#NCauthor

50 for 50: David Joy

Story by Sandra Davidson

Thursday, January 18, 2018

David Joy’s had a big 2017: Putnam published The Weight of This World, his second novel which was described by the New York Times as “bleakly beautiful;” he wrote a much-acclaimed essay for The Bitter Southerner, and was published in the magazine Garden & Gun. This up-and-coming western North Carolina author opens up about his career, his relationship to North Carolina, and how receiving an artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2016 helped his career in our 50 for 50 interview. 

 

 

 

 

Your novels are set in Jackson County, and you’ve said you write about that place because it’s the only place you know. Will you describe your personal and creative relationship with that place? 

I grew up in Charlotte. All my daddy’s family’s been there since the late 1600s. My momma’s family was in the mountains in Wilkesboro. I moved up here when I was 18. I’ve been here ever since. What I found here was an older set of values that reminded me very much of the people and place that I felt had vanished from where I grew up. I think that’s part of the tie here…finding people that reminded me of my grandmother or my grandmother’s people.  

If I think about my work in the sense of a canvas, when I start to work the canvas isn’t blank in that there’s already place. Typically, when a story comes to me the place is already there, and the characters kind of crawl themselves out of that land. I think that’s indicative of Southerners in general, but especially in Appalachia. People and place here is kind of this inseparable thing. 

When did you begin writing? 

I grew up in a family of storytellers. They were oral storytellers which is an entirely different craft. I never could really tell a story orally, but I recognized early on that I was capable of doing so on the page. That was very, very early. There was an old typewriter in my house, and I can remember the way it smelled. It’s a very vivid memory. I wrote stories on that before I could spell. I would tell my mom what I wanted to say, and she’d dictate how to spell it. So, I was writing stories since I was tiny. When I went to college, I’d probably written a thousand pages. I probably wrote another thousand pages there. Looking back, I don’t think any of it was any good until maybe a year before I wrote that first novel, but I think I was always progressing towards what I’m doing now…it’s just I’m a pretty slow study I guess! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you have a moment where you thought to yourself I know I want to be a writer? 

I’d say a couple of different things. I always took writing very seriously. I can remember writing something in high school [for an] assignment. We had to write a poem. Everybody had to get in front of the class and read this poem. I can remember nobody in the class cared; the teacher didn’t care – nobody cared! But I remember how much effort I put into those words and how much it meant to me. It meant something to me. And it didn’t mean anything to anybody else in the room. I think I was always different in that way. 

I can remember to the first time I ever heard Silas House read, and he sounded like me. He had an accent that was incredibly thick, and hearing that and getting the chance to see him and witness him and hear his story that night really affected me. Hearing somebody like Silas House read a story that could have very easily been a story that someone like my grandmother would have come up with…I think that meant something to me. 

Lastly, I’m not very good at anything else. I’ve forced myself to be able to make a living out of this because I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else.  

There’s a big step from deciding that and making that happen.  

I was lucky to have some great teachers early on who pointed me in the right direction of people I needed to be reading [and] who helped me understand language. Looking back that was Diedre Elliot at Western Carolina University and Ron Rash. Ron is still a good friend of mind and a good mentor. More than anything else, I think with Ron it was watching him work and getting the chance to witness his craft. I was lucky to be there before he was a household name. I really got to see his rise and bear witness to that and bear witness to how hard he worked. I think that work ethic is one of the keys. Ron comes from cotton-farmer, tobacco-farmer people just like I do. That mentality carries on. He works harder than just about anybody I can imagine, and I try to do the same.  

 

 

 

 

How did that first novel Where All Light Tends to Go come together? 

I never was going to take no for an answer. I took a job as a receptionist, and I was working another job at night, and I was writing a novel. I’d be at my first job at 8 [and] stay there until 5. I’d get off and I’d go to my second job at 5:30. I’d get home at 10, I’d eat, then I’d start working about 10:30. I’d work until 4 in the morning. I did that until the book was done because I felt compelled to do so. I needed to tell a story, and that was the only time I had so that’s what I did. After that I sent a letter to an agent…the agent liked it. She asked to see the full manuscript, and I wound up signing with her. Later down the road she sold it.  

I can remember one of the first times I was in New York City. I was in this big hotel overlooking the whole city, and I remember standing there in that window and being moved to tears thinking that what brought me there was a letter. I’d never been anywhere! I’d never left North Carolina. The only way I’d made it out of North Carolina was I put a letter in the mail. I think there’s been a lot of things that have fallen in place for me, and at the same time I’ve had to work incredibly hard to try and make it a reality.  

You received an Artist Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council around that time. How did that help your career? 

