Not long ago, David Joy was sitting with a 78-year-old man in Jackson County talking about the future.
Not the distant future, either. They were talking about the change happening in Jackson County, the place the man was born and where Joy has lived half his life. That change, so profound as to spark a conversation between an older man and one half his age, is a thread that runs throughout Joy’s latest book, The Line That Held Us, one he may well address when he appears at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café on Tuesday, Aug. 28.
“It’s one of the things in the background of all my novels — a kind of erasure of culture,” Joy says from his farmhouse in Sylva. “Within a generation, that culture will be completely gone” — a point he and the older man agreed upon.
“We’re losing our mountains to unrestricted land development, tourism and gentrification.”
Development provides jobs, though — jobs that Jackson County needs. It provides construction work for people like the fictional character Darl Moody, a block layer whose deer poaching in The Line That Held Us turns tragic. It employs people like Calvin Hooper, Moody’s best friend, who tries to get him out of trouble. But development also robs, as it does Dwayne Brewer, a violent, verse-spouting native in the novel who is robbed of the mountain culture that birthed him, prior to being robbed again by the tragedy that Moody accidentally inflicts.
The Line That Held Us is a dark story about family, destruction and what you’d do to hold on to those you love, as told by the people with the most to lose from Jackson County’s rapidly changing nature. Joy writes knowingly about guns and ginseng, cars and chain saws, noting in the novel’s acknowledgements the many people (and dogs) who schooled him in the art of knuckle-busting work.
Joy grew up near Charlotte around disappearing farms that once grew tobacco and cotton. His father’s family is still in Paw Creek, which they settled in the late 1700s (his mother’s family is from Wilkesboro, in the northern foothills of North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains). Joy moved to Jackson County about 18 years ago, staying on after college at Western Carolina University, making friends with the working people who populate his newly released novel.
“I naturally gravitated to those people because I identified with them,” he says, speaking in a soft Piedmont drawl akin to the one the characters in his book might use. “I don’t keep a lot of friends, but those that I do keep are very much the characters I write about.” They all share an attachment to the land.
“Place and people here are inseparable,” he says. “I don’t think you can have one without the other.”
Joy has liked writing “pretty much my whole life,” he says. “I grew up in the oral storytelling tradition, surrounded by storytellers. I tried to write stories when I was 5 or 6. By the time I got to college, I’d written 1,000 pages and wrote the same in college. None of it was any good. About six years after college, I was still writing. And eventually, there came a time where I said maybe I was able to do something on a page that a lot of people couldn’t.”
He adds, “For me, it was just persistence. I was a slow study. And just stubborn.”
Jackson County didn’t inspire his latest novel, but it’s the setting of all his fiction (Joy also wrote The Weight of This World and Where All Light Tends to Go, an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel). Jackson is “the place I know,” he says. He’s lived the blue-collar life that its residents — and his characters — do. He’s laid block (poorly, he says), worked chain saws, rousted livestock and chased chickens.
Because all of Joy’s stories are set close to home, “when a story arises, I know very specifically where [the characters] are, sometimes down to the tree,” he says. “When I imagine a story, I can’t imagine seeing it anywhere else.”
But he’s not liking everything he’s seeing in Jackson County, and that’s evident in the disdain the characters in The Line That Held Us have for second-home owners who build million-dollar houses on land that relatives once held dear. That sort of buy-it-up tourism displaces people who discover they can no longer afford to live in a county whose rising land values entice them to sell the family farm.
“It’s not like you can pick up and move down the road,” Joy says, reflecting the concerns of the people he writes about. “What you’re left with is a loss of heritage and a loss of culture.”
WHO: David Joy presents The Line That Held Us
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Aug. 28, 6 p.m. Free