization was honest to that character’s truth. I’m not saying there is no truth with a capital T. But none of us is going to figure that out, at least not in this life, so maybe the best I can do is to say: Hey, take a walk in this character’s shoes for thirty pages, see the world through her eyes, climb inside her head; there, now how does that feel?
For me, it all comes down to empathy. Sure, you wouldn’t throw your son through a window for being gay, but I want you to know what it might feel like to be the man who would throw his son through a window for being gay. If I can get the reader to empathize on the page with characters he or she would detest in real life, then I’ve done my job. Whether that counts as reporting the news of the world, I don’t know.
You revealed that when you were discussing the collection with your agent, you tried ‘to put together a really safe, marketable book’, which consisted of many of your ‘realist stories’, however, once you began working with your editor, Millicent Bennett, the aim turned towards completing a ‘book of your best’. Please tell us a little about the selection process and the relationship you developed with your editor, and what this meant for you as a writer.
I’m really happy with how everything worked out. I think that my agent was absolutely right to send out the safer book. I don’t know that the book would have sold with the more experimental work in it. But, once my editor and I developed a working relationship, we became comfortable talking to one another about my stories and which were my best. There was some give and take, but, for the most part, we agreed on which of my stories were strongest and which belonged in the book. Getting that confirmation was good for me. It took a decade, but I finally feel as though I’m reaching the point that I can trust my own opinion of my work, that I actually know which stories are solid and which are less so. Now that I’m there, or getting there, anyway, I try never to send stories out for publication until I’m sure that they’re solid.
‘The reader may not be able to relate to a character’s specific dilemma, but the reader should be able to relate to the mental and emotional frisson that such a dilemma creates…’
Many of your stories depict characters with what Guy de Maupassant termed ‘troubled minds’ –those ‘psychologically complicated, multifaceted, and with conflicting impulses and motivations that very nearly replicate the tribulations of being human’. How important is this depiction of the human condition in your work?
First, thank you! I take that as high praise. But, I mean, we’re all screwed up, right? At least to some extent? We all contradict ourselves. We’re hypocritical. Often, we don’t know what we want, and we’re rarely sure what we believe. So, why present the reader with a character who wants one thing and believes in that one thing entirely and never, ever changes his mind? That’s not true to life or to my experience of living. I don’t need a reader to recognize himself or herself in every one of my characters, but I want the reader to see how, for a particular character, the world works this way or that way, and is muddled by this or by that. The reader may not be able to relate to a character’s specific dilemma, but the reader should be able to relate to the mental and emotional frisson that such a dilemma creates, if that distinction makes sense.
The Heaven of Animals explores the tenuous bonds of family; fathers and sons, husbands and wives; as they are tested by the sometimes brutal power of love. The strikingly true-to-life characters reach a precipice, chased there by troubles of their own making. Standing at the brink, each must make a choice: Leap, or look away? Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin writes that Poissant ‘forces us to face the people we are when we’re alone in the dark.’
‘The best you can do is to present a character fully, with compassion, and to hope that same compassion is extended from the reader towards the character as well.’
Your characters are emotionally complex and suffer from an array of anxieties, and despite their flaws and questionable motives or actions, they are, to some extent, vulnerable and fragile. Benjamin Percy once reflected that ‘beyond the veneer’ of his characters, they were all ‘hairy on the inside’. How do you balance the creature of the character with your ambition to elicit empathy from his/her situation?
The trick, I think, is never to attempt to force, cajole, or manipulate the reader into feeling something for a character that the reader might be disinclined to feel. As soon as a narrator asks me to empathize, to pity, or to feel sorry for him or for her, my guard goes up. Or, the second a writer tries to elicit sympathy from me by giving a nasty character a bad childhood or an abusive parent, I call BS. You earn empathy from a reader when you’re as honest as you can be about the circumstances of a character’s situation. You don’t defend the character or make excuses for the character. When you don’t beg sympathy.
