No Room for the Lie

Maybe it’s that John Buchan idea that, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” I think I need that. I’m pretty reclusive. At the same time, a lot of the themes from those first two novels carry over — familial bonds, trauma, tragedy, grief, vengeance, redemption. Those types of books just don’t fare well in this country. Do you think fiction can stay away from politics nowadays? A lot of that opposition, that ebb and flow between extremes, between virtue and evil, that’s human nature. I don’t think he will be easily forgotten. I’m not very good at traveling. They need to read Wendell Berry and Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ricardo Nazario y Colón. It’s that Eudora Welty idea that, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I don’t need anything else. The Kentucky writer Alex Taylor has that beautiful line that, “There is a kind of faith with fishing […] It is the belief that the brevity of all things is not bitter, but a calm moment beside calm water is enough to still the breaking of all hearts everywhere.” That’s as lovely a thought as I know, and it’s perfectly fitting for the poem, the story, the novel. Art requires fearlessness and unrelenting honesty. I think most Americans are common-sense, middle-of-the-road people. How do you think he will be received and interpreted by readers? His narratives are about normal people in extraordinary circumstances and focus on their actions and motivations. That’s not to say that there isn’t truth in the portrayal, but that is to say that I’m telling a very particular type of story and Appalachia can’t be defined in those terms. It’s probably the honesty of it, the vulnerability. A lot of it probably ties back to the French interest in film noir. I’ve always been that way, from four of five years old chucking worms for sunfish and channel cats in a farm pond to flying halfway across the country last year to wrestle seven-foot alligator gar out of the Trinity River. To remain silent in the face of hatred, in the face of bigotry, to say nothing in response to racism, misogyny, xenophobia, is to be complicit in each and every one of those actions. That’s rare nowadays. They need to read Silas House, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Denton Loving, Darnell Arnoult, Robert Gipe, Ron Houchin, Pam Duncan, Elizabeth Catte. Read all of that and if you want more names I’ll be happy to lengthen the list. I wanted there to be moments when the reader turned away in disgust and moments when they cheered on the violence with a furious and vengeful anger. Quite frankly, I don’t care if it costs me sales. I find it utterly disgusting when writers, or artists in general for that matter, remain silent for fear of alienating part of their audience. He is a barbarous leviathan of a man, but his heart is in the right place. More than anything, with The Line That Held Us, I became really interested in trying to create an unforgettable antagonist. It’s vastly different from my fiction, but in some ways it’s more rewarding. They read broadly. Probably boils down to the fact that handsome bastard’s just smarter than I am. There are writers who are able to capture different places, writers like Ace Atkins. I want to wring every emotion as tight I can. Donald Ray Pollock is one of the most talented writers at work, and while you and I certainly know that, the average American has never heard of him. Even if a story doesn’t rip you to pieces, I want to feel that possibility. I think about some of the most heinous events we’ve witnessed in the past 10 or so years — the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombing, Dylann Roof and the Charleston church shooting — and when those things happened the general public was just dumbstruck, rendered speechless by the inconceivable violence of those crimes. I don’t write about Appalachia anymore than Donald Ray Pollock writes about southern Ohio or Daniel Woodrell wrote about the Ozarks. They want fast-paced action, sparse language, and happy endings they can read on a three-hour flight. It’s 40,000 square miles bigger than the state of California. So if it costs me sales, fine, it costs me sales. In the end, I don’t really care whether he’s remembered one way or another. This place is too complex for any one story, or any one voice. I can’t think in any other terms. He has a beautiful eye for Mississippi, but then you read Robert Parker’s Spenser series Ace continues and anybody in Boston will tell you he gets that place as well. There’s an entire subculture that grew out of that tradition, and I think it carried over into fiction so that we see the same sort of appeal for the black novel, a sort of fascination with darkness. They don’t seem to need happy endings. In the same way, when I hear a character’s voice, there’s an accent. Is there a middle ground with this type of characters? As a private man, how do you deal with leaving your mountains and rivers to visit a bunch of bookstores and interact with readers? I want to test the tensile strength of the human heart. Putnam’s Sons, made you a name and positioned you as one of the preeminent voices in Appalachian noir. Fishing seems to occupy more space in your life than writing. Tragedy, vengeance, you can’t hide behind those things. The Line That Held Us is no exception. Does writing nonfiction interfere with your fiction? I think one of the scariest moments that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make complete sense. You were awarded the Le Prix du Balai de Bronze for Là Où Les Lumières Se Perdent (Where All Light Tends to Go) last year. Was this an organic occurrence or did you set out to write something entirely different? Most Americans are airport readers. Dwayne