On Darkness: Why I Write the Stories I Do

The way I heard it, William Gay came home one evening and found his girlfriend sitting at the kitchen table with his contributor copy of Harper’s in front of her, and the first words out of her mouth were, “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” While he’d been off hanging dry wall or painting houses, she’d checked the mail and found his story “The Paperhanger” in the mailbox.

Stealing a line, this was a story “where dark was gathering and seeping across the field like a stain,” a place nearly absent the slightest glint of humanity. Gay told her it was just a story, something he’d made up, but to her it couldn’t be that simple. “That had to come from some place,” she told him. “That came from somewhere inside you.”

I was thinking about that incident recently when an interviewer half-jokingly asked me if readers ever question whether there’s something wrong with me for writing the kinds of stories I write. To be clear, I’ve never been nominated for any feel-good book of the year awards and probably never will. He asked where the darkness in my work comes from, and the more I thought about that question, the more I realized that its answer strikes at the heart of everything I want my work to do.

I remember telling someone one time that a modern American story that lacks misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and violence isn’t realism. What I meant by that was that you can’t turn on the nightly news in this country without being overrun by these kinds of stories. This year, we made it six days before our first mass shooting—six days before a gunman walked into a crowded airport in Fort Lauderdale and shot a dozen people waiting for suitcases at a baggage claim. So when someone asks me where the darkness comes from, my response is, “Look around.”

What I find, though, is that the average person doesn’t want to look around. We’d rather put on blinders to get through the day. Sure, we know it’s there, but we choose not to face it. We distance ourselves from it for the sake of comfortability because that’s easier. It’s easier not to pay attention than it is to confront that darkness over and over again. For others, the recurring nature desensitizes us so that the darkness becomes a sort of background noise that we just don’t pay attention to anymore. The problem for me is that I’m incapable of that separation. I want to know why things happen, and, ultimately, I think it’s that search for the why that leads me into a story.

When an idea comes to me, it usually arises out of an image. With my first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, it was the image of a young boy kneeling over a hog he’d killed, tears in his eyes, ashamed at both what he’d done and for the fact that he felt shameful at all. I knew his father was standing behind him, and I knew that the boy was hiding the way he felt from him. That was initially all I had, and after that it was a matter of trying to understand why.

In my sophomore effort, The Weight of This World, it was that same sort of thing. I had three characters, and I had three very vivid images that encapsulated them. I knew my main character, Aiden McCall, was scared to death of being alone. I knew his best friend, Thad Broom, had committed a horrible act of violence. I knew Thad’s mother, April, hated her son. But what I didn’t know about any of those circumstances was why, and, as a writer, I think answering that question is what the process is all about. If you spend enough time with the characters, eventually their actions start to make sense. With enough time, you start to understand why they do the things they do.

If you can root out the source of a character’s motivation, then you can get to their humanity—and that’s what I’m after. I want to go to the darkest places imaginable and search out some piece of humanity, no matter how small or shattered it might be. If I couldn’t do that, if there was no humanity to be found, this world would lose meaning. And so, in a lot of ways what I’m doing is this sort of selfish quest for hope. If I can find a piece of humanity, then I can open a line of dialogue. I can start to have hard conversations and ask big questions, and those things have the potential to greatly impact how we view the world.

The Weight of This World is not a book for the faint of heart. It’s a story wrought with emotion and punctuated with tremendous acts of violence. The only light to be found here shines through cracks between barn slats. I want there to be times when readers put down the book because they can’t take anymore, and I want there to be times when they pick the book back up because they have to know what happens to these lives. I want it to be impossible for readers to distance themselves from the darkness. I want to force them to face it head on. There will be times when readers cringe in horror, and times when they cheer what’s coming with murderous vengeance. I want to force them to look inside themselves and question where that line is drawn.

I hope there’s a payoff for venturing into the dark, and, for me, I believe that there is. Only through heartache and suffering do we arrive at any sort of philosophical awareness, and, in the end, that sort of revelatory moment is what makes it worthwhile for me as a reader. I’ll follow a writer like Donald Ray Pollock anywhere he wants to take me because I know, in the end, I’ll look at the world differently.

There’s a type of writing that demands its readers be courageous, and that’s the kind of writing I want to produce. I’ve always thought that art had two primary goals: to elicit an emotional response, and to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. If a reader’s willing to venture into the darkness, I think both of those things will happen. That’s what brings me back to writers like Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell over and over again.

There’s something I remember Larry Brown saying one time in an interview in response to what critics had said of his work, and, ultimately, it’s all that I ever want from my own. What he said was, “It's okay for you to call it brutal, but just admit by God that it's honest.” In the end, we can’t ask for anything more.

Read an excerpt from The Weight of This World, and then check out David Cranmer's review!


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David Joy’s first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, debuted to great acclaim and was named an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel. His stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Drafthorse, Smoky Mountain Living, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pisgah Review, and Flycatcher, and he is the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey. Joy lives in Webster, North Carolina.

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