David Joy Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

David Joy
Photo: © Alan Rhew

David Joy

An interview with David Joy

A Conversation with David Joy about When These Mountains Burn

In your fourth novel, When These Mountains Burn, you once again return to western North Carolina, which has become your literary terrain. What is this novel about?

I'm never good at answering this question and it's because I read, "What is this novel about," as a philosophical question when it's almost always a question of plot—What happens? What happens is that a father loses his son to an overdose and sets out to clean up his community when it becomes obvious law enforcement won't. In that way, it's a sort of Gran Torino look at the opioid crisis in Southern Appalachia told from the perspectives of the father, an addict, and the DEA. As far as what the book's about, though, the heart of it, I think it's a novel about cultural extinction. It's about what Maurice Manning called, "the gone and the going away."

Each of your books seems to hone in a particular timely issue. What drew you to write about the opioid crisis?

Heroin really started to take hold of the community where I live over the past five or six years. That's not to say that there wasn't a growing opioid problem before that, but it really became impossible to ignore more recently. You started seeing sharps containers put up in gas station bathrooms. You go to the post office and see the parking lot littered with needles. I watched medics pull the body of someone who overdosed out of the creek. Addicts showed up on my doorstep asking if I had a sewing kit, me knowing they wanted the needle to skin pop. I lived in a little farmhouse at the time and a couple hundred yards up the gravel road was the where most of the heroin was moving. There wasn't a day went by that police weren't passing the house. My point is that writing about it wasn't so much of a choice as it was a necessity. The issues in this novel are an accurate depiction of what this place looks in the here and now.

Why do you think the opioid crisis has had a seemingly larger impact on rural, disenfranchised populations than on urban ones?

The Washington Post had a good map of this, but if you were to look up any distribution map for OxyContin prescription rates, Appalachia sticks out against the rest of the country like a bruise. Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia were targeted the hardest of anywhere in America, but the entire region was hammered with pills. In that way, the opioid crisis was a systematic targeting of a specific people, and they were a rural people. In that way, the crisis was also geographic. There were 42,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2016, and of the five states with the highest number, four were in Appalachia. That wasn't a coincidence. Purdue Pharma targeted this place. And that's not a secret. That's why they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last September. That's why they struck a deal with more than 2,000 local governments for their role in both creating and sustaining America's opioid epidemic. That's why the Sackler family, who owned the company, agreed to provide $3 billion in cash over several years, along with future revenues from the sale of OxyContin, to help the communities hit the hardest. I don't think this equates to justice, but as Beth Macy wrote in her book Dopesick, "[Y]ou can't put a corporation in jail; you just take their money, and it's not really their money anyway."

You write with verisimilitude about both the machinations of the drug trade and the impact of the drugs on users. How did you conduct your research into these dark regions?

I think writing about addiction has always come easier, and that's just because I spent a lot of time around addicts. The drug changes but the mentality and the motivations hold pretty constant whether you're talking about prescription pills or heroin or methamphetamine or alcohol, whatever the case may be. There wasn't all that much research on that end. There's some good fiction rooted in heroin addiction and I revisited a lot of those books—Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, William S. Burroughs' Junky, Donald Goines' Dopefiend. But the hard part for me was getting inside the head of the family, a character like Raymond Mathis who has watched helplessly as his son's life slips away. That was something I didn't know first hand. That was unfamiliar ground for me. And so again it was a matter of reading some of those accounts, listening to people, watching documentaries, doing whatever I could to try to get a better grasp on what that might feel like.

The painful relationship between Raymond and his son Ricky is wrought with heartbreaking detail. Would you say this is the central relationship in the novel? And by extension, would you say this a classic father-son story?

The novel could most certainly be read that way. In some ways, the book is framed by that relationship, starting and ending with a sort of lamentation on family and grief. Raymond's inability to help his son is the motivating factor for his actions throughout the book. But for me, I think the central relationships are between characters and culture. For Raymond Mathis, it's the old time mountain traditions; for Denny Rattler it's feeling left behind by the cultural restoration taking place in Cherokee. That's the underlying conflict, and that's really one of the reasons I wrote those two characters was to offset one another. You've got one man who is watching the last of his culture be erased and you've got another who's witnessing his be revived and both are equally conflicted about what they're witnessing, about how their identity fits within that change.

Your novels always have very poetic titles—where do you get them/how do you choose them?