Brewer in The Line That Held Us is a sort of culmination of all those things. Do you think he will be remembered as a commendable soldier of retribution or a heinous murderer? If it doesn’t, they’re just not paying attention or they’re too scared to recognize it, and honestly I don’t know if one’s any better than the other. They seem to have an appreciation for language and craft. To have any sort of understanding about this region as a whole, people need to read broadly. I don’t think I necessarily want readers to understand anything about Appalachia from reading my fiction. It pushes us further apart. Read all of that and you might start to have some sort of grasp on the complexities of this place. Occasionally one of our kind slips through the cracks into the mainstream, but it’s rare. One of my greatest disappointments as a reader has been when some of my favorite writers lost that edge, when they went soft. It’s because those are the voices I’m surrounded by. With fiction you have an added degree of separation. The resulting stories are simultaneously simple and amazing, stories about everyday folks that shed a bright light on some of the darkest recesses of humanity. I just want him to be unforgettable. It’s the thing I’m most passionate about, and I mean that to an absolutely obsessive extent. I don’t ever want to write a book like that. Why do you write about this region and its people? I want there to be consequence. I was thinking about characters like Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child of God or the misfit in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I was thinking about Granville Sutter in William Gay’s Twilight, or the main character in his story “The Paper Hanger.” As a reader, you can’t forget those characters or their actions, and yet somehow those writers found a way to impart empathy for them. Without those things you cannot create anything that matters. Your online persona is very vocal against things like racism and abuse; do you think that is something that could affect your sales? With a novel like The Weight of This World that was one of the things I was playing with. Those moments reveal a character’s deepest, most intimate truths. I’d rather stay in the woods than hit the road. I love books that have teeth. That’s just how the story comes. Why do you think the place where fishing and writing meet is such fertile terrain for stories? Your understanding of Appalachian culture is deep and nuanced, but never apologetic. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a publisher who recognizes the importance of that and who believes in my work enough to invest in that. You were among the authors I mentioned. You’re about to go on tour for The Line That Held Us. I’m very much a homebody, or maybe a woodsbody. Is this why tragedy and vengeance are at the core of The Line That Held Us? You talked about creating a relatable bad guy. In the last year or so, you’ve been writing essays for a plethora of large venues. The role of the artist is to be a voice of reason in a time of utter dissonance. Where do you think their passion for these very American narratives comes from? They’re willing to go places that the typical American reader is not. So with something like the Bitter Southerner piece a few years ago, it was that I was tired of seeing low-income lives reduced to and dismissed as trash. How quickly that switch can flip has always fascinated me. So as a writer I think that’s why those themes have played so heavily in my work. I’ve never had any money anyways, so what’s the difference? Is that something you plan to keep on doing? Since you keep taking them to the same place and showing it from new angles, what do you hope readers will understand about Appalachia after reading your work? Outside that, I’m alone. You also published novels in the past two years. When despite whatever detestable thing they’ve done, you find yourself in agreement with something they say or a decision they make. That’s the middle ground where most of us wind up. I get my energy from being by myself and letting my mind go. A lot of that has to do with my personal tastes in that I’m not interested in happy endings. I’m not interested in domestic drama or stories with low stakes. There is no such thing as quiet art. The writers you just mentioned are representative of that. They translate much more than we do. For one, the French consume more books. At his heart, I think he’s someone who simply cannot conceive of a world without his brother. ¤
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. ¤
GABINO IGLESIAS: Where All Light Tends to Go and The Weight of This World, both published by G.P. It’s the reality that even the average person washes back and forth between those places. With Light and Weight, both those novels take a hard, close look at addiction and drug use, and with The Line That Held Us we don’t get so much as a pain pill. “I’ve never been nominated for any feel-good book of the year awards and probably never will.” That line is from an essay of yours in which you discuss the darkness in your work and how you present ugliness in order to elicit an emotional response and to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. I think he’s someone with a deep-seated sense of righteousness that was twisted and malformed by circumstance and faith. As an artist, you can work like hell to paint the wall gray and in the end a lot of people can only see black and white. Even if I did want my work to illuminate something about these mountains, I’d be shining a light on one small patch of the quilt. Fishing is probably the one thing I’m best at. Any story I want to tell. Those essays tend to take the same amount out of me. Engaging with people