With all of the “Best Books of 2015” lists circling ’round the interwebs, here’s the stuff I loved most this year. Most of these came out this year. A few didn’t. But either way, I discovered them in the past twelve months and I think y’all will enjoy them.


Robert Gipe’s Trampoline: First and foremost, I think flat out this was the best debut novel this year, and the best debut to come out of Appalachia in decades. That being said, this is a story that left my heart at once warmed and shattered, Trampoline rides the razor’s edge of raw beauty. This is Appalachia illuminated with a light uniquely its own. I dare say Robert Gipe has invented his own genre. Order a copy here9780821421529

Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen: When I finished this novel my first thought was, “This will be a finalist for the National Book Award.” I told everyone I knew this. I was off a tad, but not much. It was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. I think Chigozie’s work is some of the most original prose I’ve ever read. It was a story that felt like something I knew being told in a way that was wholly his own. Very happy to see him making waves. Order a copy here.9780316338370

Short Stories: 

George Singleton’s Calloustown: Aside from possibly the story “Fossils” in Half-Mammals of Dixie, I think this latest collection might hold my favorite story George has ever written. What do I think of this collection and his work as a whole: if when we come to die we are measured by how often we made others smile and laugh, George Singleton will have a seat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Order a copy here9781938103162

Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew: I’m not entirely certain she’s not America’s greatest short story writer. Regardless, she’s one of my favorite and this collection is a stunner. Order a copy here.9780316297226Memoirs: 

Leigh Ann Henion’s Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World: More than a journey of the world’s phenomena, this book is an illumination of womanhood and motherhood. From a place where those definitions, those roles, are far too often left in the dark or misspelled in black and white, Leigh Ann Henion somehow seems to see the world in full color. She shines her flashlight, takes what we’ve been taught, and examines it closer, and what she finds is equally astounding as a year-round lightning storm or a bay where water glows. What she finds, sheds light on what it means to be human. Order a copy here.9781594204715

Jeremy B. Jones’ Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland: One of the best Appalachian voices to come along in a long while, Jeremy Jones writes with poignant, lithe, prose. He may be looking at one spot on the mountain, but he’s looked at it from every ridgeline, from every cove, from every prone position in the field. What we’re left with is the multi-faceted experience that is our lives. Order a copy here9780895876249


Denton Loving’s Crimes Against Birds: Hard to say what my favorite poem is in this collection, though there are plenty that have hung with me, but my favorite image is from “Elemental:” “the sun / when it reaches behind the mountain // and its last rays of light shine through / the quivering strands of yellow sage // grass, make the hillside glow like gold, / how it forms silhouettes of the cows // on the ridge top, allows them to gaze / across the skies as they stand on top // of the whole world, beside the forked / and twisted sassafras…” All of that to say, read this book. Order a copy here.9781599484990

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render: An Apocalypse: Quite frankly the best book of poetry I’ve read in years. Gritty. Raw. Lithe. Turns like switchbacks. Rebecca Gayle Howell is the real deal. Order a copy here9780986025730

Now all you have to do is trust me and go buy all of these books for yourself or for a friend or for anyone so long as they’re being read. And if you happen to buy it from now through Dec. 24, Penguin Random House will be spearheading the Give A Book campaign where each book you give as a gift they’ll match simply for you using the hashtag ‪#‎GiveABook‬ on Facebook and Twitter. So, first, give someone a book this holiday, and, secondly and most importantly, use the hashtag #GiveABook so that your gift reaches not only the person you love and care about but someone you’ve never met as well. Hope you all have a happy holiday season.


A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects. –Herman Melville

Chapter One

Darl Moody didn’t give two shakes off a monkey’s dick what the state considered poaching. Way he figured, anybody who’d whittle a rifle season down to two weeks and not allot for a single doe day didn’t give a damn whether a man starved to death. Meat in the freezer was meat that didn’t have to be bought and paid for, and that came to mean a lot when the work petered off each winter.

The buck Darl’d seen crossing from the Buchanan farm into Coon Coward’s woods for the past two years had a rocking chair on his head and a neck thick as a tree trunk. Coon wouldn’t let a man set foot on his land on account of the ginseng roots buried around his property like jars of money, but Coon was out of town. The old man had gone down to the piedmont to bury his sister, and wouldn’t be back for a week. Darl’s mama asked Darl to keep an eye out on things since he lived close by and so he did. He parked right there at that old man’s house, camoed up in Coon Coward’s driveway, and marched off into the woods like he owned the place.

The cove was full of sign: rubs that stripped bark off maples and birch, scrapes all over the place where button bucks scratched soil with something instinctual telling them to do so but lacking any rhyme or reason. A mature buck knew exactly what he was doing when he ripped at the ground like he was hoeing a line with his hooves, but the young ones just ran around wild. They’d scrape all over the place, trying to add to a conversation they were too inexperienced to understand.

Darl locked his stand around a blackjack oak that grew twenty feet high before the first limbs sprung off. He climbed to a strong vantage and surveyed a saddle of land where early autumn cast patches of the mountains gold in afternoon light. Some of the ridgeline was already in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, but none of that could be seen from here. Down in the valley, there was still green in the trees, the acorns yet to drop, the nights yet to frost, and it would still be a month or more before the first few breaths of winter stripped the mountains to their gray bones.

Darl sipped a pint of whiskey he had stashed in the cargo pocket of his camouflage jeans, took off his ball cap and slicked the sweat from his forehead back through a thick mat of dark hair that was shaved down to an inch. He scratched at the stubble on his chin and listened closely for any sign of movement, though just like the past two evenings, he’d yet to see or hear a thing. Soon as the sun sank behind the western face, the woods dropped into shadow and it wouldn’t be long for nightfall. Still he would stay because there was no telling when that buck might show, and in full dark, he would find his way out by flashlight.

