WRITERS TELL ALL
"I Just Don't Know Anything Else": The Brilliant David Joy on Writing Crime Literature--Where Place and People Are So Important
David Joy's novel THE LINE THAT HELD US is just the latest in a series of novels by the author that test the boundaries of the genre, reinventing some of the genre and reinvigorating other tired areas of the genre that feel tired and used up in other hands. Joy's track record is nearly spotless and every one of his novels feels like a great event, a book to build upon the history of his home and his own personal history chapter by chapter. We are thrilled to feature an interview with the remarkable and endlessly talented David Joy. The photos here are provided by Ashley T. Evans (Joy's photo) and Putnam (the novel cover).
Matthew Turbeville:David, I have been a big fan of your work ever since the publication of your novel, Where All Light Tends to Go. You have a gift for language and story, matched with a certain rawness and intensity that reminds me of Daniel Woodrell combined with Christa Faust, except closer to home. I’m from South Carolina and, obviously, am familiar with the settings of your books. The first question I’d like to ask you is how do you come to decide to write a novel? Where does the idea of a novel come from for you? Are you more character or plot oriented in early stages? Could you describe this process?
David Joy:I think most of the time story for me begins with an image, or maybe a fragment of an idea. Typically that image or idea contains at least one character and when it first arrives I have absolutely no idea who they are so really that’s the first question. Who are they? How did they get there? Why are they there? Where are they going? That’s probably the longest part of the process for me is just getting to know those characters intimately, to the point that I know damn near everything about them. Sometimes I might live with a character in the back of my head for years. Right now I’m in the middle of a novel and there’s another character that will probably wind up being the focus of the next book and he’s constantly tumbling around in the back of my skull, just sort of evolving into whatever he’s going to become. I always make this same tired joke, but it’s the truth, and it’s that even if one of my characters doesn’t go to Waffle House in the book, I know how they would’ve ordered their hashbrowns. You get to know them in that way and then it’s just a matter of dropping them into situation. You can drop them into anything and you know how they’re going to react, you know what they’re going to say. Novels develop that way for me. I’ve never plotted anything going in. I tend to drop them into a situation and follow blindly until they take me to the heart of the story.
MT:What about Appalachia and the South in general makes it such a great and compelling setting for crime and noir novels?
DJ:I don’t know that I think Appalachia or the South is better cut out for crime and noir than other settings, or at least I’ll say that there’s incredible crime and noir being written all over the place. But I do think there’s a certain mystique about rural settings. Part of that is just the abundance of empty land. There are a lot of places to hide a body. I think about the county where I live and right this minute there are places in Jackson County that you could call 911 and it might take an hour for a deputy to get to your house. When you live in a place like that it sort of develops its own capacity for order. A lot of folks think of it as lawlessness, but it’s the opposite of lawlessness. It’s law and order driven by self-preservation and necessity. The other thing about crime here is that it’s rarely a random act of violence. Someone gets shot and it’s familial. It’s their cousin. It’s their brother. When crime happens in this place, you know the person who did it. You went to school with him. You go to church with his aunt. The degrees of separation that exist in places like cities, that doesn’t happen here. Everything is just closer and more personal. I think those realities can be really advantageous on the page.
MT:Your novels, while sizzling and electric, are also compact and demanding the reader to pay attention to every single detail. In many ways, you’re able to fit much more story and character than writers who author novels twice your length. How do you construct such elaborate and bone-chilling stories while fitting them into such small spaces?
DJ:I love novels that are really contained. A lot of the writers I admire most are just really good at that. I think about someone like Daniel Woodrell and what he was able to do with Tomato Redor The Death Of Sweet Mister. There’s so much happening in those books and yet you can devour them in a single sitting. Jim Harrison was maybe the master of that, take a novel like Farmer, or distill it farther and think about all those novellas. He owned that form. We’re talking about stories that are sometimes only 30,000, maybe 40,000 words, and yet you never leave the table feeling hungry. It’s like cooking stock. You start with the bones and cook them down for hours, and when the bones are out of the pot you reduce the stock by half. That’s the way I want a novel to work. I want it to be rich. I don’t have any interest in leaving all of that extra water in the pot.
MT:What was it like, being a Southern writer authoring books about Appalachia and trying to get into the publishing industry? How long did it take you to secure an agent and later publisher? Do you think the area you write about as well as the strong voices of your character helped encourage agents to take on your novels or is your story more complicated than that?
