David Joy is the author of the Edgar nominated novel Where All Light Tends to Go, as well as the novels The Weight of This World and The Line That Held Us. He is also the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman's Journey, which was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award and the Ragan Old North State Award. Joy is the recipient of an artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council. His latest short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Garden & Gun, and The Bitter Southerner. He lives, writes, fishes, and hunts in the North Carolina mountains.
Later this month, Joy will offer a reading and signing at Main Street Books following the release of his forthcoming novel, The Line That Held Us. Before he does, you'd be well-advised to treat yourself to a sneak peak inside this author's insightful mind.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You’ve said in a previous interview that you often attach a song to a character or story. Did you attach any songs to The Line That Held Us? If so, what were they and to which characters did you attach them?
DAVID JOY: Not in the same way as a novel like Where All Light Tends To Go. With Light, that novel was so much about voice, and when I finally heard Jacob’s voice there was a song that helped give cadence to that voice. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that with any of the other novels. What was nice about that was that the music winds up serving as a sort of gateway into the story. You play the song and it puts you in that place. That makes the work easier. With these last two novels, The Weight Of This World and The Line That Held Us, I didn’t experience anything like that, but there was still music, or at least I knew certain songs were playing when a scene arrived. With Weight, I knew that Drive-By Truckers “Putting People On The Moon” was playing on the stero when Wayne Bryson accidentally killed himself. With Line, I had something similar happen in that I knew Janis Joplin’s rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” was playing on WNCW when Dwayne Brewer was driving away from Calvin Hooper’s house with Angie in the trunk. I could hear it playing, hear him humming it, hear him singing the words, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I don’t know why it happens like that sometimes. It just does. I can hear the music the same as I can smell the room.
MSB: A popular question to ask writers is whether their fiction is driven more by plot, character, or setting. When writing about Appalachia, it seems that the three are uniquely inseparable, in that the population is less transient, resulting in a preservation and localization of culture and heritage that can dictate how a narrative unfolds. As much as you love western NC, does it ever feel confining to relegate all of your characters to its mountains?
DJ: I don’t ever feel confined by place. I think it’s the opposite. The mountains are everything. There’s not a single story I couldn’t tell here. I’ve said this a million times at this point, but I’ll say it again because it’s fitting and it’s the truth. One time they asked James Joyce why he wrote only about Dublin and he told them, “Because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” That’s what Eudora Welty meant by, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” It’s that Joycean idea that in the particular is contained the universal. The work of the novel is to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. You can set a story anywhere so long as you do that. Hell, you can make up a place so long as you do that. Ursula Le Guin did. That’s why her work was so powerful. It didn’t matter that Earthsea wasn’t a real place, she got to the humanity of the characters and so it resonated. For me, I set the stories in the landscape that I know because that’s how the stories come. I can see the characters in places I recognize, sometimes down to the tree.
MSB: You’ve singled out characters as being the primary drive for your fiction. However, you also describe yourself as “skeptical and unwilling to put your faith in others.” It’s a fascinating paradox, being at once hesitant to connect with people in real life and consumed by them in your writing life. Can you shed any light on this?
DJ: I think most of it is that I just find people tiring. It’s not so much that I dislike people as it is I’m just incredibly introverted, to the point that engaging with others for any length of time sucks all the energy out of me. That’s part of it. The other part is that I find myself very disinterested in the façade of most interaction, the how-was-your-day, did-you-watch-the-new-Glee chitter chatter that makes up about 99% of day-to-day conversations. Sometimes I sit places and just listen to people talk and it always strikes me how much they say without really saying anything at all. I just don’t have any interest in sitting through that. I’d rather go read a book or go sit in the woods. I’m a lot more comfortable alone. I think it’s rare that anyone gets to the heart of anything, that anyone takes the time to really say something meaningful. That’s the difference between life and art, I guess. On the page there’s no room for any of that wasted space. You get to the meat or the reader starves.
MSB: Your second book, The Weight of This World, explores the perpetual battles between fate and will, circumstances and character, past and present/future. It’s as though the former entities (fate, circumstances, and past) are pressure cookers that warp and distort the latter entities (will, character, and present/future). Will we see much of these tensions in The Line That Held Us? Why are you drawn to these kinds of battles?
DJ: I think I write about these things because that’s how life works. You make a decision or maybe you find yourself in a given circumstance and that leads to something else. You change the decision or you alter the scenario and things turn out differently. There’s a song I’ve been listening to as of late and there’s a line in it that I wish I’d written. It says, “Circumstances shot us down like September doves.” That’s the way the lives of so many of the people I’ve known and loved turned out. A single decision, a single place in time and that was the moment. Everything from then on tied back to that one place and time. With Weight, that novel was very much a story governed by trauma. You had three characters whose entire decision making processes were governed by past events, three very different events. With this new novel, I think you get some of that, but the bigger question at play in The Line That Held Us is what are you willing to do for the people you love most? This new novel is very much a sort of study into what it means to love someone selflessly.
MSB: You emphasize the importance of persistence to aspiring writers, referencing the pages and pages of writing you produced in your 20’s that essentially functioned as nothing more than prolonged throat clearing. Despite the time and effort you dedicate to your craft and the degree to which it has evolved since your early writing days, it sounds as though you still don’t feel as though you’ve achieved mastery. Do you think you ever will? How does one measure mastery of an endeavor as subjective as writing?
