The 'Human Stories' Of David Joy

Aug 7, 2018

Author David Joy has been gaining recognition for a pair of critically acclaimed novels, both set in rural Appalachia.  With a third on the way, Joy has also been gaining national and international recognition as an essayist on Southern culture.

Joy has a bright future penning dark novels but still finds himself perceived as being the kind of person he writes about, just because they share the same Southern drawl.  “I got off a plane one time and I rode with a media escort somewhere out west and the woman looked at me and said, ‘What do people think about the books where you live?’ And then she stopped herself and she said, ‘Or can they read?’  And it just kind it took me aback,” he said. “It was like, ‘Yeah of course they can read, we got shoes, you know?’”

Joy left his native Charlotte to attend Western Carolina University, where he studied literature under acclaimed author Ron Rash, and never left. Sipping a beer at Innovation Brewing’s new Dillsboro location – a historic train depot – Joy says he’s has made his home and his stories in the mountains of Western North Carolina after stints at a historical society, a rec center and as a reporter for the Crossroads Chronicle in Cashiers.  “I was working till 9, I’d get home at about 10 and I’d write a novel from then till early in the morning,” said Joy. “When I finished it I sent a letter to an agent in New York and she liked it.”

That was Joy’s 2015 Putnam release, Where All Light Tends to Go, the stark and brutal tale of a young Jackson County man coming up and coming-of-age in a family fully engaged with the meth trade.  Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times Book Review called it a “remarkable first novel,” which was followed in 2017 by another noir tale of abuse, addiction and poverty set in rural Appalachia, The Weight of this World. While awaiting publication of his highly-anticipated third novel, The Line that Held us, Joy’s been busy contributing stories and essays to outlets like Garden and Gun, the Bitter Southerner and The New York Times.

Many of them address lingering stereotypes pertaining to rural America, of which Joy has emerged not as an apologist for, but instead as an illuminator of.  “I think on the outside there’s kind of this image that’s been portrayed for a very long time whether it be popular shows like the Beverly Hillbillies or whatever, where there’s this toothless, uneducated, poverty-stricken person. That does exist, but it’s not indicative of place,” he said.

That stereotype extends into the literary world, where voices like Joy’s are rare.  “I can remember going to readings as a student in literature, and you looked at authors and authors all wore wool coats with elbow patches.” The bearded Joy, clad in a pair of well-worn farm boots, jeans and a faded tee shirt featuring the logo of legendary punk band The Misfits, doesn’t fit that mold.  “The first time that I ever heard Silas House read, and I heard Silas House’s accent, and he sounded like me and he sounded like my people and he was telling the story of my people, and I think that was a very empowering moment for me as a writer, because it meant I didn’t have to be those other things,” said Joy. “It meant I could be exactly who I was and talk about where I come from.”

Even though he sets them all in familiar Western North Carolina locales, Joy says his stories and characters transcend the region, the culture and the stereotypes.  “I could’ve set my stories anywhere. I could’ve set Where All Light Tends to Go in the middle of Charlotte. I could’ve set Where All Light Tends to go in the middle of New York. That story is a human story. The Weight of This World is the same way. It’s a human story, it’s not an Appalachian story. I think maybe that’s one of the roles of literature more than anything else is to get that humanity. It’s to illuminate some aspect of the human condition.”

Joy’s latest work is an essay in the current issue of Time magazine, which is dedicated to the American South. His new book, The Line That Held Us, is available August 14 through Putnam.  He’ll tour the region through September, when he heads to France for the paperback release of The Weight of This World.