Coming down the mountain: A glimpse into the world of Southern Appalachian novelist David Joy
Sitting in the Innovation Brewing outpost taproom at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, writer David Joy takes a sip of his craft ale and pauses for a moment, slowly scanning the mountains cradling the school. That evening, Joy would give a book talk across campus for an eager crowd awaiting this rare appearance of his.
“This is definitely the hardest book I’ve written,” Joy said of his latest novel, “Those We Thought We Knew.” “This book deals largely with race and I was writing it at a time where — all of a sudden — some of things I was writing about started taking place in real time.”
“Those We Thought We Knew” is Joy’s fifth novel. The fictional work circles around Toya Gardner. Hailing from Atlanta, the young Black artist returns to her ancestral home in rural Western North Carolina. Upon her arrival, Gardner comes across a Confederate monument in the small town.
It’s an unsettling encounter for Gardner, one which is only compounded by the simultaneous appearance of an unknown man in the tight-knit community, a would-be drifter who turns out to have deep connections to the Klu Klux Klan, all while a notebook with local names is discovered in his possession.
The tale sets in motion a domino-effect of tumultuous events that shake up and expose the dark, sinister side of the community, with one question being asked by Joy at the heart of the book — what happens when everyone and everything you’ve ever known turns out to be this eternal struggle of appearance versus reality?
“I was writing this novel partly about the [Confederate statute controversy] in Sylva,” Joy noted. “Then, 2020 happens. We have the [Black Lives Matter] movement. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Just names and names. The things that I’d been fictionalizing [in my writing] became reality, and it became very difficult to navigate that space.”
Ever since Joy burst onto the national literary scene in 2015 with his debut novel “Where All Light Tends to Go,” the author has been well-regarded worldwide for his keen focus on the trials and tribulations of modern-day Southern Appalachia.
Joy’s works are spotlights on the menacing, chaotic side of the human condition. Topics range from meth addiction to generational poverty and seemingly everything in-between when it comes to the devastating plight, undulating lost hope and shattered dreams of rural America.
And the critics are paying close attention, too, In 2018, Joy was honored with the Southern Book Prize for “The Line That Held Us,” only to pick up the Dashinell Hammett Award for “When These Mountains Burn” in 2020.
In a recent essay for The New York Times about his appearance in the PBS documentary series, “Southern Storytellers,” the article stated that Joy “looks and sounds every bit like the Southern Appalachian native he is. But he is not a stereotype. He is a man who sees his homeplace clearly and who writes like his hand was touched by God.”
But, for Joy, all he cares about is the work itself — writing and doing so with sincere purpose and genuine passion. For a somewhat recluse who lives on a dirt road off a gravel road off a backroad off a state highway in the depths of Jackson County, the 39-year-old would rather be at his desk purging the words and characters from imagination than come down the mountain and talk about his novels.
Let the words and characters speak for themselves. Interpret the books and themes as you will, for what matters most is sparking dialogue between friends, family and strangers alike about social issues that not only plague Joy, but everyone else who’s paying attention and has been shouting from the rooftops for positive, tangible change for decades going on centuries now.
Smoky Mountain News: With “Those We Thought We Knew,” there’s also inspiration from real-life events that occurred long ago here in Jackson County.
David Joy: Well, the beginning of the book takes place right up that hill. (Joy points to the hills behind WCU). At the top of that hill back there was a Black church that was founded by 12 freed men.
And so, somewhere around the 1930s, [WCU] was trying to expand and they basically forced [the Black community] to take the church down. Dig up the dead, move the dead and the church to the other side of the mountain.
So, if you went down the backside through the pines, you would get to where the [Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church] is now. It’s still an active church. They have a really small congregation at this point, but that’s largely because people have moved away.
And that was kind of the genesis of the novel, to explore that [idea of coming back]. This young girl came into my brain that was an artist and that was her family [that was part of the church].
She comes here and sneaks up there, digging literal graves outside that dormitory to try and bring attention to [the church removal] because there’s a plaque up there saying [the church] moved down the road — they didn’t move down the road, they were removed.
SMN: And the book takes place in modern times, this current era of uncertainty and turmoil.
DJ: Yes, and it deals with a lot of racial issues that I really wanted to explore and wanted to write about. And then it just got harder and harder to write [during 2020]. The reason I was writing the book was because of how common [racism] is.
So, it wasn’t like [racism] was unfathomable for me. It was very different to literally be writing about a place where [racism] doesn’t really happen that often to, all of a sudden, it’s very much happening right in front of you — it became hard to separate the fiction from reality.
SMN: You’re watching TV and you’re reckoning, whether consciously or subconsciously, with yourself as an American, a white man, a Millennial. All of these things at play and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror thinking, “Have I had that conversation with myself about my existence, am I doing enough?”
DJ: Yeah. And, to be honest, that’s part of what the book was about, as well. All of my novels up until this point have very much been a matter of how much coal can I throw into the engine to get this train tearing down the tracks? How fast can I make this train move?
And [“Those We Thought We Knew”] is about where the train stopped. It’s about reaching quiet places where people could have meaningful conversations. The narrative of this book still moves really fast, but ultimately what I was trying to do was create a story where I could get to spaces where people could have conversations that I thought needed to be had — especially amongst white people.