A Conversation with David Joy, Author of “The Weight of This World”
Where All Light Tends to Go, the debut novel of David Joy, garnered widespread acclaim among critics, who deemed the literary crime novel a “beautiful, brutal book” and “remarkable”. Evoking comparisons to the work of such luminaries of Southern fiction as Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rash, and Daniel Woodrell, the novel was also a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Now Joy returns with his second “Appalachian Noir,” The Weight of This World. The new story, again, takes readers deep into the brooding landscape and hardscrabble lives of mountains of North Carolina. What comes below is our conversation with him on his latest book, his inspirations and work in progress.
Your second novel, The Weight of this World, is set in the same locale as your acclaimed debut, Where All Light Tends to Go. What is the new novel about and how does it fit into what you coined the “Appalachian noir” genre?
The narrative trigger for The Weight Of This World is that a pile of drugs, money, and guns lands in the laps of two addicts following the accidental suicide of their drug dealer. What ensues is what Reed Farrel Coleman might’ve captured best in calling it “a beautiful nightmare.” More than that, though, it’s a story of broken characters shackled by their pasts. I think it’s a book about how our pasts impact who we become, and how decisions made in the blink of an eye can carry on for the rest of our lives. As far as genre, when I think of that word, noir, I think of mood. That seems to be the unifying characteristic. There’s an air of darkness cast over the work, a desperation and hopelessness. With The Weight Of This World, that atmosphere is felt from the opening sentence to the last. When you think about a line like, “Aiden McCall was twelve years old the one time he heard I love you,” the opening line of this novel, that’s what I mean by noir. I want emotion to ride on the very first breath.
The story is centered on two young men and one of their mothers. What inspired you to write about these particular characters?
I tend to always start with an image, or maybe a fragment of a scene. With Where All Light Tends To Go, it was the image of a young boy standing over a hog that he’d killed. With this new novel, it was more a piece of a scene. I could see two addicts sitting on a couch buying drugs from a guy they’d known their whole lives. The dealer was showing off all of these stolen guns that he’d taken in as payment and during that interaction he accidentally killed himself. So the image that I had to work with was two addicts sitting on a couch with a pile of drugs and money and guns scattered on the table in front of them and a dead body on the floor. At that point, it was a matter of trying to figure out who those two men were, why they were there, how they got there, and where they were going. All of that comes to me by sitting with an image. Typically when its something that refuses to leave my mind, I know I’ve got something worth pursuing, and at that point it’s just a matter of patience, sitting there long enough and quiet enough to let them tell me what they want to say.
One of the characters, Thad, is a troubled veteran. How does his war experience play into the story that unfolds?
This book is very much a story of trauma and post traumatic stress, and not just Thad’s, but April’s and Aiden’s as well. These are three lives governed almost entirely by their pasts. Some of them are conscious of how that past is affecting them, while others are absolutely oblivious to it. I think that was one of my main goals with this book, to create a story where trauma was the catalyst, where a character’s past directed every aspect of their life. With a typical novel, the pacing is driven by dialogue. I didn’t want that. I wanted what wasn’t being said to fuel the pace. There’s a moment late in the book when the only thing one of the characters has ever wanted was for someone to listen, and it says, “But no one listened anymore. No one. And perhaps it was that not listening that led to things like this. Perhaps it was that not listening that made the world so volatile.” This book is very much about what these characters are burying inside and how the weight of that creates instability.
With Thad, I knew that he would commit an extreme act of violence, but I didn’t know why. As I sat with that, I started to realize that he had a lot of similarities with a really good friend of mine who came back from war and wound up walking into his house, shooting his father and brother, and then killing himself. In an attempt to understand why, I read a lot of books on combat veterans. I remember reading a story about a Royal Marine who was being tried for murdering a Taliban insurgent. They described how paranoid he became in trying to survive in a place where he knew if he was captured he’d be skinned alive and beheaded. The testimony talked about patrols where the Marines would encounter body parts of soldiers strung from trees. All of these stories hit hard and I think I just kept wondering how a person could witness something like that and not have it affect the rest of their life. I couldn’t imagine it. What happened to my friend or to that Royal Marine, that’s not the truth of every veteran, or even combat veterans, and that’s part of what makes trauma such a hard thing to understand. It’s so individualized. I was interested in what happens when a person can’t cope with their past, can’t rectify the things that they’ve done and seen. That became Thad’s story.
