DAVID JOY UNDERSTANDS the psychogeography of Appalachia, the poetry of violence, and the consequences of heartbreak. Writing in and about the North Carolina mountains, where he was born and raised, Joy brings rural noir to life with heart and prose that rivals the best contemporary literary fiction in terms of beauty and the best contemporary crime in terms of brutality. His narratives are about normal people in extraordinary circumstances and focus on their actions and motivations. The resulting stories are simultaneously simple and amazing, stories about everyday folks that shed a bright light on some of the darkest recesses of humanity. As touching as they are ruthless, Joy’s previous two books, Where All Light Tends To Go and The Weight of This World, made him not only a name in noir circles but also one that should be mentioned alongside those of Donald Ray Pollock and Daniel Woodrell. With the upcoming release of The Line That Held Us, an outstanding Southern Gothic packed with emotional grit and death that is perhaps his best one yet, Joy is on the verge of cementing himself as one of the finest purveyors of gritty literature in this country. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing. Here’s what he had to say.
GABINO IGLESIAS: Where All Light Tends to Go and The Weight of This World, both published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, made you a name and positioned you as one of the preeminent voices in Appalachian noir. Now The Line That Held Us is here, but it’s different. The violence and darkness of your previous work is there, but the atmosphere and death that permeate it make it more of a Southern Gothic. Was this an organic occurrence or did you set out to write something entirely different?
DAVID JOY: In a lot of ways, I set out to do something very different from those first two novels. With Light and Weight, both those novels take a hard, close look at addiction and drug use, and with The Line That Held Us we don’t get so much as a pain pill. At the same time, a lot of the themes from those first two novels carry over — familial bonds, trauma, tragedy, grief, vengeance, redemption. More than anything, with The Line That Held Us, I became really interested in trying to create an unforgettable antagonist. I was thinking about characters like Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child of God or the misfit in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I was thinking about Granville Sutter in William Gay’s Twilight, or the main character in his story “The Paper Hanger.” As a reader, you can’t forget those characters or their actions, and yet somehow those writers found a way to impart empathy for them. I think one of the scariest moments that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make complete sense. When despite whatever detestable thing they’ve done, you find yourself in agreement with something they say or a decision they make. Dwayne Brewer in The Line That Held Us is a sort of culmination of all those things. I don’t think he will be easily forgotten. He’s probably my favorite character I’ve ever created.
“I’ve never been nominated for any feel-good book of the year awards and probably never will.” That line is from an essay of yours in which you discuss the darkness in your work and how you present ugliness in order to elicit an emotional response and to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. Is this why tragedy and vengeance are at the core of The Line That Held Us?
A lot of that has to do with my personal tastes in that I’m not interested in happy endings. I’m not interested in domestic drama or stories with low stakes. I love books that have teeth. Even if a story doesn’t rip you to pieces, I want to feel that possibility. One of my greatest disappointments as a reader has been when some of my favorite writers lost that edge, when they went soft. I don’t ever want to write a book like that. I want there to be consequence. I want to test the tensile strength of the human heart. I want to wring every emotion as tight I can. Within extremes, there is no room for the lie. Tragedy, vengeance, you can’t hide behind those things. Those moments reveal a character’s deepest, most intimate truths. So as a writer I think that’s why those themes have played so heavily in my work. The Line That Held Us is no exception.
I recently wrote about the importance of psychogeography when writing about crime. You were among the authors I mentioned. Your understanding of Appalachian culture is deep and nuanced, but never apologetic. Your characters are a result of their environment, but they make personal choices that are entirely under their control. Why do you write about this region and its people?
As simple as it sounds, I just don’t know anything else. I’ve been in North Carolina all my life. I’ve been in the mountains for most of it. I write very specifically about the county where I live. That’s just how the story comes. When I see an image, I tend to know where the characters are, sometimes down to the tree they’re standing under. The places I write about exist. You can go there. The graveyards, the restaurants, all of it. In the same way, when I hear a character’s voice, there’s an accent. They phrase things a particular way. It’s because those are the voices I’m surrounded by. I can’t think in any other terms.
There are writers who are able to capture different places, writers like Ace Atkins. He has a beautiful eye for Mississippi, but then you read Robert Parker’s Spenser series Ace continues and anybody in Boston will tell you he gets that place as well. Probably boils down to the fact that handsome bastard’s just smarter than I am. I don’t know. I just know one place and I feel like that’s enough. I feel like everything I ever want to do on the page, I can do right here. Any story I want to tell. It’s that Eudora Welty idea that, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I don’t need anything else.