DJ:I don’t think I experienced any set backs or hurdles as a result of being where I was from. The hope is that the work stands for itself and I think that’s what got me where I am is the work. I do think some of the things that may have been harder for me boil down to the fact that I didn’t come out of any sort of MFA program. That’s not to say looking back I would’ve wanted to, but that is to say that those writers tend to have a much better understanding of how publishing works in general. They leave those programs with a lot of knowledge about the industry and a lot of connections that I just didn’t have. Truth be told, I just sent a letter to an agent and she happened to fall in love with the story. Before I sold a book I’d never traveled anywhere. I’d never really left North Carolina. I’d certainly never been on an airplane. I remember when I was in New York City for the second time—I think it was for a tour Putnam did with me, M.O. Walsh, Ace Atkins, and CJ Box—but I can just remember staring out of the window of that high rise hotel room looking out over that city and I just started crying. I was overcome with emotion. And what it boiled down to was the simple fact that all I did to get there was to write a letter. I wrote a letter and sent it from the mountains where I live to a woman in New York City who I’d never met and my world changed forever.
MT:Your novels are so original and so wholly themselves, not echoing back to any author in particular, other than perhaps Daniel Woodrell, who seems to write about similar characters in a very different setting. Who were your greatest influences both growing up and now writing as an adult? What books shaped the way you see the world and write the most?
DJ: Early on it was the typical suspects for someone like me—Faulkner, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell. Those were the first novels I really fell in love with and it’s because those writers were writing about places I knew and the people I loved. It’s pivotal that you fall in love with a single book for you to become a lifelong reader. What seems to happen is that the one book leads you to a second and the second to a third and before long you’re snatching everything off of every shelf that you can find. My tastes have evolved and broadened. I’m still interested in telling the same kinds of stories, but the stories I enjoy reading are different. I read a lot more poetry than I do fiction. I love Maurice Manning and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ray McManus and Frank X Walker. My favorite book of poetry I’ve read this year was Kevin Young’s collection Brown. Some of my favorite things I’ve read this year were manuscripts. I read a new story collection called Sway by a Kentucky writer named Sheldon Lee Compton. A few years ago he had that brilliant collection The Same Terrible Storm. I also read a debut novel manuscript by a writer I love named Leigh Ann Henion. The novel’s called Behold That Vanishing Graceand it’s this sort of Edward Abbey meets Barbara Kingsolver eco-thriller. She’s one of the most talented voices in Appalachia, in America for that matter. I loved this book of nonfiction called The Man Who Quit Moneyby Mark Sundeen. I usually mix up the nonfiction with the novels. I read John Branch’s The Last Cowboys, and that’s an incredible story. I also loved Michael Finkel’s The Stranger In The Woods, just the pacing he was able to create in a book of nonfiction. I think it’s been a really great year for the novel. There’ve been a lot of books I enjoyed: Steph Post’s Walk In The Fire, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Taylor Brown’s Gods Of Howl Mountain, Robert Gipe’s Weedeater, Leesa Cross-Smith’s Whiskey & Ribbons, Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Silas House’s Southernmost. I think my two favorite novels I’ve read this year are Richard Powers’ The Overstoryand Tommy Orange’s There There.The Overstory is almost biblical in scope. From those opening lines of, “First there was nothing. Then there was everything,” to just the sort of layered storytelling. That book’s a tremendous accomplishment. Then Orange’s book came out of nowhere. It’s one of the richest debut novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I reread that novel as soon as I finished. I think that book is damn near perfect. Right now I’m reading a new novel by Gabino Iglesias called Coyote Songs, and that son of a bitch is just getting better and better! I’m also rereading a book by Rick Bass called The Deer Pasture, which is obviously wonderful because everything he’s ever written has been wonderful, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that it’s deer season and I’d rather be up a tree than sitting here behind a computer.
MT:I’ve always viewed you as a fairly successful author—so many people I know, novelists and not, not only read your books but relish them. A David Joy publication is something of an event. Did you feel with the success of Where All Light Tends to Gothat you were a success? Which of your books to date is your favorite, and would you mind elaborating on why?