Aiden and Thad were both neglected and subjected to violence as children. How does this connection bond them and what role does it play in the turmoil of their present lives?
I wanted to create two characters bonded by something stronger than blood, and I think that’s a situation that allows for that type of connection. When you share a history of neglect and violence, especially one rooted to childhood, there’s an empathy that no one else can understand. The two of them are alone in that. They’re fused by it.
The other side of this is that I was very interested in violence as an effect, in that Martin Luther King Jr. notion that “violence begets violence.” This book is filled with moments of incredible brutality. Some readers won’t be able to take it and that’s okay. That’s part of what I was trying to do, to play with that idea and to test that threshold. One of the things that interests me most is how we see a story on the news and can’t imagine what would bring someone to kill another person, but when it comes time for punishment we respond with a ruthless vengeance that mirrors the very nature of what we’re condemning. There are moments when we’re disgusted by violence and moments when we cheer it on with a murderous enthusiasm. I’m interested in where that line lies, and one of the biggest chances I took with this book was to test that boundary. I want to know when you turn away and I want to know when you applaud.
There seems to be a cycle of violence in these people’s lives that is inescapable. Is there any hope for these characters?
I think hope is often a direct benefit of privilege. What I mean is that it can be very, very difficult to look toward the future, any future, when your daily survival is up in the air. There’s a poem by one of my favorite writers, the Kentucky poet Rebecca Gayle Howell, titled “My Mother Told Us Not To Have Children,” but in that poem she has a line where she asks, “Is gentleness a resource of the privileged?” She answers, “In this respect, my people were poor. / We fought to eat and fought each other because // we were tired from fighting. We had no time / to share. Instead our estate was honesty, // which is not tenderness.” That is the reality of my characters. There is not time for tenderness and there is not time for hope. What I do want, though, is for there to be honesty and humanity. I’m interested in going to the darkest places imaginable and trying to find something we all recognize in ourselves.
There is a reference to the main character from your first novel, Jacob McNeely, in this book. Is there a connection between the stories?
When you live in a place like this, all stories are connected. Every place holds a memory. I remember standing in a curve at a wreck one time with a bunch of firemen buddies and two of the older men started remembering a bus that’d driven off the road there thirty years before. I remember one of them saying, “I never thought they’d quit bringing out the bodies.” People and place are an inseparable thing here. You grow up in an area like this and you know the old stories. You hear them time and time again so that eventually you become the proprietor of them. Memory lingers like ghosts. There’s an immortality to story here. So really I think that’s what I’m wanting to do when one story references another. Over a body of work, I might be able to layer the landscape, to have collective memory influence the consciousness of characters in a way that mimics the reality of this place.
With the reference to Where All Light Tends To Go, it also had to do with what really happened in this county when a large source of methamphetamine was busted as part of an extensive drug ring. In the period that followed there was this sort of madness that ensued regarding who would take the reins. There were all these shake-and-bake labs that popped up overnight to meet demand. That wash around period is when I set this story. I wanted that madness to be one log on the fire.
You live in the region you are writing about, the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. How is landscape important to the stories you are telling?
When I sit down to begin a story, the canvas isn’t blank in that there is already a place. There are already mountains and streams and buildings and roads, so that when a character finally arises, that character claws himself from the ground. Because he emerges from that place, he already has a name and an accent and mannerisms that are tied directly to the dirt from which he rose. That place for me is Jackson County, North Carolina, and it’s because that’s the only place I know. In a lot of ways, that makes things a lot easier in that I don’t have to create a setting. The place is already here. I can see it. I can touch it. I know it. I can drive to get my mail and imagine my characters walking along the ditch.
