In the spring of 1964, Tanya and I and our…
David Joy is only thirty-one, but come March, this North Carolina writer will see his first novel, Where All the Light Tends to Go, published by Putnam. The book, a gritty tale of “a young man seeking redemption,” is highly anticipated and has garnered advance praise from the likes of bestselling novelists Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell, and Silas House. Rash, one of Joy’s mentors from his days as an undergraduate in the literature program at Western Carolina University, has hailed the book as “a fine addition to the country noir vein of Southern literature.”
In this interview with Appalachian Heritage editor Jason Howard, Joy discusses preparing for the novel’s release, confounding stereotypes about Appalachian literature, and why writing is like digging clay.
Jason Howard: Your debut novel, Where All the Light Tends To Go, will be out very soon. How have you been preparing for its release and book tour?
David Joy: Until this past year, I’d never been out of the South, never really been out of North Carolina, and certainly never been on an airplane. Some folks like traveling, but as soon as I get on flat land I start getting anxious. I found my place on this earth and I’d be just fine sitting here until I die. All of this to say, I’m doing everything I can do not to think about it. The book coming out is exciting and there are a whole lot of great things happening and I’m incredibly thankful. I couldn’t have wound up in better hands. I have a wonderful agent who stuck by me and found the right editor. The team at Putnam is the best in the business, but, more than that, they’re all genuinely kind people. I trust them and I’ve put myself in their hands. But having a book come out on that type of stage leaves you very exposed. The truth of it is that I’m absolutely scared to death.
JH: The book is set in North Carolina, and one of the characters runs a meth ring while another turns to violence. As you know, Appalachia is often stereotyped as a violent, drug-ravaged, poverty-stricken region. Did you worry about falling prey to this image of the region in creating these characters and dealing with these issues? How did you walk this tightrope?
DJ: This is a big question…There is a drug epidemic in Appalachia, just as there is educational issues and vocational limitations and a host of other systemic problems that have existed for a long time. To the rest of America, this is the only thing they see reported about this region. They see it on the news and they watch reality television shows like Moonshiners or Appalachian Outlaws or a documentary like The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and that becomes Appalachia. That’s where the stereotype is rooted. The reality is that while these problems exist, they don’t define us, and I think that’s why we get so defensive. At the same time, I think dismissing these things is just as problematic as using that stereotype to encapsulate an entire region and a people. At the very least we need to take these opportunities to initiate conversation.
I think it’s dangerous to ever talk in universalities. I can walk out my front door in the heart of Jackson County and take you to visit a man who still digs ramps and branch lettuce, a man who predicts the weather based on how the fat rises and sinks in a jar of bear meat. I can take you just over the mountain from there to a place where addicts are trading stolen goods for methamphetamine and oxycontin, or show you a house where a man was tortured to death. Then there’s a woman in town who left the mountains and got a law degree, a daughter of farmers who got an education and came back to open a law firm. There are kids at the southern end of the county whose parents are millionaires from Florida, kids born and bred in the mountains in gated communities on Tom Fazio designed golf courses. These are all different truths of a single place. These are all Appalachian stories. The problem doesn’t lie in the truth of it, but in an attempt to universalize that truth. It’s extremely dangerous to try and define a region and a people, especially one that stretches as vast geographically as this one. Western North Carolina, where I live, is a lot different from East Tennessee or Kentucky.
As for why I write the types of stories I write, it boils down to the type of literature I’m drawn to. I’ve always preferred the stories in a collection like Ron Rash’s Burning Bright to those in Chemistry and Other Stories. I like Larry Brown’s Father and Son more than I like The Rabbit Factory. I idolize writers like William Gay and Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock and Padgett Powell and these are the types of stories they tell. As an artist, you can’t let the fear of propagating a stereotype stop you. We can use the art to spur a conversation about social issues, but, at the end of the day, writers need to practice their craft fearlessly. That’s the only way it will be any good.
JH: You have a second novel, Waiting on the End of the World, already in the can and tentatively scheduled for publication in 2016. What’s it about?