The best you can do is to present a character fully, with compassion, and to hope that same compassion is extended from the reader toward the character as well. Sometimes, I read work in which an author seems to detest his or her characters. Other times, writers write down to their characters. I find this curious. If you hate your characters, or if you’re indifferent toward them and their suffering, or if they’re merely dartboards for your disdain, then why should I care about these people? I think—no, I truly believe—that if you love your characters, that comes across in your prose. You can’t help it. And the reader takes her cue from you.
‘The Heaven of Animals’ also portrays a cast of characters who struggle to survive within a complex world of reality and relations and experience the difficulties of loneliness and isolation, whether physical or psychological. How important is the theme of alienation and abandonment in your work?
It’s fairly important to me. Most people are lonely. We all struggle with loneliness and go to great lengths to avoid it. One friend of mine keeps a TV on in her home at all times. What is this if not a cure for loneliness? Others are on the phone when they’re alone. Me, I read or listen to music so as not to feel so alone.
I’m also the kind of person who can feel alone in a group of people. It’s like that line King Arthur sings in the musical Spamalot: “We must be lonely side-by-side. It’s the perfect way to hide.” Loneliness, it’s something most people struggle with and few people talk about. Just one more of the weird, hard things about being human.
The inability to communicate and express our true feelings is a theme which runs through the collection, together with the resultant difficulties we encounter when attempting to maintain or understand relationships with those we love, or loved. How important is this in the reality of the collection, and that which exists beyond it?
Yes! I’m so happy you’ve mentioned this. This, to me, is the throughline that ties the collection together. It was really important to me that “100% Cotton” be in the book and near the front of the book, if for no other reason than the line: “Putting a thing like that into words, it’s like trying to explain what stands between people, what keeps us from communicating—I mean really communicating—with each other.” So, there’s this question of communication, of why we can’t seem to say the things we mean. The easy way out is to say that we don’t always love each other, but I don’t think that’s always true. A father who never tells his son “I love you” may very well—and almost surely does—love his son. What makes saying it so hard? I’m not sure.
Sometimes I wonder if everything I write is a way of exploring that problem, of getting to the root of why we hurt the ones we love, of why we don’t love better or more openly than we do.
‘If you do your best to love your characters and write honestly about them, if you refuse to look away and, in refusing to look away, extend empathy anyway, you’ll be encouraging the reader to do the same.’
You mentioned that you ‘try to give your characters someplace to go, some destination, some grail’, and a line from ‘Amputee’ reads; ‘He’d tried to find his way back, but if belief is an uphill battle, believing again is a war, musket fire and bayonets grooved for blood’. How important is the existence, or absence, of belief (in all its variations) to your characters?
I think that depends on the character. For some characters, belief in God isn’t an issue. It’s not part of their worldview. The question of belief doesn’t keep them up at night. For others, it’s everything. I want to be honest with my characters, so I try not to give them all struggles with faith or questions about God in, though those questions and struggles are never far from my own mind. I’m pretty much constantly living in that tension of “what do I believe today?”
You previously stated that you are ‘on guard’ when someone asks you why your work is depressing and Adam Haslett once stated that ‘Depression is really a lack of emotion in a way, and I feel if anything, it’s the opposite of depression or numbness that is the definition of true sadness. These people are flooded with emotion’. Though for some there may not be a conventional ‘happy ending’, you and Adam Haslett seem to share a belief in the power of redemptive endings and the existence of hope and empathy. How important is this in your work, and how do you achieve it?
Well, first, I’m grateful to anyone who sees hope and an urge toward empathy in my work. I want the worlds of my stories to be redeemed even when the characters aren’t, if that makes sense. Not everyone who reads my stories will find the endings redemptive, but they are to me and to my editor.
But, yes, I’m with Haslett on that one. I don’t know him, but his stories have definitely been an influence on my own. His story “City Visit” is one of the most powerful short stories I’ve ever read. [Link to story]: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/08/city-visit/304123/
Benjamin Percy stated that ‘place is integral to all of [his] work…essentially it serves as a character whose dialogue is heard in wind and thunder, whose features are seen in rock and salt’, and you mention that having a ‘real setting’ aids you in your writing. How important is setting and location to your stories and the characters within?
