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David Joy's new book wrestles with 'Those We Thought We Knew'

David Joy
Author of Where All LIght Tends to Go, Weight of this World, The Line That Held Us, When These Mountains Burn, and Those We Thought We Knew
Ashley T. Evans/ Courtesy of David Joy
David Joy, author of "Those We Thought We Knew" lives in Jackson County, NC.

Jackson County author David Joy’s new book blends Southern Gothic Noir and classic whodunit style with a complex intersection of race, friendship and history in “Those We Thought We Knew.”

The book follows young Black artist Toya Gardener as she traces her ancestral roots in Western North Carolina while working on her Masters in Fine Arts degree. Gardener’s research uncovers true stories of the Black community in Jackson County as well as unearthing unspoken secrets and starting hard conversation with the book’s White characters.

The book’s jacket poses one essential question: “What do you do when everything you ever believed crumbles away?”

BPR’s Lilly Knoepp sat down with Joy in downtown Sylva to talk about the novel.

This interview has been edited for clarity and time.

Lilly Knoepp: Your new book “Those We Thought We Knew” is coming out on August 1st. It focuses on some of the Black history of Jackson County and kind of deals with issues of race here in Western, North Carolina. Why did you want to tell this story? When did you start writing this book?

David Joy: The very first pieces that I ever wrote were probably about 10 years ago, and I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a book about race. All of my work has been set very specifically in Jackson County, and it's because I live here, and I've lived here the majority of my life.

I don't think that I would say that it's a book intended to discuss race specifically within Jackson County. I don't even necessarily think that I would say that it's a book strictly discussing race with regards to the American South. You know, there's a moment in that in that book where probably the most overt racist character tells one of the deputies, “There's people all over this country that feel the way that I feel that say the things that I say.”

And I remember working through edits and the copy editor said, “Do you mean county? And I said, ‘No, I don't mean County I said I mean country.’ It's a book that's set very specifically here and rooted in a lot of history here. But at the same time, the hope is that the book is discussing race and white supremacy in a much broader sense.

Lilly Knoepp: This is a very different book from your last couple of novels, even though we do see some of the same characters. What made you want to write about this?

David Joy: I think part of it is just having grown up in the South, you know, and having been surrounded by so much of this history all my life and to see it play out time and time and time again. Some of my earliest memories of news media I think and as far as remembering pivotal moments on the news as a child, you know, there's a handful of things that stick out but one of them was you know, all of the things that happened in Columbia South Carolina with regards to the flag flying over the Capitol and that in the 1990s and the statues there but you see these things play out again. Working with an authenticity reader, one of the big questions that arose is, 'Can you write a book about race that is primarily - if not solely - intended for a white audience?' That's not to say that should a Black reader engage with the book, that I don't want the characters in the story to ring true. But that is to say that many of the ideas and many of the conversations have been lived and understood ad nauseum by that community and so the answer for me became not only, ‘yes,’ but that I think that we need to be writing these books and that we need to be having these discussions. And so that's really kind of the idea behind what I was trying to do and why I wanted to write the book.

Lilly Knoepp: Talk to me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up here in North Carolina? 

David Joy: Yes, I'm a 12th-generation North Carolinian, which is a statement that you can't make without recognizing all of the horrible that also entails. And so there's this duality of that once being proud of a statement like that and at once wrestling with the fact that it almost assuredly means and in my case does mean you know that there are people in my family's past who were enslavers and that there were lots of people in my family's fat past who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

My father's family kind of settled in and around the Catawba River Basin kind of by the mid-1700s. I've got family that fought in the Revolutionary Wars as part of the Gaston Blues out of Gaston County. I grew up in Mecklenburg County and to a very rural people who had who had been swallowed by city.

It's that Gertrude Stein idea that you know, “There is no there, there.” I come from a place called Paw Creek or Morre's Chapel. Moore's Chapel is where I grew up all of my father's family was in Paw Creek, but they'd all been right there and none of those places really exist anymore outside of maybe a name on a road sign.

Lilly Knoepp: How did you find out about your family's history? Is that something that your family talked about?

David Joy: I think that all white Southern families if you've got a history tied to the Civil War for the majority of people and maybe even all people it was it was something that was always discussed with a sense of pride. And so I was most assuredly raised in that way. That's from both sides.

My grandmother on my mother's side, her grandfather was a man named Jim Barnes who fought in Tennessee for the Confederacy, but he wrote a book called, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Confederate,” which is something you can look up online and read if you want. He was captured at Appomattox. He was in Point Lookout in Maryland, but yes, [we] were raised around all of that history, but [we] were also raised around a whole lot of lies.

I don't want to make it sound as if that was entirely intentional. These were histories that were not only taught in school, but that they were reiterated at home and they were false histories that were predicated on lies. And I think that's part of the problem. When you start trying to have these conversations is that when people were raised to believe these things as fact when you're suddenly telling them that no, they're not fact it's as if you're trying to explain to someone that two plus two no longer equals four.

I was also raised, as many people are, as well our family didn't own slaves, we were just poor whites doing this and that. I can remember a really pivotal moment for me which was looking into family history. And there it said, that one of my descendants described the people that he had enslaved. And it was this unveiling you know, and I don't say that with any sense of guilt. And I don't say that with any sense of shame.

I think those are things that are hard for people to wrestle with. I wouldn't attach those feelings to my understanding of who I am or the pride that I feel and saying that I'm from North Carolina and that I've got family that's been here that long. But it does make things really complicated. And as a novelist, that's the place where I'm always wanting to work. I'm always wanting to work in the gray and so all of those things boil over into the fiction.

