David Joy’s novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, is a journey into the heart of America. A heart that is tunneled through with poverty, drugs, and disenfranchisement and barely held up with hope and dreams for something better. Jacob McNeely is barely an adult and born into a family where crime is the only business. Wanting something better for himself, and to help his high school sweetheart escape, Jacob struggles to disentangle himself from the most difficult of webs, family obligation. When those obligations include murder, Jacob has to decide if he will continue to fight to get out, or be pulled under by his father and family reputation.
A beautiful novel set in rural Appalachia, Where All Light Tends to Go is a deep dive into the heart of a young man. Noir meets character study in this lyric, heart-pounding, page-turner.
David spoke with me via email about his novel:
BCA: The title of the book is found within its pages. Did the title come to you first, or did you find it as you wrote?
DJ: Strangely, I had the title before I had a story. I don’t really know where the title came from and at the time I certainly didn’t know what it meant or try to write toward any sort of meaning. I reached that scene in the novel and the meaning just sort of arose out of that moment. When it all boils down to it, I think that’s what I enjoy most about the creative process: it’s that blindfolded adventure, that happening upon the unexpected. I’m not the kind of writer who maps out anything. I get to know a character, put that character into a situation, then watch what unfolds.
BCA: Where All Light Tends to Go is a crime page-turner, but it is also a journey of the soul. What inspired you to write this novel? Did you start with the idea of the external situation Jacob is in, or the situation of his heart?
DJ: I think the external and internal struggles are inseparable, knotted together so tightly that it’d be impossible to discuss one without the other. I knew where Jacob came from and I knew that he didn’t belong there. It’s that central conflict that governed his heart. It’s a story of an eighteen year old boy ripped back and forth between where he comes from and where he wants to go. As far as what inspired that story, I think it’s the fact that I’ve known a hundred Jacobs in my lifetime. I grew up with kids just like him, kids clinging desperately to any sign of hope amidst paralyzingly grim circumstance. What I wanted more than anything was to follow that tiny speck of hope.
BCA: Jacob talks about the rich people who are moving into his area and don’t have any idea of the other world that exists parallel to them. Can you talk more about this quiet conflict?
DJ: I think this is something that slips past a lot of readers, but it’s something that’s impossible for anyone from this place to ignore. If you ask a lot of outsiders what’s the biggest environmental issue facing Appalachia, they’d say coal mining, mountaintop removal. But that’s not the case where I live. Jackson County, North Carolina isn’t the coalfields of Kentucky or West Virginia. For a long time, the biggest issue facing our mountains was unrestricted land development. In this county, particularly at the southern end from Glenville on up into Cashiers and Sapphire, you’ve got some of the most elite gated communities in the country. You’ve got $4M homes on Tom Fazio designed golf courses and right on the other side of the fence there are folks starving to damn death. The stratification here, the separation between second and third home owners from out of state who summer in the mountains (“summer” being a verb I’ve never known outside of Victorian novels) and the local people with blood tied to this place since the first land grants, is paper thin. So that conflict is always present here. Even when it’s not the central conflict–which its obviously not in this story–it’s still there.
BCA: You call this book Appalachia noir. The world you portray is cruel and hard. What is your relationship to Appalachia?
DJ: I think the phrase Appalachian noir is really a combination of two separate ideas–Appalachia identifying place, and noir identifying mood–and I think that separation is important to recognize as it is not my intention or belief that the place where I live is any more cruel and hard than other place on earth. Every place has a back side. Every place has darkness and violence and brutality. So as far as noir, I think I identify with that movement in the sense that everything I write seems to take place within shadow. Using a term like that, hopefully, lets readers know what’s to be expected. My stories aren’t for everyone and that’s okay. It’s okay if what I do is too dark for some readers. But that’s the type of story I like to read, the type of story I like to tell, and I’ll do so fearlessly.
In regards to my relationship with Appalachia, it’s the only place I know. When I imagine a story, the canvas isn’t blank in that there is already place. Living in a region like this, I think it’s impossible for your mind not to be engulfed by landscape. Everything here is engulfed by landscape, and I love that. The people here are inseparable from place, and I love that. We’re all bound together by landscape. I was reading Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, recently, in which he argues, amongst other things, that one of the biggest flaws of modern American society is the loss of tribe and community, that we as a species evolved to have these tightly knit social networks, but that somehow we’ve lost that. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that it hasn’t been lost where I live. Tribe still exists here. I think this is what Wendell Berry has been writing about his entire career and its what I love about this place. It’s why I’ll never leave. So as far as my relationship with this place, it’s what defines me. Everything about me is rooted to these mountains and these people. That’s really all there is for me.
(If this conversation about place and literature is one that intrigues you, there’s a longer essay that recently came out at Writer’s Bone and The Huffington Post called “One Place misUnderstood” where I discuss these ideas exclusively and at length: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kim-michele-richardson/one-place-misunderstood_b_10618102.html)
BCA: Jacob and Maggie are complete characters that make the reader’s heart hurt. Do they also serve as larger archetypes for the pursuit of the American Dream?
DJ: That’s definitely one way to read it. I don’t know that this was a conscious decision of mine, but, yes, I think they can definitely serve as larger archetypes. Their story is largely one of trying to jump social strata: they were born here and desperately want to end up there. At the end of the day, that’s what most of our lives are like, at least for anyone who wasn’t born at the top. I think it’s even more true when you weren’t born in the middle either, when you were born at the bottom, when survival is all you’ve ever known. That type of desperation and last ditch stride for hope is a major theme in what I’m doing and I think it’s because time and time again I’ve watched people amidst that conflict and I’ve watched them fall apart. McCarthy said once that the core of literature is tragedy, and, for me, that’s true. Personally, I don’t know anything more tragic than a good person falling to bad circumstance. That’s the tragedy I know best, and, in a lot of ways, yes, that’s the tragic flaw of the American Dream. How’s that for a cheerful answer 🙂
BCA: Thanks for talking with my readers and me and congratulations and the Edgar nomination! I look forward to your next book.
David Joy is the author of the Edgar nominated novel Where All Light Tends To Go, as well as the forthcoming novel The Weight Of This World due out from Putnam Books in early 2017. He lives in Webster, North Carolina. http://www.david-joy.com