North Carolina native David Joy, author of The Weight of This World, talks about his path to publishing without an MFA, Appalachian noir, picking POV characters based on how interesting their perspective is, and more. The New York Times calls his book “bleakly beautiful” and it is. And talk about an ending that makes you want to read the next book of his. Stunning.
(Broadcast date: May 10, 2017)
We couldn’t get to everything on the show so David agreed to respond to a few more questions by email. Read on.
You said on the show that you look for characters with the most interesting perspectives. Would you embellish?
We were talking about how you decide who’s going to be telling the story and at the time we were talking about my novel, The Weight Of This World, which has three limited perspectives. If I have a scene and all three of those characters are in the room, I need to think about who has the best insight, who can offer the reader the best vantage, who can add the most to the story. Sometimes I’ll even cut a scene abruptly and pick right back up in the next chapter, but use that transition to change perspective. In Weight that happens a couple of times. Ultimately, it’s all about advancing the story and which character can best help you do that. With a story that just has one perspective, it’s the same thing. You look at all the people in the room and you decide who has the most interesting insight and that’s who better be telling the story.
What’s your revision process like? Please go into as much detail as you like. Do you get a first draft completely down before you begin to revise or do you revise as you go on? Are there stages to your revision process? That sort of thing.
That’s a pretty big question and a pretty complicated answer. While I’m writing, I’d say I’m editing sentence level things. As a writer, I’m really interested in sound and so I spend a great deal of time trying to make a sentence sound a certain way. I do that while I’m writing. I do that all through the process. But if I spend the day writing, at the end of the day, I’m going back through and trying to make it sound right, because if it doesn’t, I’m just going to trash it. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be able to sleep.
Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and I think he’s absolutely right. The other side of that is that the first draft is hard. It’s digging a ditch. My mother was a potter and I’ve used this metaphor a lot to describe this process, but the first draft is like going out into the woods and digging clay. Digging clay is hard work and it’s not all that fun. Revision is when you get to take all of that clay and put it on the wheel and actually make it into something. That’s fun. That’s what I enjoy most. I might go through 15 drafts of a novel and when I say drafts I mean substantial revisions. When I’m in those final stages, I’m reading everything aloud and I’m really honed in on sound at that point. I try to get as close as I can to that James Still idea that, “every line of prose ought to have the values of a line of poetry.” I think that’s beautifully said and wholly true.
Do you keep a writer’s journal?
No. Nor do I ascribe to that, “Today I wrote 2,452 words,” or, “692 of 23,458 words,” thing that so many writers seem to do on the Facebooks and the Twitters #AmWriting. I think it’s silly. The truth is I don’t care if you wrote one word today or you wrote 8,000. All that matters is the end product. All that matters is what’s left on the page in the end. I might write 3,500 one day and realize the very next that 3,485 were no good. I don’t need to keep track of that or catalog it. I need to keep that one 15-word sentence, cut the rest, sit down, and do the very same thing tomorrow.
At the same time, if keeping a writer’s journal is what works for you, keep the shit out of a writing journal! There is only one rule that holds true across the board for writing and that’s that every writer must sit down and write. Outside of that, there are no rules. Do whatever it is that helps you take care of rule number one.
On the show you mentioned that you don’t have an MFA. What’s your opinion about MFA programs in general? Did you consider applying to one or more and if so, what changed your mind, and if not, why not?
I think there are a few ways that MFA programs can be very beneficial. One, if there is someone in particular with whom you really want to study, an MFA program can allow you to do that. Two, it will hone craft. Three, it has the potential to help build a strong peer group and that can be invaluable in the publishing industry with help finding an agent or help placing a story. And lastly, if you want to teach creative writing at a university level, you’re going to need it.