Since you keep taking them to the same place and showing it from new angles, what do you hope readers will understand about Appalachia after reading your work?
I don’t think I necessarily want readers to understand anything about Appalachia from reading my fiction. I don’t write about Appalachia anymore than Donald Ray Pollock writes about southern Ohio or Daniel Woodrell wrote about the Ozarks. That’s not to say that there isn’t truth in the portrayal, but that is to say that I’m telling a very particular type of story and Appalachia can’t be defined in those terms. This place is too complex for any one story, or any one voice. We’re talking about a region that covers 420 counties across 13 states. It’s 40,000 square miles bigger than the state of California. Even if I did want my work to illuminate something about these mountains, I’d be shining a light on one small patch of the quilt.
To have any sort of understanding about this region as a whole, people need to read broadly. They need to read Wendell Berry and Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ricardo Nazario y Colón. They need to read Silas House, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Denton Loving, Darnell Arnoult, Robert Gipe, Ron Houchin, Pam Duncan, Elizabeth Catte. They need to read Charles Dodd White and Mark Powell and Jane Hicks and Karen Salyer McElmurray and Gurney Norman and Leigh Ann Henion and Sheldon Lee Compton. Read all of that and you might start to have some sort of grasp on the complexities of this place. Read all of that and if you want more names I’ll be happy to lengthen the list.
You talked about creating a relatable bad guy. Dwayne Brewer, who is at the center of The Line That Held Us, is the most likable monster I’ve read about in a very long time. He is vicious and hyperviolent, but also righteous and dedicated. He is a barbarous leviathan of a man, but his heart is in the right place. How do you think he will be received and interpreted by readers? Do you think he will be remembered as a commendable soldier of retribution or a heinous murderer? Is there a middle ground with this type of characters?
A lot of that opposition, that ebb and flow between extremes, between virtue and evil, that’s human nature. I think about an act like murder. I think about some of the most heinous events we’ve witnessed in the past 10 or so years — the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombing, Dylann Roof and the Charleston church shooting — and when those things happened the general public was just dumbstruck, rendered speechless by the inconceivable violence of those crimes. And yet when it came time for punishment, average people screamed to stone them to death, to hang them in the streets. How quickly that switch can flip has always fascinated me. With a novel like The Weight of This World that was one of the things I was playing with. I wanted there to be moments when the reader turned away in disgust and moments when they cheered on the violence with a furious and vengeful anger. That’s the middle ground where most of us wind up. It’s the reality that even the average person washes back and forth between those places. Dwayne Brewer is no different. At his heart, I think he’s someone who simply cannot conceive of a world without his brother. I think he’s someone with a deep-seated sense of righteousness that was twisted and malformed by circumstance and faith. As an artist, you can work like hell to paint the wall gray and in the end a lot of people can only see black and white. In the end, I don’t really care whether he’s remembered one way or another. I just want him to be unforgettable.
Fishing seems to occupy more space in your life than writing. Besides your own words about it, you recently co-edited (with Eric Rickstad) Gather at the River, a nonfiction anthology about fishing that will be published by Hub City Press in 2019. Why do you think the place where fishing and writing meet is such fertile terrain for stories?
Fishing is probably the one thing I’m best at. It’s the thing I’m most passionate about, and I mean that to an absolutely obsessive extent. I’ve always been that way, from four of five years old chucking worms for sunfish and channel cats in a farm pond to flying halfway across the country last year to wrestle seven-foot alligator gar out of the Trinity River. Maybe it’s that John Buchan idea that, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” I think I need that. I’m not a very optimistic or hopeful person, so maybe I need that more than most. The Kentucky writer Alex Taylor has that beautiful line that, “There is a kind of faith with fishing […] It is the belief that the brevity of all things is not bitter, but a calm moment beside calm water is enough to still the breaking of all hearts everywhere.” That’s as lovely a thought as I know, and it’s perfectly fitting for the poem, the story, the novel. I think that’s what the best writing does, it provides that space, that one solitary moment that is enough to still the breaking.
French readers appreciate your work along with that of other noir masters such as Benjamin Whitmer, Donald Ray Pollock, Todd Robinson, and William Boyle. You were awarded the Le Prix du Balai de Bronze for Là Où Les Lumières Se Perdent (Where All Light Tends to Go) last year. Where do you think their passion for these very American narratives comes from?
