Author David Joy On Writing, Beauty and Controllably Losing Your Mind

Author David Joy’s love and respect for language is clear not only through the beautiful, gritty prose filling his novels (Where All Light Tends to Go, The Weight of This World) but in the way he talks about the craft of writing itself.

“I woke up at 4 a.m. in a fever dream. My heart was pounding and my head was racing and scenes were coming onto me like rain. I started writing down all of the ideas as fast as I could, and I kept reaching the end and falling apart, reaching the end and crumbling,” he says, talking about his work and the creative process.

I caught up with the North Carolina based writer to discuss his darkly stunning “Appalachian noir” novel The Weight of This World (out this month from Putnam), about balancing beauty and brutality in his work, and about the idea that “writing a novel is a practice in controllably losing your mind.”

Scott Alexander Hess: Tell me about the quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (an idol of mine) that precedes the start of Where All Light Tends to Go? Are you a McCarthy fan? Who are some other me influences?

David Joy: That line’s from the opening pages of Blood Meridian and I think in a lot of ways it serves as a sort of epigraph for that book as well: a man at the beginning of a journey into darkness washed between will and fate. I really loved that question of, “whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.” I think in a lot of ways that question is what defined the narrator of Where All Light Tends To Go.

As far as being a McCarthy fan, definitely. I guess I was probably handed Blood Meridian some time in college, one of those how-have-you-never-read-this kind of moments. The language immediately took me aback, just the complexity and richness of his sentences. I loved that novel, and a lot of folks argue that’s him at his best, but the truth is I love Suttree most. The opening sentence of Suttree might be the most beautiful sentence I’ve ever read, and the end of that novel, that final image of the dog coming out of the woods and sniffing the air where Suttree had just stood, that image haunts the hell out of me, probably more so than any other moment I’ve ever experienced in a book. I’ve got a buddy who thinks The Crossing is his best novel. Bottom line is we could have this debate till the cows came home because his body of work is just so rich. As far as other influences, it’s the usual suspects for writers like me: Larry Brown, William Gay, Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash, Tim McLaurin, Donald Ray Pollock. The other thing is I read a lot of poetry. I read more poetry than I read fiction, so writers like Maurice Manning and Rebecca Gayle Howell, Ron Houchin, Tim Peeler, Ray McManus. I pick up those books as often as I pick up anything else.

SAH: Are you going to continue to set your books in North Carolina? What is it about the region that draws you the most and works best for the stories you tell?

DJ: 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. 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. So I don’t see a time coming when I write something that isn’t set in North Carolina, in the mountains where I live. I just don’t know anything else.

SAH: You write beautifully about dark things. What are you capturing in the mix of these extremes?

DJ: I remember the first time I ever read William Gay’s short story, “The Paper-Hanger,” I was absolutely floored by how he balanced beauty with brutality. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that story or not, but ultimately you’ve got a child that goes missing and at the end we learn that this man snapped her neck, stuffed her in a toolbox, and has kept her in a freezer ever since. It’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read, but he has these lines, these beautiful images that balance that violence and make it palatable. I don’t have the book handy, but images like tiny seed pearl teeth, lines like, “Ice crystals snared in the hair like windy snowflakes whirled there, in the lashes.” There’s this tremendous elegance and beauty to his language and I think that’s how he made it work. For me, I’m trying to do the same thing.

SAH: Can you tell me about one or both of these recent great tweets of yours?

To the reader who asked if I could see a character finding redemption through grace rather than violence, you may have just fixed my novel.

DJ: About a week ago I got revision notes for my latest novel from my editor. A lot of what she said I completely agreed with, some easy fixes, but she also had some major issues. She wanted me to cut a main character completely, fade two others into secondary roles, center the narrative around three perspectives, and rework the last quarter of the book. I couldn’t imagine cutting some of the characters and I couldn’t imagine an ending. So that night I got drunk on wine. I watched the new Dave Chappelle special on Netflix, tried to laugh, and passed out at midnight.

I woke up at 4 a.m. in a fever dream. My heart was pounding and my head was racing and scenes were coming onto me like rain. I started writing down all of the ideas as fast as I could, and I kept reaching the end and falling apart, reaching the end and crumbling.

The answer came with this sort of revelatory beauty, and that’s what that tweet was about. About a month ago I was on book tour and I was reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had a really good audience and there was great conversation and questions afterward. But there was a man there, a man who was soft spoken with wheels turning in his eyes. He tried to ask me something, sort of mumbled and stumbled over his words, and I couldn’t’ ever quite figure out exactly what he was asking. My sister was there with me and we talked about it on the ride home and she told me she thought he was saying that my characters have always seemed to find redemption through violence but he wondered if I could ever see redemption arriving through grace.