Somewhere up the hillside, a stick cracked beneath a footstep and that sound ran through Darl like electricity. His heart raced and his palms grew sweaty, his eyes wide and white. Dried leaves rustled underfoot and behind the scraggly limbs of a dead hemlock he could see a slight shift of movement, but from such a distance and in such little light, what moved was impossible to make out. Through the riflescope, he spotted something on four legs, something gray-bodied and low to the ground. The 3-9×50 CenterPoint couldn’t match the reach of the .30-06, but it was all Darl could afford at the time and so that was what he had to work with.

Sighting the scope out as far as it would extend, he played the shot out in his mind. At 200 yards, the animal filled a little less than a third of the sight picture, a fluke shot at best for someone who’d never been all that great a shot. He rolled the bolt and pulled back just enough to check that a round was chambered, then locked the bolt back and thumbed away the safety.

A boar hog rooted around the hillside for a meal. Each year those pigs moved further and further north out of South Carolina, first coming up out of Walhalla ten years back and now overrunning farms all over Jackson County. There was open season on hogs due to the damage they caused. A father and son out of Caswell County were hunting private land between Brevard and Toxaway just a month before when the son spooked a whole passel of hogs out of a laurel thicket, and the father drew down on a seven hundred pound boar. That was just over the ridgeline into Transylvania County. That pig weighed 580 pounds gutted, and they took home more than 150 pounds of sausage alone. Do the math on that at the grocery store.

All his life there’d been a calm that came on just before the kill. It was something hard to explain to anyone else, but that feeling was on him now as he braced his back against the trunk of the oak and tried to steady his aim. A tangle of brush obstructed his view, but he knew the Core-Lokt would tear through that just fine. He tried to get the picture to open by sliding his cheek along the buttstock, but the cheap scope offered little play. When the view was wide, he toyed with the power ring to get the picture as clear as possible, nothing ever coming fully into focus as he drew the crosshairs over the front shoulders. He centered on his pulse then. Breathe slowly. Count the breaths. Squeeze between heartbeats. On five, pull the trigger. The sight wavered as he counted down. Three. Two. Squeeze.

The rifle punched against his shoulder, and the report hammered back in waves, touching everything between here and there and returning in fragments as it bounced around the mountains. He checked down range and the animal was down.

“I got him,” Darl said. His body tingled and his head was swimming. Adrenaline coursed through him so quickly that he was out of breath just sitting there. He was in disbelief. “I fucking got him.”

Darl sucked down the last of the whisky in one slug, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and climbed his way down with his treestand. In less than an hour, the light would be gone. He knew he had to hurry. There’d barely be enough time to field dress the pig and get it out of the woods before dark. Maybe Calvin Hooper would help him dress the hog out. Cal had a nice hoist for dressing deer, and that sure beat the hell out of the make-shift gambreling stick Darl had at the house. Whether you were scraping the hair off a hog or skinning him out, a pig was an animal that was a whole lot easier with two sets of hands working than one. Cal wouldn’t want anything for the trouble. Never had. Just as soon as Darl got that pig back to the truck, he’d head to Calvin’s. “I fucking got him,” he said.

A small branch of water ran at the bottom of the draw, and, through a thicket of laurel, the hillside steepened. Darl staggered through the copse of trees and slowly climbed until he was near the ledge where the pig had fallen. He tripped on a fishing line strung between two trees, a pair of tin cans with rocks inside clanking loud in the limbs above him. Darl froze and looked around. As his eyes focused, he saw fish hooks hung eye level from the trees, trot lines meant for poachers, and he brushed them back one by one as if he were clawing his way through spiderwebs. That’s when he saw him. Not a pig, but a man rolled onto his stomach. A brush-patterned shirt was darkened almost black with blood, his pants the same grayish camouflage as his shirt.

Darl stepped closer and kicked at the man’s boots. When there was no movement, no sound of breath, he stooped beside the body and saw where the bullet had entered the man’s ribcage. He’d been quartered away, the hollowpoint opening as it cut through him and exited just behind his right shoulder blowing the top of his arm into ragged meat. The man’s left arm hung by his side, his hand open, palm up, and Darl could see a cluster of bright red berries balanced at the tip of his fingers. He realized then that he was kneeling in a thick patch of ginseng, mostly young, two-prong plants, but some much, much older. The man had an opened book bag on the ground beside him with a tangle of thick, banded roots stuffed inside, the thin runners off the main ginseng shoots snarled like a muss of hair. Darl knew the man shouldn’t have been there just the same as him. This was Coward land, and they were both trespassing, two poachers who shouldn’t have been there, but right here they were. Here they were and this man was deader than shit, and Darl had done it. Darl had made him that way.

The man’s face was turned away and angled into the ground. His neck was sunburnt red and dotted with dark orange freckles, the back of his hair thick and curled a yellow blonde the color of hay. Darl stepped across the body being careful not to get his boots in the blood around him. The man wore a camouflage hat with hunter orange lining the edge of the bill, the words Caney Fork General Store stitched across the front. The hat was crooked on his head and Darl grabbed the bill to try and turn the man’s face out of the dirt.

As soon as he saw the dark purple birthmark covering the right side of the man’s face, Darl knew him. Carol Brewer, who everyone had always called Sissy, lay stone cold dead on the bracken-laced ground. Darl had known Carol all his miserable life, a halfwit born to a family that Jesus Christ couldn’t have saved. Some people believed Carol’s daddy, Red, might’ve been the devil himself. There was a meanness that coursed through him, a meanness that carried on in his blood that was as close to pure evil as any god-fearing man from Jackson County had ever witnessed. Carol was the baby of the family and by most accounts the only one that ever had any chance at all. Some folks thought if he’d just been able to get out from under the wing of his father and older brother, Dwayne, he might’ve turned out alright. But things didn’t work out that way, and Carol wound up being just as much trouble as the lot of them.