In most instances, the title has come before the story. I don't know why that is, just that most times when a story starts to brew—when the characters and images emerge—the title will surface and hold it all together. Sometimes that title winds up becoming a line in the story. That was the case with Where All Light Tends To Go and The Line That Held Us, and in those instances the title comes to take on a heavier meaning maybe. I think what I like most about the titles, though, is something I really didn't notice until I started hearing readers and critics get them wrong. They'd say for instance, The Weight Of THE World or When THE Mountains Burn, the difference of course being that the correct titles are phrased THIS and THESE. That doesn't necessarily seem like a big thing to them, but it's huge for me. The phrasing is very deliberate. I'm not talking about the world; I'm talking about this world. I'm not writing about the mountains; I'm writing about these mountains. I'm intentionally grounding the story to a very particular place, to this one small part of Appalachia where I live.

The title, When These Mountains Burn, has metaphorical underpinnings, of course, but also has a literal meaning as forest fires rage through the region. Are you imparting a message about climate change and the environment?

In 2016, there were devastating fires all across Appalachia. You look at the numbers and there was somewhere around 90,000 acres that burned between late October and early December. 60,000 acres of that was in western North Carolina. There were days when you would go outside and the sky would be yellow with smoke. Couple that with everything else that was already going on in the region, add on top the 2016 presidential election, and I can just remember standing out in the yard feeling like it was the end of the world. That's what it felt like. Raymond Mathis was born out of that feeling. That's one of the central themes of this novel, maybe the most important thing at play, is a man looking around at everything he's ever known and watching the last of it slip through his fingers—his family, his way of life, his culture, everything. I think these lines for me are what this entire novel boils down to: "He was grieving the loss of a place and a people. It was hard enough to bury the bodies of those you loved, but it was another sadness altogether to witness the death of a culture. There was the gone and the going away, and there was the after. He found it difficult to imagine what would become of this place, harder still to witness what it was already becoming."

You live and work in the region about which you write. What has been the local reaction to your work?

Locals, true locals, which is to say people born of this place, and particularly those with family going back generations, almost always tell me that I got it right. Outsiders who've moved into the region are typically the only ones who've thought I got it wrong. As for why that happens, I think it boils down to perception. People born here don't enter this place with any sort of preconception. They're not blinded by the vistas. I think those who move into the region most often do so for very specific reasons. They're attracted to the beauty of the landscape. They've got the picture perfect idea of their retirement, the small, happy-go-lucky mountain community that's separated from the big city problems they're leaving behind. I think it's very easy to ignore the ugly when you walk into a place wearing those kinds of blinders. People with the privilege to do so can choose to see what they want to see. It's easy to turn a blind eye to the ugly, especially in a place this beautiful.

As you gain readership, do you see yourself as an emissary from the New South to the rest of the world?

I don't think I've ever seen myself that way. I've never been a writer who set out with any sort of intentional goal. My work's more of a compulsion. Stories have a way of taking hold of me, and that's the way all of the novels have come about. Characters arose and I just couldn't let them go. But I do know one particular part of this world really well and that's the place I write about. I've only ever lived in North Carolina. My family's been here since the mid 1700s. I know this ground and I know the way that it's changed and is changing. I know what the people sound like, the way they phrase what they wish to say. So there's an unmistakable authenticity to it, and I think that holds true for the readers who know this place and those who don't. There's been a sort of Appalachian renaissance over the past few years and that's been a fun thing to watch and to experience. In the end, the work becomes a reflection of that and so maybe the novels do have the capacity to showcase and illuminate something that outsiders might not understand. In the end, though, that's more of a by-product than an intention. I just write the stories I'm compelled to tell.

Do you think your books—and literature in general—can help mend the cultural and political fault lines that currently divide our country? How?

Literature, and art in general, most certainly have the capacity to elicit cultural change. Once, I heard the writer George Saunders say, "Fiction, when it's done well, has the ability to serve as empathy's training wheels." That's a beautiful way of putting it, and I think he's absolutely right. Good fiction allows the reader to step inside the body of the other and view the world from a different perspective for a while. That's the foundation for empathy, I think, the ability to view the world from the perspective of the other. Things open up when we can see the world like that. That said, that's a very ambitious goal for one's own work. I don't think that I can say that about my novels. Like I said before, I just write the stories I feel compelled to tell.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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