Emerging writers are often encouraged to travel two roads: the one towards writing what you know, and the inverse—writing what you don’t. But there’s also a lesser-traveled road sometimes whispered about—writing what you fear—and this is the path David James Poissant chose when penning the stories that would eventually comprise his debut, The Heaven of Animals.

Irrepressible, intelligent and extraordinarily crafted, The Heaven of Animals is a collection deeply concerned with the pitfalls of humanity. Loss, grief and anger plague character after character, crippling them to the bone, and Poissant is unafraid to broach the harder truths of their lives. Try as they might, these are people who might not ever get what they want or need, and what makes The Heaven of Animals sing is Poissant’s compassion for the stubborn, the hate-filled, the deceptive and the misguided. Even at their worst, Poissant understands that at the root of every human setback lies a nagging flaw, and treating all of his characters with an empathetic hand, he never lets anyone off the hook but leaves room for atonement all the same.

“I really do try to come out on the side of hope in most of the stories,” Poissant says. “It’s a false view of the world to hear everything as just death and despair, but it’s also false to show that every story has a happy ending. Trying to strike that balance is so hard.”

Poissant’s characters wrestle with questions of masculinity, mental illness and childhood regret, but it’s the brittleness of relationships that features most prominently in The Heaven of Animals. Emotional breaking points are front and center in most of the stories, which include those of parents who must face the loss of a child head-on; a man whose alcoholism and bigotry causes him to throw his son through a window; and an estranged husband who accidentally runs over the family dog.

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Because many of the stories come from the tenet of writing what keeps you up at night, they lean more towards the dark and gritty—the stuff of real-life nightmares. “I haven’t had to suffer losses in my life of anyone really close to me, but I think that’s what scares me the most: losing someone you love, whether it’s through death or divorce or estrangement,” Poissant says. “I think I’m just sort of preoccupied with that fear.”

Poissant is also preoccupied with setting, which he finds is important to his process. The Heaven of Animals roams from the gator-filled backyards of rural Florida to the bonfire-littered beaches of San Francisco, and though his stories aren’t autobiographical, per se, much of what Poissant writes is inspired by the places he’s been.

Raised in suburban Atlanta, Poissant has also lived in Tucson, Cincinnati and is now situated in Orlando, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. He has always let place filter into his writing. “Once I go to a place,” he says, “I must get kind of haunted by it. I can’t stop thinking about it, and I still can see it like I was just there.poissant_cover

“Because I’m making up the characters and making up the plot, it helps me to anchor it to a place I know,” Poissant adds. “If I can see it, if I can start describing the place, even though I don’t know what’s going on yet—even if I can’t quite hear the character’s voice, or I haven’t figured out where the story’s going…if I can just keep describing what I see and where the character is moving in the world, that tends to be my springboard for starting a story.”

Given the distinctiveness of Poissant’s voice, it’s unsurprising that it took him a decade to craft the stories in The Heaven of Animals, with the earliest, “How To Help Your Husband Die,” written in 2004. But what might catch most off-guard, given his skillfulness, is that Poissant came to writing and literature so late. He grew up reading comics and credits The Great Gatsby, which he first encountered in his junior year of high school, as the book that made him think, “ ‘Wow, this is different. This is better than comics! These characters are deep and flawed! Who’s the hero and who’s the villain? It’s so complicated!’ ” It was only after a revisit with Gatsby in his later college years that Poissant was prompted to pursue an English degree, and this eventually led to an MFA in fiction, a serious approach to writing and the journey to The Heaven of Animals.

“I think for me what’s important in fiction, more so than just being honest about the darkness in life, is having empathy for all my characters,” says Poissant, noting what he’d like to be the ultimate takeaway from his collection. “I don’t think I’m as kind in real life as I am on the page—but I try to extend empathy to people, most to my fictional characters, and I hope that rubs off a little in the real world.”

Rebecca Rubenstein is the interviews editor of The Rumpus and the editor-in-chief of Midnight Breakfast. She resides in San Francisco, and can be found thinking aloud on Twitter.