DJ: I’ll be quite frank, any artist that ever tells you they’ve mastered their craft probably wasn’t ever much of an artist to begin with. I’ve said this before, but I’m really looking forward to the books I write when I’m 50 or 60 years old. That’s not to say that I’m not proud of the novels I’ve written because I am, but I think the sign of a great artist is one who continued to get better. I love when the scope continues to expand. I think that’s what happened with most of the writers I love, and most of the writers I look forward to nowadays. I think about a novelist like Mark Powell. Those first few novels were great. Blood Kin, The Dark Corner, Prodigals, those novels were great, but what he’s doing now is just so much bigger. Same thing for a writer like Wiley Cash. A Land More Kind Than Home was a great book, but The Last Ballad was tremendous in comparison. That novel reeked of his tutelage under Ernest Gaines. It was important. That novel wasn’t just good, it was important. That’s the kind of thing I want my work to do. I want it to expand. So as far as mastering anything, not a chance. And I’m perfectly fine with that. There’s that wonderful interview with Faulkner that ran in The Paris Review back in the 50s where Faulkner said, “In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.” I think he was right.
MSB: You penned a phenomenal piece that the New York Times Magazine published in April, titled “Gun Culture Is My Culture. And I Fear for What It Has Become,” in which you deftly disentangled the complexities of gun control on a personal, communal, regional, and national level. Are there other elements of Appalachian culture that you’ve struggled to fully embrace, but still recognize as defensible or vital to existence?
DJ: I don’t know that anything I was writing about in that particular essay feels like an Appalachian issue to me, maybe more of a matter of a rural-urban divide, but regardless I think there are definitely things I struggle with here. Race, for example. I think when we talk about Appalachia, or when we talk about rural working class people in general, there’s an overwhelming assumption that we’re talking about white people. I think we need to work harder to get the voices and stories from other groups in this region heard. There are some great people who’ve busted their ass to do that, people like Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Nikky Finney and Ricardo Nazario y Colon, but we need more of that, and we need more stories that capture the complexities of this place. I think another thing I struggle with, especially here in Jackson County, is the influx of outsiders, the sort of gentrification that’s taking place all across Appalachia right now. I have a tremendous fear of what’s going to be lost, and how close we are to losing it. I think we’re within a generation, maybe twenty years, and a lot of this place and its culture will be gone.
MSB: People may be surprised to discover that you adopted a vegetarian diet for a period of your life. What prompted you to do so? Did the absence of hunting during that period alter your connection to the land?
DJ: I was lacto-ovo vegetarian for three or four years, and ultimately that was just a matter of health. For whatever reason, my body wasn’t processing meat very well and so I quit eating it. Eventually I started working some lighter meats back into my diet, fish and chicken, and then went back to eating some red meat. The biggest thing that changed over that period was that I just became a lot more aware of what I was putting into my body, what I was eating, where it came from. Those are things I’m still really tied to now, knowing where what I’m eating came from. That’s something that’s absent from a lot of people’s minds. They don’t have any idea where their food comes from. There’s no connection between their food and the land. I think that’s been detrimental to us as a culture, getting away from the land. As far as whether the absence of hunting during that period affected my connection to the land, not at all. I was still fishing. I was still spending a lot of time in the woods. I’m just more comfortable in the woods. I’ve always been just sort of landscape-centric, I guess. That’s the way it’s always been and I don’t see that ever changing.
MSB: If forced to choose between only hunting or fishing for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?
DJ: I think fishing is probably the one thing I’m best at. Put me near water, any water, and I’ll catch fish. Period. That said, and this is a bit surprising, but I think if I could only choose one for the rest of my life I’d probably hunt. There’re a couple reasons for that, one being that I’m just not near as good at hunting. I think I’m a decent woodsman and I can read sign better than most people, but I’m not anywhere near where I’d like to be. Some of the hunters I really admire are just ghosts in the woods. They put themselves in the right place and they disappear. I’m not there yet. I still make a lot of mistakes. There were things I did in the woods just last month during turkey season that I’ll do my damnedest not to repeat next year. That learning curve and how much more time I need to get to where I want to be, that makes the sport more appealing to me. The other thing about it is that hunting just seems more philosophically rewarding. There’s so much that goes on there, with the mind, with the woods, and that’s not to say that those same things don’t happen on the water, but it just feels bigger maybe. More significant. I think over the course of my life, the most important ideas, the most meaningful insights have come while I was holding rod or rifle.
MSB: It’s no secret that you’re not keen on book tours, far preferring the life you’ve so intentionally built for yourself in the quiet mountain communities of NC to the fast-paced, people-filled chaos of a tour. How do you keep yourself sane during these periods?
DJ: The first book tour I ever went on, it was something like 19 cities in 21 days, and I remember coming home and I remember standing in the doorway of the bathroom at my parents' house and my mother was asking me something and I was just looking at her and my brain was empty. I could see her mouth moving but she might as well have been speaking in tongues. I finally just had to tell her that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, what she was asking. I was that tired. I got in my truck and I drove home and I remember just as the mountains came into view I pulled over on the side of the road and I just cried. As silly as that may sound, I was that worn out. I was that emotionally wrought. This goes back to that idea of introversion and just the simple fact that people drain my energy. I probably say more words over the course of a two week book tour than I say in the other eleven months of the year combined, and that’s not an exaggeration. I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hahn when I’m on the road, and I try to stay focused on the end game, but to answer your question, I don’t know that I do stay sane during these periods. I think it’s more likely I lose my mind and have to come home and get off in the woods to find it.