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May 5, 2014

Book Notes - David James Poissant "The Heaven of Animals"

The Heaven of Animals

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David James Poissant's The Heaven of Animals may be my favorite short story collection of the year. His skill at creating sympathetic, yet unlikeable, characters is impressive, as is the emotional depth found in these stories.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is David James Poissant's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Heaven of Animals:

Ten Songs Toward Happy: A Track List for the Years It Took to Write My First Book

Something happened when I hit my twenties. I was discontent. Bored with music, bored with my job, bored with my hometown, and growing suddenly, disturbingly, increasingly bored with books, I went in search of new. My interest in art had, until then, been sustained by a "first things to hand" approach. Based on others' recommendations, I read/watched/listened to what I'd been told was best. There's nothing wrong with this approach. To be sure, much of what I encountered, especially in books, was great. But there's an element, to any art, of ownership, of discovery, and, wanting this, I went in search of music I couldn't find on the radio, and of books my friends weren't reading. About this time, I got serious about writing too. Whether my exposure to new fiction and music provoked an interest in writing, or whether a new commitment to writing provoked an interest in the fiction and music I would come to love, I can't now say. Whatever the case, my movement away from Top 40 radio coincided so precisely with my development as a writer of fiction, that, a decade later, the two seem double-helixed, so much so that a glance at the table of contents page of my story collection The Heaven of Animals recalls for me what songs most haunted me during the years those stories were composed. Written over the course of ten years, the collection, for me, might as well be a track list. And, if it were, that list might look something like this:

2004: "Jesus Etc." Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

This was the year in which I wrote the first draft of the first story that would make it into my book, "How to Help Your Husband Die." I'd just read Lorrie Moore's Self-Help and wanted to try my hand at second person point of view. It was also the year in which I came across Wilco. Sure, they're not the most experimental band, not the most groundbreaking, but, to me, a Georgia boy raised in the suburbs, musically, the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, particularly "Jesus Etc.," blew my uninitiated mind. Today, the lyrics strike me as a little overwrought ("Tall buildings shake / voices escape / singing sad, sad songs / tuned to chords / strung down your cheeks / bitter melodies / turning your orbit around"), but what got to me, what sticks with me still, is the violin that carves the melody out of the first bars of this song. A violin? I remember thinking. I didn't know bands today were allowed to use violins! And there weren't just violins on the album, but bells, horns, stringed instruments aplenty. A glockenspiel. A motherfucking glockenspiel! Insanity! I thought. Such was the extent of my three-chord, guitar/drums/bass music background. For me, age 24, this was something new, and that new thing cracked something old in me wide open, making room for everything that would come after.

And why shouldn't it have, in that year? As a wannabe fiction writer afraid to stray from the (admittedly wonderful but, in some ways, limited) realism of Updike and Fitzgerald, Lorrie Moore was cracking open my assumptions about point of view. Dave Eggers had just cracked open my ideas about what a memoir could be. And already George Saunders was working his voice-hewn icepick into my brain, challenging me with the stories of Pastoralia. What was fiction? What was music? I thought I'd known. I'd knew nothing. But, if nothing else, at least, now, I knew that.

2005: "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise

In 2005, I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Arizona. My wife and I sold our house, quit our jobs, packed our belongings into a U-Haul trailer, and pulled those belongings almost 2,000 miles across the country from Atlanta to Tucson. Classes were still a month away, but I met a fellow MFAer, and he invited me to join him at a show at Plush, a tiny Tucson venue. Some guy, Sufjan Stevens, would be there. The show was five bucks. Sure, I said, less interested in the music than in making my first "writer friend." The guy never showed. I was annoyed. And then the band came on. There were a dozen of them. Guys and gals in matching uniforms. They launched into a song about America's fifty states. What the fuck? The song unspooled, poppy, campy. What was this? Some sort of irono-pop? And then Stevens opened his mouth, and I fell in love with his voice.

All of Stevens' work is interesting, and most of his songs tell stories. They're heavy on setting and on relationships. The song that grabbed me that night and that I wore the fuck out of on that year's CD was "Predatory Wasp." The story the song tells is seemingly one of two brothers once close, "best friends," "in love," but one brother then runs away. It's one of the saddest songs I've ever heard. I would go on to borrow that theme, return to it again and again in my own short stories of brothers, one of which, "Nudists," made the collection's final cut.

2006: "First Day of My Life," Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

A lot of indie rock on the radio in Tucson, and it was driving to campus one afternoon that I got my first taste of Conor Oberst. "First Day of My Life" is another sad song. What's interesting here, though, is the tension between the lyrics and the music itself. The lyrics here, in another band's hands, say Queen or Fun (both bands I love unironically and unabashedly) would make for a great anthem, a belted sunburst of positivity. But the melody Oberst delivers in "First Day of My Life" is melancholy even as the words are buoyant, the song itself tugging the words down with them like a bad mood. It's like feeling sad on a sunny day, which is another trick I've borrowed for my fiction, that contrast between setting and tone, between plot and place.

