Lake Liffe by David James Poissant

Interview: Risk Sentiment and Empathy Drive Poisssant’s Lake Life

July 1, 2020
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Lake Life, David James Poissant’s debut novel, begins with a tragic accident that brings up long buried family secrets and forces members of the Starling family to examine their relationships. It is a story of love and loss that looks at what it means to be in a family. Told over three days, in alternating points of view of six characters, the books sheds light on the challenges of an affair that threatens the longtime marriage of Richard and Lisa Starling, the unexpected pregnancy that upends the world of their son Michael and his wife Diane, and the ongoing negotiation between their son Thad and his partner Jake over their open relationship. In beautiful prose, the novel takes readers inside these relationships and reveals the tenderness, betrayal, beauty and pain that come with love.  

Poissant was drawn to writing by his love of reading. “Saul Bellow said, ‘all writers are readers moved to imitation.’ I was a 25 year-old high school teacher when I decided to get an MFA at University of Arizona.” 

“I was afraid of my writing being sentimental, so I went in the other direction.”

He was writing gritty, macho stories about men who did bad things, when his professor Aurelie Sheehan told him his fiction and his personality were in conflict. “I’m a timid, emotional kind of guy. I was afraid of my writing being sentimental, so I went in the other direction. She taught me there was a difference between sentiment and sentimentality,” said Poissant.

When he revised the story they were discussing, he found that the story was more alive and his characters were more empathetic. It was his first story to win an award. 

“You can always pull back in revision. I needed to wear my heart on my sleeve and love my characters to get at their core.”   

“Unless something feels essential it isn’t good writing.”

He also learned to write about the things that he feared. The things he didn’t know. The characters Richard and Lisa Starling first appeared in the short story “Venn Diagram” from his collection The Heaven of Animals and were grappling with the sudden death of their infant daughter. He wrote a second story about the Starlings, “Wake the Baby,” that dealt with the aftermath of their loss.  “Unless something feels essential it isn’t good writing,” said Poissant.  

Years later he saw a boy hanging off the back of a boat, a propeller lurking below, and couldn’t shake the idea of what would happen if the kid fell into the lake and he failed to save him. An accidental child drowning was a springboard for the characters in Lake Life to deal with old losses and current challenges. 

A lover of interiority, like the work of Michael Cunningham in By Nightfall, Poissant let himself riff on the characters; their backstories and thoughts. The first draft of the book dealt more with conflict over the family selling their lake home than their personal conflicts and ran 600 pages covering four days. 

“With the help of my wife, agents, and editors, I was able to write a compact story that focused more on action than thought. I made sure to give the readers something to see and the characters something to do. But I couldn’t have written the book without those pages. ” 

 Of the six point of view characters, he struggled the most when writing from Richard’s perspective.  Poissant pondered Richard’s choice to have an affair and came to realize his job as the writer was to present the moral complexity of the family, but not render judgement on it. 

“What one person calls love another calls enabling.”

“What one person calls love another calls enabling. What one person calls selfishness another calls their identity. I try not to judge my characters or judge my readers for how they judge my characters,” he noted.

The story is populated with strong well-rounded characters who struggle to reconcile conflicting desires and remain family. 

Poissant, who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida, says he knows which of his students read a lot by their writing. “Read widely, old and new work, diverse voices and styles. Learn by osmosis. The more you read the better your sentences will be.” 

With Lake Life on bookshelves now, Poissant and his agent are shopping a new short story collection tentatively titled Sons and Daughters. He has a new novel, set in Florida, in the early stages of development.

 

DAVID JAMES POISSANT is the author of the story collection The Heaven of Animals, in print in five languages, 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 ScholarThe Atlantic MonthlyThe Chicago TribuneThe New York TimesOne StoryPloughsharesThe Southern Review, and in numerous anthologies including New Stories from the SouthBest New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. A recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, Wesleyan, and Longleaf writers’ conferences, he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters. His debut novel, Lake Life, will be published by Simon & Schuster on July 7, 2020.

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris

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