Concerned, as always, with what he calls “big ideas,” Appalachia’s David Joy is so gifted a writer that he never lets those ideas get in the way of the story — and so it is with “The Line That Held Us” (Putnam), Joy’s third, most ambitious and best novel to date.
Praise has been heaped high on Joy’s particular brand of Southern noir, and rightly so. The author has been compared to the likes of Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy and Wiley Cash, and Joy etches ever closer to a place above these and others with this novel. That the author gets his truck just a bit mired in the mud of social observation is perhaps the only miscue, or perhaps is by design. Joy’s work is that textured, and through three novels it has been his penchant to ensure that those observations are underpinned by stories moving at full throttle, slinging that mud and forcing us to continuously wipe the windshield.
“The Line That Held Us” is such a story. Testing the bonds of friendship, Darl Moody calls upon Calvin Hooper to help him recover from the unrecoverable: While hunting out of season, Moody accidentally kills Dwayne Brewer’s “simple” brother, setting off a chain of revenge as horrific as it is undeniably real.
In this novel, Joy packages Rash’s eye and ear for setting and character, Cash’s sense of story and McCarthy’s gift for language. Recently, Mountain Times spoke with Joy from his Jackson County, Tenn., home about those authors, life in Appalachia and where the lines are drawn when it comes to family and friendship. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mountain Times: You’ve been critiqued as one of the most authentic writers documenting Appalachia today, and this is your third novel set in Jackson County, Tenn. In terms of setting, how does that authenticity translate into your novels?
David Joy: The authenticity comes from the fact that I know this place and that I’ve never shied away from that. I’ve been here most of my life at this point, and I just don’t know anyplace else as intimately as I know Jackson County. A lot of writers sometimes have to imagine a setting, imagine a place and they have to make it up and it becomes this culmination of a whole lot of places, but for me, I never did that. I never really wanted to do that. When I see a character, when I see a story, I see them very specifically where I am. Oftentimes to the point of a tree in a novel like (the author’s second work) “The Weight of This World.” There are moments in that book where the characters are at a tree that exists and I could take you and show you where they were. … That’s been something that’s carried through all of my novels, that really strong sense of place. I don’t really ever see that changing. I have no plans of ever leaving here.
MT: How about the same question in terms of character?
DJ: There’s a couple of things happening in terms of characters. This new novel is very different in a lot of ways from anything else I’ve done in the sense that I wanted to write a book about everyday people who find themselves in some type of incredible circumstance. Darl Moody and Calvin Hooper are everyday types of people. With all the other novels I was writing very heavily about criminality and addiction, and that’s because that’s what I know well.
I found out two days ago that one of my childhood friends died of an overdose. That makes three friends I’ve lost to heroin overdoses. I’ve lost either eight or nine friends to suicide. I grew up in a place and around people where addiction was very prevalent. That’s the reality I portray.
One thing I’m always very careful about, though, is that I don’t think that’s indicative of Appalachia as a whole. I don’t think addiction is necessarily more prevalent here than in other places. Often times, addiction is more attached to poverty than it is to region or landscape.
With my novels, I was writing about that because that’s what I know. I know that world. I know those details. I was always very interested in getting to the humanity of that. … Throughout my work I tend to focus on things that are very disturbing, often times violent and I tend to try to find some type of beauty of that. I don’t necessarily know what that says about me. But if you look at my novels, look at my essays, that’s definitely a thread that carries through all of it.
MT: Another thread through your work is the almost fraternal bond between male characters, such as between Calvin and Darl. Bonds similar to those found in this novel, in “The Weight of This World” and “Where All Light Tends to Go,” drive much of the action. Those bonds also ask the question about how far one friend would really go for another. Are you testing the limits of friendship in this and other works?
DJ: Definitely. And I don’t think that that’s crazy, that situation (in “The Line That Held Us”). There’s a moment in there where Calvin is looking back and he’s thinking about all the times when they’d been sitting around, drinking, and one of the friends might have said to the other, “I’d kill somebody for you.” I’ve said that to people that I love. When we say those things we mean them at the time, but you don’t know until the moment arises what you’d do. That’s a question I had with this novel: What do you do if your best friend calls you and you arrive over there and he’s asking you to help cover up a murder or an accidental killing? I was definitely interested in trying to push that just as far as I could, just the same as I’m interested in pushing Dwayne’s story as far as it would go. How far was Dwayne willing to go to hold on to what was left of his brother?