Darl let go of the cap bill and Carol’s head came to rest on the ground. His eyes were closed with his mouth slightly opened. A yellow jacket buzzed by Darl’s ear and landed on Carol’s lips. The bee started to crawl into Carol’s mouth but Darl swatted the bug away, his fingers brushing Carol’s face. He stood and stomped the bee where it hovered above the ground with his boot then looked to the west to gauge what remained before night. Darl knew it wouldn’t be long, but nightfall didn’t matter like it had just minutes before. His thoughts were wild with what would come, but he knew the darkness was a gift now and he welcomed it as such. His mind raced as the night closed around him like cupped hands. He had until dawn to dig a grave.

(The Line That Held Us has been sold to G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The date of publication has yet to be determined. An early version of this chapter is also included as a short story titled, “Burning Off Into Forever,” in an anthology from Bottom Dog Press titled Appalachia Now. Check the website, www.david-joy.com, periodically for updates on the novel.)


Aiden McCall was twelve years old the one time he heard I love you. Even then he didn’t so much hear the words as read them on his father’s lips. His mother folded a hamper of whites on the arm of the couch. He sat across from her in a recliner that was permanently locked flat and watched a fuzzy episode of Ren and Stimpy he’d seen a thousand times before. The satellite card was dead, and, even before his father quit paying the bill, the mountains blocked most channels from reaching Little Canada. Every afternoon when Aiden came home from school he watched that VHS tape of the same five episodes over and over. He knew the whole thing by heart.

Aiden was miming the words from the television when his father opened the screen door. The man stood bare-chested on the threshold with a short-nosed revolver clenched in his fist by his side. Aiden’s mother turned to face her husband, rolled a pair of socks in on themselves, but didn’t say a word. His father raised the pistol and blew the top of her head off when he pulled the trigger. There was a flash of light and blood, a short-lived smell of bourbon before the room reeked of burnt gunpowder like Black Cat firecrackers.

His father stared at him with a look in his eyes like he blamed him and him alone for the way life turned sour. Aiden had his fingers jammed in his ears, but it was too late to guard against the gun’s report. His skull hummed. “I love you,” the boy saw his father say just before he shoved that wheel gun into the back of his own throat until he gagged, the metal clanking against his teeth as he pulled his second shot.

Aiden lay in his mother’s blood on the floor piecing pictures in the popcorn ceiling together like connect-the-dots. The blood was sticky on his back. There was even a sound to it when the law finally came and the deputy peeled him off the floor. His father’s eyes still held that same look and there was no chance it would ever change. He would blame his son for eternity, and Aiden would never forget.

He woke sweaty from the same dream every night those first few weeks in the group home. It was a dream that would haunt him the rest of his life. His eyes would pop open and he’d come up gasping for air as if he were about to drown. He’d scan the room for anything familiar and find nothing at all.

The dream was a replaying of the earliest memory the boy knew of this world. He stood on wobbly legs in the kitchen doorway with food smeared sticky across his stomach. He might’ve been three years old, and he watched his father strangle his mother against the edge of the kitchen counter. Aiden remembered how her bare feet slipped and slid against crusty linoleum that rolled like birch bark at the edges, how her upper body flailed, then, seized when her spine could bend no further. She gurgled for breath, while his father screamed something about potatoes. He held Aiden’s face to the red glow of the stove eye when the child wouldn’t stop crying, and threw him where his mother lay sprawled on the floor when that didn’t work. Mother and child kept still after that. But that memory wasn’t what shook him from dream.

What scared him was what he knew in that dream. He seemed to have some unquestionable understanding, something seemingly divine, that insured in time he would become his father. There are things passed down that escape reflections in mirrors, traits that paint the inside. Those were the things that he understood, and those were the things that he feared. What he heard before he shuddered awake each night were the words of God Almighty, the Lord God saying, “In the end, blood always tells.”


In the group home, the children shared beds. Aiden shared his with a boy who mumbled facts about baseball in his sleep. The boy memorized career stats from the backs of mildewed trading cards, his collection rubberbanded together like a wad of money that he hid beneath his pillow each night. Whenever something went wrong, the kid would ramble random factoids like how many RBIs Jose Canseco had with the Oakland A’s in 1990, or what Andre Dawson’s nickname was in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, an answer the kid would repeat over and over like some sort of crazed mantra: Awesome Dawson, Awesome Dawson, Awesome Dawson. But what Aiden hated most was that the kid wet the bed. Aiden couldn’t even remember the boy’s name, but every night he woke up sticky with the boy’s piss and he hated him for it.

He hadn’t counted days, but he’d been there around a month when he stole another boy’s clothes, a boy with the same lanky build but a bit older. Aiden would have packed his own had he not outgrown them. His joints ached and by summer he figured the growth spurt would stretch him to a spindly marionette. He stuffed his bookbag with what he took, raided the kitchen for canned goods, and weighed the bag down with as much as he thought could be carried without drawing suspicion. When he rode the school bus that morning with the rest of the orphans, he was one of them. But when afternoon came and they loaded their bus, Aiden climbed aboard another, one he knew went into Caney Fork. Theirs was not a home to where he would return.

He rode to the last stop on Sugar Creek and climbed off with a brother and sister who gazed at him in silent confusion as he walked further up the road. “Where you going, kid?” the boy hollered after him. Aiden stopped and stared at their scrunched faces. It was mid-spring and the pollen and gnats floated in the yellow glow between them. He offered no answer. He just turned and headed on.

Further, the pavement crumbled into packed gravel that cut a dusty logging road through the mountains along a stream that narrowed the higher it rose. The road was rough as a cob with rivulets from spring rain having rutted it into a continual washboard that ran a crescent-shaped route seven miles south from Caney Fork back to Little Canada.

Aiden knew the road frontward and backward. He followed a small branch of water east from Sugar Creek to a hunting camp where bad fathers gathered during open season on deer and bear to drink their memories into extinction. They’d empty bottles then turn the glass to target practice, slur their words as they bickered about who was the better shot, none of them ever killing a goddamn thing but brain cells. His father would drag him there. Then when the booze dried up and the old man couldn’t stand, he’d ask his son to drive them home.