DJ:I think what you or I would consider success and what the publishing industry considers success might be pretty different, but that said I’ve been very fortunate to have the readership I’ve had. At the end of the day that boils down to all the hard work of my publisher. I’ve got an editor I’d follow into a burning building. I’ve got an incredible publicist who consistently gets my work placed in the right hands. I’ve got an entire marketing team that’s always working their ass off to think of new ways to push a book. I’ve just been very fortunate to work with the people I’ve worked with. I still don’t know that I’ve ever felt successful. Maybe I just don’t know what that looks like. I’d love if I hit some sort of big list or if I took one of the larger prizes or something like that, but if that happened I still don’t know that I’d be able to say, yep, I’ve made it. I don’t spend much time thinking about any of that. I focus on the work. I just want to tell a good story. As far as my personal favorite, it’s The Weight Of This World, and that’s definitely the book that has sold the least. I just really like the language in that novel. It’s rich. I also know what I was trying to do with it and I think it was ambitious. I admire that. I don’t want to write simple books. That said, the book is incredibly dark and maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well. I think it takes a brave reader to engage with and embrace that type of story. Most people aren’t willing to take those sorts of risks. Most people are scared of being uncomfortable.
MT:What continues to drive you to write? Your home? Your family? The people—friends and acquaintances and otherwise—you know? Or something bigger, greater—possibly hard to define in just a few sentences? What pushes you through first drafts and second drafts and revisions, and have you ever almost given up on a novel?
DJ: I’ve always been rooted to story. I grew up in an oral storytelling tradition where adults expected children to be seen but not heard. That sounds strange to some people, maybe, but what it taught you as a child was the value of listening. I grew up listening to uncles and aunts and grandparents and church elders tell stories. I grew up hearing oration and learning to recognize that moment when a story turns. My grandmother remains the greatest influence and greatest storyteller I’ve ever known. So I think I just grew up believing in the importance of story and the power of story. That’s the same thing that pushes me today. I absolutely wholeheartedly believe in literature as a vehicle for social change. George Saunders had that beautiful idea that prose when it’s done well has the ability to serve as empathy’s training wheels. I love that thought and I believe that idea to my bones. That’s what I love about reading books, it’s that ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while. More than anything else, that’s what I’m striving for.
MT:I’m very rarely a fan of male writers, both for personal and aesthetic reasons, but yet you and Daniel Woodrell and a handful of other spectacularly gifted male writers have caught my attention and held it through many years. Even though I often prefer female writers, I’ve never read any writer other than you who has caught the South I know so well in such an accurate and particularly truthful light. Why do you think your portrayal of this region of the country comes across as so true and honest?
DJ:Quite simply, I just don’t know anything else. I’ve spent my entire life in North Carolina. I’ve spent half of it here in the mountains. People always tell young writers that old cliché of write what you know and I don’t know that I think that’s a necessity. There are piles of writers writing about things they didn’t know. There are piles of writers who write to know. I’m just someone who has always found everything I needed right here in this one place. It’s that Eudora Welty idea of one place understood helps us understand all places better. It’s what James Joyce meant when they asked him why he always wrote about Dublin and he told them, if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. I think every story I ever want to tell can be told right here with the people and place I know. I don’t feel limited by that in any way. As far as the honesty, I’m just incapable of anything else. I think my give-a-fuck is broken.
MT:Your most recent book, the recently published The Line That Held Us, at once carries the beauty of poetry and the brutality of crime. What drew you to this premise and what was your favorite part about writing this book? Similarly, what the hardest or most grating part of writing or finishing this novel?
DJ:That balance, I think, comes from studying writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay. I think both of them were capable of making incredible acts of violence palatable through language. You’d read these horrifying scenes, something like that moment in Gay’s short story “The Paper-Hanger” where the child’s body is in the freezer, and the language would just be so astonishingly beautiful and poetic that you’d find yourself relishing moments that would otherwise turn your stomach. I love that sort of balance. With The Line That Held Us, my favorite thing about that book was just developing the character of Dwayne Brewer. I wanted to write a really memorable antagonist, someone like Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child Of Godor Granville Sutter in Gay’s Twilightor The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It was incredibly satisfying to bring that character to life and to paint him in such a way that people fell in love with someone they’d normally despise. There was so much opportunity for ambiguity with Dwayne, so much space to paint the walls gray.
MT:In the South, or in crime fiction in general, what would you like to see more of? What sort of people would you like to see more represented by crime writers like these people, or characters similar to these people written by existing crime writers? And are there any genres, tropes, or plotlines in crime fiction you feel tired of and are ready to see writers move on from?
