An interview with award-winning North Carolina author David Joy.
David Joy’s latest novel, “Those We Thought We Knew,” weaves an intricate tale of family history, racial tensions and buried secrets in the North Carolina mountains. Through the eyes of Toya Gardner, a determined, young Black artist on a quest to unearth her roots, Joy portrays the urgent unraveling of the dark underbelly of a community.
Working to complete her graduate thesis, Toya encounters a still-standing Confederate monument in the heart of town. Meanwhile, local deputies find a man sleeping in the back of a station wagon and believe him to be nothing more than some slack-jawed drifter. Yet a search of the man’s vehicle reveals that he is a high-ranking member of the Klan, and the uncovering of a notebook filled with local names threatens to turn the mountain on end.
After two horrific crimes split the county apart, every soul must wrestle with deep and unspoken secrets that stretch back for generations.
Corey Bryan: I am always interested in learning about an author’s writing routine. What was your routine like writing this book? What was that process like?
David Joy: Historically, I’ve always been a seat-of-my-pants sort of writer, which is to say I’d start with an image or a fragment of a scene, I’d start with character or characters and follow blindly. I never knew where the story was going. This novel was different in a lot of ways in that it was working with some traditional mystery elements and those types of stories need a bit more orchestration. We often want to talk about process as this sort of static, unchanging thing, and, at least for me, it has been something that has proven very different for each book. The work of the novel is largely a matter of learning to write the novel, and in the case of people who’ve done it again and again a forgetting, a starting from scratch, a relearning. It’s an exercise in fluidity.
CB: Additionally, I love hearing about how other authors influence a writer. Are there any authors you feel impact your writing?
DJ: The lineage for me is pretty clearly defined with writers like Larry Brown and William Gay and Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews, all of those being writers who I think would draw clear lines back to [Cormac] McCarthy and [Flannery] O’Connor and [Eudora] Welty who’d draw lines back to [William] Faulkner, which is to say there is a fairly clear tradition I’m coming out of as a writer. While I was writing this new novel, though, I was reading a pile of Randall Kenan and Crystal Wilkinson and Natalie Baszile and Ernest Gaines. All of that filtered in, surely. The novelists and storywriters I’m most impressed by over the past few years are folks like Maurice Ruffin and Rion Amilcar Scott, someone like Nana Kwame Adjai-Brenyah with Chain Gang All Stars this year, and they’re all doing some similar things on the page, but those folks aren’t really influencing me as a writer. I’m drawn to them as a reader. I think what they’re doing is interesting in a way that a lot of American literature isn’t. I just love their work.
CB: My favorite scene in the book was the moment with Toya and her grandmother in the back yard dancing to Nina Simone. It’s such a moment of joy and beauty, I reread it multiple times. I would love to know the inspiration of that scene, or just some insight into your process of writing it/your relationship with the song.
DJ: So the song they’re dancing to is, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” which to anyone who doesn’t know starts as this sort of slow, lamentation on all of the things that she does not have. But there comes a moment in the song when the hammer drops and the song takes its turn and Nina sets to pounding the keys in a celebration of all that she does have. What I love about that song is the celebration of Black joy. Time and time again we tend to focus on the collective weight carried by the Black community. We fixate on the trauma, the death, the very real danger of simply trying to live in this world, but we seldom celebrate the joy. We seldom acknowledge the resilience, which make no mistake, as Bernice King said, ‘Resilience does not equal justice.’ Resilience is so often a response to injustice. But there’s that great line when Toni Morrison sits down with Charlie Rose when she says, ‘I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one.’ That’s what that song is; it’s a refusal to exist wholly within the hardship. I think that became an essential element of understanding those characters.
CB: In Those We Thought We Knew, you tackle themes of racism and its lingering impact on a community. What inspired you to explore this subject matter, and how did you approach writing about such a sensitive topic?