The camp was empty now. A crude shack slapdashed together from barn wood and tin stood in a saddle of land, with another four just like it scattering a shantytown across the hillside. Aiden stood on a rusted iron pot to reach the place where the key was hidden along a shallow sill above the door.

Inside, sunlight diffused through smeared windows to make barely visible two cots against the back wall, a card table centering the room, and four mismatched chairs strewn in no particular order at all. Pots and pans hung on nails around a flattop wood stove. By the doorway, outside light shone onto a mischief of mummified field mice that lay gnarled with tiny, yellow-toothed smiles atop rotted food scraps and litter in the bottom of a dull silver trashcan. The cabin smelled like wet paper, but more importantly it smelled like something familiar. He thought he could stay there a while.

Those first few weeks, spring made it easy to scrounge meals from the mountains: ramps and wild potatoes, speckled trout and branch lettuce. He even found hickory chickens, wild mushrooms that had bloomed from the black soil along rotten logs overnight after a late afternoon rain poured the valley full of fog. But soon spring was gone and the petals of trilliums wilted, melted back into the earth as if they’d never existed at all. Before long, the days grew hot and the mountains were swallowed in green.

Sugar Creek Gap.

Sugar Creek Gap.

Aiden was crouched in a small grove of black balsam that stood at Sugar Creek Gap where the road peaked out as high as it climbed. Down the other side, switchbacks snaked down the mountain to Charleys Creek, and just a mile or two from there is where he’d grown up. The stand of balsam had always seemed unnatural where it grew. Folks in Little Canada had always told stories about that place, about the strange mounds of earth that swelled beneath gnarled roots. They said there were bodies buried there, and maybe there were. Aiden squatted with his elbows braced on his knees and drew patterns in the dirt with a stick. He never even saw Thad Broom walk up.

“You know I kind of wondered if this is where you might’ve run off to.”

Aiden looked up at the redheaded boy. He stood with no shirt on in the middle of the road, mud caked about his chest and face, a pair of jeans that were too big for him cinched into a wad around his waist with a length of nylon rope. Aiden didn’t speak.

“There’s a lot of folks looking for you.”

Aiden looked up with squinted eyes to where the sun reflected white off the boy’s pale body. “The law?” he asked.

“Hell.” Thad huffed and shook his head. “The law, churches, everybody.”

Aiden flicked his eyes to the ground beneath him where he’d scribbled his signature in shoddy cursive. He rubbed his name out with the toe of his boot and looked back to where Thad stood. “You going to tell them where I’m at?”

“Why hell no. What do you think I am? Some goddamned rat?” Thad walked over and collapsed Indian style into the dirt.

He was the only friend Aiden McCall had ever had. They were the same age and both lived on Charleys Creek, had always ridden the same school bus and been in the same class. While most kids their age shaded their eyes with snap-back Atlanta Braves caps, fielded grounders, and shagged fly-balls, Aiden and Thad stole soft packs of Pall Malls from behind the counter of Ken’s Grocery while the old man who owned the place slathered mayo on chuckwagons neither boy could pay for.

Thad leaned back and pulled a pack of smokes from his pocket. He slipped a coffin nail into his lips and struck a match from a book he kept fitted in the cellophane. He pinched the cigarette between his fingers, drew smoke into his mouth, and puffed his cheeks out before he inhaled. He tried to blow smoke rings but it was just little clouds sputtering out like ellipses. He took another quick drag and passed it.

Aiden hadn’t had a cigarette in months and that first taste was as if he’d never had one at all. He held in his first drag until he was lightheaded, then blew the smoke into the balsams above. “What you doing back in here anyhow?” Aiden asked.

“Been camping at Bee Rock. Trying to stay in touch with my heritage.”

“Your heritage?”

“Why hell yes. You know I’m half Cherokee, don’t you? My daddy was full blooded. Hell, he was chief over there on the rez for a little while.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“Like hell I am.”

The boys sat there passing cigarettes back and forth, neither saying anything of great importance. It was the happiest Aiden had been in a long time. After a while, Thad asked where Aiden had been living and Aiden told him about the camp.

“You know you could come live with me don’t you?” Thad asked with a cigarette jumping about his mouth as he spoke.

“I don’t think your mom would go for that.”

“I don’t live with her anymore.”

“What do you mean you don’t live there?”

“I mean you know that trailer that was down there below the house, at the bottom of the drive?”

Aiden nodded.

“Well that old cocksucker my mama’s married to cleaned it out and moved me in down there. Said he didn’t want to look at me no more and I told him I wouldn’t piss down his throat if his guts was on fire.”

“And your mom just let him?”

“She ain’t say a word.” Thad stared off to where Sugar Creek Gap opened a view to mountains shaded grayish blue by distance and haze. He lowered his brow as if he were thinking long and hard about something that he couldn’t quite figure out. After a while his face relaxed. “It ain’t that bad. Really it ain’t.” He glanced at Aiden with a slight grin. “I can do anything I want down there. I’ve got a whole shoebox of titty magazines.”

Aiden shook his head and spit between his knees into the dirt.

“Hell, check this out.” Thad leaned to one side and pulled his billfold from his back pocket. He tore the velcro to get inside, picked a folded magazine page that looked to be the only thing the wallet held, and opened the crinkled centerfold on the ground between them. “You know what I’d say to her if I ever got the chance? You know what I’d say, Aid?”

“What’s that?”

“I’d look her right square in them baby blues and I’d ask her if there was any tread left on them tires, or if it’d be like throwing a hotdog down a hallway? That’s what I’d ask her.”

Both of them snickered and ogled at the dark-haired vixen who bit the tip of her finger, her back arched and breasts up, with her other hand disappearing to some place between her legs that neither boy knew a thing about aside from lies and pictures. Thad said pussy tasted like cherry pie and Aiden told Thad that girls could get pregnant if they swallowed. That’s how the conversation went for most of the afternoon, just boys being boys.