2007: "Wise Up," Aimee Mann, Magnolia (soundtrack)

A bad year. After grad school, I'd hoped to get a Stegner fellowship. Or a Madison fellowship. Or an Axton fellowship. Emory. Anything. I applied to nearly a dozen and was shut out by all. Worse, I knew people who were getting them.

I was jealous. I was feeling sorry for myself. I'm not proud of this.

Because I couldn't snag a fellowship, I signed up for more grad school, the PhD program at the University of Cincinnati, which felt like a consolation prize at the time. It wasn't and isn't. It's extremely competitive, and I should have been happy and proud, but I was at a point in my life where I didn't yet know when I was lucky. I was also at a point where I was turning 28, which meant I'd soon be thirty. Which sent me into a tailspin of more self-pity and, approaching thirty and no book deal in sight, more than a little professional self-doubt.

I drank too much. I gained weight. I did poorly in one of my classes.

I listened to the soundtrack to P.T. Anderson's Magnolia again and again because damn it if Aimee Mann's "Save Me" and "Wise Up" aren't two of the most haunting, soul-deadening songs ever recorded. I wanted to be sad, wanted to feel sorry for myself, and I wanted a soundtrack with which to do this.

2008: "Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller," Marshall Chapman, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller

Then things got better, the way things sometimes do. I accepted that, soon, I would no longer be in my twenties and that this didn't make me special or worthy of sympathy, because this is what happens, and because surviving into one's thirties in other cultures or time periods is or was cause for celebration, not trumped-up, American, existential angst.

I accepted that I needed to write more, write better, and quit worrying about having a book out before I turned thirty.

I accepted that I needed to exercise more, eat and drink less.

I lost fifty pounds.

I was invited in the fall of 2008 to read at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. There, I joined three of my literary idols, Clyde Edgerton, Bret Anthony Johnston, and Ron Rash, for a very Southern reading to celebrate that year's volume of New Stories from the South. That evening, my wife and I went to The Bluebird Café (if you don't know it, you don't know Nashville), where Edgerton, Tommy Womack, and Marshall Chapman all sang and read from their fiction.

I hadn't known Chapman before that night, but her song "Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller" was, as I remember it, the evening's showstopper. The song is infused with feeling, the lyrics with nostalgia and regret and longing and love. Early in my writing career, a great teacher, Aurelie Sheehan, had cautioned me against writing unrealistically sterile or angry stories in an attempt to outpace sentimentality. "Risk sentimentality," she told me. Which is what Chapman does. Is the song sentimental? Yes. But, can you be sentimental without being sappy? Absolutely. It's a narrow target, that crevice of the Venn Diagram where the sentimental and the sincere overlap, but it's in that bullseye that feeling hides, and Chapman hits the heart of the target, buries the arrow up to the fletching. It's an effect I go for in my fiction too. I don't know that I hit the target every time, but I try. Each story, and now the novel on which I'm at work, each time I try to take that risk.

2009: "Still," Great Lake Swimmers, Lost Channels

This song worked its way into my consciousness from an episode of Weeds, an HBO series to which I was addicted that year. I bought Lost Channels and listened to "Still" over and over the way we do when we find a song we love.

Fully recovered, at this point, from my flirtation with self-pity, I doubled down on my school work and my writing. I completed the PhD foreign language requirement that, for a year, had been kicking my English-speaking ass. I revised a batch of short stories and sent them to my agent, one of which, "Refund," she would soon place with One Story, and the other, "The Heaven of Animals" with Mike Curtis at The Atlantic. I didn't know it then, but the second story would become the title story of my collection.

I turned thirty. I didn't die. My wife was pregnant. Our girls were born.


Enchanted by "Still," I sang to them.

On my belly, each took her turn, bouncing, smiling.

"I'm still tuning myself to the great key," I would sing, "I'm still. I'm still."

2010: "Folk Bloodbath," Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away

Almost as long as I've been a Wilco fan, I've been a Josh Ritter fan. He is, hands down, my favorite singer/songwriter. His lyrics are genius, smart and rich, the rhymes never forced. His voice is gorgeous. Young Bob Dylan if someone had given him a throat lozenge. Ritter's songs, most of them, are short stories, and I've learned much by listening to them and letting them quietly break my heart.

For my money, his album So Runs the World Away is his masterpiece, and I've already made my peace with the fact that he may never top it. A masterpiece comes around once in a lifetime, if you're lucky, and I'm not holding my breath for a reprisal.

In 2010, as I revised my story collection, Ritter is about all I listened to. I'm not exaggerating. The next year, I would get to meet him at AWP, of all places. I'd be so tongue-tied, I'd hardly be able to speak (seriously, I likely would have been more composed meeting the President), and Ritter would put me out of my misery, finally, saying, "Bring it in," and giving me a hug.

"What was it like?" a friend and crazed fellow Ritter fan asked, minutes after the hug, as I huddled in one corner of the AWP hotel lobby, cellphone in hand, trying hard not to hyperventilate.