DJ: I’ve become really interested in ideas of trauma and how the things we witness come to govern our lives. I’m really fascinated by what leads people to do the things they do. A lot of times when we see something on the news, especially something violent or some type of atrocity, we’re very quick to pass judgment without ever considering what triggered people to make the decisions they made. In this new novel, I’m playing around with that idea. I’ve tried to create backstories that become the decision makers for why these characters are doing the things they’re doing. So I’ve got three characters who are haunted, each of them carrying a tremendous weight, and I threw them into a really destructive scenario to see what would happen. With that trigger, the idea was that there were two best friends, Aiden McCall and Thad Broom, who go to buy drugs and wind up witnessing the accidental suicide of their dealer. All of a sudden, a riot of meth and money lands in their laps. That was the set up. Then it was just a matter of watching what happened.
JH: You’re in your early thirties and your first two novels are being released by a major publisher. How has this changed your life?
DJ: As far as lifestyle, nothing’s changed. I spend far too much time at the bar and stay inside my head entirely too long. I drink too much and sleep too little. So none of that’s changed and I don’t think it ever will. But as far as process, I’m just having to stay focused and work harder. When you don’t have a publishing contract, writing a novel is a lot easier. You’ve got all the time in the world and you’re not worried about what other folks might think. You hope people will read your work, but deep down you know they probably won’t, and so you’re writing it mostly for yourself. There’s a freedom in that. There’s something really nice about that kind of freedom. Publishers, on the other hand, are focused on what’s next. They have to be. They’re looking at things from a business perspective and when a book comes out there’s going to be a wave that comes in at first, but that wave is going to recede. They need another wave coming in. There’s a sort of tidal ebb and flow for relevancy. That’s how you build an audience and that’s how they make money. The dream for them is to have a writer who is producing a book a year, and that’s really hard for someone who is trying to write literary fiction, someone who’d be happy if they ever write one good book. I’m just having to focus a lot more on the work. If you want to make a real honest-to-god run at things, you have to put in the hours.
JH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
DJ: My parents always kept this old typewriter under one of the end tables in the living room when I was a kid, and my earliest memories writing are on that machine. I couldn’t have been more than five, but my mom said that I was writing before I could spell. I’d sit at that typewriter and dictate stories to her and have her tell me which keys to press to spell the words. I can still remember the sound of it and the way it smelled. So I always wanted to write. The difference between those who want to write and those who do write boils down, as with most things, to those who are willing to suffer through not being very good and continue to put in the work. Persistence. There are tons and tons of talented writers, much more talented than I’ll ever be, but there are few people stubborn enough to put in the work. Most writers I really admire tend to agree that it takes about ten years of work, or somewhere around a thousand pages, to get anywhere close to decent. The first thousand I wrote were kept in shoeboxes. One day I called my mom and had her douse those boxes with gasoline and torch them in the burn barrel. All of it was bad writing that I needed to get out of my system, but once it was out I never needed to see it again. I’m probably well past two thousand pages now and still not anywhere close to what I’d consider good. I’ve never been a quick study.
JH: What was the first piece of Appalachian literature you read? How did it affect you?
DJ: I grew up in a storytelling tradition with a grandmother bringing Jack tales out of Wilkes County. I can’t speak about the prevalence of those stories elsewhere in Appalachia, but they’re very important to the North Carolina mountains and so I think even as a kid I was surrounded by that type of story. As far as the first piece of Appalachian literature I remember reading, it was probably Silas House’s A Parchment of Leaves. I think I was still in high school when I read that. I just remember being spellbound by the poetics of his language. There’s a section of that novel where Vine is going to bury Aaron’s body after she killed him, and that scene just haunted the hell out of me. I still have that section marked in the book: “The trees was bare limbed, and when I looked up, the sky was big and black, speckled with just a few stars, dim but pulsing. I looked at them, taking big gulps of air and knowing that there most certainly was a God, and He was looking at me. I wondered what He thought about it. I wondered what else He expected me to do. And then I doubted God, for I could not understand how He could have let this happen to me. I felt like screaming out. He was watching, though. I was sure of this much.” That voice and that type of weight, I knew that’s what I wanted to try to do with my life.
JH: I know that you’re a big music lover. How does music inform your own writing and creative life?
DJ: I think most writers are obsessed with music. Some of my favorite things William Gay ever wrote were the essays about music in places like Paste or Oxford American. Silas writes a lot about it. Folks like Ron Rash and George Singleton are really sharp. If you want to get a writer talking, talk about that. There are plenty of days when I might not read, but there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not listening to music. All of my best memories, from my dad playing Willie Nelson on the record player to my grandmother singing old hymns, are tied to songs. With my writing, I really like to attach songs to characters. In that first novel, the song that defined that main character was Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues.” With this novel I just finished, the song was Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly.” I really like doing that. I think it gives you an avenue into the character’s soul, and, when you’ve been away from the story for a while, it gives you a place to reenter.
