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Addiction Erodes Appalachian Culture In David Joy's Latest, 'When These Mountains Burn'

Garret K. Woodward
David Joy relaxing on his porch with puppy pal Charlie

Western North Carolina author David Joy’s latest novel came out this week.   Known as a teller of dark, gritty fiction set in the Smokies, Joy is rooted in the region.  That led to him falling under the influence of one of America’s greatest working writers.

Joy recently spoke from his Jackson County home on his work, his life, and his relationship with mentor Ron Rash.

Ricky and Raymond Mathis make an unlikely father-son pair – Ray, a retired forester and Ricky, his adult son struggling with opioid addiction. Both end up making misguided attempts at redemption as a cast of sketchy characters emerges, but Jackson County author David Joy’s latest work, When These Mountains Burn, is as much about crime as it is about a changing culture in Southern Appalachia.

“It was like point-counterpoint, juxtapose these two places where culture is disappearing, and that‘s the reason part of it takes place on the boundary, and part of it takes place in Jackson County,” Joy said. “If you look at what’s happening to mountain culture in Jackson County, it’s being erased at an unfathomable rate. If you look at what’s happening in Cherokee, it’s matter of cultural reclamation at an unprecedented scale.”

Set amidst the backdrop of the 2016 wildfires that ravaged Western North Carolina, Joy’s novel resembles his first three in that it’s a frank and lucid presentation of both the majesty and the misery that permeates these rural communities.

“I think l lot of writers feel influenced to create a place and try to create all of these different elements of a community and what they wind up creating are these sort of slanted mirrors of a place that really exists,” said Joy. “For me, I think it’s that when the story is developing in my head I quite literally see it.”

What Joy sees is the insatiable American appetite for opioids.

“I understand addiction,” he said. “Like, I understand addiction because I was around addicts my whole life. And so when I wanted to write about the opioid crisis, I was writing about it because it was taking place in real time on my doorstep.”

As the DEA begins closing in on the source of the opioids that haunt Ricky and Raymond Mathis and nearly every other character in the book, an explosive and unexpected series of events threaten the investigation. Joy lays bare the realities of the distribution chain with the eyes and ears of a trained news reporter.

“I didn’t know the ins and outs of heroin but I do know the ins and outs of addiction so at that point it’s a matter of going back and researching to get the details right,” he said. “Ron Rash one time told me, he said the reason that you have to get the details right is to make the reader believe the big lie.”

He’s talking about Ron Rash, “one of the great American authors at work today,” according to the New York Times. Rash’s works, including 2008’s Serena, make regular appearances on bestseller lists.

“I think somebody such as David, you’re more of a cheerleader, you just want them to get started,” said Rash, who is also the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.

“Well, he knows how to tell a story and in some ways, that's what you can't teach,” Rash said. “I mean, some people can tell a story and some can’t and David had that ability. He's talked to me about his grandmother telling stories and that may have helped. He’s a very vivid writer.”

But Rash said that talent isn’t the only thing that’s led to Joy’s acclaim – he works hard and has an expansive knowledge of the pantheon of American literature, especially Southern authors like William Gay.

“I make all sorts of suggestions to students, but David read these people and to me that that showed he was very serious,” said Rash. “That, to me, is when you know you're dealing with a serious person – someone who's going to be a serious writer because he knew he had to develop and the best way to develop is to read and work hard.”

Joy dedicated his latest to Rash, and says without him, he may have never secured the book deal that led to When These Mountains Burn.

“I quite literally signed it in front of his office door at Western Carolina because that was personally important to me,” said Joy. I think without meeting him I don’t know that I would have been steered in the right direction.”

Joy’s latest, When These Mountains Burn, is available at booksellers now, as is Rash’s latest, called In the Valley.