I must confess that I’ve never quite understood the argument of “setting as character.” Setting doesn’t often change. A lake is here. A mountain is there. Characters, people, they change. And, when place changes—a storm moves in, the ocean sinks a ship—that’s not done by logic or motivation, but by weather and chance. I try to resist overly anthropomorphizing weather or setting. Like, I get annoyed if I’m reading a story and a character is in a bad mood, so a storm cloud rolls in. You know?
A pronounced setting always adds to a story, but I try never to overthink how this might happen or to intentionally pair characters with a place in which the setting will be extra-suggestive of the tone I mean to achieve. Truthfully, I just like to throw characters I don’t know into a place I know well, then I like to see what happens. Sometimes, little happens. Sometimes, things get awesome. For me, the best fiction often emerges not from over-planning but from happy accidents.
‘What’s interesting isn’t just what’s done, but the interplay of the said and the done, the hoped for and the feared, the spoken and the thought, the tensions that arise between and among all of these things.’
You seem to share the above short fiction edict with Wells Tower; ‘not to have good guys or bad guys’ and present characters as some form of ‘shape-shifters’ who try to treat each other well, but often ‘fall short’. Your characters fumble for redemption in a way that is recognizable and realistic, but how do you realize this?
I’m not sure how it’s done, exactly. I’m glad you feel that I’m doing it! But, it’s hard to put into craft terms just how that gets done. Part of it, I think, is to stop and think with every new paragraph—heck, with every new sentence—not just what is the character doing now, but what is the character thinking now? We all have competing thoughts racing through our heads at all times—hopes, fears, loves, desires—things that motivate us to do what we might call, for lack of better terms, “right” and “wrong.” One trick in fiction is figuring out when to give the reader a character’s thoughts and when to pull back. This is the old show and tell question. Some say, “Show, don’t tell.” But, of course, you have to tell sometimes. Then again, a story can suffer from too much interiority, and that experience, for the reader, can prove claustrophobic.
So, there’s what a character says and what a character thinks and what a character actually does, and these don’t always line up like clothes on a line. Sometimes a sock comes unpinned and hits the grass. A character may do the “wrong” thing and hate himself for it. A character may do the “right” thing but for the “wrong” reasons. What’s interesting isn’t just what’s done, but the interplay of the said and the done, the hoped for and the feared, the spoken and the thought, the tensions that arise between and among all of these.
Adam Haslett stated that he saw his job as writer as one which wasn’t ‘to judge, but to take the reader as far inside as [possible]…and let them dwell there’ and to ‘portray moments of suffering and ask the reader not to look away’. Do you see your own role as a writer as being governed by similar concerns. Do you find it difficult to delve so deep into the core of what makes us human?
Yes, and yes. I couldn’t say it any better, and I won’t try to. I think that’s what I was speaking to earlier about “honestly.” If you do your best to love your characters and write honestly about them, if you refuse to look away and, in refusing to look away, extend empathy anyway, you’ll be encouraging the reader to do the same. But that’s hard. It can be very hard for the writer.
At a reading, recently, a reader approached me and said that she liked the book but that some of the stories were difficult for her to read, that they required an emotional investment that she wasn’t always ready to give. I told her that I understood, and I do, but another part of me, a less generous part, wanted to say, “Sure, they can be hard to read, but do you have any idea how much harder they were to write?”
So, yeah, it’s hard, or can be. But, I think it’s worth it. I think that writing is making me a kinder, more empathetic person. I hope that it is.
‘I’m more interested in exploring the next person’s point of view, especially if that point of view is in some way problematic or unsavoury. I want to write not to defend these people, but at least to acknowledge that fact that they’re people, they’re human.’
You once stated that your ‘goal is less to come out on some side of an issue, but to present reality as I see it, to keep it complicated, and to never play it safe’. Do you therefore begin by identifying issues which you would like to examine? If so, how do you choose which to develop? Whilst writing up these depictions of reality, what complications might you encounter?
