Tuesday, March 25, 2014

LitOrlando: An Interview with Author David James Poissant

Orlando Author David James Poissant, by Ashley Inguanta
The third installment of LitOrlando is here just in time to prep you for this Saturday's all-Florida edition of the reading series Functionally Literate. Let's dive into Jared Silvia's interview with author David James Poissant, one of Saturday's presenters, and see what makes Orlando literary, how to combat writer's block (if there even is such a thing), and what's next for the short story.

I want to be careful to avoid calling you a "local author." I understand and accept that you belong to the world. But, of course, you do live in the greater Orlando area. How do you find Orlando in terms of being a literary city?

I'm happy to be an Orlando writer, a local author, a Florida writer, a Southern writer, a realist writer, an experimental writer--I'll take whatever label sticks, I guess because I don't see them as mutually exclusive. Mostly, I just don't want to be called a bad writer. I think that Orlando is a fairly literary city and growing more literary every year. Plus we have more Orlando reading series than you can shake several sticks at. If you can't find four readings a month to go to in this town--and I mean good readings--you just aren't trying very hard.

What, in your opinion, must fall into place in Orlando to help shift the conception of this city in the popular imagination as a “literary” haven?

Unfortunately, I do think that as long as the mouse lives next door, we're going to be overshadowed. I tell people I teach in the MFA program at UCF, and they ask where that is. When I say Orlando, they say, "Oh, like Disney." They don't get that all of the theme parks are not in Orlando proper, not in the City Beautiful. Maybe the trick is to stop worrying overly about making Orlando a haven and to embrace it as our little secret. I'm happy to live here and work here. The weather is terrific. The people are kind. The writers are amazing, and the sense of community is beyond compare. Even living just outside of town in Oviedo, I feel very much a part of the group.

Where do you go to write, either physically or mentally?

I can't write at home. As much as I love my wife and my daughters and my dog, they make it hard to concentrate, so I tend to work at coffeehouses, libraries, and in my UCF office.

Coffee, tea, or trucker speed?

L.A. turnarounds, baby! No, kidding. I do drink coffee. A cup or two in the morning gets me going. The only tea I drink is Throat Coat, and that's for readings. It's great for loosening up the vocal cords before taking the stage.

Write every day, or wait for commandments from the muses?

When I'm at my best, I'm writing every day. If I waited for the muses, I wouldn't get much done. I force myself to write, often when I don't want to, and, on good days, the muses are summoned.

The Heaven of Animals, David James Poissant - Orlando Short StoriesI would say you're a tireless writer. I am always impressed with the rate at which you bring things in to the world. Is there something at your core driving your creative output, something that pushes you to expand or document your vision of people, the world, etc.? Not a secret, but a seed?

I don't believe in writer's block, but I have gone through periods where, for stretches of time, I'm not writing very well. The trick is to keep writing through those stretches, even when you know the work's no good. Because, hey, you can always revise it later. 

One thing I'm never short on, though, is ideas. I don't know where they come from. But I have piles of notes for stories and novels. I wish that my writing was always as good as the ideas seem to be on paper. And I wish that I could write even faster, because I know that I'll never get to write all of these stories before I die.

But, to answer you question: I don't know what the trick is. I don't think of myself as having a particularly vivid imagination. I think that I just see everything as story. Anything that happens, or could happen, to me or to anyone, is ripe with narrative potential. Like, even now, I'm imagining a story in which an interviewer and an interviewee enter a correspondence. And then the correspondence takes a dark turn...

You find a loose string on a shirt you’re fond of. Pull and see what happens, or cut and hope for the best?

Pull. Because, you never know, maybe you'll turn into a butterfly, and haven't you always wanted to fly, and not just in the dreams where you have to get a running start to take off?

I often become annoyed at interview questions that seem, perhaps unwittingly, to belittle an author. Things like, “Your characters are so realistic,” and “I found your book so easy to read.” Is there a question you hate to answer?

Honestly, there isn't. Not yet, and I hope not ever. Truthfully, I'm so honored and humbled that someone would think enough of me or my work to be interested in what I have to say about it that I couldn't possibly be annoyed by many questions. 

I suppose I'm on guard when someone asks why my work is "depressing." I don't think of it as depressing, though I know it can be dark and does tackle tough themes. But death and divorce and sadness are a part of life, and so my stories tackle those topics. I hope to come out on the side of hope and empathy by the end of each of my stories, but the degree to which I do that successfully is determined by each reader on a case-by-case basis, I suppose. But, honestly, I'm truly flattered just to know my work is being read.

The short story collection, as a form, seems to have its naysayers in the publishing and criticism worlds. With The Heaven of Animals, your first full collection, what are your thoughts on short story collections and their place in the world of fiction publishing?

I was on a panel on the short story at the Tucson Festival of Books last week, and Kevin Canty said that he felt that the American short story was enjoying a renaissance, that, indeed, most of the interesting work being done in American arts and letters these days was being done in the story form as opposed to the novel. 

For the most part, I'm inclined to agree with him. The last two winners of the Story Prize, George Saunders' Tenth of December and Claire Vaye Watkins' Battleborn were my favorite books of 2012 and 2013 before they'd even been nominated for the awards, and so here's a case where I feel like even the prize committees are starting to get it right. I think that any good story collection that is positioned and marketed well can do well. I hope that more continue to do well. I love reading story collections.

Three books you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

Only three? Okay, that makes it harder. But, I loved Rebecca Lee's new story collection, Bobcat (Algonquin 2012). I'm also deeply in love with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum's debut poetry collection, Ghost Gear (U of Arkansas Press, 2014). And, finally, while I haven't finished it yet, I can't shake the terrifying and gorgeous stories I've read so far in Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys (Soft Skull, 2009). I'm a latecomer to the Millet party, but I've been hearing about her fiction for years, and I'm thrilled to finally get an eyeful.

How, here in Orlando, can readers who don’t, themselves, write engage with the literary community of Orlando? Is the literary community doing enough to serve them?

They should come to all the readings! What Orlando really needs is a one-stop shop, a single site to which every university and entity can post their upcoming readings so that we don't miss them. 

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. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.

Jared Silvia is a writer, a teacher, and the host of Functionally Literate. His fiction has appeared online with Monkeybicycle and with Annalemma, and in print collections from Burrow Press.


  1. Good interview and I'm so glad our town has events like Functionally Literate, There Will Be Words, etc. I'm looking forward to Saturday's readings.