The minute I remembered that I thought about how the characters at the end of this novel might find redemption. The whole world opened right then and I could see every bit of it so, so clearly. The answer was grace. It was one of the most powerful and beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced as a writer. The sun was coming up outside and I walked out there and sat on frosted grass and cried my eyes out as orange broke the mountains. There’s nothing really to describe a moment like that except that it was spiritual. It was one of the most spiritual moments I’ve ever lived.

So, to whoever that man was that night in Raleigh, thank you.

SAH: And this tweet?

Writing a novel is a practice in controllably losing your mind.

DJ: Building off that last answer, I sat in the frosted grass that morning and cried my eyes out because of a revelation that came through a story I completely made up. The only difference between someone like me and someone the state would lock up in a psychiatric ward is that at the end of the dream I have a product. I have something tangible you can hold in your hand to justify that insanity. There’s a thin line between the artist and the lunatic, and I think most artists I know and respect dip back and forth between those two worlds often. What I’ve come to expect is that for the work to be good I’m going to have to allow myself to be taken hostage, to be absolutely consumed by the story. I remember one time I finished a novel and told my sister, “It’s going to take me a long time to find my way out of the darkness I created.” And it did. I had to work to come out the other side. That’s what I mean. Chinua Achebe said, “What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment—you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes.” If you’re not willing to make that sacrifice, you might as well hang it up.

SAH: For new writers tackling their first novel, tell us about your process. Any words of advice? Do you write an entire first draft or do you edit as you go? Are you a stream of consciousness writer?

DJ: I edit language as I go because I have to, because I can’t go to sleep if the lines don’t carry sound. But as far as major edits like character or plot, I don’t ever mess with any of that until I’ve got at least a draft, and usually multiple drafts and distance. The reality is I can’t see what a book is about until it’s done and I’ve had time to step away and look at it from another angle. That insight, at least for me, comes afterward, and at that point you can go back in and sharpen steel.

My mother was a potter and so I always think of it like this. The first draft of a novel is like digging clay. It’s like going out into the woods, finding a vein of clay in the ground, and digging up buckets to bring back to the house. That’s hard work and it’s not always fun. Revision, though, is when you get to put the mud on the wheel and get your hands dirty, when you’re able to take a mound of clay and shape it into something beautiful. Here’s the key, though, is that there’s an enjoyment to all of it. There’s an enjoyment to digging clay just as there’s a satisfaction in what comes out of the kiln. A lot of times that seems to get lost: that enjoyment. The only reason I make up stories is because I feel compelled to do so. I get a tremendous satisfaction out of it. Everything else is secondary.

SAH: Who would you dream cast in the film version The Weight Of This World as Aiden, Thad, and April? Any interest in writing the screenplay? If not, your dream screenwriter and director?

DJ: I’m never very good at this because I don’t watch a lot of film. I think I’d like it if a casting director could find some folks the world hadn’t ever seen. That’s part of what made Jennifer Lawrence playing Ree Dolly in the adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone work so well, I think. Same thing with the kid who played Gary in the adaptation of Larry Brown’s Joe. I think his name was Tye Sheridan. He did a hell of a job. A lot better than the big name actor they had in that film who was an absolutely horrible casting decision. But I guess that would be the hope.

I don’t know that I’d ever write a screenplay just because that’s not my medium. As far as screenwriters or directors, I really like Jeff Nichols who did Shotgun Stories. He also did that movie Mud with Matthew McConaughey. Jeff’s also the brother of Ben Nichols in Lucero and I love their music so I think he’d be a good fit. I’ve also got a buddy named Robert Knott who’s a hell of a writer, continues one of the Robert Parker series, but he writes a lot of screenplays. He gets my work in a way that escapes a lot of people and so I think it’d be fun to work with him on something, would be really cool if he could bring in his buddy Tracy Letts.

SAH: In today’s tumultuous world, name one person who could benefit most from reading your novel and why?

DJ: I don’t much care if he reads my work or he reads Dr. Seuss, but I wish the 45th would crack open a book. Hell, he could learn about social equality from The Sneetches or about environmental policy from The Lorax, but whatever he fancies, I just wish he’d sit down and read. I think one of the scariest things Donald Trump ever said was in that interview with Megyn Kelly when he told her he didn’t read. I remember the short story writer George Saunders saying in an interview one time something along the lines of, “Fiction is empathy’s training wheels.” The idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, that’s what fiction allows us to do, and that’s what’s so terrifying about cutting funding from the arts, about a president who doesn’t value books. The world needs empathy now more than ever.

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