There seem to be a lot of things that separate French and American readers. For one, the French consume more books. Reading still seems to be very much a part of their culture. And they don’t just read the big books that populate the American best-seller lists. They read broadly. They translate much more than we do. Seems like they read everything. The writers you just mentioned are representative of that. Every one of those writers is under-read in this country. Donald Ray Pollock is one of the most talented writers at work, and while you and I certainly know that, the average American has never heard of him. Take it further, I don’t think the average American would even understand what he was doing with a novel like The Heavenly Table. Those types of books just don’t fare well in this country. Most Americans are airport readers. They want fast-paced action, sparse language, and happy endings they can read on a three-hour flight. That’s not what I do. That’s not what Benjamin or Todd or William does either. Occasionally one of our kind slips through the cracks into the mainstream, but it’s rare. It typically only happens after a successful film adaptation. I think French readers are a much more adventurous lot. They’re willing to go places that the typical American reader is not. A lot of it probably ties back to the French interest in film noir. There’s an entire subculture that grew out of that tradition, and I think it carried over into fiction so that we see the same sort of appeal for the black novel, a sort of fascination with darkness. They don’t seem to need happy endings. They seem to have an appreciation for language and craft. I think in a lot of ways they just value art and literature in a way that America doesn’t.
In the last year or so, you’ve been writing essays for a plethora of large venues. Is that something you plan to keep on doing? You also published novels in the past two years. Does writing nonfiction interfere with your fiction?
When I see a void in a conversation or I see a voice that isn’t really present or worse yet a voice that’s silenced, that’s usually where my essays come from. So with something like the Bitter Southerner piece a few years ago, it was that I was tired of seeing low-income lives reduced to and dismissed as trash. With the New York Times Magazine essay earlier this year, it was the lack of the common-sense gun owner in the national conversation. Often it feels like we reward extremism. We hand the microphone to whoever screams loudest. Sensibility isn’t sexy. Common sense doesn’t sell. The saddest part about that, it only serves to widen the divide. It pushes us further apart. I think most Americans are common-sense, middle-of-the-road people. When I write essays I think maybe that’s one of the things I’m trying to get back to. It’s vastly different from my fiction, but in some ways it’s more rewarding. Those essays tend to take the same amount out of me. It’s probably the honesty of it, the vulnerability. With fiction you have an added degree of separation.
Do you think fiction can stay away from politics nowadays? Your online persona is very vocal against things like racism and abuse; do you think that is something that could affect your sales?
Quite frankly, I don’t care if it costs me sales. I don’t care if I lose a few readers. To remain silent in the face of hatred, in the face of bigotry, to say nothing in response to racism, misogyny, xenophobia, is to be complicit in each and every one of those actions. I find it utterly disgusting when writers, or artists in general for that matter, remain silent for fear of alienating part of their audience. There is no room for fear in art. So if it costs me sales, fine, it costs me sales. I’ve never had any money anyways, so what’s the difference? The role of the artist is to be a voice of reason in a time of utter dissonance. There is no such thing as quiet art. I was telling someone recently that I can’t imagine any contemporary American being able to write a story that doesn’t involve violence, bigotry, and a perversion of faith. If it doesn’t, they’re just not paying attention or they’re too scared to recognize it, and honestly I don’t know if one’s any better than the other. Art requires fearlessness and unrelenting honesty. Without those things you cannot create anything that matters.
You’re about to go on tour for The Line That Held Us. As a private man, how do you deal with leaving your mountains and rivers to visit a bunch of bookstores and interact with readers?
I’m not very good at traveling. Truthfully, it’s just not something I enjoy. I’m very much a homebody, or maybe a woodsbody. I’d rather stay in the woods than hit the road. I’m pretty reclusive. Sometimes I go weeks without speaking to anyone outside my girlfriend, and she’s gone all day so really I’m only talking to one person for a few hours most evenings. Outside that, I’m alone. I tend to enjoy the company of dogs more than people. That said, it’s not that I dislike people so much as that I’m just incredibly introverted. I get my energy from being by myself and letting my mind go. Engaging with people wears me down quickly.
At the same time, I’ve met some wonderful people on the road and I’ve gotten to visit some incredible bookstores. Indie bookstores are magnets for good people, open-minded, kind-hearted people. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a publisher who recognizes the importance of that and who believes in my work enough to invest in that. That’s rare nowadays. A lot of writers don’t get that opportunity. So as much as I might wish I was up a tree some place or standing in a river, I know I’m blessed to have that chance to get out and promote my work.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Zero Saints, the book reviews editor for PANK Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media.