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, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and in numerous anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best 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. Lake Life is his first novel.
May 1, 2020
Ashlea Hernandez: Richard, Lisa, and June’s story was first told in “The Geometry of Despair” from your short story collection The Heaven of Animals. What about their story made you feel the need for further exploration? What was the process like of moving from the short story to novel form?
David James Poissant: That’s a great question! When I began “Venn Diagram,” the first part of “The Geometry of Despair,” I had no idea that there would be a sequel. That story concerns Lisa and Richard Starling and the death of their infant, June, to SIDS. The story ends with the couple still married, but the marriage is a rocky one. A few years later, I wondered: Would that couple have stayed together, really? And, if they did, would they have another child? That led me to write the story “Wake the Baby.” That story picks up a year or two later. Richard and Lisa are still together, and they have a son, Michael, but the marriage remains rocky.
After that, I thought that I was finished with the Starlings. Then, in 2010, I saw a boy sitting on the back of a boat. He looked too young to swim, and I was terrified that, if he fell in, he’d drown. The opening chapter of Lake Life came to me, almost immediately, and something told me that this, somehow, was another Starling story. But I couldn’t imagine the Starlings losing another child. I couldn’t do that to them. Still, I wanted to see how much I could throw at Lisa and Richard, to see whether they’d stay together. The novel, in some ways, was an experiment in pushing characters to the brink, and seeing how much they could take, which is to say how much I could take, as I’m the kind of writer who tends to feel his characters’ anguish pretty acutely. Emotionally, the novel was hard for me to write, which, in part, is why it took me nine years to write it. I was also figuring out how to write a novel as I wrote a novel, so that fact slowed me down. There were many false starts, many drafts, an opening 110 pages that got tossed almost immediately, and some serious revisions as the end. At one point, the manuscript was over 500 pages. It now stands at just over 300 pages.
AH: In Lake Life, the Starling brothers are confronted with their mental health issues, particularly in how they’ve self-medicated with marijuana and alcohol. How did you arrive at the idea that their addictions were brought about as a form of self-medicating?
DJP: When it comes to addiction, there are so many factors: chemical dependency, compulsion, habit, genetics. I know many self-proclaimed alcoholics and addicts. I say “self-proclaimed” because I don’t think it’s my place to foist that identity on anyone else. But the disease is real and deserving of compassion.
In talking to my friends about this, many felt that their dependencies began as coping mechanisms. They began using alcohol to self-medicate for anxiety or depression after a hard work week, maybe drinking two glasses of wine on a Friday night. Then they were drinking wine every night. Then they were drinking vodka every day and wine all night. What started as a way to unwind morphed into a dependency. This is not everyone’s story. Some people can safely drink several glasses of wine a week. But some people are wired for dependency.
The marijuana stuff was harder to write about. Marijuana is in fashion right now, and almost no one wants to believe that weed contains addictive properties, but it absolutely does, and there are people who legitimately struggle with marijuana use disorder, which is a very real addiction, which I know is a very uncool sentence to write, in 2020, but that’s the truth, and that’s what Thad’s grappling with.
I did my best to treat these brothers’ dependencies with respect. I have nothing but compassion for them and what they’re going through, and I hope that the reader will extend compassion to them as well. If the reader finishes the novel with the impression that Thad and Michael are “losers,” then either I’ve failed my characters as a writer or they’ve failed them as a reader.
AH: Lake Life seems to wrestle with issues of faith in multiple forms throughout, from Lisa’s experiences at a local church to Jake’s experience with conversion therapy to Thad’s attempt to find his own beliefs. How did you navigate these individuals’ struggles and avoid having the characters all share the same beliefs?
DJP: I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. At 22, I married a Methodist. After my daughters were born, I briefly questioned the existence of God. And, in the past ten years, I’ve settled into a patchwork belief system that stems from my upbringing in Christianity, minus the Hell and homophobia and slut-shaming and sin narratives that were the foundation of much of my childhood. In short, I want to believe that there is a God, and on good days I do, but my worship of that God through the figure of Jesus as presented in the New Testament shouldn’t have to be at odds with the rights of others to worship in whatever tradition makes them better human beings.