I might revise that statement, slightly, today, to read: “…to present reality as a particular character sees it.” I mean, who cares what I think? I’m just a guy living in a town in central Florida who moves words around on a computer for four or five hours a day. Seriously, I don’t think that my view of reality—which is always mutating because I’m as hypocritical and confused and wishy-washy of a person as anyone—is any more important or worthy of exploration than the next person’s. I’m more interested in exploring the next person’s point of view, especially if that point of view is in some way problematic or unsavoury. I want to write not to defend these people, but at least to acknowledge the fact that they’re people, they’re human. Murderers are human beings. So are child molesters. So are sexists and racists and homophobes. They have mothers and fathers, most of whom love them. The second we cast these people as monsters, the second we withhold their humanity, we cast them as flat characters, as evil, and then we’re only interested in watching them suffer. We shouldn’t want to watch anyone suffer. And I don’t know what evil even is. So, I don’t have a lot of patience for fiction that gives us entirely flat characters.
That being said, when you broach a topic like, say, homophobia, you can’t set out to write a story about homophobia as an issue. You set out to write a story about a father who abused his gay son, and you understand that whatever truth your character comes to, you’re speaking, in that way, through that filter, to the issue at large. Specificity begets universality. If you start with the issue itself, and no story, no character, you’re probably writing a sermon or a diatribe, and those tend to make pretty lousy fiction.
Barry Hannah stated that as a writer ‘you get to live more than others’, and Jonathan Franzen added that ‘becoming a writer is a way of becoming more fully a person. A way of surviving’. How do you think writing affects and/or influences you? Do you find writing cathartic? What is the best and worst aspect of your writing life?
Well, to circle back to some of the things we’ve touched on already, writing is no cure for loneliness. Writing is a solitary act that requires discipline and a lot of alone time. It’s certainly not for everyone. But writing is a way of living more than one life. Just as actors have method acting, I’ve heard many writers speak to an idea of “method writing.” When you’re in the chair, when you’re at the keyboard, when you go into that trance state, sometimes, for a few hours or a few minutes, however briefly, you become a character. You take on a voice. You feel a character’s pain. The story becomes yours. It’s not often cathartic, but it’s certainly an experience worth having—like dreaming, only far more intense.
You are currently finishing work on your first novel, which is based on two characters from ‘The Geometry of Despair, in the ‘The Heaven of Animals’. What are the main differences between short story writing and novel writing, and which aspects of these different forms do you like and dislike the most?
Oh, the differences are huge!
There are two advantages of the story form, as I see it. First, when I’m writing a story, I can hold the story in my head, all of it, all at once. I can finish a draft and remember where just about every word is. I’ll remember that I’ve used the word cerulean on page three, so I won’t use it again on page twenty-eight. I’ll remember that I haven’t noted the time of day for pages, so I’ll find a place to mark time. I can hold the rhythms of sentences and the voices of characters in my head for twenty or thirty pages. I can get a feel, quickly, for a short story’s pacing. And, I can more or less control how the reader will read my story because I can assume that the story will likely be read in one sitting.
That’s the other advantage of stories. You have a better sense of what the reader’s reading experience will be like. With novels, you don’t where a reader will put the book down. Some people read novels over the course of a few nights, others a few months. No two people have identical, or even similar, novel reading experiences.
Novels are sprawling. They’re hard to pace. And, by page 300, who knows if I’ve used the word cerulean on page three?
Now that I’m deep into my novel, I enjoy the form, but it’s such a different form from the short story form. Stories are not proving grounds for novels. They’re not practice any more than poems are practice for short stories. They’re wildly different forms.
Finally, what’s next, and when will we get to read your next collection?
In my mind, I have a second collection just about completed, but we’re going to worry about the novel first. Besides the fact that the novel is under contract, my stories need time to rest and to breathe. Maybe, as with my first collection, I’ll have to publish and compile another thirty or forty stories before I have enough good ones to choose from for a solid second collection. In the meantime, I’m happy to be finishing the novel.
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Interview by Tomek Dzido for STORGY