In The Heaven of Animals, and now in his first novel, Lake Life, award-winning and critically acclaimed author David James Poissant takes readers into the trenches of human relationships.
Lake Life, a powerful and driving domestic drama embodies the radiance and speed of a cutthroat trout as well as the glistening underbelly, concealed, tender, life-giving. People are loved, lost, found, remade. Along the way, in the words of Robert Frost, we are “burned, dissolved, and broken-off.” As each chapter accrues we find the true-to-life essence of what it means to live muddled lives in a muddied world, a collective obfuscation arrayed by forms of meaningless existence, a type of unified landslide in the moral life that is nearly impossible to resist and from which none of us escapes.
In Lake Life, a single family, mirroring the American family on the ascent, matched with the American family on the decline, reveals secrets kept at bay for decades. The result is an electrifying chasm characterized by a journey from despair to hope. The question is who will cross to the other side. Who will enter the flames and be burned beyond recognition? Who will emerge in a new form? The ancient mystery of sacrificial love in the context of hedonistic self-absorption is both a sturdy backbone and a fluent song in Lake Life. Shared trauma and the will to love are distinctly illumined in the space and time we call “family.”
The notion that all are okay or can be okay, is a trope against which the novel must wrestle, and readers in turn are left to decide if this wrestling is done with a worthy adversary, and if the result is blessing or curse. Nihilism encounters belief. Belief and genuine self-responsibility encounter debilitating self-referential mind traps. Here relativism is hungry to commune with absolutism, and all of this happens in the lives of people we grow to love and care for in heartfelt solidarity.
Lake Life is a book of people, of those who love and forsake love, and of profound questions that provide a tapestry of uncommon beauty. David James Poissant’s prose, often rare and structurally both fierce and elegant, is a joy to read. Consider these passages that submerge us in the mystery of our own lives and the lives we are graced to read:
“Now the sky is gray, cloud-clotted. The color of carrion, she thinks, though she isn’t sure this thinking makes much sense. But a boy is at the bottom of the lake, therefore the world does not make much sense.”
“But these are the wrong questions. One might ask as well who owns our grief, who strips the incandescence from the matchbook of our days?”
“Above, the stars are bright, the moon a crescent. Below, the lake a bowl that holds the sky.”
“Diane pictures tulips trumpeting from flowerbeds, petals opening to taste the sun.”<
In reading David James Poissant’s Lake Life, I was reminded of my gratitude for NWBooklovers and the independent bookstores who keep us alive and sane in times like these, and who hand sell the gorgeous novels that carry us from this time to the next, from this day to tomorrow, and from this world to the worlds we hadn’t yet envisioned.
If you want a great read, please consider Lake Life. David James Poissant’s interview below is a nice entry to his rapturous work!
Shann Ray: As a novelist and short story writer, what attracts you to the individual and collective frictions of family life?
David James Poissant: Two books in, and two more books nearing completion, and family remains my favorite subject. Family, whether you’re talking about the kind you’re born into, the kind you choose, or the kind that chooses you, feels essential to the human experience. As primates, we’re wired to live in groups. But, beyond that, as someone with a spiritual bent, I believe that most people are at their best surrounded by people they love.
That said, living in community inevitably precipitates friction. Compromise is difficult, and living with, and loving, family means not everyone gets their way all of the time. Even beyond compromise, agreeing on terms can lead to tension. What one person in a family calls loving, another may call enabling; what one considers selfish, another might consider the core of their identity. As a result, family is the most double-edged of swords. While we find great love in family, we find our greatest hurts there too. If a stranger doesn’t like my novel, I don’t mind. If my wife didn’t like it, I’d be hurt. If a stranger told me I was a bad parent, I wouldn’t give their criticism a second thought. If one of my parents told me I was a bad parent, I’d be crushed. Our hearts, for better or worse, are bound to the people we love, and all hearts are delicate.
If family is a gift, then, it’s also a responsibility, and the question becomes: What do I owe my family, and what do I owe myself? Where am I allowing my family to take advantage of me, and where am I failing to contribute to the extent that I should? There are no easy or universal answers, of course. How people view family obligation is tied to culture, privilege, religion, time period, etc. In exploring family in the novel, I wasn’t aiming to answer every question, or give my verdict, or steer the novel into overly didactic territory. For example, some readers may find Lisa’s behavior beautifully selfless, while others might feel that her generosity of spirit is being exploited by her sons. If some readers were Diane, they might stay married to Michael, while others wouldn’t be able to divorce him fast enough. I try not to judge my characters for the choices they make, or my readers for their opinions of my characters, and I certainly welcome all readings. If I’ve teased out some questions and provoked thought or discussion among readers, I’ve done my job.
