The Heaven of Animals
Simon & Schuster
“Venn Diagram” is from David James Poissant’s debut collection, THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS, (Simon & Schuster). His stories have appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, and Best New American Voices. He is a winner of the Playboy College Fiction Contest as well as awards from The Atlantic Monthly and The Chicago Tribune. He lives in Florida.
He said this about his story: Nine years ago, when I first started writing in earnest, I was unaware of the unwritten rules of the contemporary writing workshop. One such rule is that there are two stories you should never write: the dead dog story and the dead baby story. The reasoning behind this rule is sound, if perhaps overreaching. Such material is maudlin and familiar. Such material tugs at the heartstrings even before the reader’s emotion is earned. And, such material typically leads to overwrought, unforgivably bad dialogue. But, then, all rules are made to be broken.
I didn’t know I was breaking a rule when I handed an early draft of “Venn Diagram” in to my first MFA creative writing workshop.. I wanted my peers to love the story, but the story was not loved. And with good reason. The story was not good. It was working very hard at trying to make the reader sad about the loss of a child, but that was all it was doing, trying. There were no animals in that draft, no math, no support group, no church–in short, none of what makes the story, in its current incarnation, an interesting story.
So, I revised. And, in revising, I realized that if I was going to avoid the maudlin and the familiar, I’d need to inject the story with a dose of the mysterious and the unfamiliar–enter the animals. If the story’s emotion was going to be earned, it would need more at stake than a marriage–enter the trope of logic versus faith. And, if the story was going to sidestep bad dialogue, the characters would need to talk about everything but the child they’d lost as their way of talking about the child they’d lost. These aren’t sophisticated moves. To a fiction writer, the above prescription is pretty straightforward. But I was just starting out, and learning these things took me months. Three good teachers–Aurelie Sheehan, Jason Brown, and Barry Hannah–walked me through drafts of the story until I’d gotten it right, and, in the end, “Venn Diagram” became my second published story. The first, incidentally, was a story about a dead dog.
After it appeared in the Chicago Tribune as a finalist for the Nelson Algren Award in 2006, I was thrilled when Richard Bausch chose “Venn Diagram” for inclusion in Best New American Voices 2008.