By the end of it, Aiden took Thad up on his offer and as the heat followed the sun toward evening, he felt about as happy as he’d ever felt in his good-for-nothing life. There were lightning bugs playing Marco Polo back and forth across the field grass, and by the time the boys made it back to the hunting camp to gather Aiden’s belongings, night was almost upon them. They slept on the ground, each with his hands interlocked under the crown of his head for a pillow. Through a scant opening in the canopy above them they watched stars move on to some place else, and woke the next morning curled in the leaf litter and ferns like a pair of stray dogs. Their bodies shimmered with dew and they shivered to reclaim what warmth had escaped them. Thad gathered wood and Aiden built a fire. The world would never again seem so open.

(The Weight Of This World is tentatively scheduled for release in 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Check the website, www.david-joy.com, periodically for updates on the novel.)

On burning a novel

When I was a child, my mother worked in clay. I would lie on the couch at night with my head in her lap and stare up at her silhouetted by yellow lamplight while her hands kneaded and pinched figures from nothing. My father brought home reams of paper from his office and I wasted days drawing pictures that never turned out how I wanted, those drawings then crumpled in my six-year-old hands and thrown away. I’d pull another sheet of paper from the stack and start again.

My parents were always confused by how quickly I destroyed something I spent hours creating. In their minds, the work was good, and of course they believed it: I was a child, I was their child, and anything I put my heart into was worthwhile. But what they couldn’t see, and what I couldn’t explain, was that even then I recognized a moment in the creation of art when a mistake has been made and there is no way to fix it. What they didn’t understand was that this recognition doesn’t ebb on sadness and disappointment; rather it rises on the fact that if I do it again and again I might one day do it perfectly.


I was at a reading this past Saturday at City Lights Bookstore and afterward I sat with Pam Duncan, a novelist and friend, and we discussed what each of us are currently writing. I don’t typically have anything I would consider insightful, but a thought came to me then about the novel I’m working on that I think holds some element of truth. I told her that, for me, the first draft of a novel is like digging clay, and that there’s nothing to sculpt until the clay is piled on the table. Once it’s there you can make art, but until then, all you can do is dig, and for the past eight months I’ve been digging.

Despite the truth in that statement, I failed to acknowledge one thing, a lesson I learned belly-down on shag carpet with a pencil and blank paper when I was six years old: not all that is dug is clay.

When I was writing Where All Light Tends To Go, I set fire to about 200 pages, burnt somewhere around 60,000 words, because I realized that I’d gotten the narrator’s voice wrong. I can remember as I stared at that pile of ashes feeling as lonely as I’d ever felt in my life. In the words of Raymond Carver, it was as if I’d never written a word.

After eight months of working on a new novel, I find myself there again. I spent the past month and a half looking at a manuscript that I knew wasn’t right. I stayed up day and night trying to figure out how to fix it, and a part of me kept saying, just dig. Then, as it often does, the answer came in a dream. My eyes flicked open and I was wide-awake at 3:24 this morning: I had yet to hit clay.

When I woke up I felt that same loneliness as I felt before. I had 30,000 useless words, 100 pages of tinder.

Then I got a message from a dear friend who knows this feeling as well as I do. He sent me this quote from Harry Crews: “The amateur, or the coward, or the non-writer, will try to keep it and make it work cause he doesn’t want to have to throw it away and do all of that over again another way. The real artist—with no tear in his eye and no sadness in his heart—puts the pages in the fire and does it again.”

That’s all it took for me to remember that I’d only ever known one way:

Pull another piece of paper from the stack. Dig the clay and, just as I watched mother do, knead and pinch figures from nothing. Do it over and over again for the rest of your fucking life. And one day, if you’re lucky, you just might do it perfectly.

My grandfather was a veteran of war, the 1940 Golden Gloves Chattanooga champion at 160 lbs., tall and lanky as me, about as tough as a locust post. I don’t remember much about him. There’s only one memory of him in fact: me staring out a French door when I was two or three, him kicking over a stump in the backyard and pulling out handfuls of baby copperheads like some holiness preacher. Mama said she only ever saw him cry one time. That day was the day Nat King Cole died. Such is the way with music.

I think the earliest song I remember ever hearing, and I mean real music, none of that Wheels-on-the-Bus-bullshit, was Willie Nelson’s “Remember Me” from the 1975 Red Headed Stranger album. Daddy played it on the record player—snaps, crackles, pops, and all that vinyl goodness.

One grandma sang jazz. One grandma sang old-time country. Both sang hymns. And I can’t sing a lick. But life’s always been lived to music.



John Townes Van Zandt (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), best known as Townes Van Zandt, was an American singer-songwriter. Many of his songs, including “If I Needed You” and “To Live Is to Fly”, are considered standards of their genre.

If I were to name the writers who have most influenced my work, William Gay would wind up in the top five. Though it’s the short stories contained in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down that I think serve as his masterpiece, some of William’s finest writing rose from essays on music in magazines like Paste and Oxford American. Even the title of his short story collection stems from a three line lyric in an old blues tune—“I hate to see that evening sun go down, / Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down / ‘Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go ‘round.”

To ignore the music is to ignore the man, two things seemingly inseparable.

This idea of music and its impact on the writing life is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve recognized the influence it’s had on my work for a long time. I wrote the end of Growing Gills with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light” on repeat. I did the same with my second book, Ruth, only the song was Johnny Cash and June Carter’s rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s 1937 “Peace in the Valley.” But never has music defined my writing as much as with my latest work, a novel titled Where All Light Tends to Go.

I saw the narrator, Jacob McNeely, before I heard him. He was eighteen in the story, but when I first saw him he was younger. His daddy had taken him hog hunting. A pack of walker hounds bayed the pig in a dried creek bed, and only a child, Jacob stabbed that pig just like he was told. I saw his reflection in the fading light of the pig’s eyes. I recognized what he discovered: that one animal is not that different from another.