DJ: I think what I want is a stage inclusive of more voices. I want the microphone to be handed to people who have historically been silenced. I want to hear the stories of marginalized people. And as bad as things seem some time, I think we’re getting to a place where that’s happening more often. I think we’re at a really interesting time in literature. People are paying attention to voices and stories that weren’t getting that same recognition even ten years ago. That’s comforting. Now obviously we’re not where we need to be and there is still an incredible amount of work to be done, but I do find solace in the direction we’re headed. As far as tropes, I’m tired of people, identity, class, and region being written as tropes. Appalachia is not a trope. The rural, working poor are not tropes. Homosexuality is not a trope. Misogyny is not a trope. Racism is not a trope. And yet we continue to allow people in privileged places to use them as such. So what I’m sick of are people who don’t know a goddamn thing about any of it capitalizing off of the current relevancy. I’m sick of the publishing industry rewarding people who don’t know a fucking thing about what they’re writing about, and I’m sick of readers gobbling that shit up at the trough. I’m sick of people being disingenuous.
MT:What are the keys to creating tension and dread in a novel, which you have done so masterfully for a while now? What do you think are the most important rules and guidelines up-and-coming crime writers should know and stick to? Do you have any advice for aspiring crime writers?
DJ: I don’t like the idea of rules. I think there are things that you can notice a writer doing, or a group of writers doing, that makes something work, but then there will be another writer doing something so differently and they’re accomplishing the same thing. I think a lot of young writers or people who are just aspiring to write look for answers to variables as if there’s some sort of equation. As if, once I know the answers for a, b, c, and dI can plug those into a2+b(c)/d=ewhere e represents a good book. The truth is that it just doesn’t work like that. What works for me might not work for someone else at all. I say this because I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to emulate what writers I admired were doing believing that if I just did that then I could write the book. What eventually happened was that I started to notice that there were things I did that maybe other people didn’t do, couldn’t do, and that there were certain things that helped me work. Once I was able to recognize that and focus on that and trust in that, the work has been a lot easier. There are no universal rules for creating meaningful art. The only common thread that ties every single artist I’ve ever known together is an unrelenting compulsion to create.
MT:What do you think is the biggest misconception about Appalachia and the people who live there? If you have addressed this issue in your work, what have you done or if you could what would you do to correct this issue through the course of a novel?
DJ:I don’t think that I could narrow the misconceptions down to anything singular, because there are just so, so many. That said, I think people continue to talk about this place as if it’s just some small town you can hop in a car and drive through. “Oh, I’ve been to Appalachia,” they’ll say. The truth is that we’re talking about a region that stretches across 13 states, 420 counties, covering some 205,000 square miles. That’s 40,000 square miles bigger than the entire state of California. So imagine trying to narrow California down to any sort of singular image. You can’t. You just can’t. And that’s what people don’t get about this place. They keep wanting to present the region as this narrow image because I guess it’s easier. Maybe because it reinforces the narrative they want to hear. I don’t know. What I do know is that this place is incredibly complex and diverse, and none of that is being shown by bullshit books like Hillbilly Elegy, which seems to be the only thing anyone has read from this place in the past decade. If you want to know what this place is like, if you want to have any sort of understanding about this region as a whole, read broadly. Read Wendell Berry and Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ricardo Nazario y Colon. Read Silas House, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Denton Loving, Darnell Arnoult, Robert Gipe, Ron Houchin, Pam Duncan, Elizabeth Catte. 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 of the complexities of this place. Read all of that and if you want more names I’ll be happy to lengthen the list.
MT:David, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time and energy, and I really appreciate you taking the time to engage in this interview with me. I am, of course, interested to know what your current work in progress is like, if there is one. I’m sure our readers are dying to know. As for anything else, feel free to close with any questions, comments, suggestions, or thoughts you feel necessary before ending the interview—and thank you again so much.
DJ:I’m currently finishing up a novel titled When These Mountains Burn. I don’t know when that book will release, but I’d guess sometime in 2020. The novel is the story of these two lives—one an old-time Appalachian father whose son dies of an overdose, and the other a 30s something heroin addict—that run unknowingly parallel. Eventually those lives twist together and get tied into a knot. I think largely it’s a book about a shifting culture, the extinction of old mountain ways. The story is set during the 2016 wildfires because that time just felt so volatile. There was the election on the television, the sky was yellow with smoke, the world was literally burning down outside our windows. I just remember it felt like the end of something. That’s probably not a very good elevator pitch for folks wanting plot synopsis, but that’s what I’m working on and I’m awfully proud of what it’s shaping into.