I scanned the room for Joy. There were clean-cut folks with button up shirts, some a tad shaggy with old jeans, with neither acknowledging my presence or attempts at eye contact. And yet, just as I was about to claim “ugly prom date” status, I turned around and there he was. Like a ghost who seemingly appeared from nowhere, Joy is a towering presence. Adorned in a camouflage hat, heavy work coat, muddy boots and a hearty beard, his handshake is firm and full of conviction, his voice low and soaked in a clenched jaw Southern drawl of apprehension and skepticism, his words few but important and meticulously thought out.
We took refuge in a nearby booth. As I began posing questions to him, he became restless, even agitated. His eyes were always aimed over my right shoulder, only making direct contact to indicate the importance of a particular statement, all the while his left arm would rub and scratch its counterpart continuously.
Joy was nervous, and for good reason. In the coming week, his highly anticipated debut novel Where All Light Tends to Go (Putnam/Penguin) will hit bookstores nationwide. At 31, his life will surely never be the same following the release. He’s already jumping on a book tour (18 cities in 19 days across America), already wrote and sold a second novel, and is currently in the process of constructing a third.
Set in the backwoods and small communities of Jackson County, Where All Light Tends to Go is a Southern Appalachian crime noir, mixing the two most toxic substances known to humanity — love and drugs. The story follows teenage anti-hero Jacob and his longtime outlaw family, pitting one boy who wants more out of his life against a tidal wave of impending trouble, obligation and a predetermined destiny to fail. The unforgiving nature of this vicious cycle is made even more complicated when true love is thrown into the mix. It’s about pleasure and pain, where the line is drawn, where the line is blurred, and what we as people do to either avoid or confront both emotions.
Hailing from the same rich literary vein of acclaimed Western North Carolina author Ron Rash, Joy seamlessly combines the small town character development of William Faulkner and seedy societal underbelly lore of Cormac McCarthy (where bad situations tend to rapidly turn into worst-case scenarios). It is a style of writing that not only holds the readers attention, it also forces them to hold their breath. You find yourself slowly morphing into the story, where the fate and downward spiral of Jacob becomes your own albatross.
It is a style of writing that has held steady throughout the history of literature, throughout the sacred storytelling of Southern Appalachia, and now has its next torchbearer in an evolving craft that spills out of Joy’s fingertips with a reckless abandon.
Smoky Mountain News: You left Charlotte as a teenager and studied writing at Western Carolina University. Now you’ve been residing in Western North Carolina for over a decade. What about this area appeals to you? Why do you still call it home?
David Joy: The landscape is one of the draws, but the people are why I’ve stayed. For a long time, I sat every morning drinking coffee with three men and listening to their stories. I go get my haircut by an old-time storyteller. I think when I moved here I was searching for something that had disappeared from where I grew up. I think, in a lot of ways, I was searching for the value set that existed with my grandmother’s generation.
A few generations back my family was tobacco and cotton farmers, and had been doing that in the piedmont of North Carolina since the late 1600s. What I found here was a space where those old values still existed, little pockets of the way things were before the world traded streams for screens. In a lot of ways it’s just like speck fishing for folks up here. There just aren’t that many places where you can still find streams where the only trout are native speckled trout, a fish that has lived here since the last Ice Age. There’s something nice about a place where the old ways hold out. There aren’t many places left like that, but they’re undoubtedly the most beautiful.
SMN: Is Jacob’s character a dime-a-dozen kid in Western North Carolina or just one piece of the puzzle in society?
DJ: To be honest, I don’t think he’s a regional character. His outlook on the world is defined by where he grew up, but the reality is you could set him up in that scenario anywhere. He’s not a dime-a-dozen kid, but is born into horrible circumstances. I started the book with an image of him. I remember being at a buddy’s house once, around here, and saw his kid standing over a pig having just killed it and recognizing how much power he had over life and death at an early age.
SMN: What do you think about Jacob being labeled an anti-hero?
DJ: That’s human nature having those flaws. The idea of a hero to me is a fallacy because everybody is flawed, no matter who you are. To be honest, the flaws are more interesting.
SMN: How close is Jacob’s story to your own?
DJ: I grew up in a pretty privileged home. I made the story up. But, the truth is I grew up with a lot of kids whose reality was that, but it wasn’t mine. I read a review that said it was semi-autobiographical. I wrote what I know, that’s the people I grew up around. My whole life in Charlotte, the circumstances that I grew up around, were a lot like Jacob’s.