wears me down quickly. Take it further, I don’t think the average American would even understand what he was doing with a novel like The Heavenly Table. Seems like they read everything. You can go there. Often it feels like we reward extremism. Every one of those writers is under-read in this country. Now The Line That Held Us is here, but it’s different. I don’t know. Within extremes, there is no room for the lie. When I write essays I think maybe that’s one of the things I’m trying to get back to. That’s not what Benjamin or Todd or William does either. I think about an act like murder. I think in a lot of ways they just value art and literature in a way that America doesn’t. Dwayne Brewer, who is at the center of The Line That Held Us, is the most likable monster I’ve read about in a very long time. At the same time, I’ve met some wonderful people on the road and I’ve gotten to visit some incredible bookstores. Common sense doesn’t sell. I was telling someone recently that I can’t imagine any contemporary American being able to write a story that doesn’t involve violence, bigotry, and a perversion of faith. DAVID JOY: In a lot of ways, I set out to do something very different from those first two novels. Writing in and about the North Carolina mountains, where he was born and raised, Joy brings rural noir to life with heart and prose that rivals the best contemporary literary fiction in terms of beauty and the best contemporary crime in terms of brutality. With the upcoming release of The Line That Held Us, an outstanding Southern Gothic packed with emotional grit and death that is perhaps his best one yet, Joy is on the verge of cementing himself as one of the finest purveyors of gritty literature in this country. Dwayne Brewer is no different. That’s not what I do. Sensibility isn’t sexy. I don’t care if I lose a few readers. And yet when it came time for punishment, average people screamed to stone them to death, to hang them in the streets. We hand the microphone to whoever screams loudest. I’ve been in the mountains for most of it. With the New York Times Magazine essay earlier this year, it was the lack of the common-sense gun owner in the national conversation. Reading still seems to be very much a part of their culture. There is no room for fear in art. French readers appreciate your work along with that of other noir masters such as Benjamin Whitmer, Donald Ray Pollock, Todd Robinson, and William Boyle. I’m not a very optimistic or hopeful person, so maybe I need that more than most. I tend to enjoy the company of dogs more than people. Sometimes I go weeks without speaking to anyone outside my girlfriend, and she’s gone all day so really I’m only talking to one person for a few hours most evenings. The places I write about exist. I’ve been in North Carolina all my life. I think that’s what the best writing does, it provides that space, that one solitary moment that is enough to still the breaking. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing. He is vicious and hyperviolent, but also righteous and dedicated. Besides your own words about it, you recently co-edited (with Eric Rickstad) Gather at the River, a nonfiction anthology about fishing that will be published by Hub City Press in 2019. Truthfully, it’s just not something I enjoy. I feel like everything I ever want to do on the page, I can do right here. As simple as it sounds, I just don’t know anything else. There seem to be a lot of things that separate French and American readers. It typically only happens after a successful film adaptation. I write very specifically about the county where I live. They phrase things a particular way. Indie bookstores are magnets for good people, open-minded, kind-hearted people. They need to read Charles Dodd White and Mark Powell and Jane Hicks and Karen Salyer McElmurray and Gurney Norman and Leigh Ann Henion and Sheldon Lee Compton. He’s probably my favorite character I’ve ever created. Here’s what he had to say. A lot of writers don’t get that opportunity. When I see an image, I tend to know where the characters are, sometimes down to the tree they’re standing under. As touching as they are ruthless, Joy’s previous two books, Where All Light Tends To Go and The Weight of This World, made him not only a name in noir circles but also one that should be mentioned alongside those of Donald Ray Pollock and Daniel Woodrell. SEPTEMBER 24, 2018

DAVID JOY UNDERSTANDS the psychogeography of Appalachia, the poetry of violence, and the consequences of heartbreak. And they don’t just read the big books that populate the American best-seller lists. I recently wrote about the importance of psychogeography when writing about crime. When I see a void in a conversation or I see a voice that isn’t really present or worse yet a voice that’s silenced, that’s usually where my essays come from. Your characters are a result of their environment, but they make personal choices that are entirely under their control. He’s the author of Zero Saints, the book reviews editor for PANK Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media. So as much as I might wish I was up a tree some place or standing in a river, I know I’m blessed to have that chance to get out and promote my work. I think French readers are a much more adventurous lot. We’re talking about a region that covers 420 counties across 13 states. That said, it’s not that I dislike people so much as that I’m just incredibly introverted. I just know one place and I feel like that’s enough. The graveyards, the restaurants, all of it. The saddest part about that, it only serves to widen the divide. The violence and darkness of your previous work is there, but the atmosphere and death that permeate it make it more of a Southern Gothic.