David James Poissant on “Lake Life” and the Lake as a Microcosm of America

After a widely praised collection of short stories, The Heaven of Animals, David James Poissant has now published his debut novel, Lake Life. Set in a lakeside cabin in western North Carolina, the novel tells the story of Richard and Lisa Starling, academics on the verge of retirement, and their two adult sons, who have come together for one last family vacation before the cabin is sold. Relationships are strained, resentment flares, and each family member harbors a potentially devastating secret. 

David James Poissant has published short stories in Atlantic Monthly, Chicago Tribune, One Story, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and elsewhere and won the Florida Book Award for his story collection, The Heaven of Animals. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando, Florida.

Lake Life is an outgrowth — is that the right word? — of your two-part short story, “The Geometry of Despair,” which is literally at the center of your 2014 story collection, The Heaven of Animals. In the first part of the story, Richard and Lisa have recently lost their infant daughter to SIDS and are struggling with both grief and guilt. In the second part, which takes place some years later, they don’t fully agree on how to raise Michael, their young son. Now, in the novel, Richard and Lisa have reached retirement age, and their sons, Michael and Thad, have struggles of their own. I’m curious about your choice to revisit these characters, jumping ahead thirty years or so in their lives. Was there something about the Starling family that drew you back in? And why the big leap in time?

First, thank you for reading both books! I appreciate the time and care that took. I wanted the novel to stand on its own, but I also liked the idea of the backstory as a small gift to readers of the collection and those early stories. When I wrote the first story of Richard and Lisa Starling losing their daughter, June, to SIDS, I did not think that there would be a second story. The story of Michael came years later, though the two stories stand side by side in the collection as though they were written as a two-part story. Similarly, I thought that I was done with the Starlings, but they kept whispering in my ear. There were two questions I most wanted to answer: Would Richard and Lisa’s marriage survive in the long run, and how long does grief linger? Can one ever recover from the loss of a child? I felt that the only way to face those questions, honestly, was to fast-forward many years.

In other ways, too, the novel’s exploration of family tensions — alcoholism, infidelity, estrangement of a gay son, loss of child — is reminiscent of your story collection as a whole. Instead of larger than life characters and situations, you’ve given us very real, very relatable stories about troubles we recognize. There’s no obvious political agenda — although the one Trump supporter in the novel is attacked by his family — just nitty gritty reality. Why? Has this been a conscious choice on your part?

I’ve always loved domestic novels, novels about family, the ways in which we love, and how we’re doomed to hurt those we love most. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survives childhood has a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell, and that sentiment resonates with me. I think that we need big novels about society, about war, about racial injustice, but I’m not sure that I’m the right person to write those novels. I read them. I teach them. But I’m cautious about how I use my voice. That said, I do think that Lake Life has something political to say. I’m doing my best to hold up a mirror, to a region I know well, in order to reflect the economic injustice and inequality that overtakes a number of these prestige lakes across the South. As builders develop land and taxes inflate, lake gentrification and eminent domain kick people off of their lots and out of their trailers. This lake is a microcosm of America, with those most in need living alongside the super-rich. And that disparity is reflected in the Starling family. The parents are upper class retiring academics, while their sons are broke or in debt, the first generation in several generations of Americans who will do less well, financially, than their parents. If Lake Life is about anything, it’s about our present moment of economic anxiety and the need to rethink how America approaches wealth.

Along those lines, the novel’s working title was Class, Order Family. We landed on Lake Life, in part, because it’s the superficial phrase people hashtag with pictures on Instagram or Twitter, but such pictures tend to obscure the true portrait of what “lake life” means for some people. For some, a lake is escape from real life, while, for others, a lake is real life and the source of real livelihoods.

The novel is told in rotating points of view so we step into the thoughts of each family member. Because of all the secrets, this was an effective way of letting the reader in on those secrets. Can you comment on your choice to tell the story in this way?

I felt this was the only way to tell the story! Because each person sees the world so uniquely through their own eyes, the only way to get past all of the secrets, and to the heart of some truth at the center of the novel, was to structure the novel as a kind of mosaic. Plus, I wanted readers to empathize with all of the characters by the end. When one character offers another character grace, their choice makes that grace a little easier for the reader to extend. For example, Michael, throughout most of the novel, is intolerable, but seeing Michael through his mother’s eyes might soften him a little, at least for some readers. Every reader is, of course, welcome to make up their mind about each character. But I felt that it was my job, as the writer, to advocate for each character and render them as worthy of love and compassion as I could.

How was writing the novel different from the story collection? 

For me, writing stories and writing novels could not be more different. That said, I wrote stories for years before seriously attempting a novel, so learning to write a novel was like learning a new art form. The length of a novel is intimidating. But, the hardest part about tackling a novel was my inability to hold everything in my head at once. With a twenty-page story, I can remember on page twenty what I wrote on page one, what color her shirt was or what his favorite food is or how many grackles were perched in that tree. I can remember that I already used the word incantatory on page eight. But, drafting a novel, I couldn’t even remember what a character looked like by page 300, let alone which words or phrases I’d already used. In early drafts, backstories tangled, plotlines cul-de-saced, and minor characters occasionally vanished. At one point, even in a late draft, my editor pointed out that, by chapter 40, I’d used the word pinwheel three times in the novel, which is two times too many for that word. For me, then, the art of writing a novel is the act of reading it and rewriting it again and again, striving to excise redundancies, delete repetitive phrasing, and complete or cut every dangling plotline. And that work takes far more time, with a 500-page manuscript, than it takes with a 20-page story.