In short, I’ve spent so much of my life thinking about faith and God, those things can’t help but seep into almost everything I write. With Jake’s horrific childhood experience or Lisa’s experience at the church, I wanted to be honest about the worst aspects of certain breeds of Evangelical Christianity. I have no patience for any faith that promotes conversion therapy or preaches sexuality as sin. And I’m quickly losing patience with faiths that tell people they’re going to hell. I find the idea of hell incompatible with the idea of God as love.
So, Lisa, Thad, and even Jake are seekers. They’re believers, but in their own ways. They’re proof that faith can take many shapes, and that not everyone who rejects the religion of their childhood rejects faith or belief in God outright.
AH: The concept of maternal love, in particular, is woven so beautifully throughout the text. As a mother, I was so drawn to Lisa’s unflinching and unending love for her sons. How did you capture a mother’s love so well? How is it different from the other forms of love shown in the novel?
DJP: There are so many answers to that question! Growing up, my mother and I were very close. Things grow complicated as you grow older and pull away from your parents, and your wills are sometimes at odds, but I’ll never forget how it felt to be loved by my mother when I was a little boy. I wanted to capture that in the moment when Lisa stands in the doorways watching her sons sleep.
I’ve also loved watching my wife parent our twin daughters for ten years, and her love is among the most beautiful and selfless I’ve ever seen, so I’m sure that there is a little bit of my wife in Lisa, in that way.
But Lisa’s not perfect. She’s a little selfish. At least, she has that understandable, but regrettable, tendency to see her children as extensions of herself and to live a little too vicariously through them. She wants grandchildren because she thinks it would be best for her without really thinking about what might be best for her son or daughter-in-law. And her reaction to Thad’s mental health issues is to take them personally, which is very human, but not super-healthy, psychologically, for mother or son. So, yeah, I wanted Lisa’s love to be pure and real and, above all, unconditional. But I didn’t want her to be a fantasy mother. She makes some of the mistakes that most parents make, and, as a parent myself, I thought that portrayal was important.
AH: Lake Life is a novel of relationships, how complicated and messy they are. The complexities and simplicities of a marriage of over 30 years, of an open relationship, and of a marriage on the brink of divorce: each of the relationships are on the brink of failure. Add to that the dimension of their all being family members and the dynamics between parents and children and siblings and in-laws. I would dare to say that there is also the relationship between self for each of these characters. How did you navigate these dynamics? What choices did you make either consciously or instinctively to portray such realistic and complex characters?
DJP: Thanks so much for asking that. It was a challenge! Six characters doesn’t sound like too many, until you begin charting the combinations and permutations of character relationships and realize how many individual narrative arcs you’re creating when you drop a new tension into the novel. One conflict might cascade through all six characters, all three marriages, the relationships between mother and son, father and son, and the relationship between brothers. And that’s before the exes, infidelities, and in-laws even enter into the equation!
By the end of the second draft, I’d filled two notebooks with complicated graphs and charts, tallies and page counts, trying to make sure that each point of view character got their fair share of page space, that no one went too long without getting to tell their side of the story, and that every plot thread was accounted for. I’m often dissatisfied with novels or films that leave too many lose ends, which isn’t to say that I wanted to put a nice, neat bow on the end of my novel, but I wanted to make sure that every tension, large or small, between every character, was at least accounted for by novel’s end.
I also became obsessed, in writing Lake Life, with the idea of getting every character into scene with each other, however briefly. This led to some of my favorite scenes, like Richard and his daughter-in-law, Diane, watching Michael at the river, or Diane and Jake painting on the dock. Those scenes weren’t in the first draft, because those characters aren’t really in conflict with one another. But, in a family, they are in relationship together, and it felt increasingly important, as I revised, to give every relationship its due.
AH: In the blowup argument between the family where Michael’s voting for Trump is revealed, the Starlings mirror the party lines we all experience every day. Michael makes the statement that “We’re all deplorables.” Why was it important for you to draw this moment into the novel, and how did you ensure the conversation was equally weighted?