But when I heard Jacob McNeely, when his voice woke me up out of a dream, there was a song that accompanied him. There was music and, more specifically, a musician that defined him. The musician was Townes Van Zandt. The song was “Rex’s Blues.”

Looking back, I think it’s the circumstance of that song, the inevitability of ruin, the hope of whom it’s happening to, and the futility of that hope that envelops Jacob McNeely.  He was born into and of that song.

It was the opening verse of Townes’ “Rake” that became Jacob’s first go at love—“I used to wake and run with the moon / I lived like a rake and a young man / I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds / My laughter the devil would frighten.”

Townes’ “Waiting Around to Die” was about as close a thing to fate for the entire McNeely family as words from God, all of them destined for graves from the start—“Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me / Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why / I guess I keep on gambling, lots of booze and lots of rambling / It’s easier than just a-waiting around to die.”

There’s a moment in the novel where Townes’ For the Sake of the Song album is spinning around a record player and as “Don’t You Take it Too Bad” bleeds into “Colorado Girl,” Jacob knows that when the song finishes out, someone will have to flip the record. But when he doesn’t, when those “final crackles and pops of blank album slid away under the needle,” what comes is a song of the same note, a song that Townes didn’t write, but one I’m sure he would’ve sung.

The novel and the music become inseparable.


When I think about why my writing is so dark, it’s two lines from Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” that make the most sense: “There ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe / The light I’ve never known.” When I think about where my writing comes from and my process, it’s another line, this time from a Paul Simon cut on the Sounds of Silence album—“My words trickle down from a wound I have no intention to heal.”

My writing and the soundtrack of my life bled together. That conflux happened long ago.

When I was in college, I had a mentor who wrote creative nonfiction. She had this story of passing a bread factory along her route to work each day, and how the smell from that bread factory took her back to this place and time in her life that she’d almost forgotten. Every time she smelled it, she was transported.

So one day she drove there and sat outside at the employee picnic tables, and she wrote and wrote until that place had given her all it could. She didn’t use this phrase for what that place did to her writing, but what she was describing is what I’d call a point of entry. I think all writers need that point of entry. I think all writers need a gateway. And for me, the door has always swung open on a song.


I hid the pickup behind a tangled row of pampas grass that had needed burning a good year or so before. The law never liked for folks to climb the water tower, but I hadn’t ever cared much for the law. I was a McNeely and, in this part of Appalachia, that meant something. Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height. Besides, the water tower was the best place to see graduation caps thrown high when seniors wearing black robes and tearful smiles headed out of Walter Middleton School one last time.

Rungs once painted white were chipped and rusted and slumped in the middle from years of being climbed by wide-eyed kids looking to paint their names on the town. Those things that seemed as if they’d last forever never did. I didn’t even make it out of tenth grade, and maybe that’s why I hadn’t felt the need to scale that tower with britches weighed down by spray paint cans. There was no need to cement my name. A name like Jacob McNeely raised eyebrows and questions. In a town this small, all eyes were prying eyes. I couldn’t show my face, didn’t want the problems and rumors that being down there would bring, but I had to see her leave.

The grate platform circling the water tank had lost all but a few screws and curled up at the edges like a twice-read book. Every step I took shifted metal, but it was a place I’d stood before, a place I’d navigated on every drug I’d ever taken. With only a buzz from the morning smoke lingering, there wasn’t need for worries. I sat beneath green letters dripping a nearly illegible “FUCK U” across the front side of the tank, pulled a soft pack of Winstons from the pocket of my jeans, lit the last cigarette I had, and waited.

The school I’d spent the majority of my life in seemed smaller now, though looking back it had never been big enough. I grew up twenty miles south of Sylva, a town that really wasn’t much of a town at all but the closest thing to one in Jackson County. If you were passing through you’d miss Sylva if you blinked, and where I was from you could overlook with your eyes peeled. Being a small, mountain community that far away, we only had one school. So that meant that kids who grew up in this country would walk into Walter Middleton at five years old and wouldn’t leave until graduation thirteen years down the road. Growing up in it, I never found it strange to share the halls with teens when I was a kid and kids when I was a teen, but looking down on it now, two years after leaving for good, the whole place was alien.

The white dome roofing the gym looked like a bad egg bobbing in boiling water, the courtyard was lined in uneven passes from a lawnmower, and a painting of the school mascot, centered in the parking lot, looked more like a chupacabra than any bobcat I’d ever seen. To be honest, there wasn’t too much worth remembering from my time there, but still it had accounted for ten of my eighteen years. Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t disappointing. What was disappointing about that school, my life, and this whole fucking place was that I’d let it beat me. I’d let what I was born into control what I’d become. Mama snorted crystal, Daddy sold it to her, and I’d never had the balls to leave. That was my life in a nutshell. I took a drag from my last cigarette and hocked a thick wad of spit over the railing.

I was watching a wake of buzzards whirl down behind a mountain when the side door cracked against the gymnasium brick. One kid tore out in front of the crowd, and even before he jumped onto the hood of his car, I knew him. Blane Cowen was the type to drink a beer and scream wasted. I’d tested him once back in middle school, brought him up here on the water tower to smoke a joint, and when his legs got wobbly and vertigo set in he decided awfully fast he didn’t want to play friends any more. In a school filled with kids who swiped prescription drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, Blane was the village idiot. But despite all that, I kind of felt sorry for the bastard, standing there, arms raised in the air as he dented in the hood of a beat up Civic, no one in his class paying him a lick of attention while he howled.

The parking lot that had seemed so desolate just a minute before was buzzing now as friends hugged, told promises they’d never be able to keep, and ran off to parents who had no clue of who their child had become. I knew it because I’d grown up with them, all of them, and all of us knew things about one another that we’d never share. Most of us knew things that we didn’t even want to confess to ourselves, so we took those secrets with us like condoms stuffed in wallets that would never be used. I wanted to be down there with them, if not as a classmate, then at least as a friend, but none of them needed my baggage.