MT: Beyond those fraternal bonds, let’s look at the women in your stories. Although they typically don’t get as much face time as the male characters, the female characters are more intricately drawn, have more depth and in many ways are stronger than the men — especially since much of the harshness in their lives is male-driven. In this novel, Angie, Calvin’s girlfriend, is an especially deep, resilient and resourceful character. Talk to me a little about her, and your female characters in general.
DJ: That’s one thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Part of it is knowing the danger that you get in if you don’t — especially as a male writer, especially as a white male writer. It doesn’t get any more privileged than that. I spend a lot of time really trying to capture that. Angie and the females are truly the strongest characters in each of my novels, and they are also the only ones who seem to have any sort of mobility, who seem to be able to find a way to get out of a particular circumstance. Even thinking about Darl’s mom: There’s a line in the novel that even as tough as the men were, the women had always been stone. That’s very truthful, particularly of Appalachian women, of rural women. The glue that’s always held all of that together, especially in the South, has always been women.
MT: I’m confused, and I expect purposely so for your part, about your main villain, Dwayne. Talk about a study in contradictions: He’s been shaped by the extreme harshness of a mountain life, but it’s clear from the Bible and other lessons he learned from his grandfather that he had a choice in directions and chose the wrong path. Yet it’s also Dwayne who comes out with the almost tender lecture about the line that holds us — those bonds of love.
DJ: When I look back at what most interested me as a writer about this novel, this is Dwayne’s story as much as it is everything else. I was interested in building a character like Lester Ballard in (Cormac) McCarthy’s “Child of God” or William Gay’s “The Paperhanger” or Flannery O’Connor’s “The Misfit.” I was very interested in trying to create a character who was memorable in that way.
One of the things that’s scariest about a bad guy is when he makes sense. There are a lot of moments when Dwayne makes perfect sense. When he’s up there with Calvin on the land that’s been clear cut, he sees that as the destruction equally violent and equally horrific as murder. That’s something that I feel.
One of the other things I was playing with is the absolute danger of religion and how it can be used to justify anything — especially if you focus just Old Testament. That’s one of the most violent books I’ve ever read. Dwayne, in a lot of ways, focused in on that. When you think of that kind of vengeful, violent God, that’s something that kept Dwayne Brewer up at night.
And, I still can’t shake his voice. He had a very specific way of talking, the dialogue was very different than anything I’ve ever done.
MT: Reading a review once about Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridan,” I came across this critique: “I read it, but I’m glad it’s finished.” That reviewer was referring to the violence of that seminal novel — something that you are frequently critiqued on. For instance, just when I’d almost been able to put the image out of my mind, you had to bring up how Doug Dietz died in “The Weight of This World.” While I appreciate the nugget of tying your stories together, Darl’s crucifixion scene was already very potent. First, where do you dream up these all-too-real tortures, and second, how do answer those who say they’re too much?
DJ: It’s just something I’m interested in. A writer I’m currently interested in is Donald Ray Pollock. “The Heavenly Table” was the last novel that I just loved. A lot of it is that those are the types of stories I enjoy. I don’t know why, but they are.
You think about William Gay’s “The Paperhanger.” That story is horrifically violent. He murders this 3-year-old little kid and shoves him in a cooler and takes him home and keeps him in a freezer. But what interests me most about William Gay as a writer is that he somehow makes that palatable. He does it with language. If you look at the most poetic scenes of his writing, they are often the most violent, and somehow or another, he’s able to use language in such a way that it can force you to look at things you never wanted to look at.
As an artist and a writer, that’s something I’m very much interested in. When you get to these moments in the book, that’s what I’m trying to do. With the “The Weight of This World” it was little different. That book was very much a treatise on violence, but I wanted there to be moments where you were flat-out disgusted and wanted to turn away. And, I wanted there to be moments when you honestly cheered it on, where you wanted something bad to happen to somebody. That’s a very interesting line to think about. That’s the type of thing we witness over and over and over again.