DJP: I’m sure there are families in which every member is of the same political affiliation, but I’ve sure never seen one. Though Michael was a Republican in every draft, the Trump stuff came later. I began this novel in late 2010, when no one would have dreamed that Donald Trump would one day be president. I still can’t believe it. After the election, if felt impossible not to comment on it. The novel is set in 2018, and any talk of politics without talk of Trump would be unrealistic. If nothing else, I would like Lafe Life to be remembered as a reflection of the kinds of conversations that many of us were having around dinner tables from 2016 to 2020, post-Trump, pre-pandemic. There are no easy answers, nor do I think that we can all just get along. In 2013, I was briefly well known as the writer of an editorial for the New York Times in which I argued that liberals like myself have to work harder to understand and befriend conservatives. And while I find 2013 me optimistic, I also worry that he’s a little naïve. There are lines that can’t be allowed to be crossed, and Trump has crossed far too many of them, and I don’t know how to reconcile that fact with the fact that some people I love still support him and will vote for him again. It’s maddening.
That said, I didn’t want to dismiss Michael Starling, the Trump-voter, as an idiot. He’s smart and articulate. And I did my best, in the novel, to argue his side from his point of view. The facts that Michael quotes, like the drone strike statistics, are all true, and they’re upsetting. If it’s naïve to assume that all conservatives mean well, it’s naïve, too, to argue that Obama was a perfect president.
In short, in real life, I’ll likely always vote for the Democrat. But, when I’m in a character’s head, I am that character, and I’ll argue for that character and their point of view as fervently as I would for myself.
AH: What is the main takeaway that you want readers to have after finishing Lake Life?
DJP: There are a few, but one takeaway is that love and marriage look different for different people. I know that seems obvious, but I hope it’s no less profound a sentiment for all of its simplicity. This is a book about family, but it’s also very much a book about three very different relationships. Those relationships look different because of the ages, age gaps, genders, and sexualities of the characters in those relationships, but they’re also unique because each person wants something different from each relationship. The novel, for me, became an exploration in how and why people stay together when they want different things. Diane wants kids; Michael doesn’t. Jake wants an open relationship; Thad doesn’t. Lisa wants fidelity; Richard cheats. Relationships can work, even when partners want different things, but there are breaking points. My goal was to push these characters to their breaking points, then see how each responded. When I began the novel, I didn’t know which relationships would survive and which would crumble. Regarding takeaways, I like the thought of individual readers wrestling with–and book clubs discussing–the question of which characters stayed together, why, and whether they should have. I imagine that there will be as many opinions as there will be readers. I didn’t write the novel with the agenda of convincing readers that any of these relationships were either perfect or irreparable. There are arguments for each couple separating or staying together. It’s a choice each couple has to face, and it’s a choice that many readers have faced, or will face, in their lifetimes. So, in that way, I hope that the novel feels relatable and, perhaps, somehow weirdly comforting.
Excerpt from Lake Life – Chapter 4
Diane Maddox exhales. Diane Maddox who traded Tennessee for Texas. Diane Maddox whose parents are divorced. Diane Maddox who married Michael ten years ago and wouldn’t take her husband’s name. Diane Maddox who carries a child inside her. Diane Maddox who had an abortion in high school and who does not regret that choice, but who is not in favor of making that choice a second time. Diane Maddox who went to school to be a painter before settling for being a those-who-can’t-do art teacher. Diane Maddox who wonders whether thirty-three is too early for a midlife crisis, were women said to have those and if those meant more than a red motorcycle and the affair to go with it. Diane Maddox who has been reassessing her infinitesimal place in the cruel and sideways-pressing world. Diane Maddox who likes dangly earrings. Diane Maddox who has always longed to visit Reykjavík. Diane Maddox who grew up watching Mad About You and wanted to be Helen Hunt. Diane Maddox who, in eighth grade, cried—cried— through the Mad About Youfinale, cried over the fact that Paul and Jamie weren’t together anymore. They would give it another try, the way Diane’s parents gave it another try too many times to count, giving it another try code for the pain a daughter feels when some mornings Dad’s there, eating Cheerios, and some mornings Mom says, “I hope that fucker drives that thing off a fucking bridge.” Diane Maddox who is unhappy but for whom divorce does not feel like an option (whether to prove something to her parents or to Mad About You, she isn’t sure). Diane Maddox who wonders whether things would have gone better had she taken her husband’s name, though of course a name can’t save you. A name can’t save a marriage, can’t save a house from sale or a boy from the bottom of a lake.