I’d signed a book deal for Where All Light Tends to Go, and that novel was coming out, but at the time they asked what I was working on, and I spitballed an idea. I hadn’t even written a word, and they said we want it, so I wound up signing a two-book deal. I didn’t even have a sentence. At that point, I had about a 7-month deadline. I knew I had to really focus on that, so I quit my job and started going at it full-time.  

You probably would have had to on that deadline. 

Yeah! It’s one thing to say I want to be a full-time writer. It’s another thing to try and keep yourself fed and keep the lights on while you’re pursuing that.

Looking back, I think that’s the major way that fellowship helped me. It helped me keep the lights on. The amount of time and dedication that it takes to put in the work to create a good book…[it] takes absolute focus. Fellowships allow an artist to put all that focus into the work. You look at the work that these fellowships are funding, and the reality is it wouldn’t happen without it because otherwise you’d have to do something else. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go homeless because I couldn’t make it work. If it hadn’t worked, I would have gone out and taken another job.  

 

David Joy spoke on Weekend Edition about any essay he wrote for the Bitter Southerner:

Beyond your personal experience with it – why do you think public funding for the arts matters? 

When I think about how my tax dollars are spent, I can’t imagine a single better way for my money to be spent than education and art. To think of how much of our tax dollars go to things like defense budgets is terrifying, and to think that people want to strip away what tiny bit goes to support art and culture is disturbing. George Saunders had this idea about fiction. He said fiction serves as empathy’s training wheels. When he said that, I thought that’s exactly right. Fiction allows you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and that’s an incredibly powerful thing. Literature has the capacity and the power to open doors and open eyes. I think all art carries that power, and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that the world needs empathy more than right this second.

We are in a very fragile and volatile time where everybody is angry and everybody is pointing the finger at someone who’s not like them. I can’t think of a cure for that besides art. I don’t think there’s anything that can heal that but art.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

If I think about some of the best literature coming out of the South in the past 30-40 years, it’s coming out of North Carolina. It’s writers like Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Tim McLaurin and Ron Rash. I think we’re lucky in the sense that we’ve had a very, very rich tradition, and we’re very, very grounded and rooted to this place.    


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Daniel Wallace

Story, Photo and Video by Sandra Davidson | Illustrations by Daniel Wallace

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Back in 1991, Daniel Wallace was struggling to catch a break. None of the novels he'd written during the previous eight years had been published, and his support network was openly questioning the merit of him continuing to pursue writing as a career. 

"A number of people asked me, 'Why would you continue doing this if you really gave it all, and it wasn't working out?'" remembers Wallace.  "I don't know why...but one of the things that kept me going were these incremental successes that I had...these things that happened that made me feel like something is happening. Maybe not the big thing is happening, but I'm publishing these stories in little magazines...good magazines, and they're picking my work out of all the work to publish." 

One of those successes came that year, when the North Carolina Arts Council awarded Daniel Wallace an Artist Fellowship. Wallace shares what that fellowship meant to him here:

 

 

 

 

"When you receive a grant, it's not just for the work you've done, but it's for the work you're going to do. So they see promise," says Wallace. "I think that the grant that I received was a lifeline in a way." 

Wallace has authored six novels and written and illustrated a children's book since receiving the North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship. All have been published. His work has been published in dozens of languages, and his illustrations have appeared in national newspapers, magazines and books.

Today, he's the the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he directs the Creative Writing Program, and his work as an illustrator has taken on a life of its own.

Catch Daniel Wallace at the The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Thursday October 5 at 5:30 pm. He will share a reading at the State of the Arts of Orange County and North Carolina, an event hosted by the Orange County Arts Commission and the North Carolina Arts Council. 


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Vivian Howard

Story by Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Chef, author, and television personality Vivian Howard believes the arts matter, especially in rural North Carolina. In a special multimedia interview* for the North Carolina Arts Council's 50th Anniversary, she reflects on her creative voice, why the award-winning docu-series "A Chef's Life," is "television that improves people's lives," and why access to the arts can transform communities. 


Do you remember the first story you wrote about North Carolina?

The first story I ever wrote about North Carolina was a blog post about making collard kraut with my neighbors in Jones County. I had grown up always wanting to be a writer, but [I] kind of lost my way, and found my way in the kitchen. This blog post about making collard kraut was the first time that I ever blended my love of cooking with my love of storytelling.

Why did you want to be a writer?

