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Over the hills and far away: Jackson County author wins French literary award

David Joy. (photo: Ashley T. Evans) David Joy. (photo: Ashley T. Evans)

For someone who rarely comes down from his mountaintop cabin in the backwoods of Western North Carolina, writer David Joy will put aside his eternal quest for solitude and silence for one thing only — France. 

“You know, I tend to not travel anywhere. I don’t go on vacation. I don’t come off this mountain unless I have to,” Joy said. “But, France is the one exception. I’ll go anytime they ask. I’ve been twice [in 2022]. In all, I’ve spent about a month over there this year.”

This past week, Joy found himself at a well-regarded book festival outside of Paris. And it was there he was honored with the “Prix Saint-Maur En Poche,” which is the award for “Best Foreign Novel of the Year.” It’s a recognition he received for “When These Mountains Burn,” a whirlwind work of grit, darkness and chaos on the fringes of society — all signature traits at the heart of Joy’s growing catalog.

“It was an incredible honor, in that you’re traveling halfway around the world to meet readers who are just genuinely excited to have you and speak with you about your work,” Joy said. “I’ve been blessed to build a very faithful readership over there. And it’s just always really rewarding to know that people get what you’re trying to do, that they value your work — that’s not something I’ve ever really felt at home.”

Smoky Mountain News: In regards to France, what are your thoughts on why your books are so well-received in that country and by its people? What is it about Southern Appalachian literature and culture is so fascinating to these folks an ocean away?

David Joy: First and foremost, there’s just a very rich tradition of literature and art [in France]. It’s essential to them, culturally. But, on top of that, they’ve always been really interested in America. And I think they’ve grown tired of the typical New York City portrayal of America that has filled popular cinema and literature for decades. 

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They want stories set outside of that place, and so the American South and Appalachia are places that intrigue them. Plus, we’ve just always had a lot of really great writers coming out of those places. So, there’s that. 

But, I think they also have a willingness as readers to go to darker places. They don’t need feel-good books or happy endings. For writers like me that’s helpful, in that those aren’t the types of books I’m writing. I think the places I want to go with a story are places that scare a lot of American readers. We tend to not deal well with uncomfortability. 

The French, on the other hand, seem to be a people who love engaging with difficult ideas and stories. They like being challenged by something new.

SMN: For someone like yourself who enjoys peace and privacy at home and deep in the woods, what is it about France that makes it so easy and enjoyable for you to regularly leave Western North Carolina and head over there?

DJ: The big thing is that they just appreciate my work. They get what I’m trying to do and they’re genuinely excited to see me and talk with me about my work. You know, I can have an event here at home and there might be four or five people show up, and [yet] there’s never a bookstore I go to [over] there [in France] where it’s not packed to the gills. 

I go to festivals [in France] and there’s not time to eat because I’m signing books from the moment I sit down until the time they close the doors. I mean, how could you not relish in that? Everything I’ve ever wanted to feel as an artist I get to experience there — it’s honestly overwhelming.

SMN: As a writer and a human being, that is it about the French people and culture that remains very close to your heart?

DJ: I think there are a couple things that really stand out, and one is their passion for literature and art. They are genuinely excited to talk about books. And they want books that challenge them, that take them into new places with new people and new ideas. They read a pile more books than us anyways, but they tend to be much more courageous readers than Americans. 

Like I said earlier, they don’t need a happy ending. But, I absolutely love their willingness to engage in difficult conversations. You can be sitting at a table and they’ll be yelling at each other, fiercely debating some topic. And when they walk away at the end of the night they haven’t lost one speck of respect for the other person. They have a capacity for discourse and dialogue that sadly we’ve lost in this country — I love that.

SMN: As someone now embraced by the French, what moment sticks out and is forever chiseled on the walls of your memory?

DJ: It’s honestly hard to say. There was a really incredible meal in Pau with an independent bookstore owner, whose family has owned that store since the early 1700s; a hike through the mountains outside Lourdes, where I found a French version of jewelweed, touch-me-nots, and it just felt like home; caught a 100-pound wels catfish that was a little over five feet long on the Tarn in Albi. 

[One time], I spoke to a crowd of about 500 in this lavish hall in Lyon, the walls lined with gold, the ceiling painted, chandeliers sparkling everywhere. Lots of food, lots of wine, lots of countryside. Smiles, laughter, conversation. 

I’ve loved all of it, and it’s all meant the world to me. It never escapes me how fortunate I am to have built a readership there. If you can’t be loved and celebrated at home, there’s not a place in the world better than France.

Editor’s Note: David Joy is the author of “When These Mountains Burn” (winner of the 2020 Dashiell Hammett Award), “The Line That Held Us” (winner of the 2018 Southern Book Prize), “The Weight of This World,” and “Where All Light Tends to Go” (Edgar finalist for Best First Novel).

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