Interview from Novel Enthusiast: David Joy of Where All Light Tends to Go
Here’s my last post from my series of interviews from southern gothic writers. Since this interview, David has gone on to write several other wonderful novels that fit into this genre. Here’s our chat:
David, thank you so much for agreeing to spend some time with us here at Novel Enthusiasts. First of all, congratulations on the success of Where All Light Tends to Go. So many of my friends love your book. Really love it. In fact, I think that overwhelming sense of admiration for your book is the general consensus among most readers. Almost every bookstore I go into, I see your book as a recommendation. How does it feel to have such support for your first novel?
The support has been great and I owe that to the marketing and publicity teams at Putnam. What they’re able to do and how they’re able to get copies of a book onto editors’ desks is incredible. I think that critical response is really great, especially when you see something like a nice review in the New York Times, but what really hits me is hearing from readers and booksellers who get what I’m trying to do. I had this bookseller talking about how much she loved the book and she actually broke down into tears about Jacob’s story. I had a girl named Eva from Denmark send me a song that she said played through her head while she was reading, a song that when I heard it fit what I was trying to do to a T. What comes to mean the most is knowing that you’ve created a piece of art that’s resonating with people, and reaching people that in all likelihood you’ll never get the chance to meet. I think writers who are solely fixated on what the critics are saying about their work are missing the best part entirely.
How was your book tour? I imagine it as being a mix of exhausting yet thrilling.
I had a lot of fun and got to meet a bunch of great people. I really loved Scottsdale and Houston and Birmingham and Memphis. My favorite part of traveling is usually the car rides when it’s just me and the driver and they don’t have a clue who I am or what I do and we can talk about anything other than writing. The best acknowledgement I ever read in a book was by George Singleton and he thanked Ron Rash and Dale Ray Phillips for, “knowing and talking about things other than writing.” I talked mindfulness and Thich Nhat Hahn with a driver from Barbados in Los Angeles. That was the best conversation I had. That’s fun. Plus when you’re riding you get to really see things. I absolutely loved the ride to Scottsdale and seeing that desert landscape for the first time. At the same time, I think that side of the business is always going to be difficult for me just because of how introverted I am. I really enjoy being around people, but I get my energy from being alone. Ultimately, what I learned is that my introversion has a battery life of somewhere around two weeks. I can remember at the end being so brain dead that my mom was asking me a very simple question and I just stood there dumbfounded looking at her. On that final stretch home just as soon as I got to a place where I could see my mountains I pulled over on the side of the road and lay in the sedges.
With this being your debut novel, I really admire how you came out swinging. You crafted some scenes that left me feeling like I’d been gutted—in a good way, of course. Did you know from the beginning of your writing process that you wanted to deliver a work that would be so tough and unsentimental?
Larry Brown talked about walking that line between the brutal and the sentimental, and I think that’s what I always loved most about his work. I love the honesty of it. So I think everything I do I’m trying to get to the absolute heart of things and to do that, as Larry Brown put it, “you can’t fall into either one of those ditches.” The only unforgiveable sin for a writer, I think, is cowardice. The best fiction is written without any fear of consequence or judgment. The folks who come to create any sort of lasting art are the ones who take chances. As strange as it may sound, I really love the way you put that, “left [you] feeling gutted.” In a lot of ways that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I wanted the end of that book to leave the reader emotionally empty. The feeling I was going for is that moment when you’ve cried every tear you have to cry and there’s absolutely nothing left to give. That’s the type of emptiness I wanted to create, and if you felt that then you got what I was doing.
Your story about a teenager who struggles to pick his path is one with which, I think, most people can relate. Although Jacob has the added dangers of drugs, violence, poverty, and general brutality, do you think his story is, at least at its core, like any other teenager’s who is approaching adulthood?
Jacob’s is definitely a coming-of-age story, but it’s just that coming of age where he’s from doesn’t much make a damn. Jacob is from a place where circumstance governs maturity. Hard lives tend to grow up fast, and he’s had a tough row to hoe. But as far as there being a universality to that age, I think that seems to be one of the most pivotal times in life, that moment when you’re not really a grown up but you’re no longer a child, and so that period works really well to create conflict. The Catcher in the Rye wouldn’t be what it is if Holden Caulfield were any older. Jacob’s idealization of Maggie and his overall naivety for much of what’s going on around him are very much tied to that I-know-it-all-but-I-know-nothing reality of an eighteen-year-old kid. I had one reader tell me that he thought Jacob was an unreliable narrator, though it wasn’t a matter of Jacob being purposefully dishonest, but rather he was simply unable to fully grasp what was going on around him. I think that’s absolutely right, and that’s very much a characteristic of that age. Being a teenager is hard. Any adult who tells you differently has simply forgotten.
I think Jacob is really dynamic, and for the record, I think he’s one of 2015’s great literary characters. He isn’t necessarily a bad person, but he’s also not really a good one either. He struggles. He accomplishes. He fights. He flees. He hesitates. He does. He is very real to me. Do you think Jacob is likeable or, at the very least, sympathetic?