DJ: I don’t think of it as an impact on a community so much as the acknowledgement of an American reality. This novel is set very specifically in Jackson County, North Carolina, but it’s not a novel about Jackson County, North Carolina. This is a novel that is very much informed and influenced by the history of the American South, but it’s not a novel about the American South. This is a novel about America, and I mean that at large, because despite what many people in this country seem to want to believe White supremacy is not a Southern phenomenon. It is deeply ingrained within every power structure that operates in this country and it has been that way from day one. It’s foundational. So for me it feels like we’ve been living in a house that’s been taking on water for 300 years. The basement is flooded. The floor joists are rotten. The foundation is cracked. And yet we’re all sitting upstairs on the couch with our legs crossed watching reruns of “Roseanne.” If you want to fix the house, you have to acknowledge the flooding. This novel is a matter of walking down into the basement and standing up to our throats in water.
CB: Toya Gardner is a deeply compelling protagonist who embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Can you tell us more about her character development and the challenges she faces while tracing her family history and confronting the Confederate monument?
DJ: I had pieces of Toya for a very long time, like the first scenes I wrote of her were nearly a decade ago, but I didn’t have a way to ground her to place. Anyone who knows my work knows that’s probably the most quintessential element is that the characters are deeply rooted to place. And so in the beginning I had this outsider artist who’d stumbled into Jackson County and started to stir up, in the words of John Lewis, ‘good trouble.’ Then, about 2018 or so, I was walking around Western Carolina University with a friend of mine, the woman to whom the novel is dedicated, and she led me up to this plaque that sits outside of one of the dormitories on campus. The plaque tells the [mis]history of a church and a cemetery. Learning about that suddenly gave me a way to ground Toya to place in a way that hadn’t existed before that moment. Suddenly I knew she’d come home. She’d returned to an ancestral home to try and discover where and whom she’d come from. The minute I knew that, her story just caught like a fire.
CB: How did you research and approach creating such a rich and immersive backdrop for the narrative?
DJ: I was very fortunate in that so much of the research needed to ground Toya had already been done by a woman named Victoria Casey McDonald. Victoria was a Black novelist, historian, genealogist and scholar who’d devoted her life to documenting and preserving the histories of Black communities in the North Carolina mountains, and more specifically Jackson County, the place I live and write about. There was just this treasure trove of information and source material that would’ve been impossible to assemble any other way. Appalachia as a region is a place that has historically been and continues to be whitewashed. To anyone outside of these mountains, it looks a very certain way. It looks like me. It looks like some goofy looking White man with a beard and overalls most likely without shoes and standing by a moonshine still. Beyond the simplicity and ignorance and offensiveness of that caricature, just the Whiteness of it is problematic in that it fails to include the diversity that has been here from the beginning. It is not inclusive of Native voices like Annette Saunook Clapsaddle. It’s not inclusive of Black Appalachian voices like Crystal Wilkinson. It’s not inclusive of someone like Neema Avashia who writes about growing up queer and Indian in West Virginia. So when I think about the work Victoria was doing, that was the importance of it and in a lot of ways it was unprecedented at the time. That legacy she left behind cannot be measured, and like I said in the acknowledgements, I hope that it serves eternal.
CB: The novel confronts uncomfortable truths about human nature and the hidden darkness within communities. Were there any challenges you faced while exploring these complex themes, and how did you ensure the narrative remained authentic?
DJ: I think the challenge and difficulty in writing a book like this is operating from a place of historical power and privilege. I’m writing across racial gaps and gender gaps and am doing so from the most privileged position in this world: the White, American male. There is no way to navigate that space and not make mistakes, and the difference here is that mistakes at this level are not inconsequential. They carry the ability to do real harm and real damage to real people, whether that be perpetuating caricatures and gross mischaracterizations or economizing something like Black death as spectacle. You are operating from a dangerous and volatile position and there is just so much to get wrong. At the same time, I just kept going back to something Toni Morrison told Charlie Rose nearly 30 years ago to the day. She said, ‘[M]y feeling is that White people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.’ What she meant by that was clean up your own fucking house, that the burden of fixing the problem could not be something we continue to place on the Black community. Thirty years later we’re still not doing the work. We’re still not having those conversations. So despite the very real dangers and risks, the work felt essential in that way. It felt needed.