At the same time, I don’t write books about Jackson County. Nor do I write books about Appalachia. I write stories about desperation. I write tragedy. I write the types of stories I like to read, stories where any hint of privilege is stripped away so that all we are left with is the bitter humanity of it, stories about lives pinballing between extremes because there is nothing outside of sheer survival. Within those extremes, there is gut-busting laughter and there is heart-wrenching sadness, there is murderous anger and there is lay-down-my life love. That’s life, and that’s ultimately what I’m trying to capture.
There always seems to be music in your novels. In the last, the music of Townes Van Zandt became the soundtrack of the main character’s life. This time you have Dolly Parton and Drive-By Truckers, to name two. Why do you make music a part of your books?
Music and life, for me, are knotted together. I think every person has a soundtrack. There’s a reason a baby starts to dance when they hear music. There’s an old proverb from Zimbabwe that says, “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” I like that idea that music is inherent to the human experience, and so I think that’s one of the questions I always ask myself early on when I’m trying to get to know a character. What are they listening to? What are they humming when they’re alone? What do they dance to in the bathroom mirror? I think the answer to those questions is illuminating. Another thing it does is that it serves as an entrance point. Over the course of writing a novel, you get pulled away and so it’s nice to have a point of reentry. It helps to have something you can listen to and immediately get back into the head of a character.
With these characters, I think the Drive-By Truckers make for a fine, fine soundtrack to their lives. The Truckers capture what its like to be working-class poor in the South. They write songs about addiction and desperation and hopelessness and family and love and heartbreak and sadness. There are so many songs that encapsulate the lives of Thad Broom and Aiden McCall and to have them be aware of that, to have a music they identify with, is a powerful thing. With Dolly Parton it was the same thing, but for April. April is a bit older and has always thought her life would have turned out differently if she hadn’t gotten pregnant so young. I think Dolly’s music carries an understanding of this region and I think she represents someone from this place who managed to get out. Those two things mean something to April, and so for her, Dolly Parton becomes this sort of idealization of everything April believes she could have been if the circumstances had been different.
Your first book gained comparisons to a wide range of writers—from the literary like Flannery O’Connor, Ron Rash, and Cormac McCarthy to the genre writers as well. Where do you see your book fitting into the literary tradition of the South?
One thing that carries true for all of those writers—William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, Ron Rash, George Singleton—is that they write stories about hardscrabble people doing the best they can with what they have. At a base level, I think that’s what I’m doing. There’s also a tradition of darker stories here, what folks now might call noir, but which has always existed in this place. There’s a tradition of the outsider and of violence. Flannery O’Connor was giving a speech once and she was talking about the types of characters that fill Southern literature, and as she’s explaining why, she said, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Where I live, there are more churches than there are storefronts. When I think about the impact that has on the Southern identity, and, as a result, Southern literature, I can’t help but think of how incredibly violent a book The Bible is and how that violence has to shape things. Add to that a history of war and survival. Pour that history over the top of poverty and ruralism. Tell the stories of a place so removed that the people live by their own rules, and that’s where a lot of these stories come from. That’s not a universal truth for the South or for Appalachia, but I think it does encapsulate a lot of the stories we’ve come to associate with the region, and particularly with the writers you named. That’s very much where I’m rooted.
Are you working on a new book? Is so, is it again set in Appalachia?
Right now, I’m finishing a novel tentatively titled, The Line That Held Us, and, yes, it’s also set in Appalachia and more specifically in Jackson County. I can’t imagine writing a story that isn’t set here. For one, I know this place too well and the soil’s too rich. There’s enough material here to last me a thousand lifetimes. Ron Rash always quotes Eudora Welty’s idea that “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” That’s what James Joyce meant when they asked why he wrote entirely about Dublin and he said, “because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” For me, that place is Appalachia, and, again, more specifically Jackson County, North Carolina. Some writers are able to write about places they don’t live and somehow do so accurately and authentically. I can’t do that. Other writers set stories in places because they think it’ll sell; they exploit a place because of its marketability. I sure as hell couldn’t do that either. Appalachia is not a trope. Three hundred million years ago when all the land of the world merged together, these mountains rose at the center of it all, and for those of us who live here, who call this place home, it’s still the center of the world.