"My chest," I said. "It's still warm."

Ritter would then go on to play Cincinnati. I would go on to be invited for a campus interview for the MFA faculty job at the University of Central Florida job in Orlando. The dates were nonnegotiable. My flight out would be early the morning after the night of the concert.

Getting a job was too important, everyone cautioned. The concert should be sacrificed. Not to mention that, by then, the tickets were a hot commodity. I could probably double my money.

Fuck that! I said.

I went. I danced. I sang.

The next morning, exhausted, I got on a plane. I drank a lot of coffee.

I got the job.

2011: Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim

During times of great change, we turn to comfort movies, comfort music, comfort foods. This was a year of change as I moved with my wife and daughters from Cincinnati, Ohio, where we'd lived for four years and where I'd earned my PhD, to Orlando where I would now teach fiction writing at UCF.

The transition was rocky. For a month, we lived in a hotel and waited to close on our house. Each night, a man and his son fed lunchmeat to the alligators that lived in the pond out back of the hotel. I saw this and wrote a story, "Monkey See," that appeared in Ploughshares. The story was in, then out, of the collection. It's first on my list to go into the next collection, assuming, fingers crossed, that there will be one.

Living in a hotel for a month is an unhappy affair, and, when I wasn't writing about alligators, I spent a lot of time huddled in my new campus office listening to music. I found comfort in Broadway musicals. With their happy, jazzy show tunes, how can you not smile listening to most? I'd loved musicals all through elementary and middle school, and in high school I'd done lighting and stage management work for my school's shows. With The Book of Mormon's premiere, 2011 turned out to be a very good year for musicals. I listened to that one a lot, then went exploring, returning to some of my favorite Sondheim soundtracks and discovering, in the process, Into the Woods, my current Sondheim favorite. I became obsessed with the musical and even wrote an essay about it for Tin House, which, if you've made it this far and you're still with me, and if you'd like, you can read here:

2012: "Box of Rain," The Grateful Dead, American Beauty

In 2012, my finished collection and the first hundred pages of my novel at last began making the rounds to publishing houses. I tried not to think about the book too much.

Oh, who am I kidding? I thought about the collection all the time, about whether it would find a home and whether I was happy with the fifteen stories my agent and I had chosen from the forty or fifty I had.

After a round of rejections, I began work on a new story. Another story about brothers, another story about love and how difficult it can be to tell someone you love him or her. The story stalled, then found new life when I bought the re-mastered American Beauty album. I couldn't stop listening to "Ripple" and "Box of Rain," and I wondered how my story in progress would read if the story's narrator became similarly obsessed.

The story went on to take the song's title. The collection went on to be acquired, along with the novel in progress, by Millicent Bennett at Simon & Schuster. Millicent and I would go on to boot a few stories from the book and add a few new ones. "Box of Rain" almost made the cut but, in the end, was trumped by "Nudists," a better story about brotherhood.

2013: "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love," Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress

This was a great year. My collection would soon be published in hardback. It would be translated into French and Spanish. There would be an audiobook. The early reviews were great. It would be a year of celebration. But, before any of that, it would be a year of revision. The stories were done. All had first been published or would soon be published in magazines and journals. All had been edited before. But I couldn't help wanting to take a few more months to polish every sentence one last time. I took another pass, then another.

Between exhausting marathon five- and six-hour revision sessions (take a comma out, put a comma in), I listened to music, a lot of music. This was the year in which I became profoundly attached to Belle & Sebastian's sixth studio album, 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I'd been a casual Belle & Sebastian fan. I had three of their albums. This one I found for five bucks in a used bookstore that also sold used CDs. I didn't know then that it was anything special. Another Belle & Sebastian album, I thought. Cool.

But the effect of listening to that album for the first time was, for me, as though I'd read all of Fitzgerald before reading The Great Gatsby, as though I'd listened to all of Radiohead before hearing The Bends. What a gift, to get a band's best work last. I don't know the current consensus on Belle & Sebastian, but, for me, this is their best album. Every song is near-perfect, and "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love" is a masterpiece of celebration and praise, an antiwar song and a song of thanksgiving. "If you find yourself caught in love," the song goes, "say a prayer to the man above. You should thank him for every day you pass. Thank him for saving your sorry ass."

That year I was thankful. I remain thankful. Deeply grateful. I've been lucky, and I know that. I have a family that loves me, a wife and two charming, goofy girls. I have a book out this year with Simon & Schuster. I have a job. I have shelves stuffed with more books than I'll ever be able to read before I die. And I have an iPod with more songs on it than I have books on my shelves.

And, with that, I am happy.

"Who could ask for anything more?" Ira Gershwin wrote for "I Got Rhythm."


Who could ask for anything more?

David James Poissant and The Heaven of Animals links:

Bookreporter review
Kirkus review
The Rumpus review
Three Guys One Book review

Glimmer Train essay by the author
Hayden's Ferry Review interview interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
LitOrlandoan interview with the author
Tin House interview with the author
Turning Page interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists