Story by Sandra Davidson
David Joy’s had a big 2017: Putnam published The Weight of This World, his second novel which was described by the New York Times as “bleakly beautiful;” he wrote a much-acclaimed essay for The Bitter Southerner, and was published in the magazine Garden & Gun. This up-and-coming western North Carolina author opens up about his career, his relationship to North Carolina, and how receiving an artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2016 helped his career in our 50 for 50 interview.
Your novels are set in Jackson County, and you’ve said you write about that place because it’s the only place you know. Will you describe your personal and creative relationship with that place?
I grew up in Charlotte. All my daddy’s family’s been there since the late 1600s. My momma’s family was in the mountains in Wilkesboro. I moved up here when I was 18. I’ve been here ever since. What I found here was an older set of values that reminded me very much of the people and place that I felt had vanished from where I grew up. I think that’s part of the tie here…finding people that reminded me of my grandmother or my grandmother’s people.
If I think about my work in the sense of a canvas, when I start to work the canvas isn’t blank in that there’s already place. Typically, when a story comes to me the place is already there, and the characters kind of crawl themselves out of that land. I think that’s indicative of Southerners in general, but especially in Appalachia. People and place here is kind of this inseparable thing.
When did you begin writing?
I grew up in a family of storytellers. They were oral storytellers which is an entirely different craft. I never could really tell a story orally, but I recognized early on that I was capable of doing so on the page. That was very, very early. There was an old typewriter in my house, and I can remember the way it smelled. It’s a very vivid memory. I wrote stories on that before I could spell. I would tell my mom what I wanted to say, and she’d dictate how to spell it. So, I was writing stories since I was tiny. When I went to college, I’d probably written a thousand pages. I probably wrote another thousand pages there. Looking back, I don’t think any of it was any good until maybe a year before I wrote that first novel, but I think I was always progressing towards what I’m doing now…it’s just I’m a pretty slow study I guess!
Did you have a moment where you thought to yourself I know I want to be a writer?
I’d say a couple of different things. I always took writing very seriously. I can remember writing something in high school [for an] assignment. We had to write a poem. Everybody had to get in front of the class and read this poem. I can remember nobody in the class cared; the teacher didn’t care – nobody cared! But I remember how much effort I put into those words and how much it meant to me. It meant something to me. And it didn’t mean anything to anybody else in the room. I think I was always different in that way.
I can remember to the first time I ever heard Silas House read, and he sounded like me. He had an accent that was incredibly thick, and hearing that and getting the chance to see him and witness him and hear his story that night really affected me. Hearing somebody like Silas House read a story that could have very easily been a story that someone like my grandmother would have come up with…I think that meant something to me.
Lastly, I’m not very good at anything else. I’ve forced myself to be able to make a living out of this because I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else.
There’s a big step from deciding that and making that happen.
I was lucky to have some great teachers early on who pointed me in the right direction of people I needed to be reading [and] who helped me understand language. Looking back that was Diedre Elliot at Western Carolina University and Ron Rash. Ron is still a good friend of mind and a good mentor. More than anything else, I think with Ron it was watching him work and getting the chance to witness his craft. I was lucky to be there before he was a household name. I really got to see his rise and bear witness to that and bear witness to how hard he worked. I think that work ethic is one of the keys. Ron comes from cotton-farmer, tobacco-farmer people just like I do. That mentality carries on. He works harder than just about anybody I can imagine, and I try to do the same.
How did that first novel Where All Light Tends to Go come together?
I never was going to take no for an answer. I took a job as a receptionist, and I was working another job at night, and I was writing a novel. I’d be at my first job at 8 [and] stay there until 5. I’d get off and I’d go to my second job at 5:30. I’d get home at 10, I’d eat, then I’d start working about 10:30. I’d work until 4 in the morning. I did that until the book was done because I felt compelled to do so. I needed to tell a story, and that was the only time I had so that’s what I did. After that I sent a letter to an agent…the agent liked it. She asked to see the full manuscript, and I wound up signing with her. Later down the road she sold it.
I can remember one of the first times I was in New York City. I was in this big hotel overlooking the whole city, and I remember standing there in that window and being moved to tears thinking that what brought me there was a letter. I’d never been anywhere! I’d never left North Carolina. The only way I’d made it out of North Carolina was I put a letter in the mail. I think there’s been a lot of things that have fallen in place for me, and at the same time I’ve had to work incredibly hard to try and make it a reality.
You received an Artist Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council around that time. How did that help your career?
I’d signed a book deal for Where All Light Tends to Go, and that novel was coming out, but at the time they asked what I was working on, and I spitballed an idea. I hadn’t even written a word, and they said we want it, so I wound up signing a two-book deal. I didn’t even have a sentence. At that point, I had about a 7-month deadline. I knew I had to really focus on that, so I quit my job and started going at it full-time.
You probably would have had to on that deadline.
Yeah! It’s one thing to say I want to be a full-time writer. It’s another thing to try and keep yourself fed and keep the lights on while you’re pursuing that. Looking back, I think that’s the major way that fellowship helped me. It helped me keep the lights on. The amount of time and dedication that it takes to put in the work to create a good book…[it] takes absolute focus. Fellowships allow an artist to put all that focus into the work. You look at the work that these fellowships are funding, and the reality is it wouldn’t happen without it because otherwise you’d have to do something else. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go homeless because I couldn’t make it work. If it hadn’t worked, I would have gone out and taken another job.
Beyond your personal experience with it – why do you think public funding for the arts matters?
When I think about how my tax dollars are spent, I can’t imagine a single better way for my money to be spent than education and art. To think of how much of our tax dollars go to things like defense budgets is terrifying, and to think that people want to strip away what tiny bit goes to support art and culture is disturbing. George Saunders had this idea about fiction. He said fiction serves as empathy’s training wheels. When he said that, I thought that’s exactly right. Fiction allows you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and that’s an incredibly powerful thing. Literature has the capacity and the power to open doors and open eyes. I think all art carries that power, and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that the world needs empathy more than right this second. We are in a very fragile and volatile time where everybody is angry and everybody is pointing the finger at someone who’s not like them. I can’t think of a cure for that besides art. I don’t think there’s anything that can heal that but art.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If I think about some of the best literature coming out of the South in the past 30-40 years, it’s coming out of North Carolina. It’s writers like Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Tim McLaurin and Ron Rash. I think we’re lucky in the sense that we’ve had a very, very rich tradition, and we’re very, very grounded and rooted to this place.