Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
David Joy is the award-winning author of five novels set in the real-life highways and hollers of his home region of western North Carolina. He’s also written a memoir about fishing. His new book, “Those We Thought We Knew,” releases August 1.
Enjoy our conversation about being swallowed up by the city, writing about addiction and violence, and hunting between books, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: You’ve said elsewhere that you moved from Charlotte to western North Carolina when you were 18, chasing a girl. Can you say a little bit more about what kept you there? What did you do with yourself when you first moved out of the city?
David Joy: I think it’s hard for people to understand the place and the people that I come from in that they are things that no longer exist. It’s that Gertrude Stein idea that, “there is no there there.” I grew up to a rural people who were deeply rooted to place and who’d largely been swallowed by a city. I’m a twelfth generation North Carolinian for all of the good and horrible that entails. For the most part, my paternal ancestors settled in and around the Catawba River Basin by the time of the Revolution. What I’m getting at is that I come from a people who were very deeply tied to the land where I was born. I’d ride down the road with my grandmother and she’d point out fields where she’d worked tobacco and cotton. She’d point to houses her father and brothers had built. My uncle lived two miles down the road and still kept kennels of rabbit dogs. I spent every afternoon tearing through a cattle pasture to fish a farm pond for bream and bass and crappie and catfish. That place is gone. That way of life in that place is gone. The people who held that culture are largely gone. When I came to the mountains I found a reflection of what I’d watched be erased. I found people rooted to place and land and story. I decided very quickly I’d hold onto it until the last of it slipped through my fingers.
DY: I’ll be up front about the fact that I’ve read just one of your novels, “The Weight of This World,” which I picked basically at random. I think I was drawn to that one because a lot of my own academic work has been focused on cultural understandings of methamphetamine use and users, and I was interested in how you’d depict the “meth-fueled journey to nowhere” that provides most of that book’s plot. I appreciated that both of the main characters had a mostly utilitarian relationship to the drug, one of them using to stay awake and one just out of convenience. Were you making a conscious choice in writing about meth dependence without resorting to uncontrollable fiending? Or did those relationships just seem natural to the characters?
DJ: I wrote that novel nearly a decade ago so it’s hard to think back on specific intents. With regards to writing about addiction and portrayals of addicts, I don’t think most people know addiction or addicts, at least not in any sort of intimate and meaningful way, and so the creation inevitably hinges on stereotypes. That’s probably one advantage I had going in writing the types of books I was writing early on is that I knew those people and they were all people with individualized motivations and hang-ups and humanity. The goal is always to get at those things whether you’re writing about a take-me-out-of-my-own-head, put-me-on-the-moon kind of addict like Aiden McCall who cannot face or move past the lingering effects of childhood trauma, or whether you’re writing about a graduate art student from Atlanta like this forthcoming novel that comes out later this summer. If the character is not full fleshed and real then you’ve failed.
DY: Another question about that book – maybe it’s just my unfamiliarity with the genre, but can you talk a little bit about the really gruesome and explicit violence you write about there? I think I went into the novel expecting grungy rural fiction, and what I got was a lot more extreme, even verging on horror. What does writing about violence like that allow you to unlock?
DJ: I think there’s a great deal of that blend of horror in the tradition where my work is rooted. I think about a writer like William Gay and a story like “The Paperhanger,” O’Connor and a character like the misfit or McCarthy’s Lester Ballard. That’s to say that is the tradition. With this book specifically, though, it was very much a treatise on violence. I wanted there to be moments the reader put the book down because they couldn’t face what was happening on the page. I wanted there to be moments that very same reader cheered the violence on with a fiery sense of vengeance and justice. I wanted the reader to recognize those moments and reactions and question the difference. Those were lofty goals that may very well have been unreached, but that was the intent. The difference in those two reactions speaks a great deal to our humanity.
DY: Just from reading the description, it seems like your forthcoming book “Those We Thought We Knew” is outside your usual subject matter. In what ways were you trying to push yourself in this project?
DJ: It’s outside “the usual subject matter” in that it’s a book that is largely about race. Every novel has been different in that sense. But the past two novels have both been social novels in ways that the first three, perhaps, were not. Both “When These Mountains Burn” and “Those We Thought We Knew” were books that were more deliberate and intentional, “Burn” dealing with the opioid crisis and this new novel dealing with systemic racism and white supremacy. I don’t know that it’s a matter of trying to push myself. It’s not weightlifting. I’m not trying to increase some personal max. The only driver is the compulsion to create, and I think the longer you do it the more there’s a natural tendency for the work to expand.
I will say this was the hardest book I’ve ever written in that there were pieces of it that I started writing a decade ago. I worked actively on it over the last five years. The first novel I wrote over the course of a couple months. This book took longer. Much longer. I was two years past contractual deadline. It took a lot more out of me. It left me empty. There were large periods of time when I mentally couldn’t work on it. There were large risks and lots of things to get wrong and I’m positive there are places I’ve failed. But it was a story that felt important to tell, and, again, it was that unrelenting compulsion to create.
DY: You’ve written a lot about your relationship to the outdoors and your love of hunting and fishing. And you really seem to be churning out books. I’m curious about your routine. What’s an average week look like? When do you write? What else are you up to?
DJ: I don’t know that I’ve churned out books. I think my natural tendency would be to write a novel every year and a half to two years. I’ve published five novels since 2015 with the fifth coming out later this summer. Those novels were written over the course of the last decade. I don’t think I’ll ever be a book a year writer. And I most certainly won’t ever be a two book a year writer, which there are plenty of those. But as far as routine, I fall very much into that Raymond Carver camp where when I’m not writing it feels as if I’ve never written a word a day in my life. Then when the story takes hold and it’s the only thing that exists. There is nothing else.
Carver noted it’s what John Asbury called the “paddlewheel of days,” one day dovetailing into the next and into the next. When I’m not writing, though, which is most of the time, I try to stay in the woods. That’s the routine. Season renders to season. Small game and geese January to March, turkeys in April and May, frogs, flatheads, and mushrooms June to August, geese and dove in September, whitetails October to New Years. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. It’s always just a waiting game until the next story takes hold, and then when that happens, like I said, nothing else exists.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.