Not until she took off her cap did I recognize her in the crowd. Maggie Jennings stood there and pulled her hair out of a bun, shook blonde curls down across her shoulders. The front of her graduation gown was unzipped, and a white sundress held tight to her body. I could almost make out her laugh in the clamor as her boyfriend, Avery Hooper, picked her up from behind and spun her around wildly. Maggie’s mother hunched with her hands covering her face as if to conceal tears, and Maggie’s father put his arm around his wife’s waist and pulled her close. A person who didn’t know any better would have thought them the perfect American family. Live the lie and they’ll believe the lie, but I knew different.

I’d known Maggie my whole life. The house she grew up in was two beats of a wing as the crow flies from my front porch, so there hadn’t been many days of my childhood spent without her by my side. About the first memory I can recall is being five or six with pants rolled up, the two of us digging in the creek for spring lizards. We were tighter than a burl as Daddy’d say. In a way, I guess, Maggie and me raised one another.

Back before her father found Jesus, he’d run off on a two or three-week drunk with no one seeing hide nor hair of him till it was over. Her mother worked two jobs to keep food on the table, but that meant there wasn’t a soul watching when Maggie and I’d head into the woods, me talking her into all sorts of shit that most kids wouldn’t have dreamed. I guess we were twelve or so when her father got saved and moved the family off The Creek. Folks said he poured enough white liquor in the stream to slosh every speckled trout from Nimblewill to Fontana, but I never figured him much for saving. A drunk’s a drunk just like an addict’s an addict, and there ain’t a God you can pray to who can change a damn bit of it.

But Maggie was different. Even early on I remember being amazed by her. She’d always been something slippery that I never could seem to grasp, something buried deep in her that never let anything outside of herself decide what she would become. I’d always loved that about her. I’d always loved her.

We were in middle school when the tomboy I grew up with started filling out. Having always been best friends, when I asked Maggie out in eighth grade, it seemed like that shit they write in movies. We were together for three years, a lifetime it had seemed. What meant the most to me was that Maggie knew where I’d come from, knew what I was being groomed into, and still believed I could make it out. I’d thought my life was chosen, that I didn’t really have a say in the matter, but Maggie dreamed for me. She told me I could be anything I wanted, go any place that looked worth going, and there were times I almost believed her. Folks like me were tied to this place, but Maggie held no restraints. She was out of here from the moment she set her eyes on the distance. If I ever did have a dream, it was that she might take me with her. But dreams were silly for folks like me. There always comes a time when you have to wake up.

I was proud that she was headed to a place I could never go, and I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to text her, “Congrats.”

When Avery let go, Maggie jumped into her father’s arms, bent her legs behind her with bare feet pointed into the sky. Her father buried his head into his daughter’s hair, pretended for a split second that he’d had something to do with how she turned out, then placed her on the ground for her mother to kiss. Maggie stood there for a moment, rocked back and forth before she turned away. She glanced back to say something as she ran off to Avery’s truck, but her parents had said their goodbyes. In a way, I think they knew she was already gone. They knew it just as much as I did. A girl like that couldn’t stay. Not forever, and certainly not for long.


(Where All Light Tends To Go is due out from G.P. Putnam’s Sons in early 2015)


An unstitched fifty-pound flour sack had sat in a bucket of bleach a week till the bunched cotton fabric lost all signs of lettering. The blue logo of Baker’s Delight Bread Flour had faded completely white. Ruth saved the fabric to make her youngest sister Helen a dress.

The “waste not, want not” mentality had taken over all and sundry as folks stitched everything from curtains and pillow cases to dresses and slips from empty flour and feed sacks. Manufacturers took full advantage and often decorated the sacks in brightly colored floral patterns that people fought over on store floors. But Mama just grabbed whatever was there. She knew the family could make do with anything.

Ruth had just finished scouring the soot from lamp globes around the house. The Duke Power rental house in Steele Creek was absent of electricity with the dim yellow glow of flickering oil lamps the only light when sun set. She didn’t mind the job, but was always fearful she’d drop one of the globes and glass would shatter across hardwood floors.

Her hands were black with the residue of burnt oil as she headed onto the back porch for a wash pan. She grabbed the pan from a long shelf, water sloshed against the sides, and she scrubbed the soot from her skin. Ignoring a towel hung from a nail in the wall, she shook her hands dry and droplets spread like rain against the floor. The smell of chlorine filled the room as she looked over at the bucket filled with bleach.

Holding the turned wooden handle of the bucket, Ruth carried the filled pail into the yard toward a pump spigot, one shoulder cocked sideways from the weight as she walked. She reached into the bucket, grabbed the fabric, wrung the bleach from cotton back into the pail, and the chemical stung a hangnail she’d picked open in church the morning before.

The unstitched sack looked more like a sheet, or a long towel, when she shook it loose. Balling the fabric back into a tightly wrinkled wad, Ruth held the fabric under the spigot with one hand and pumped the handle hard with the other. Water gurgled in the pipe at first then flowed clear and fast as brooks and soaked the cotton again while water ran down her arm and dripped from her elbow. She wrung the fabric out and repeated the process until all hints of bleach were washed away.

Ruth hung the fabric onto a clothesline at the side of the house. Unlike the family’s line at the old house strung between trees, this clothesline consisted of two coated cables stretched between aluminum Ts, crude bubblegum welds all that held the posts and crossbeams together. Whoever placed the poles had done it on the wrong side of the house. Sun only hit fabric a few hours each morning, but Ruth was hopeful that April rays and a warm spring breeze would dry the sack by dusk.

Helen was nearly a year and half old, able to waddle across the floor in short bursts, her legs still flimsy as tomato vines. She was born on the farm ten months before Papa lost it all. Ruth thought it some strange blessing that Helen was too young to watch her father struggle, gaze at held-back tears when he surrendered everything, stare confused when he got the job back four months later, and understand if the family had just held on to the farm a bit longer they’d have been fine. Helen was still innocent.