When something horrific happens on the news first there’s a disgust but over time there’s a what do we do with it? There’s a vengeance, a justice. Where that line is drawn is a very interesting thing to think about.
MT: Although I’m going to take it out of context, you’ve responded to at least one reviewer that your novels are not for everyone. Who aren’t they for?
DJ: Lots of people. For instance, I’m friends with a whole lot of booksellers. And in my bookstore up here, City Lights in Sylva, sometimes people have carried my books to the front and said, “Are there bad words in it?” And they’ll kind of laugh and say, “There are bad words in it.” So, people like that.
People who are interested in happy endings. I have no interest in happy endings. That’s not to say I’ll never write a happy ending, I don’t know. “The Line That Held Us” probably has the happiest ending of anything I’ve written. A lot of times people want an easy escape. This isn’t an airplane read, something you pick up and breeze through and that’s that, the hero rides away in the sunset. This is not that kind of book and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re probably not going to like it.
I’m trying to raise big questions. I’m trying to force you to take a long, hard look at people you wouldn’t look at otherwise. A lot of people don’t want that from a book, and that’s perfectly OK. For me, as a reader, I’m typically not interested in those sheer entertainment books. There’s nothing wrong with that and there’s nothing against those writers, those readers. That’s just not what I do. That idea of the violence, again … a lot of people would rather go watch “Lion King” than “Reservoir Dogs.” That’s perfectly OK, but I’d rather watch “Reservoir Dogs.”
MT: As a writer, have you made it your mission to shape the world, the issues we should be examining, through your novels?
DJ: I studied literature, not creative writing, and a lot of how I think about books is drawn from that. In literature classes you didn’t so much look at the craft as you did the questions. You read a book and discussed the big ideas of that book. From a reader’s standpoint, from a student’s standpoint, that’s where I’m coming out of. I don’t read books that don’t raise big questions. My favorite book I’ve read recently is Tommy Orange’s “There, There.” That debut novel raises huge questions. You can’t read that book and not think about a whole lot of big things.
A lot of times when people don’t get my work or enjoy my work it’s because they don’t have a willingness to ask those questions, go to those places. Again, that’s perfectly fine, but as a writer, that’s what I’m interested in. With this one, it was how far are you willing to go for the people you love most? It was an examination of religion, it was a lot of things.
I don’t set out to write books like that in the way other writers do. For instance, T. Geronimo Johnson. … I sat down with him once and we were kind of talking and he told me very specifically that when he sat down to write “Welcome to Braggsville” he knew what he wanted to write a book about. He knew what the big question was. Then it became a matter of what kind of story do I tell in order to ask this question to start this conversation. That’s not how I work as a writer. … All of those things for me work on a subconscious level. I can’t tell what the book’s about until it’s done.
MT: For the last couple of novels, you’ve begun work on the next even before the tour begins for the current novel. So I’m wondering. …
DJ: Oh yeah, I’m in the middle of a novel now. I’d like to have a draft of it done before this one comes out. I don’t know if that will happen. But, the story’s there. The characters are there.
It’s currently titled, “When These Mountains Burn.” It starts as two stories. You have a father who has a son who’s a heroin addict and then you’ve got another story of an addict. The two stories are running parallel and then they start intertwining as the tension builds.
One of the things that interested me with the book I’m working on is trying to get to that other perspective of the family, of the father. That’s been very difficult for me in that’s not the story I know. I’ve never been a part of that aftermath, that conflict. I know the story of the addict, but I don’t know the story of the addict’s mother or father. The other aspect is watching the mountains dissolve around them. You’ve got this father who is not just losing his son, he’s losing his culture.
That’s what I’m working on. I don’t know if it will come out next year (2019). Odds are that it will come out the following year. I’m under contract for two novels, so I’ll have this one and one more coming out after that.
MT: You set quite a deadline for yourself. Disciplined or simply fast?
DJ: I think about my novels for months and months (before I write them) … so, yes, there’s discipline there, but a big part of it is that I’m trying to make a living that way — and that’s difficult to do at best.