SR: You’ve given us a kaleidoscope of inner choices in the Starling family, levels of privilege and poverty, artistic excellence and black hole despair, lives graced by and often fraught with self-determination against cold fate in worlds of friendship, affairs, sex, philosophy, theology, wilderness, and home. What were some of the most daunting tasks for you artistically in creating Lake Life?
DJP: When I was an MFA candidate in 2006, Frederic Tuten visited the University of Arizona. He read “The Ship at Anchor,” which had just been published in and which remains one of my favorite short stories to this day. But the piece of advice he gave, that stuck with me, and stays with me still, is that every writer should let their first novel be their “kitchen sink novel.” You’ll never have more freedom, he said, than when you’re writing your first novel. He urged us to put everything in, everything we cared about, everything we dreamed about, and everything that frightened us, no matter how wild or unruly the book became
Cut to over a decade later, and I deliver a 525-page draft of Lake Life to Ira Silverberg, my editor at the time, who entirely coincidentally happened to be editing Tuten’s most recent book, My Young Life, for Simon & Schuster. The novel was unwieldy, and Ira joked that it was Tuten’s fault for giving me that advice. But, in truth, I don’t think that I could have written what later became Lake Life without first throwing everything in, including the kitchen sink, then seeking order in the chaos. All of which, I guess, is just to say that if this version is a kaleidoscope, that draft was a Pollock painting, same colors, less shape and design.
But, yes, writing, I definitely followed my interests and my mental hang-ups. I grew up Southern Baptist, flirted with agnosticism in college, converted to Methodism in young adulthood, flirted with atheism after my daughters were born, and now I’ve found myself living in a tension where I believe in God and love, but I have yet to feel entirely at home in any house of worship or organized religion.
Perhaps because of how I was raised, I’m obsessed with the question of what it means to be a good person and what it means to contribute one’s fair share to family, to our communities, and to humanity. What do we owe to others? To ourselves? To the natural world?
I’m not well-read in matters of philosophy, but I have looked to the work of Todd May and T.M. Scanlon when thinking about these questions, and I thought a lot about these kinds of questions over the past few years while I watched “The Good Place” religiously (bad pun intended). I liked “The Good Place,” though, in the end, I was a little disappointed with its fixation on works over faith, on growth over grace. How, for example, one set of parents spends the first few years of eternity begging forgiveness and making amends to their daughters for not being better parents. Because, is that Heaven? I prefer Scott Cairns’ interpretation in his poem “The Spiteful Jesus,” in which his “father (mortal that he was) / forgave me everything, unasked.”
Wrestling with those questions of grace vs. atonement was the central project of The Heaven of Animals, a collection that takes its title from a James Dickey poem. Most of those characters struggle to atone for having wronged a child, parent, or spouse. I thought I’d said all that I wanted to say on the topic, but of course the same themes followed me into the novel.
SR: Who has influenced your personal life toward love and hope in the face of dissolution, despair, emptiness, brokenness, and the weight of meaningless daily living here in the wake of hyper-capitalism, the shadows of progressive hope, and the vacuous pull of American essentialism? In light of searing necessary wisdoms of the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, where do you find your anchors and touchstones as an artist?
DJR: Three things save me daily.
My friend Jonathan and I have known each other since we were twelve years old. He and I are closer than any two friends I know. We talk daily, usually for an hour or two after everyone in my house has gone to bed for the night. We talk politics, religion, philosophy, music, movies. We talk about work. We live very different lives. He’s a dog groomer, and I’m an academic. The stories of our days couldn’t be more different. And some nights we just reminisce for hours about childhood. Sometimes we talk about how good we had it and we didn’t even know it, and sometimes we talk about the traumas that we shared, of bullying, of the Baptist church, of sometimes difficult home lives, and how, sometimes, he and I were all we had. I don’t know who I’d be today without Jon, and I don’t know who I’d become without him to bounce my thoughts and fears off of each night. There’s a lot of Jon in the novel. I would never have attempted to write the character of Thad unless I felt I knew Jon better than I know myself. And I can’t tell you how many people have told me that Thad’s their favorite character. If that’s true, it’s a credit to what Jon’s taught me about life and friendship more than any skill on my part.