I was especially excited by two aspects of the novel. First, it seems as though everyone has a secret or two. I love secrets in fiction because the suspense they create is almost automatic. When will the secret come out and what will the consequences be? Second, you’ve dramatized seemingly endless arguments between and among these people, and the dialogue is spot-on. This is another great suspense-builder. In writing these scenes, are you thinking of how the reader will react to them and maybe whose side they will take in these arguments? What’s the importance of tension and suspense in fiction?

Thank you so much for saying that. I love dialogue in fiction and in film. I especially love scenes that are little more than people sitting around a table arguing or talking politics, the subtext being that, of course, the characters are really talking about themselves, everyone speaking in code, open secrets roiling just beneath the surface. I’m thinking of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, and Jill McCorkle’s “Intervention.” But I probably learned the most about dialogue, while writing Lake Life, from reading the plays of Florida-native Lucas Hnath and seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2 on Broadway in the summer of 2017. In Hnath’s work, three or four characters will spend the play arguing their points of view. When one is speaking, you find yourself on their side. Another speaks, and suddenly you relate to them. A third speaks, and you switch sides again, until you’re convinced that no issue has two sides and that all arguments, whether they concern faith (The Christians), gender roles (A Doll’s House, Part 2), or politics (Hillary and Clinton), are far more complex and nuanced than we acknowledge in our modern TV news cycles. I hoped to bring a similar energy to the discussions and arguments in the novel.

At one point in the novel, Lisa is having a conversation with Diane, her daughter-in-law, about a decision she made years earlier that she is now second guessing. Did she make the right choice? Diane says, “There’s no good choice.” And that, it seems to me, is at the heart of the matter. Sometimes it’s impossible to know what the right thing to do is. Everyone here is weighing their options, but sometimes there’s no good choice. Is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. No one knows the future, and our choices are at the mercy of what we can’t yet know. The gift of being alive is also the burden of having to make decisions one doesn’t yet have enough information to make. And sometimes there is no good choice, or else the only choice is to press forward in the face of tragedy.

The character of Thad, who is basically being supported by his successful boyfriend, Jake, is a poet who doesn’t seem to be working very hard at his craft. He’s more interested in smoking pot and collecting comic books than writing, and he’s really just pretending. I don’t suppose you’re poking fun at poets in general by this characterization? But I laughed out loud when Jake is trying to remember anything about Thad’s poems. “Thad’s poems are good. Jake’s been told they’re good. They’ve been in magazines. Not magazine-magazines, but journals, quarterlies. Something out of Arizona. The Something Something Review. Thad was proud of that one.” I think I’ve had a story in the Something Something Review myself. This felt like an observation of what the insider literary world must look like to outsiders. It illustrates how self-centered Jake is, but writers might see more in it than that. Do you agree?

Definitely not making fun of poets! I have nothing but profound respect and admiration for poets, and I read plenty of poetry. Recent favorites include Sandra Meek’s Still and Erica Dawson’s When Rap Spoke Straight to God.

No, when I’m poking fun at Thad, I’m mostly poking fun at myself. There’s a lot of me in Thad, and I spent a lot of my early twenties as a brooding wannabe poet before recognizing my limited talent in that area and turning to fiction.

But, yes, I had fun writing about each character’s field from the other characters’ points of view. Thad is deeply intimidated by Jake’s art world, while Jake is bemused by Thad’s literary pursuits, and no one understands what Richard does, or did, when it comes to physics or mathematics. And it was fun, if at the risk of veering toward inside baseball, to have Jake ponder Thad’s love of literary magazines. I love lit mags. I have so many subscriptions — at one point I was up to 20 or 21 — but I often wonder how these magazines, that are so important to me, must look to those not in the know. I remember trying to explain to a friend that One Story is one of the finest magazines in the country. There are few places better to publish a short story. He held one up, saying, “This thing? With the staples and the construction paper cover?” It was then that I saw how weird our literary world must look through his eyes. And, in a novel very much about trying to see the world through other people’s eyes, I thought that a moment like that might fit in nicely.

Who are some of your literary influences and mentors?

I learned a great deal about sentences, early on, by reading Raymond Carver and studying with Jason Brown at the University of Arizona. Also, at Arizona, Aurelie Sheehan challenged me with the mantra “risk sentimentality” as an antidote to the gritty, overly-macho Southern male stories I was writing early in my career. When it comes to inhabiting characters and living in their heads, I look to Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, and Michael Cunningham. For humor, I turn to Lorrie Moore. For setting and sense of place, I learned almost everything I know from Edward P. Jones’s The Known World and the stories of Rick Bass. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the work of Jenny Offill, Jenny Zhang, Elizabeth McCracken, and Lydia Millet. With Fight No More, Millet wrote maybe the finest story collection of the 21st Century, and no one seems to have noticed.

Given the pandemic, this doesn’t seem like an ideal time to be launching a new book. What are some of the things you’re doing to meet this unexpected challenge?

It’s been disappointing, for sure. I was set to visit twenty cities, read at a number of indie bookstores, and attend several festivals. I’m relieved that these events have been cancelled, as keeping people safe, socially-distanced, and healthy is far more important than book sales. But, I’ll still do my best to take part in virtual readings and online events. Additionally, if travel is possible next summer, I can always hope for a paperback tour.

What’s next for you?

My third book, a second story collection, is currently with my agent. The collection contains 16 stories written over the past six years since the publication of The Heaven of Animals. I’m also deep into a second novel, this one set over the course of two days in Florida.

Lake Life
By David James Poissant
Simon & Schuster
Published July 7, 2020