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!