Moments of Incredible Brutality: MysteryPeople Q&A with David Joy

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

David Joy caught our attention with his brutal and poignant debut, Where All Light Tends to Go, hailed as a modern classic in the growing genre of rural noir. His next book, The Weight of the World, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and comes out today! David Joy was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest book and his philosophy of writing. 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Weight Of This World deals with three characters on the bottom rungs of society who’ve made some bad life choices, but you never feel like your look at people in a white trash zoo, you have an understanding of them. Can you talk about how you approached Thad, Aiden and April?

David Joy: I remember one time hearing George Saunders say, “Fiction is empathy’s training wheels.” That idea has always stuck with me. I think the most important job I have is to show the humanity of every character I write. When you’re telling the kinds of stories I tell about the types of people I’m writing about, you carry a tremendous obligation to get to that humanity, and that’s not an easy thing to do. We’re talking about drug addicts and thieves, people capable of committing horrifying acts of violence. We live in a world where we’re able to put a great deal of distance between “us” and “them” for the sake of comfortably. We live in a word where it’s easy to demonize those people, to say to ourselves, “I’m nothing like them.” The problem with that is it leaves little room for dislodge, and without conversation you can never address a problem. I was reading a review recently and a woman said, almost angrily, “He made me care about these people!” That’s about the highest compliment I could ever hope for. I made them care. The reality is, as much as I wish it weren’t true, that’s a very hard thing to do.

MPS: Relationships are the driving force in your novels. What is important to you about how your characters interact with one another?

DJ: I think it’s one thing to be inside the head of a character, but another thing altogether to see how a character reacts to others. A lot of times people can lie to themselves, but when they’re backed against the wall and they either have to do something for someone or don’t do it, tell the truth or lie, that’s when you really get to the deepest part of the human condition. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of how we interact with the people around us, the people closest to us and the people we don’t know from Adam. I think that’s the role relationships play in a novel, and as a writer those are the moments when we get to see our characters stripped down to exactly who they are. That’s sort of the ultimate test.

MPS: Thad is a war vet who is finding peace more difficult to deal with than combat. What did you want to get across to the reader about the men who have returned from our recent conflicts?

DJ: 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. 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 were 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.

MPS: The violence in your work is believable and brutal. What do you think is most important in depicting it?

DJ: I read something recently, an interview with a visual artist named Alfredo Jaar in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he said, “Violence is our present condition.” I think that’s an incredible statement. If a book’s not confronting issues of racism, misogyny, and violence then I have hard time recognizing it as modern American realism. Turn on the nightly news and convince me otherwise. So with this novel I was very interested in the idea of violence as an affect, in that Martin Luther King Jr. notion that, “violence begets violence.” This story 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 was 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 retaliation 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 vengeance. I’m interested in where that line lies, and that’s 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. In regards to how the violence is portrayed, I think that’s a very fine line to walk. You show too much and the reader turns away. You show too little and they dismiss the horror of it. I try to think about what’s needed to accomplish what I want a scene to do, and that’s how I decide whether to go all in or pull back. I don’t want anyone to ever say that what I put on a page is gratuitous. If a reader can say that, I’ve failed.

MPS: What do you hope the reader sees about Appalachia in your writing?

DJ: This is a really big question for me, one that I don’t think I can capture in a paragraph or two, but I’ve written about it before. I’d like to share this essay I wrote titled, “One Place Misunderstood,” that first appeared at Writer’s Bone and was later republished at the Huffington Post. I think it answers this question about as openly as I could hope.

MPS: I’m already looking forward to the next book. What can you tell us about it?

DJ: Most of my work tends to start with some sort of narrative trigger. In The Line That Held Us, a poacher goes out into the woods after a deer and accidentally kills a man who was digging ginseng. He recognizes he’s killed a member of a family notorious for vengeance and violence. With nowhere to turn, he calls on the help of his best friend, but when the victim’s brother comes looking, a blood trail leads to a nightmare of revenge that forces each to recognize what they’re willing to sacrifice and for whom they’ll lay down their life. Ultimately, another feel-good book is what I’m getting at. I’m doing my damnedest to wind up on some sort of “Twelve Books That Will Lift Your Spirits” list.

You can find copies of The Weight of this World on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE WEIGHT OF THIS WORLD by David Joy

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780399173110David Joy got our attention in 2015 with his debut Where All The Light Tends To Go. The searing rural noir proved there was still a lot to mine from the subgenre. Now Mr. Joy picks up his tools and goes down down even deeper into that dark hole with The Weight Of This World.

Like Where All The Light Tends To Go, this book deals with the double edge sword of friends and family, upping the stakes in complexity of those relationships. A triangle between three people serve as the base for this tale. Thad Broom returns from Afghanistan, finding combat easier to deal with than returning to life in his Appalachian town, even though he struggles to come to terms with his wartime experience. To survive he takes copper from derelict homes and pulls a few petty crimes with his life long buddy Aiden. Soon enough, one of those crimes gets them in the middle of a shoot-out that drops a bunch of drugs in their lap. When Broom’s mother April, who is also Aiden’s lover, hears about this, she tells them to go back to the trailer where it happened, since there should be money. All three see the narcotics and cash as a way to escape their circumstances, but it just puts them all way over their heads.

Joy takes the blueprint for a crime fiction plot done many times and spins something unique and poignant through his damaged characters. Thad may be the one you hope to escape the most, but he seems to be looking for an excuse to go down a dark road. Aiden comes off initially as a charismatic hustler who can’t see life beyond the mountains, proves to have more depth in revealed history and action. April could have simply been an interesting back woods Lady Macbeth, but we see a woman whose choices in youth and the society she born into lead her to be trapped. These characters do feel the weight of the world, yet theirs is a small one in the mountains, pressing on them from every side with one bad opportunity for escape.

The idea of kin and loyalty runs through The Weight Of This World. Each character has each others back, but it only serves to push each other of them closer to the edge. Like most rural noir, it looks at inertia of setting, however it argues it has more to do with people than place.

The Weight of This World comes out March 7th. Pre-order now!

Edgar Nominations Announced!

 

mwaThe nominations for the 2016 Edgar Awards were announced last week. This seemed to be the year where great minds think alike – many of the nominees made in on to our best of 2015 lists, put together by Scott and Molly. 

We want to congratulate old friends and new favorites, including Duane Swierczynski, nominated for his novel Canary, David C. Taylor, for Night LifeMichael Robotham, for Life or DeathMegan Abbott, for her short story “The Little Men,” Philip Kerr, for The Lady From Zagreb, Lou Berney, for The Long and Faraway GoneLori Rader Day, for Little Pretty Things, David Joy, for Where All Light Tends To GoGordon McAlpine, for The Woman with the Blue Pencil, Jessica Knoll, for Luckiest Girl Alive, and Adrian McKinty, for Gun Street Girl.

Congratulations all the others who made it. Best of luck to everyone and have a great time in New York.

Click here for the full list of Edgar Nominees.

Scott’s Top 10 Debuts of 2015

– List compiled by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Usually I only pick five novels in this category, but this was such a great year for new voices, the list needed to be expanded. I even had to cheat a little and allowed two to tie for the top.

978039917277997803991739671. Where All Light tends To Go by David Joy & Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

Both these authors proved there is still a lot of life in rural noir. Writing with the skill and emotion of seasoned pros, they bring the mountains of South Carolina and Georgia to vivid, poignant, and painful life with their tales of fate, family, and violence.

Read More »

Scott’s Top 10 (Okay, 12) Of 2015 So Far

Scott’s Top 10 (Okay, 12) Of The Year So Far

We are now in the last month of summer reading. If you want to go out with some quality crime fiction, here are some suggestions of books both talked about and deserving of attention. It was difficult to cut this list down and even when I did, I doubled up on a couple that shared a few traits.


the cartel1. The Cartel by Don Winslow

This mammoth, yet fast paced look at the war with the Mexican cartels is epic crime fiction at its finest. Full of emotion, great action, and sharply drawn characters, this book is destined to be on a lot of critics’ list for 2015 as well as becoming a classic. Even more entertaining, is that Winslow’s drug kingpin, Adan Barrera, has a lot in common with current fugitive Cartel boss, El Chapo.


bull mountainwhere all the light tends to go2. Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich & Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy

Both of these rural noirs by debut authors show there is still a lot of life in the subgenre. These books view ideas of violence, kin, honor, and retribution with the eyes of an author with decades of experience and the energy of newcomer.


long and faraway gone3. The Long & Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

The ambitious novel balances three mysteries to look at the ripples of a violent act and the effect it has on the survivors. Great pacing and clean, accessable style allow for this rich, multi-character story to flow beautifully.


bishops wife4. The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

Loosely based on a true crime, this book gives us an inside and very human view of modern Mormon society. Harrison balances both interior monologue and exterior dialogue to give us a main character who doesn’t know if she can always speak her mind.