JH: You also write creative nonfiction, and your memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey was published in 2011 by a small independent press. Do you approach fiction and creative nonfiction differently? What’s it like to move between two genres?
DJ: Early on, and I mean as far as once I was taking my writing seriously, all I wrote was creative nonfiction. What was really strange, though, is that even then, I knew I was moving toward fiction. I knew I wanted to write novels. So I wrote two books of nonfiction, only one of which found a publisher, and then that shift that I’d been anticipating happened. I’ll still write an essay now and then, but, for the most part, I find myself writing less and less nonfiction. I’m still really interested in it and I still read a good bit of it, but I don’t think I’m very good at what I admire most in good nonfiction, especially good memoir. I just read an incredible memoir by an Appalachian writer named Leigh Ann Henion called Phenomenal that’s coming out of Penguin. One of the things I love most about that memoir is her ability to self assess and just the brutal honesty of it. I think the people who are masters of that form, someone like Rick Bragg, have something I lack. That type of nonfiction takes bravery. I think sometimes I’m scared to turn over the rock because I fear what I’ll find squirming around in there.
JH: You count among your writing mentors Pamela Duncan, Deidre Elliott, and Ron Rash. That’s a fine list of names. How important have they been to your development as a writer? What have you learned from each of them?
DJ: All three of them are family and I’ll never be able to repay them.
Ron was the first person to ever read any of my writing. He wasn’t a teacher of mine at the time and the way it happened is that someone just kind of dropped me in his lap. It was a story called “The Legend of Willie Simmons and the Uncatchable Fish,” and it was absolutely terrible. But that story got us talking about fishing and we became quick friends. I’ve learned a lot from him about writing, but what I’ve learned most from him is about work ethic and just how to be a good man. He was raising two kids with a wife and working some crazy class load at a community college when he wrote those stories in The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth. He was getting up before the sun and putting in hours. He’s just a workhorse and always has been. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever known. But he’s also one of the kindest and humblest men I’ve had the privilege to know. The way he carries himself and the way he cares about people, that’s what I love about him. That’s what will hang with me for the rest of my life.
With Deidre Elliott, she’s one of the most talented creative nonfiction writers I’ve ever read, but she’s by far the best teacher I ever had. She’d take someone with little talent and get something publishable out of them. She pushed people to their absolute best. That’s who taught me craft. That’s who showed me how to take a draft and keep reworking the language and reworking the language until you make music. I’ll owe every single thing I ever write to Deidre.
As for Pam, she and I became friends when I’d finished that first book of nonfiction, Growing Gills. I actually wrote that in graduate school and Pam served on my thesis committee. I learn things from her every time I see her. She’s who gave me the idea of using songs as entry into characters. She’s who told me that my new novel was about trauma. She’ll never lead on like it, but she’s one of wisest souls I know. She knows as much about writing as anybody. She’s scary talented.
JH: I’ve read that you’ve compared the writing process to digging clay. What do you mean by that?
DJ: When I was growing up, my mother was a potter, and one of the things I admired most about her was that she made mistakes beautiful. Her process was fluid. If something didn’t work out, she just rolled with it and molded it into something new. I never was like that. I just wasn’t that patient. So when I was little I would spend all day drawing and if I made a mistake I’d tear it up and start again. I’d do this over and over until I eventually got it perfect. The problem is that doesn’t work with something like a novel. Novels are made in the revisions. If you spend your time focusing on sentence level issues in the early drafts, you’ll never get anything done. You can’t make a pot until you have the clay. There’s a process to it. You don’t just grab a handful of mud out of the bank and try to make art. You dig the clay, then you process that clay to remove the extraneous material, then you wedge the clay, and then eventually, eventually you can make a pot. Writing a novel is just like that. Those early drafts are digging clay, and digging clay is hard work. Revising is when you get to sit down at the wheel and turn a pot, though if we’re going with this metaphor mine is more like slab work or maybe pinch pots. I’m not very graceful and my pots always wind up lopsided.