SMN: What about the vicious cycle of Jacob’s life and family?
DJ: Boys grow up and do what their fathers did. If your father laid rock, you lay rock, if he runs equipment, you run equipment, and the same is true with outlaws. The families that have been arrested have been getting arrested for years.
SMN: What does the book title symbolize?
DJ: It comes from a scene in the book where Jacob is trying to conceptualize the idea of heaven, and the only proof he can conceive is the light that burns out in someone’s eyes when they pass away. He imagines some place where that light must go and, “The place where all that light gathered back and shined was about as close to God as I could imagine.”
SMN: What is it about writing that digs the deepest in you?
DJ: I think it’s the fact that you can put something on a page that evokes emotion in someone you’ve never met. There’s just something magic about that act. There are books that I’ve finished that I’ve just sat and cried afterward, and the fact that someone could bring out that kind of emotion in me is incredible to think about. I think that’s true of all art. It’s the fact that something inanimate holds that kind of power.
SMN: Do you see the fine line between telling a story and perpetuating stereotypes?
DJ: I think as a writer you have an obligation. One of the things I want to talk about most is that your average person, the only thing they see out of Appalachia is violence, poverty, no opportunities and drugs. And those are things I’m writing about, not because that’s what I see in Appalachia, but because that’s the literature I’m interested in. I think you have an obligation as a writer coming out of this area to say, “Yes these things do exist, but it doesn’t define us.” It’s not that these problems don’t exist — they do exist. You’ve just got to read through the police blotter. You see someone that keeps getting arrested for larceny, they’re typically not doing that to put food on the table, they’re doing that to support a drug habit. The reality is that for every one bad person, there are 10 good, and that’s Appalachia. The difference is that when crime hits here, it hits close. We live in such small communities that we know the people and we know their families. In a big city, there are so many people and you’re disconnected from it.
SMN: Next week, you’re whole existence is going to change. You’re going to get to a level as a writer you’ve probably always wanted to reach. What do you think about that?
DJ: I’m scared to death. This morning I was doing an interview for somebody at NPR. Cosmopolitan magazine picked the book as one of their “50 Things To Do This Month.” I’ve had support from the New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Minneapolis Star Tribune. I’m scared to death. I’m scared sitting right here. I don’t talk to people. I don’t leave my house. I’m an extreme introvert. I mean, everybody in this brewery knows me, they’re some of my best friends, but if I walk in and there are more than five people sitting here, I’ll leave. I haven’t always been this way. I’m just very skeptical of people.
SMN: What about the notion of finally getting what you’ve wanted?
DJ: I think you trade problems. When you’re a young writer and you’re not established, you’ve got all these problems. You’re sending out things, no publications to reference, nobody knows who you are. And that’s one set of problems, and this is an entirely different set of problems. But, I couldn’t be in better hands with my agent and publisher.
SMN: Now that you’re on the backside of your first novel, and already finished a second, what advice or lessons have you picked up and could share with up-and-coming or aspiring writers?
DJ: I think success or failure all boils down to who is willing to do the work. If you’re willing to put in the hours and keep your head down and recognize that you’re probably going to work for a decade before you have anything that holds weight, if you’re willing to burn a thousand pages because you recognize that it’s not worth a damn, then I think you can have it. That’s what writer Larry Brown said, “If you’re willing to hurt enough you can have it,” and that’s exactly right. When I wrote that first novel I was working two jobs. I left the house at 6:30 each morning and I walked back in the door at 10:30 that night. I wrote the novel in those hours in between, while the rest of the world slept. I did it because that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I sacrificed a lot of things to get where I am, and I think that’s what it boils down to is what you’re willing to sacrifice. I’m not very talented, but I’m stubborn as hell and will toe the line with the best of them. There are a lot of people who are a whole lot more talented than I’ll ever be, but I’ve just never been scared of work.
Want to go?
Author David Joy will present his debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 6, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. To help celebrate Innovation Brewing has brewed a special “Where All Light Tends to Go” Stout. There will be free samples available during the reading at the bookstore and following there will be an after-party at Innovation to continue the celebration. Joy’s stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Drafthorse Literary Journal, Smoky Mountain Living, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pisgah Review, and Flycatcher, and he is also the author of the memoir, Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey.