My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is David Joy, author of the new novel The Weight of This World. His first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, debuted to great acclaim and was named an Edgar Award 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 also the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey. He lives in Waynesville, North Carolina.
This Caravan Rolls On
January 1 was my deadline and I already knew I was going to miss it because who the hell gets anything done over the holidays. Nevertheless, I was doing everything I could to finish up my second novel. It was three days before Christmas and my editor sent me an email with some kind of warning in the subject line about the first trade review coming in for my debut and needless to say it wasn’t good.
The general rule of thumb is that thin-skinned folks won’t last long in this industry. You hear that all the time coming up. A hundred rejections to a single acceptance, and that’s if you’re lucky. What I can tell you is that it’s one thing to persist through a mountain of form rejections and another altogether to sign a book deal with a Big Five publishing house, get shoved onto the biggest stage in the world, and stand there bound and gagged while folks hurl rocks at your head like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” That may be a bit hyperbolic but the reality is that I’d prefer to have rocks chucked at my head. Sticks and stones I can deal with. Broken bones aren’t new to me.
Here’s the thing, looking back, that book didn’t suck ass. Matter of fact, a whole lot of people loved it. Where All Light Tends To Go was an Edgar finalist for first novel, was hailed “Remarkable!” by the New York Times, and was longlisted for one of the richest and most prestigious literary awards in the world. The reality is that I should’ve known that then. One of my literary heroes, Daniel Woodrell, had already praised the book. But for whatever reason we tend to hand the megaphone to the one asshole telling us we suck when the rest of the coliseum is cheering us on.
Artists tend to be a pretty self-deprecating lot. “You’re your own worst critic,” as they say, and for the most part they’re right. Sure, there are some artists with egos that have gravitational fields, writers who think they’re the next Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. We all know them, and we know they’re assholes. But most of us tend to be pretty introverted. A lot of us suffer from depression and anxiety, and some, like me, drink a little more than we should. So it makes sense why we hand the megaphone to the naysayers. It’s because they confirm our own worst fears. We start to believe we suck. There’s a person screaming we suck. 1+1=2. And so I guess they’re probably right.
Lucky for me, I had good friends who had already been down that road and who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am who were able to pick me up out of the ditch. In the back of my second novel, The Weight Of This World, the book I wound up finishing not long after deadline, there’s a cryptic acknowledgement that reads, “To Ace and George for pouring me a drink when I was lying in the mud.”
I reached out to two friends and here’s the advice that got me through the woods. First I reached out to New York Times bestselling author Ace Atkins who asked simply: “When’s the last time you bought a book because of something you read in that magazine?” to which I answered, “Never.” The other person I reached out to is one of the finest short story writers in America, a fellow by the name of George Singleton. George explained that it was like driving down a dirt road and you come upon a little run-down singlewide trailer and as you pass all of these little yappy dogs come piling out of the yard, racing around your car barking, biting at your tires. He asked whether you stop or keep going then answered his own question by telling me, “The little dogs will always be barking but this caravan rolls on.” It’s that same sort of Teddy Roosevelt idea of “the man in the arena,” but like all Southern writers, George said it better.
I guess the reason I’m writing this is because I’ve been at this game long enough now to know for a fact that I’m not alone. Not long after that first book came out, a dear friend of mine had a memoir come out from another Big Five publisher, and I remember one day she called me almost in tears because of a review she’d read on Amazon. In a lot of ways her memoir is about motherhood and so when this person attacked the book they really just wound up explaining why they thought my friend was a shitty mother. It’s easy to understand why that would hit home, but here’s how it played out.
While we’re talking on the phone I jump online on my laptop and look at the review she’s talking about and sure enough it’s bad. But then I double-clicked the reviewer’s avatar and was invited inside a museum of one star reviews. “Swiss Army Knife: One star, plastic toothpick broke off between my molars”; “Tube socks: One star, elastic wore out because of large calves”; “Hair dye: One star, my widow’s peak is still lipstick red”; “Flip flops: One star, toe-thong doesn’t hold on foot that lost big toe to cotton gin.”
My friend’s memoir was brilliant. It truly was. She’s one of the most talented writers I know and that book wound up becoming a New York Times bestseller, despite what the Swiss Army Knife lady might’ve thought. We have to be very careful who we hand the megaphone. They may very well spend most of their time reviewing toilet paper and hemorrhoid cream (those two being quite literally what I found when I double-clicked the account).
Here’s what I’m getting at. Everyone likes different things and that’s perfectly okay. What one person thinks is brilliant, another might believe is the dumbest thing they’ve ever read. That’s what makes the world go ’round and lucky for us we live in a time of extraordinary options. Some people don’t like livermush or fried bologna sandwiches. That’s great. I think they’re idiots.
Right now, head over to Goodreads, look up your favorite book of all time, and read the one-star reviews. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has 5,969 one-star reviews at the time I’m writing this, and it’ll probably surpass 6,000 by the time this essay publishes. The other day I was giving five stars to a book I absolutely loved and while I was doing that I could see a one-star review that started, “This book needed and editor.”
The Weight Of This World hits shelves on March 7 and I know right now that some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it, and the vast majority of people will go on living their lives without ever knowing anything about me or the book I wrote. That’s okay. Deep down, I know the book’s good and so none of that other stuff really matters. I can’t do a thing about it anyways.
But when that old feeling comes and I start to doubt myself, something that’ll inevitably happen, I’ll remember what George said about those dogs. I’ll remember the toilet paper lady and I’ll pray that she found a remedy for those hemorrhoids. I’ll head over to Goodreads and read one-star reviews of The Holy Bible, a book that one critic noted had an “inconsistent narrative; main character seems fickle,” and I’ll laugh till I feel better.
Author photo by Ashley T. Evans