Diane in the ambulance. Diane not crying, keeping calm. Diane following the paramedic’s instructions as the ambulance navigates country roads and the paramedic measures Michael’s blood pressure. Diane Maddox-not-Starling—and it’s never too late to change a thing, except sometimes it is—pressing the damp cloth to the head of the man she loves. Or loved. Some days, let’s face it, she’s not sure. Blood pooling beneath the cloth, the forehead an awfully vascular area, the paramedic says, worse than it looks, which Diane takes to mean looks worse than it is, though she can’t be sure. There will be stitches, though she hopes against concussion, against brain injury, against anything permanent because, in all fairness, can the girl who said in sickness and in health still speak for Diane at thirty-three? Say Michael slips into a coma or spends his life in diapers, drinking through a straw? Does the Diane who said I do love this man enough to wipe his ass another fifty years? And how to love a man who’s made it clear, if not in words, then in scowls and sighs, in the way he picks strings from the frayed cuffs of his jeans, that he’d rather her not have their kid? Does she love Michael enough to stay? Does she love herself enough to leave? Diane doesn’t know, knows only that Michael’s blood is real and warm and won’t stop rising from his head.
The ambulance brakes, the doors open, and Diane breathes.
The hospital is not what she was expecting. Small and beige and boxy, the building looks less like a hospital than a bank someone dropped onto an acre in the woods. Gently, Diane is pushed aside by a nurse at the curb, Michael lowered into a wheelchair and asked to hold the cloth to his own head. Of all the fears Diane has ever known—fear of flying, of snakes, of seeing the stick’s minus sign become a plus—never has she known a fear like watching her husband’s face paint the water red. The paramedic pushes the wheelchair forward, the nurse holds the door open for Michael to be pushed through, and Diane follows, feeling useless.
Inside, the waiting room is empty, the floor a checkerboard. The woman at the front desk is rude. The hallways are hot. The X-ray room is cold.
Then Michael’s on a table, and she’s at his side. The Betadine goes on, and Michael winces, his forehead orange. The needles go in, and she has to look away. She holds his hand. The next time she looks, eight Frankensteinian stitches hold his head together. They fill the gap between eyebrow and hairline, as though Michael’s left eyebrow has an eyebrow of its own.
Then the X-rays are in and all is well—Good enough for this country doctor, anyway—though Michael gives Diane a look that says, When we get home, I’m getting a second opinion. Not that they can afford a second opinion, what with a mortgage they can hardly handle on a house that’s worth half what they paid in 2007, four maxed-out credit cards, plus Diane’s student loans, which, no matter how hard she ignores them, aren’t exactly going anywhere. Still, she’s glad to see Michael talking, smiling. Mostly, though, she’s happy she won’t have to change his diapers till death do them part.
That said, there is a diaper she wouldn’t mind changing in fewer than seven months.
This love for a thing unborn, a thing that isn’t even yet a thing— how to explain this love to her husband? She promised him she’d never want a child, and she’d meant it at the time. The mistake wasn’t getting pregnant. The mistake was making a promise that was never hers to keep.
The doctor scrubs his hands. A nurse will be with them shortly to discuss care and cleaning, he says, then dries his hands and leaves.
Michael’s still on the table, lying down. His eyes are on her middle, as though he can see beyond her waist into her womb.
We’re keeping it, she wants to say, but doesn’t, not yet.
She’s not religious, but she is superstitious. It seems bad luck to fight about the pregnancy today, as though doing so might invite the spirit of the dead boy into her, might curse her with a baby born blue-lipped, without breath.
If fates are steered by thoughts, by words, the least Diane can do, on this day, is keep quiet. So she lets her husband hold her hand. She smiles. And there are many, many, many, many, many, many things she does not say.
Copyright © 2020 by James Poissant. From the forthcoming book LAKE LIFE by David James Poissant to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.