doing the devil's work5. Doing The Devil’s Work by Bill Loehfelm

A routine traffic stop for rookie patrolman Maureen Coughlin leads to a conspiracy involving a black drug dealer, white supremacists, guns, a prominent New Orleans family, and some of her fellow officers. Loehfelm renders the both the drudgery and danger of police work and the web of corruption that even ensnares good cops.


love and other wounds6. Love & Other Wounds by Jordan Harper

These short stories herald a great new voice in crime fiction. Harper has a cutting prose style that reveals the souls of violent men.


soil7. Soil by Jamie Kornegay

A mix of Southern gothic with psycho noir about a failed young farmer who finds a body on his flooded property. Kornegay knows how to capture people driven by their obsessions and at the end of their rope.


concrete angels8. Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott

Abbott’s inverse retelling of Mildred Pierce has a classic feel even though the story about a daughter caught up in her mother’s mania and criminal schemes has a modern psychological bent. A page-turner in the best sense of the word.


past crimesthe devils share9. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton and The Devil’s Share by Wallace Stroby

Two great hard boiled tales from the criminal point of view. Whether Stroby’s heist woman or Hamilton’s “reformed” criminal out for revenge, these books deliver all the tropes with a fresh take and pathos.


all involved10. All Involved by Ryan Gattis

This tapestry of short stories that take place in L.A. during the six days of the Rodney King Riots is both blistering and human. A historical novel that has a lot to say about the present.


You can find copies of the books listed above on our shelves or via bookpeople.com.

Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.

MysteryPeople Q&A with David Joy


David Joy’s Where All Light Tends To Go delivers everything a rural noir reader loves with a fresh take on the genre. With a subtle, poetic look Joy follows an eighteen-year-old Appalachian boy during one summer where he faces a difficult choice: move further into his father’s meth ring or escape his town completely. Both nuanced and brutal, it is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and a must read. David was kind enough to answer some of our questions and talk about the process of his writing, the people he writes about, and the importance of both Daniel Woodrell and alt. country.


MysteryPeople: Jacob is such a fully realized character. How did you approach writing someone younger?

David Joy: I lived with an image of Jacob in my head for nearly a year before I ever got his voice right. There was an image that’s actually in the book of this young boy standing over a hog he’s killed and realizing just how much power he had over life and death at a very early age. That was the birth of Jacob, that single image. But I tried to write his story two or three different times before I ever got it right. I actually had about 35,000 words of a manuscript that I burned because it was wrong. Sometimes you just have to start over. You have to be brave enough to burn it and start from ashes or the work won’t be any good. There was a long stretch afterward where I lived with his image, but I couldn’t hear him. Then one night I woke up from a dream about him and he was talking. That may sound like hokum or something, but that really is how it happened. I think I’d just been living with him in my head for so long that when his voice finally presented itself it was well defined. I knew everything about him at that exact moment and then it was just a matter of trying to keep up with the story he wanted to tell and do him justice. Hopefully I did that.

MP: You did a wonderful job of expressing the weight Jacob feels to stay in his town and work for his father. Why do you think people stay in their circumstances, no matter how bad they are?

DJ: I think it’s easier to stay put. That’s true for all of us. We get comfortable in our lives even when those lives may not be what we envisioned for ourselves, and that comfortability creates stagnancy. It’s easier to just deal with something you’ve already learned to confront than it is to walk out into the unknown. That’s what the end of that book is all about. At the same time, I think following in your father’s footsteps is something indicative of Appalachian culture. If your father lays stone for a living, you learn to be a mason. If your father works on cars, you become a mechanic. If he farms, you farm. If he runs equipment, you might be on the sticks of a trackhoe at seven or eight. That’s something that’s indicative of the region where I live. A lot of times that is a great thing. There are families here who are known for their work. For instance, there’s actually a really famous family of stone masons from Jackson County, the Hueys, that have been laying rock for generations, a family so regarded they were actually asked to go somewhere in Japan to teach their craft. So I think there’s that type of familial legacy that exists in Appalachia, whether it be a good thing or a bad thing. And on that same note, there are families here who have always been outlaws, every generation that was born. Like the book says, “Blood’s thicker than water,” and Jacob McNeely was drowning in it.

MP: You are getting a lot of comparisons to Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, and Frank Bill, but rural North Carolina has a different feel coming off the page. What makes the area unique to write about?

