Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
David Joy is an outdoorsman forced to be a writer by an inner drive demanding he bear witness to what he sees around him. A twelfth-generation North Carolinian, David makes his life, and his work, in the mountains of Jackson County, North Carolina, fishing hidden creeks and chasing tough mountain turkeys. It’s a real place with real people, some of whom I recognize as both inspirations and influences in his books. David’s poetry and essay work grace the Tom Beckbe Field Journal, but it is his work as a novelist that most demands your attention.
David and I became acquainted after I read his first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, since turned into a movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and Robin Wright Penn. We became friends over a common love of wild places and Southern authors, not least Mississippian Larry Brown and North Carolinian Tim McLaurin, both gone way too soon. One of my first letters to you found its origin in a night I spent on the couch in the home David shares with Ashley Evans, a stunningly talented photographer, a fact I offer as an acknowledgment that David is my friend and I hope you will come to know his work if you have not already
David followed his first novel with The Weight of This World and I’ve read every one since. The Line That Held Us, and When These Mountains Burn are books that deal with common issues of humanity, all set against the backdrop of Jackson County, North Carolina. My name is attached to a less-than-admirable character in one of them, a fact of which I am inordinately proud.
For readers seeking a less tension-filled ride, David also wrote a now hard-to-find fishing memoir called Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey and, with Eric Rickstad edited a collection of twenty-five best-selling and nationally known authors writing about fishing. That book is called Gather at the River and features an essay by a friend in common, Taylor Brown that nearly perfectly describes portions of my childhood.
Now, in Those We Thought We Knew, David has undertaken to again wrestle with human complexity. We took a moment to talk about that a little and the sporting life a lot. I hope you will take a few moments and join the conversation.
Culture, and threats thereto, are central in every one of your books. Why does culture matter?
My greatest fear is homogeny. I don’t want to live in a world where people in Maine no longer carry that accent, or where the foods and dishes that define a place like southern Louisiana no longer carry that flavor. This idea of loss has been central to all of my work because I wholeheartedly believe the place I’m writing about is within a generation of cultural extinction. And the sad truth is that this isn’t some localized issue. It’s happening all over the world. I see it in France. I hear it in their stories. One of the primary effects of globalization is this homogenization of culture where we all sound the same and eat the same and dress the same, and it’s something that absolutely rips my heart in two.
I’ve read all of your books and we’ve talked hunting and fishing and food a fair bit. They all have a place in your latest book. Why?
Again, I’m writing about a very specific place and a very specific people, and that attachment to landscape is central. I wrote in The Line That Held Us that, “People and place were some inseparable thing knotted together so long ago that no amount of time had allowed for an answer of how to untie them.” Hunting and fishing and farming and gardening and all of those things are part of that knot. I think good books are working on a lot of different levels.
You’ve written something along the lines of, “All that I know of beauty, I learned through rod or rifle.” Please expand, what is that beauty?
I know plenty of people who spend a great deal of time in the woods, but very few outside of sportsmen ever hold still long enough for that place to reveal itself. I was signing a book for a dear friend, Jim Minick, recently and he’s someone I truly appreciate as an outdoorsman, but I wrote, “Many people talk of woods but few know how to walk them.” They zip by on bicycles and the deer hold still until they pass. They walk by talking and the birds go silent. To hunt or fish is just innately different. I think this is especially true of hunting, but when you’re there in that moment it’s as if you don’t exist. Everything around you is running its natural course and you’re somehow at once fully present but absent. You’re bearing witness to something that you would not be privy to under any other circumstance. It’s that Emerson notion of the, “transparent eyeball.” I could talk for days of the things I’ve seen that I wouldn’t have known any other way. Really it’s beyond beauty. It’s all that I know of philosophy and religion and life and death and meaning I learned through rod or rifle.
You’ve got a hell of a collection of custom turkey calls. What is it about those calls and their use that makes you so passionate?
Turkey hunting is one of those things that exists in the extremes, like I know very few casual turkey hunters. You’re either obsessed or you’re not. You’re either eat up with it or we’re not the same. With the calls, I’m really just passionate about yelpers, and a lot of that has to do with the history of those calls. There’s an evolution in design that begins with wing bone calls being made thousands of years ago by Native Americans. The very idea that there are bones within a turkey capable of producing the sounds of that bird is just a magical notion.
You can hunt only one season, which one and why?
Turkey. I’ve said for a long time that if they gobbled all year the way they do in the spring I’d be useless, and that’s the truth. In my mind, they’re the greatest game animal on the planet, and bonus points for being wholly American. But if all I can legally hunt is turkey I guess I’ll poach whitetail deer. The freezer still has to be filled.
You can fish only one species, which one and why?
I wish we could go a bit farther back in the taxonomic rank. If we could get back to order, I’d choose the Siluriformes, which includes all the families of catfish. If you’re hell-bent on making me pick one species, I’m going with Plyodictis Olivares, the flathead catfish, though I really don’t like playing this game. Regardless, I'm picking something with whiskers.
In my perception, you see food as art as much as any other pursuit (and have been known to excoriate my presentation of the same). What is it about a meal, particularly wild game, that elevates it beyond just sustenance?
Whether it is wild game or something that you’ve grown and harvested in your garden, those types of meals carry the story. There is a deep and intimate attachment. When I cook a meal from an animal I’ve taken it’s a reliving of those last moments of that animal’s life. I see the deer slipping along that hard edge. I remember the turkey cresting that hill and studying the oak flat eye by weary eye. And this isn’t just to wax poetic. There is something very tangible and harmful in the way that we, as a global society, have become detached from our food sources. When you’re vested in those things you have no choice but to care deeply about the preservation of them. You think about the reasons people don’t care about issues like deforestation or climate change or species loss or all of these things and for me it’s very easy to draw a direct line back to causality.
Why does the sporting life, or whatever you call it, matter?
This goes back to the previous question in that it's one of the very few things we have left that directly ties us to the natural world with zero distance or detachment. I can’t think of any other pursuit that is participatory in this sense, where you’re actually a part of the mechanism. The intimacy of that forces you to care about the natural world in a way that other pursuits do not.
What are you working on now?
I’ve always been a writer who could only ever see so far as the headlights, which is to say that when a novel is going well and I’m living within a story I can’t imagine anything else. I can’t imagine ever being able to write another book. But I’ve been very fortunate that most times when those lights sweep the forest service gate and I’ve reached the end, something new has emerged, a new character, a new story to follow. When I finished this last book, I woke up in the middle of the night to a woman talking. I could hear her. That’s something that’s only ever happened one other time, with the character of Jacob in Where All Light Tends To Go, but that is to say, that’s what I’m working on now. That character and the story she’s telling came to me like a gift.
I am looking forward to receiving that gift.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor in Chief, Tom Beckbe