I don’t necessarily want a reader to feel sympathetic for Jacob, but I do want them to care about what happens to him. One of the things I’m most interested by is at what point we come to care about another person’s life. In the culture we live in, I think it’s very easy to see a life like Jacob’s on the nightly news and to think he’s a monster. It’s easy for us to draw that kind of separation. It’s easy for us to think we’re nothing like that. What I’m trying to do as an artist is to get the reader to care about someone they would normally overlook. I had someone tell me that they thought these people were just “white trash,” and I kept my mouth shut while recognizing immediately that anyone on this earth who would use a term like “white trash” to describe a person is simply incapable of understanding what I’m trying to do on the page. It’s not about creating a sympathetic character, but I think one of the roles of fiction and art in general is to create empathy. The goal is for people to care, for them simply to see the humanity, and, sadly, many people are incapable because of their own prejudices and self-involvement. For some folks, empathy ain’t easy.
I really like Maggie. And, to take that a bit further, I really like the idea of Maggie with Jacob. They feel like a good fit, a good balance. I wasn’t ever entirely sure if I could trust her or not, but I liked the time I had with her. She’s a dreamer. Was it hard for you to write her scenes since they are slightly more optimistic and calm than the other parts of your story?
I have a few friends who constantly rag me for a comment I made in an interview where I said the hardest thing for me to write was hope. That sounds incredibly bleak, but it’s the truth. Maggie is the embodiment of hope in the novel so it was really hard for me to get her right. Ultimately, I owe what became of her to my editor who had me completely rewrite Maggie from start to finish. In the early drafts, she was a very different character. My original idea was that I was going to treat the manuscript like a house and I was going to cut out all the lights. Sara Minnich, my editor, had the idea to use Maggie to create balance and I think that was a brilliant insight. That’s part of why the novel works so well is that balance. Looking at it afterward, I’ve come to recognize that that’s one of the things working in the literature I admire most. It’s that balance. It’s that juxtaposition. That’s what creates conflict. In this novel, Maggie serves as that counterweight.
In the real world, can Maggies save Jacobs? Would they ever be able to?
There is a fatalism to Jacob’s story that is felt very early in the novel. At the same time, I think in the real world hope can serve as our savior. That’s what keeps us moving forward. When you couple that hope with a plan, which is what Maggie does for Jacob, I think it can become the means of escape. It’s one thing to tell someone that circumstance doesn’t have to dictate what becomes of their life, but it’s another thing altogether to show them the way out. Maybe that’s part of the problem with how we teach young people. We tell them over and over that they can do anything they want to do, but we rarely take them by the hand and show them where to start. I think that’s what makes Maggie such a good character is that, not only does she tell Jacob he can leave, she says come with me.
Charles McNeely, Jacob’s daddy, is a terrible dude, but I think that Lieutenant Jessup Rogers gets my vote as the one I dislike the most. It’s because I, like Jacob, trusted him. He seemed so calm and caring—just a nice guy, you know? Then, BAM! Surprise, he’s a monster. Maybe “monster” is a strong word, but he’s a betrayer. Did you always know what Rogers would do at the ending of the novel?
This might sound a bit unbelievable, but I was still holding out hope for Jacob right up to the end. I didn’t know what he was going to find inside that house until he got there. So, to answer your question, no, I didn’t have a clue that Rogers was going to betray him and I think the fact that I didn’t plan it is partly why it works on the page. If you were building toward that, it would be hard not to telegraph. But I had no clue of what was coming and I think that’s why it comes as such a surprise. That’s also what I enjoy most about writing. I guess some writers storyboard, but everything I do is character driven. I come to know these characters intimately, to the point that even if a character doesn’t order coffee in the story I still know what kind of coffee they would drink. When you know the characters that well it’s just a matter of throwing them into a situation and watching what unfolds. You know them so well that you know how they’ll react, what they’ll say. That’s the fun part for me is getting to sit back and watch.
In 2016, we’ll get to read your next novel, The Weight of This World. Is it still going to be set in Appalachia? Thematically, will it have some similarities to Where All Light Tends to Go?
The Weight of This World is once again set very specifically in Jackson County, North Carolina where I live. I’ve never seen the point in trying to create some place fictitious only for it to be some distorted reflection of something that actually exists. For that reason, I set my stories in the landscape I know. The places that I write about—the ridgelines, the streams, the roads—they’re all real. These are the places I see everyday so when I start to envision a story I can’t seem to separate the two. Right now I can’t envision myself ever writing a novel that’s not set here. It’s like James Joyce said when he was asked why he always wrote of 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." That’s the hope. But as far as themes, I think you’ll see some similarities. The catalyst for the narrative is that these two addicts go to buy dope and witness the accidental death of their dealer and all of a sudden there’s a pile of drugs and money and guns that lands in their laps. The scope is a lot bigger than the first novel, though. One of the limitations in Where All Light Tends to Go was the first-person narration. That perspective gives you a lot of freedom in creating character and voice, but it limits you from getting inside the heads of other characters. I couldn’t get inside Charlie McNeely’s head because Jacob was telling the story and his father certainly wouldn’t have talked about his feelings. With this second novel, it’s third-limited and that was a choice I made because I needed to get inside each character’s head in order to justify their actions. The Weight of This World follows three people through a fast-paced unraveling. It’s about how the memories we carry with us come to govern our actions, and a sort of testimonial to how quickly things fall apart.
I can’t wait to read it. Congratulations on the success of Where All Light Tends to Go. I love redemption stories, and yours is one of the best I’ve read in a longtime. It’s really a beautiful piece of fiction.
Thanks so much.