DJ: The thing that I think all of us have in common is that we’re writing about working class people who are scraping by. When you have absolutely nothing to lose, you’re a lot more willing to do just about anything to make ends meet. That’s what Larry Brown wrote about, Daniel Woodrell, Harry Crews, William Gay, Ron Rash, Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, all of them. So the similarities arise out of the people we’re writing about. These are the people we know. They live right down the street from us. They’re our people. The only difference is that all of the writers I just named are a lot better at it than I am, but I’m learning, I think, and they’ve left a wonderful set of footsteps to follow. But as far as Appalachia being different, Ron Rash has always said that landscape is destiny, and I think that’s absolutely right. There are two ways of feeling about the mountains that you hear over and over when you ask people, and what they always say is either that they feel nestled, like God is holding them in the palm of His hand, or they say they feel trapped, as if these mountains are walls. For Jacob, I think it’s the latter. I also think because this is such a harsh place to survive–the climate, the lack of opportunity, everything–I think all of those things come to govern how we view our lives. So while the circumstances these characters are facing are similar to a lot of Southern grit lit writers, the story is very much Appalachian in the sense that the McNeelys are a part of this mountain.

MP:This being your first novel, did you draw from any influences or did you simply apply what you learned from your memoir and short fiction?

DJ: I think a lot of what I was doing came out of an obsession with Daniel Woodrell. I think he’s one of the best writers in America, especially that stint from Tomato Red, Death of Sweet Mister, Winter’s Bone, and The Outlaw Album. I remember the first time I ever read Tomato Red I spent the entire day reading that opening chapter over and over trying to figure out just what he was doing. That book opens up and you’re at the end of the first chapter before you take a breath. That type of propulsion makes for great fiction. That’s also why it meant so much when he praised the pacing of this novel. The pacing was something I’m trying to draw from him. Larry Brown and Donald Ray Pollock are two more who I think did this really well. So what I’m trying to do on the page is very much rooted in the style of writers that I enjoy. What I tried to do was have a setup that in 30 pages forced the reader to keep going. So within 30 pages of this novel, I tried to set the hook. I think most readers will allow you that much space, or basically an hour of reading, before they decide whether or not they’re vested. For me, it’s very important to fit the crux in that space. Larry Brown said that. He said you start with conflict, and he’s right. It’s like if you were shopping in the grocery store and all of a sudden a fight broke out or someone pulled a gun, you’d just freeze and nothing else would matter in that moment. A lot of what I write, I want to grab you just like that. I want to force you to read whether you intended to or not.

MP: You seem to be a big alt country fan. Is there anything about singer-songwriters you envy and would like to apply to your own work?

DJ: I’m interested in songwriters in the same way that I’m interested in poets and short story writers, and I think that’s because of the emotional weight they’re able to create within a very small space. I was listening to an interview with songwriter Josh Ritter recently, which I think he’s a good example because he’s also written a novel, Bright’s Passage, but what he said is that, “writing a song is like trying to write a novel on a grain of rice.” There’s a lot of truth to that, and I think that also pinpoints one of the reasons I’m so drawn to them. I’m really picky about what I listen to, not picky in the type of music, but picky in the quality of the language. For me, Townes Van Zandt was the greatest songwriter to ever live. The emotion he captures in a single song is an emotion that it takes me an entire novel to reach. I don’t necessarily think that one is better than the other, rather it’s just an element of form, but what I am saying is that it absolutely blows my mind what really great songwriters are able to do in three minutes.

MP: I know you have another book slated for next year. Can you tell us what that’s about?

DJ: The catalyst for the new novel is that two best friends and addicts go to buy methamphetamine and the dealer has been taking in all of these stolen goods as payment, something that happens a lot where I live. So he’s been taking in everything from stereos to firearms and he’s showing off these guns when he accidentally kills himself. So all of a sudden these two addicts are sitting on a couch with a pile of drugs and money at their fingertips. That’s how the book starts. But at the same time, the story has a lot bigger scope than anything I’ve ever done before. This book really became a work about trauma. It’s about how the things that we witness, the things that we carry with us for the rest of our lives, come to govern every action we make. So while the hook is similar in a lot of ways to this first novel in that its about crime and its about methamphetamine, the reality is that both of these novels are about things a lot bigger than that. I want every single thing that I do to shed light on the human condition. I want the reader to empathize with people that they would never come into contact with, people they’d dismiss if they saw them on the nightly news.


You can find copies of David Joy’s magnificent debut, Where All Light Tends To Go, on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Look out for more great interviews with authors!