David Joy's debut novel, “Where All Light Tends to Go,” an “Appalachian noir,” is set in a small North Carolina town and was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Now, the 33-year-old author returns to storytelling in these mountains with his critically acclaimed sophomore effort, “The Weight of This World.” We caught up with him to find out how his home state inspires his work.
You’ve written two novels set in western North Carolina, where you live. How does your home state inspire your writing?
The reality is that I just don’t know anything else. All of my family has been here since the late 1600s, early 1700s. All of the stories I grew up hearing were rooted in this place. Until I sold that first novel, I’d never been on an airplane. I’d never really left North Carolina aside from short vacations to South Carolina, maybe Georgia or Tennessee. I’d certainly never been to any place like New York. At this point I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled a good bit as a result of my fiction, been all over the country, been to France, but still none of those places speak to me, it’s red clay and mountains; its chocolate milk-colored farm ponds and fields speckled with Queen Anne’s lace. When I hear voices, they have a very distinct accent. People and place is a sort of inseparable thing for me, both of which are very, very rooted to this ground.
How has your experience as an environmental journalist shaped your novels?
Early on, I wanted to focus on writing about the natural world. I feel much more at home [in the wilderness] than I do around people. I spend a lot more time in the woods than I ever do surrounded by buildings. The first book I ever wrote grew out of that: a memoir called “Growing Gills.” Looking back, I don’t think that book was very good. I was 25, I didn’t have my feet under me yet. At the same time, what I did well in that book is largely what I’m still doing well, which is painting a very vivid image of landscape.
Where do the ideas for your novels come from, and how much does setting influence how your novels unfold?
All of my work is rooted in image. An image will come to mind, and it won’t leave. It’ll just hang around my neck. If I sit with it long enough, those things start to unveil themselves. When that happens, it’s just a matter of following them out the door. If I knew the ending when I started, I wouldn’t write the book. The part that pushes me forward is that desire to answer that question of 'Where do they go from here?'
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to represent Appalachia in the “right” way?
When you’re from a place like this, or you live in a place like this long enough, it’s impossible not to feel a very intimate connection with the landscape. It’s overwhelming, breathtaking. I look out my window and I’m surrounded by mountains. It feels like I’m being cupped in the palm of God’s hand. I think it’s impossible to offer any sort of singular identity for a region that stretches from the hill country of Mississippi to New York, an area covering 205,000 square miles across 420 counties in 13 states. What I try to do is to tell a singular story set in the place I know, and tell it with as much heart and honesty as possible in hopes that it rings true.
What do you think surprises people about North Carolina?
What I hope they see when they come here is the diversity. I think that’s what makes this place so damn beautiful. Whether it’s our land or our people, buddy we’ve got a little bit of everything.