Lilly Knoepp: You talked a little bit about your goal as a novelist is to kind of live in the gray areas and explore those through fiction. What was your goal with this novel? What are you hoping is the conversation that folks have after they read it? 

David Joy: Art - all art but particularly fiction and particularly literature - doesn't have to be fixed. And literature, one of the things that it does is that it provides a safe place to wrestle with very difficult ideas. What I mean by that is that if we're sitting in a room together and I bring forth an idea or an opinion and it's something that fundamentally makes you uncomfortable. The instinct is to get defensive. And oftentimes that defensiveness turns to anger. And it's because the things that you believe are suddenly being placed in question.

What literature does is it provides a place to encounter those ideas. When you're solely alone. When there's no one else in the room. It allows you to sit with them and gnaw on them, you know, and that's not to say that the comfortability is not still there. That's not to say that you may not even be made angry about things that you encounter in a book, but that is to say that it's a lot safer place to have those feelings and the hope is that when you encounter those feelings that you then sit with them and think why did it make me respond this way? Why did I feel the way that it made me feel?

James Baldwin said that it was because of how much he loved America -that he loved it more than any other country in the world - that he demanded the right to criticize her perpetually. And that's right. You know, it's not anti-American - any of the things we're talking about. I would argue that it's fundamentally and foundationally American.

That if we're going to shoot fireworks in the sky and talk about freedom. That we need to be working to ensure that that is a reality and in the current state it's still not.

Lilly Knoepp: So how do you hope that comes out in this in this novel? What do you hope people talk about after they read this?

David Joy: One of the goals of the novel was to force White characters into very difficult conversations that they weren't having and that they particularly weren't having outside of moments of black trauma and black death. You know, Toni Morrison said almost 30 years ago to the day, in an interview with Charlie Rose, ‘White people have a very serious problem,’ and she said, ‘You need to take me out of it.’

And 30 years later, we're still not having the conversations that we need to be having outside of these brief moments of Black death and Black trauma.

You think about a moment like 2020, when Ahmaud Arbery is chased down and shot in the streets like a dog. And you jump forward a month. And Breonna Taylor is murdered. You jump forward a few more months in George Floyd is murdered and we watch as a policeman kneels on his neck for close to nine minutes. And he cries out for his dead mother. And suddenly white people want to talk about race, and even then they only want to talk about race until we reach a moment of silence when ‘oh thank God it's over,’ we can sweep it back under the rug.

I'm sick of the silence. I'm sick of sweeping things under the rug. And so for me, it's a time to lay the ugly out on the table, and a book is a place to do that.

I'm sick of the silence. I'm sick of sweeping things under the rug. And so for me, it's a time to lay the ugly out on the table, and a book is a place to do that.

Lilly Knoepp: We're doing this a little backward, but can you explain to people what the book is about?

David Joy: The novel starts with a 20-something Black art student from Atlanta who is working on an MFA. And she comes to the mountains in North Carolina because that's her ancestral home and it's where her mother grew up and it's where her grandmother lives. And she comes to spend the summer with her grandmother and the initial hope is through coming to that place and kind of digging through that history, that she'll encounter something that will serve as the genesis of her MFA thesis.

While she's here, she starts uncovering all of these different histories. One of those histories is the fact that the church her family belonged to - which is a real church. Mount Zion AME church - was a church that was founded in 1892 by 11 formerly enslaved people. And that her family is directly tied to that history.

In the 1900s as you know, what would eventually become Western Carolina University is expanding campus that church was removed, and the congregation was forced to dig up its dead and move them down the mountain to make way for a dormitory.

And when she encounters a plaque that stands at the site that says on such and such date, they moved down the road as if this matter of choice, she decides that she wants to do something with that history. So, she does this art installation and that's how the novel starts.

When I think about her as a character, I think it's very much that John Lewis idea of ‘good trouble.’ I think she's constantly stirring the pot. In a very good way but through the stirring of that pot, all of a sudden, it's not under the rug anymore. And the white people who are around her suddenly have to wrestle with a whole lot of things that they don't want to wrestle with. And so the novel is largely the aftermath of all of these things.

Lilly Knoepp: You dedicated this novel to Marie Cochran. She is a local activist and artist. Talk to me a little bit about why you did that and what you learned from her to write this novel. 

David Joy: I met Marie Cochran probably close to 15 years ago. At the time I was a graduate student at Western Carolina, and I was friends with a lot of people within the art Department. One of those people was a glass artist named Tracy Kirchmann who was largely responsible for what would become the glass program at the Jackson County Energy Park.

Through Tracy, I meet Marie. She's just got a light about her, like standing around her, there's very much a visible light around that woman. So I became interested in what she was doing and who she was, but as time goes on this friendship develops between us. I would say that most of the most meaningful and difficult conversations I've ever had with regard to race were had with Marie.

It was the fact that she always made a seat for me at the table. So when I started wrestling with this book - I didn't know if she would even like the book. I didn't care if she liked the book. I knew if she didn't like the book, she was damn sure going to tell me, and I was going to shut my mouth and listen.

And I think there are lots of things she loves about the book and probably a lot of things that that she finds difficult or doesn't like about the book and all of that's fine. But regardless the book needed to be dedicated to her. She's dedicated much of her life to work that was seldom, if ever, self-serving.

BPR will explore the true history behind the book next week. Stay tuned.

Editor's note: This transcript has been updated. The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. The authoritative record of BPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.