I wrote at home and I wrote at school. I was known for being a good writer, and I was known as being a good storyteller. I think you want to do things that you’re good at, so I think that’s why I wanted to be a writer. As a kid it was the way that I expressed myself and often times how I would get out of trouble or how I would get attention. If I wasn’t getting attention at home or if I was in trouble, I would go to my room and write an account of what had happened but embellished quite a bit, and then I’d go out in the kitchen and throw my story on the table and stomp off. Inevitably my parents or my sisters would read it and giggle, and everything would just kind of be smoothed over. 

Tell me about how your first book came to be? 

After the first little bit of our show aired, agents and publishers started contacting me about doing a cookbook. At the time I was being called a cross between Paula Deen and Julia Child, so when I set out to write a cookbook I thought I should write a cookbook that represented what those two people might do if they had a baby. I wrote this proposal that reflected that…and sent it to my agent. I was not thrilled about it, but I was just doing what I thought everybody thought I should do. I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next morning I emailed my agent and said, "Don’t send that proposal to anybody. It’s not the book that I want to write." So I went about writing another proposal that was really lead by the stories of my childhood shaped by food.

I made a list of all the ingredients that I thought represented the food and the larder of Eastern North Carolina, and I chose ingredients based on whether or not I had a story that related to them. I set about writing all those stories first, and then I treated the rest of the chapter like its own book. Every chapter would have a story that represented my connection to that ingredient or Eastern North Carolina's history of that ingredient and a slew of recipes that represent every kind of skill level in the kitchen. 

 

 

 

 

What was your creative process like for the cookbook, and does it differ from your approach to creating new dishes in your restaurants? 

I did not have any experience as a professional writer, and with that lack of experience comes a lack of confidence. A lot of publishers loved and went to the mat for the proposal I had written, and that gave me some confidence, but I didn’t have enough confidence to share what I was doing until it was done. I didn’t share it with my editor until I had 10 chapters because I didn’t want them to squash my dreams. I just wrote the stories. In many cases the stories are just in my  voice...not my writing voice but my voice. I think it sounds like you’re having a conversation with me.

[I use] the same process [while] cooking and developing dishes at Chef and The Farmer. I think a dish is so much more successful when there’s a story behind it. When I am playing with new ideas for a dish, I always try to root it in something that I know. I try to make sure there’s a reason for everything on the plate and that reason is generally rooted in some story.

You've cultivated a creative voice through your food, through your television show and through your book. How has your voice evolved over time?

When we first opened Chef and The Farmer, I was still very shameful of this place and where I came from and very keen on the idea of educating the people of Eastern North Carolina on the finer points of service and on sophisticated food. That’s what I set out to do. I was not succeeding at that.

About a year-and-a-half in my dad brought me 500 pounds of blueberries, and I did not have time to do anything meaningful with them over the weekend, and so they sat and started to rot. The only thing I could do to save them was make vinegar, so I made a blueberry vinegar and turned that blueberry vinegar into a barbecue sauce that represented Eastern North Carolina vinegar based barbecue sauce. Then I made barbecue chicken with it which was actually the thing that I grew up eating far more often than whole hog barbecue which Eastern North Carolina is known for.  That night we sold ten times more barbecue than anything else, and I felt like for the first time I had made something that was in my own voice. I'd taken my chef sensibilities of knowing how to make vinegar with fruit, and applied it to a dish that Eastern North Carolina is known for and made it personal with the twist of using chicken.

I may be slow but I’m not dense, so I realized that I was on to something and I started paying attention to the people and the food around me. I went to buffets which I would never have dreamt of studying before. I paid attention to the covered dish lunches at my mom’s church. I read every spiral bound church cookbook from Eastern North Carolina I could get my hands on, and I tried to incorporate what I had learned into my cooking at the restaurant and it really transformed our business. People from other parts of the state started traveling here far before the show because we were doing something rooted in something real and rooted in this place that is very rarely celebrated. The people of Eastern North Carolina responded to it because it was familiar but different. It didn’t compete with their grandmother’s banana pudding, but it was approachable and exciting. People from elsewhere responded to it for the same reason. I really credit the steam tables of Eastern North Carolina with unveilng what my professional and artistic voice is.  

 

 

 

 


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: David Sedaris

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

David Sedaris moved from Binghamton, NY to Raleigh, NC right before he started the third grade, and one of the first words he learned here was Yankee. Adjusting to life in North Carolina wasn't easy, but David found his place in the arts.

 

 

 

 

In an exclusive interview for the North Carolina Arts Council's 50 for 50 Project, best-selling author David Sedaris shares his North Carolina Arts story on our podcast Arts Across NC.

 


Arts Across NC is a podcast by and about the North Carolina Arts Council. The show is produced and hosted by Sandra Davidson. Our original score was created by Phil Cook. 


 

 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

 

In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

Subscribe to #NCauthor