CB: In Those We Thought We Knew, you delve into the consequences of systemic racism and the complexities of race and identity. What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
DJ: I think the goal all along was to force White characters, and by extension White readers, into difficult conversations and make them confront ideas and truths that were uncomfortable and hard to wrestle. Whereas so much of my work in the past has been a matter of seeing how fast I could make the train move, this novel was largely about where the train stopped, about the quiet spaces between. The sad reality is that outside of moments of Black death and Black trauma, White Americans do not have these conversations, and even then we only have them until we reach a brief moment of reprieve when we can usher the monster back into the closet. We are an air-conditioned culture. We refuse to be made uncomfortable. This book challenges that and forces readers into those spaces. When I think about what I love most about art, and particularly literature, it’s that it provides a safe space for us to sit with challenging ideas. That’s the work that I hope the book can do.
CB: The novel’s title, Those We Thought We Knew, holds layers of meaning. Could you share your insights into the significance of the title and its connection to the characters’ experiences?
DJ: Form in this novel was something that was very intentional in that I chose to ground the story with elements of traditional mystery. I wanted to write a whodunit where the act of discovery was less a matter of figuring out who committed the crime and more an illumination of self wherein characters came to question things about themselves and learn things about the community they thought they knew. That’s the illumination. That’s where the title comes from.
CB: Deep South Magazine has an obvious connection to the South. How did your relationship to the region influence your work?
DJ: I just don’t know anything else. I’m a 12th generation North Carolinian. My first known ancestor comes out of Virginia into what would become Bertie County in the late 1600s, and by the mid 1700s most of that family line is rooted in and around the Catawba River Valley where I was born and raised. With regards to this new novel, though, you can’t make a statement about being a 12th generation White anything in this country without acknowledging that you are most likely tied to enslavers, and in my case, that’s most assuredly true. I come from enslavers. I come from people who fought to preserve the institution of slavery. None of that is easy to say, but it’s the truth, and I don’t think that we can move forward and start to have real conversations until we lay the ugly out on the table. It does me no good to carry that around in my pocket, to ignore it and pretend that it does not exist. I think what’s hard for some people to understand is that I don’t feel shame about that history. I don’t feel guilt for it. What I do feel is a very real obligation to acknowledge that’s where I come from and who I come from and acknowledge that all these years later I remain a direct beneficiary of that system.
CB: This book showcases the beauty and harshness of rural settings. How do you believe these settings shape your characters and their experiences in the stories you tell?
DJ: Place, for me, is the intersection of a landscape and a people. It’s those two things tied together in a way that they become seemingly inseparable. When a character emerges in my mind they are always attached to the ground they’re walking. There’s a history and a story playing out under their feet. Everything carries sound and dialect. All of this is to say that place is what informs everything for me. It’s the one constant. And like I said before, it’s because I just don’t know anything else. I know this one place and I know it intimately. But at the same time that’s never been something I viewed as any sort of limitation. The work has to be doing something bigger and when it’s doing something bigger it speaks to the universal. It’s like when they asked James Joyce why he only wrote of Dublin and he said, ‘[B]ecause if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.’
CB: What advice would you give to aspiring authors looking to address sensitive and challenging topics in their own writing, based on your experience with Those We Thought We Knew?
DJ: So first and foremost, I think that all writers and all artists have to work from a place of fearlessness and a place of vulnerability. Those two things are essential to create anything meaningful. But with regards to something like this new novel, with regards to writing across gaps, that’s always going to be something that requires much more work. Whether you’re writing across race, place, gender, sexuality, class, any gap, and especially when crossing that gap means stepping out of a place of historical power, there’s just so much more that has to be considered. And it has to be considered because mistakes at this level, when you’re operating from a place of power and privilege, have the capacity to do real harm. Like I said earlier, it’s not inconsequential. There’s a lot that goes into making that decision and you just have to be willing to do the work. You have to be willing to recognize that you are inevitably going to make mistakes and that when those mistakes are pointed out that you cannot be defensive. That is the time that you shut your mouth and you listen. You use those moments as opportunities to facilitate and further the conversation. Do the work and do it well.
CB: Lastly, can you offer any insight into your future projects? Is there a particular theme or setting you’re excited to explore in your upcoming works?
DJ: I don’t think in terms of theme, and I only know one setting. I can’t imagine ever writing a novel that isn’t grounded in the landscape and the people that I know.
Those We Thought We Knew is one of our 2023 summer reads. View the full list here.