At the same time, and this is me just being brutally honest, I think that a whole lot of MFA programs nowadays are predatory. What I mean is that in the old days there were a few big programs that were hard to get into and outside of that your options were limited. Nowadays every college and university under the sun has an MFA program, partly because they’re profitable, and that flooding of the market has devalued the hell out of the degree. A lot of times an MFA’s not even considered a terminal degree anymore, with universities requiring candidates have doctorates in creative writing to teach. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as a doctorate in creative writing. The reason I think all of these programs showed up was because there seems to be a belief, a very American belief, that there’s a formula that can be followed to turn someone into a writer. Universities and colleges preyed off of that belief. I personally don’t believe it. I ascribe more to the French idea that you’re either born with it or you’re not. You can teach someone to write all the pretty sentences in the world, you can teach them to hone craft, but you can’t teach to create. The compulsion to create is innate. Harry Crews said what I’m trying to say a lot better than I ever could. He said, “Your chances of being a renowned brain surgeon are better than your chances of being a renowned novelist.” He has that wonderful interview where he tells a story about being at a cocktail party and talking with this doctor and the doctor telling him that he’s going to write a novel. Crews said what he wanted to say was, “What if I was to show up at your operating room tomorrow and just come in and say, ‘No, no, just back off here. You’re doing an appendectomy here, right? Give me a smock and something sharp and I’ll just take it out for you’…And I’d sort of do the job on that guy on the table that he’d sort of do on the novel. The guy on the table would be dead and the novel would be dead.”
As far as why I didn’t pursue an MFA, I didn’t answer yes to any of those things I laid out in the first paragraph. I didn’t have anyone in particular I wanted to study with. I didn’t want a peer group. I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to write. That’s all. And a whole lot of my favorite writers, folks like Larry Brown or William Gay, didn’t have MFAs, so I understood that it wasn’t mandatory. Those writers learned the craft by sitting at the desk and putting in the work. I’ve never been scared of the work.
Endings are so difficult and your ending is brilliant. How difficult—or easy—was it to find that ending? Any tips?
Strangely enough, endings are usually easier for me. I enjoy writing the beginnings of stories and I enjoy writing the ends. The middle is the hard part for me, keeping the pacing through all of that dead space. Usually by the time I get to the end of a book there’s so much momentum that it all tears off at once. Stories seem to unveil themselves in pieces, and when I start getting toward the end, the pieces seem to be bigger. It’s sort of like putting a puzzle together and there aren’t all that many pieces left and you can see the whole picture at that point and you’re racing to fill in the last of the holes. That’s how it comes for me.
Are you imagining a reader, or readers, for your work as you write?
In the old days, I would’ve said, No, I never imagine the reader. Toni Morrison has that famous line that, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That was how both of my first novels came about. With the first, I was obsessed with Daniel Woodrell. I was especially obsessed with his novels Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister. I remember reading Tomato Red over and over, probably a dozen or more times over the course of a month, trying to figure out what he was doing, how he made the story move that fast. When I sat down to write Where All Light Tends To Go it was because I wanted another Daniel Woodrell novel and one didn’t exist. I wrote the kind of story I was yearning to read. With the second novel, it was that same sort of thing. I think I was obsessed with Donald Ray Pollock and Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown at the time. I think the Weight Of This World came out of that. It came out of that same necessity of having nothing left to read and having to write the story I wanted to read. With both of those books, I didn’t care whether anyone else liked it or not. I wrote those books for myself. I’m glad other people enjoy them, but if they didn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d have still written them.
Now for why I set this answer up this way, when it came time to write the third novel, I had one book out in the world from a major publishing house and the second was coming down the pipe. At that point I was sitting on the biggest stage in the world as far as writing goes and it was impossible for me not to notice the readers. It’s impossible not to care what people think when they’re talking about it in the New York Times. It was impossible not to wonder why some books take off and others don’t. The business changed that for me. So I wrote a novel where I tamed down the characters and I tamed down the story. I wanted to tell a story with domestic conflict and everyday people. So I wrote it and it was absolute garbage. I’d gotten away from what I was good at because I was scared. I wanted to write a safe book, something I thought would be more universally and commercially appealing. That failure was great in a sense because it forced me to recognize what I’m good at. There are things that I’m capable of doing on a page better than anyone else. When I could recognize that, I knew that’s what I needed to focus on. That’s what I need to hone. When I realized that, it was gas on the fire.
Is there any advice you received along the way that stuck with you that you’d care to pass on?
This isn’t something someone told me, but I don’t think you should ever lose sight of how fun it is to tell a story. If it’s not fun then why the hell are you doing it? Going all the way back to when I was a kid, I wrote stories because I felt compelled to do so. I wrote stories because it was exciting and entertaining and fun. That’s never changed. Sure, there are bad days at the desk, but when I’m cooking, there is absolutely nothing in this world that makes me happier. When I write a good sentence, I don’t know any feeling better than that. If the day ever comes that it’s not fun anymore, I’ll hang it up.