My wife, Marla, is a constant inspiration. Some writers need a partner to challenge them and push back on their writing, and I get that. I totally respect that dynamic. Me, though, I need an embarrassing degree of unconditional support. Agents and editors and critics are there for feedback, but I love having a partner who always seems to love what I write. The day I write something that Marla dislikes, it’ll probably wreck me. And it works both ways. Marla is an elementary school teacher, Teacher of the Year for her school for 2020, and one of the hardest working people I know. She needs me to be there for her at the end of each day, to listen, and to assure her that she’s a brilliant, hardworking teacher. We’ve both taken Enneagram tests several times, and every time we both come up as Type 3 Achievers. We’re driven, desperate to impress, and anxious to succeed. Thank God we work in different fields. We can support one another sincerely without competition creeping in. The only time we’ve ever competed was in a Christian Ethics class, of all places, our sophomore year of college, the only course we both took together at Berry College (Rome, GA) where we earned our BAs. She earned the higher grade on the final paper, but I earned the higher grade in the course, or maybe it was the other way around. I only remember that neither of us ever studied harder for a class.
And, finally, I find comfort in books. I’m forever quoting Mary Gordon’s 2005 Atlantic essay “Moral Fiction,” but I really do believe that reading makes us better people. As Gordon puts it: “It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them.” I can’t think of a better, or more blunt, way to put it. And I can’t wait to read the books that come out of this American moment and the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. Nothing makes up for sexual abuse or the gruesome ways that Black bodies have been treated, but art will arrive, is already arriving, new and essential voices we should have been listening to all along.
SR: What are some of your favorite Independent Bookstores in your neck of the woods, and what do you want to say to the Booksellers and readers of the Northwest?
DJP: Writer’s Block Bookstore (Winter Park, FL), Tombolo Books (St. Petersburg, FL), Oxford Exchange (Tampa, FL), Square Books (Oxford, MS), and Parnassus Books (Nashville, TN) have all been incredibly supportive to me over the years, and I love them dearly.
I urge everyone who cares about books to support booksellers in this difficult time by buying local and buying indie whenever possible. While many stores remain closed, most stores fill online orders and mail books. My own last purchases, just before quarantine, were Jenny Offill’s Weather from Tombolo Books, and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here from Writer’s Block.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that my first book launched in the Northwest! The Heaven of Animals launched in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA. It was a beautiful night that I’ll never forget. Over a hundred people were in attendance, and we sold every copy the store had. I would have been happy to read to half a dozen friends, so the turnout was well beyond my wildest expectations. I’ll always be grateful to them for that night, just as I’m grateful to all of the booksellers who work so hard to handsell the books that they love.
SR: Where do you find solace as a writer and as a person devoted to his family?
DJP: I find real solace in writing. I don’t know that I always make the most sense when I talk. I tend to have to work things out aloud to figure out what I think. But, on the page, I think better. And, writing fiction, I can come at my thoughts indirectly. Fiction becomes a kind of playacting, a way to have characters work through the questions I’m afraid to ask,to wrestle with the mistakes I’m afraid to make. Which brings me to one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve been given: “Write what scares you.” Another: “Don’t be afraid to risk sentimentality.” I also love nature, and Oviedo, FL, where I live with my family just outside of Orlando, is a patchwork of swamps and green spaces, parks and lakes. The neighbor behind us keeps chickens, and just down the street are a pair of horses. We swim in nearby Lake Mills and moo at the cows in the adjoining pasture. Not a day goes by that I don’t get out to walk or ride my bike, and not a day goes by that I don’t see Sandhill cranes, egrets, and herons. Many days there are deer, turtles, snakes, and even alligators. I find peace in wild places.
With my family, dinner is a favorite time. I love unpacking each day with my wife and daughters, learning what each one has been up to and what we’ve learned. And I love to cook, so most nights I’m at the stove while the girls sing or practice their dancing. Recently, my girls began novels of their own. One is a story of apocalypse, in which humans are going extinct told from the point of view of a deer. In one scene, a deer complained that another deer was mean. “Maybe she’s not mean,” the mother deer said. “Maybe she’s just lonely.”
When my daughter read that, I about fell over. It’s a beautiful thing to see a well of empathy in your child, a well deeper than your own. A moment like that, it makes you want to be a better father.
SR: Thank you, Jamie, for your courage to write new worlds of family life, your grit and grace in helping to make us more whole and more willing to give ourselves on behalf of others!
David James Poissant‘s latest novel, Lake Life, was published on July 7, 2020. He was the winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a Florida Book Award, longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His stories and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in numerous anthologies.
Shann Ray is the author of American Copper, American Masculine, and Balefire. He lives in Spokane, WA.