With Helen the eleventh child Mama was done raising. By the December that Helen was born in 1930, Mama had spent 117 of the past 275 months swollen-bellied pregnant. Laboring thirteen children in twenty-three years was nothing short of a miracle, so Ruth just nodded when her mother turned Helen over to her. By three months old Helen nestled in the bed beside her big sister each night.

Raising children was as familiar to Ruth as hoeing lines and the prickly squares of cotton bolls. She’d watched after Billy when she was five, Charles at seven, Doris at nine, and Don at eleven. Ruth was going on thirteen as she ran a jade colored Bakelite comb through Helen’s thin hair.

Some three years before, Ruth chased the wobbly sprints of Chaz while trying to clean up Doris as she spit up milk in the crib. At the time, Uncle Jim, Papa’s brother, built a set of brick steps onto the home in Paw Creek. “Ruth come and get the baby!” Uncle Jim would yell over and over through laughter as he teased the young girl run frantic by infants.

In those days Ruth fell asleep, back flat on the floor, while her foot rocked a cherry wood crib her grandfather built. When that didn’t work, Ruth blew in the babies’ eyes until they were too dry to stay open, and closed eyelids brought on sleep. Most of the time the trick worked. The cries of children wore at her like sirens and at that moment, right then and there, Ruth swore that no matter what ever happened, she’d NEVER have children. But something was different with Helen.

Whether it was the straight brown hair or the sapphire glint of light in steel blue eyes, Ruth saw something as familiar as her reflection in water in that baby. The shy toddler, scared of anyone outside the family, was a spitting image of her sister. Ruth forgot the pact and raised Helen as her own.

Ruth sat up in bed, her back pressed against a pillow mashed in half against the headboard, and flipped through Gustave Dore illustrations in a tattered copy of Favorite Fairy Tales. Somewhere through the opening pages of “Beauty and the Beast,” as Ruth traded her name every time her eyes read “Belle,” Helen had fallen asleep. Helen’s tiny body was curled into a nook along Ruth’s side while Ruth held still and tried not to wake her sister.

Needles of numbness tingled and grew from Ruth’s wrist to shoulder where Helen lay until Ruth finally lifted her sister’s head, carefully scrunched away, and pulled a thin quilt loosely over her sleeping sister. Ruth still had a few hours to work. Mama had given Ruth permission to rock the pedal of the wooden-framed Singer sewing machine as long as she didn’t break the needle. The thin cotton fibers of bleached flour sack had somehow dried in afternoon shade and Ruth was eager to stitch Helen’s dress.

The pattern already dreamt—an all white sundress, ruffled short sleeves, tight top smocked with blue thread—Ruth sat down at the machine in the far corner of the dining room at the end of a long hall that spanned the length of the house. A wide yellow flame burned away at the woven wick of an oil lamp and the sparse light flickered shadows of Ruth’s hands against the wall as she measured the cloth and made the first cut.

Whereas most projects required saving scraps for months, Helen’s tiny frame lent itself perfectly to a single flour sack. After splitting the cloth along a seam that had once served as the bottom of the sack, Ruth measured the pattern, cut matching pieces from each sheet of cloth, and prepared for the first stitch.

Ruth rocked at the crosshatch iron of the Singer pedal. A leather strap rounding a large black wheel spun and sent the needle up and down atop the desk. As she stitched the skirt of the sundress together her mind flashed back to when Mama had first taught her to sew. The sharp needle had pierced her fumbling fingers and a drop of blood rose where point broke skin. A dresser of clothes under her belt, Ruth worked methodically, a slow pace that stitched perfectly equidistant loops along dashed pencil-drawn lines.

The heaviness of exhaustion coupled with the dying yellow light of a near empty oil lamp wore on Ruth’s eyes. Noticing a quickened pace, a few uneven stitches along the fabric, she slowed the pedal to a halt with her toe and headed upstairs to the bedroom where Helen dreamed with her tiny thumb pressed slobbery to the roof of her mouth.

Days were spent tending the toddler amidst a list of other chores, but each night when Helen fell asleep, Ruth headed into the dining room and sewed until her eyes grew swollen tired. Ornate golden scrolls along the polished black sewing machine glinted with lamplight when the last stitch was sewn that Saturday. Ruth laid the finished pattern atop the stained pine desk and ran her eyes across Helen’s new dress.

The flared skirt was pinched and pleated along the bodice. Short sleeves were ruffled from shoulder into tight cuffs. A looped design like a series of cursive Ls smocked the bodice stretchy with light blue thread. Along the back a piece of sky blue silk ribbon, salvaged from one of Mama’s old hats, was tied in a bow to seal the sundress.

Ruth was too excited to sleep. She carried the dress to the upstairs bedroom and laid it across the back of Helen while she slept under the quilt. The quilt obscured Ruth’s ability to fit the sundress to her sister. But Ruth sat there on the edge of the bed and visualized the next day, Easter Sunday, when she could fit the flour sack dress on her sister like a porcelain doll.

The April sun illuminated the growing crimson along redbud limbs as Helen waddled through sprigs of grass. The family had spent the afternoon singing hymns as Laura, seventeen now, played piano. Sometimes Papa would want to sing for hours, only the deep drum of his own vocal chords still with sound by the end, but not that day.

Mama sat beside Ruth on the front steps, her hand rested on the knee of her daughter, as they watched Helen lean down, grab a dandelion bloom, look back toward the house, and smile with chubby cheeks. The sundress fit perfectly over Helen and Ruth was proud. Mama squeezed Ruth’s leg tight and Ruth looked up into the eyes of her mother, those same graceful blue eyes of herself and Helen.

“I don’t think that I could have stitched it myself,” Mama said.

Ruth swelled and sat quietly, Mama said nothing else, and Helen, knees pressing green grass into bleached white cotton, was too busy plucking flowers to know the difference.

(“Raising” is a chapter from Ruth: A Beautiful Dismantling, an unpublished memoir, posted here on a day that would have marked Ruth’s 94th year of life.)