For someone who rarely descends from his mountaintop cabin in the backwoods of western North Carolina, writer David Joy will set aside his eternal quest for solitude and silence for just one thing: France.
“You know, I tend not to travel anywhere. I’m not going on vacation. I don’t come down that mountain unless I have to,” Joy said. “But France is the only exception. I will go as soon as they ask. I have been twice [in 2022]. In all, I spent about a month there this year.
Last week, Joy found herself at a famous book festival outside of Paris. And it was there that he was honored with the “Prix Saint-Maur En Poche”, which is the prize for the “Best foreign novel of the year”. It’s recognition he received for ‘When These Mountains Burn’, a swirling work of sand, darkness and chaos on the fringes of society – all defining traits at the heart of Joy’s growing catalog.
“It’s been an incredible honor, as you travel halfway around the world to meet readers who are truly thrilled to have you and talk with you about your work,” Joy said. “I was lucky to build a very loyal readership there. And it’s always very gratifying to know that people understand what you’re trying to do, that they appreciate your work – it’s not something I’ve ever really felt about myself.
Smoky Mountain News: As far as France is concerned, what do you think of why your books are so well received in this country and by its people? What is it about the literature and culture of southern Appalachia so fascinating to these folks across the ocean?
David Joy: First and foremost, there is just a very rich tradition of literature and art [in France]. It is essential for them, culturally. But, on top of that, they’ve always been very interested in America. And I think they’re tired of the typical New York-American portrayal that has filled popular cinema and literature for decades.
They want the stories to take place outside of this place, and so the southern United States and Appalachia are places that intrigue them. Also, we’ve always had a lot of really good writers coming out of those places. So there is that.
But, I think they also have a drive as readers to go to darker places. They don’t need feel-good books or happy endings. For writers like me, it’s helpful, as those aren’t the types of books I write. I think the places I want to go with a story are places that scare a lot of American readers. We tend not to handle discomfort well.
The French, on the other hand, seem to be a people who like to engage in difficult ideas and stories. They like to be challenged by something new.
SMN: For someone like you who loves peace and privacy at home and deep in the woods, what makes France so easy and enjoyable for you to regularly leave western North Carolina? north and get there?
DJ: The most important thing is that they simply appreciate my work. They understand what I’m trying to do and they’re really happy to see me and talk to me about my work. You know, I can have an event here at home and there can be four or five people showing up, and [yet] there’s never a bookstore where I go [over] the [in France] where it is not packed down to the gills.
I go to festivals [in France] and there’s no time to eat because I’m signing books from the time I sit down until they close the doors. I mean, how could you not appreciate that? Everything I ever wanted to feel as an artist, I can experience there – it’s really overwhelming.
SMN: As a writer and a human being, what about the French people and the culture that is close to your heart?
DJ: I think there are a few things that really stand out, and one is their passion for literature and art. They are really happy to talk about books. And they want books that challenge them, that take them to new places with new people and new ideas. They read a lot more books than we do anyway, but they tend to be a lot braver readers than Americans.
Like I said earlier, they don’t need a happy ending. But, I love their willingness to engage in difficult conversations. You can be sitting at a table and they’ll be yelling at each other, fiercely debating a topic. And when they walk away at the end of the night, they haven’t lost an ounce of respect for the other person. They have a capacity for discourse and dialogue that we have unfortunately lost in this country — I love that.
SMN: As someone now embraced by the French, what moment stands out and is forever etched in the walls of your memory?
DJ: It’s honestly hard to say. There was a truly amazing meal in Pau with an independent bookseller, whose family has owned this store since the early 1700s; a hike in the mountains outside Lourdes, where I found a French version of jewelweed, touch-me-nots, and felt right at home; caught a 100 pound wels catfish that was just over five feet long on the Tarn at Albi.
[One time], I spoke to a crowd of about 500 people in this lavish room in Lyon, the gold-lined walls, the painted ceiling, the glittering chandeliers everywhere. Lots of food, lots of wine, lots of countryside. Smiles, laughs, conversation.
I loved it all, and it all meant the world to me. It never escapes me how lucky I am to have built a readership there. If you can’t be loved and celebrated at home, there’s no better place in the world than France.
Editor’s note: David Joy is the author of ‘When These Mountains Burn’ (2020 Dashiell Hammett Prize winner), ‘The Line That Held Us’ (2018 Southern Book Prize winner), ‘The Weight of This World’ and ‘Where All Light Tends to Go” (Edgar finalist for best first novel).