Skip to main content

WCU Stories

From Novel to Big Screen

David Joy and Billy Bob Thornton


When author David Joy ’07 MA ’09 was writing his first novel, it was something that he could literally see before he wrote it.

The characters and scenes all seemed real in his dreams. But then came the hard part - he had to write it down.

“Writing the first novel was like a fever dream,” Joy said. “I wrote that novel over the course of three months while working two jobs. I know it sounds strange, but it doesn’t feel like I wrote that book at all. It was more like a gift, like it was given to me.”

Making the connection between a dream and skillful writing brought the characters to 304 pages in his first novel, “Where All Light Tends to Go.” This suspenseful piece earned him accolades as a finalist for the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best First Novel and a nod from Hollywood.

Movie crews have completed work on a movie adaptation of his book which includes “A-List” actors Billy Bob Thornton and Robin Wright. It is now in the post-production stage and moviegoers should be able to see it soon.

Dressed in a fatigue shirt and ball cap, the 6-foot-5 bearded writer spent time on the set in 2021 with the actors, watching them bring his words to life on screen as they filmed scenes in White and Cartersville, Georgia.

The New York Times book review writer Marilyn Stasio described his book as, “remarkable … This isn’t your ordinary coming-of-age novel, but with his bone-cutting insights into these men and the region that bred them, Joy makes it an extraordinarily intimate experience.”



The movie-adapted novel is set in the area surrounding Cashiers. It is home to the main character, Jacob McNeely. The world that Jacob McNeely lives in is crueler than most. His father runs a methodically organized meth ring, with local authorities on the dime to turn a blind eye to his dealings. Having dropped out of high school and cut himself off from his peers, Jacob has been working for this father for years, all on the promise that his own payday will come eventually.

The rest of the story – well, you will have to read it or wait until the movie comes out. 

Joy has written four novels since 2015 and is currently completing his fifth. His second novel is “The Weight of the World” while his other novels are “The Line that Held Us” and “When These Mountains Burn.” The Tuckasegee author’s fifth novel, which has taken five years to write, is expected to be published sometime next summer.

Joy’s work transcends the borders of the U.S. In June, he flew to France to accept the 2022 Prix Saint-Maur En Poche Du Roman Étranger. Saint-Maur En Poche is the name of the festival celebrating the French version of paperback books (pocketbooks).

He was awarded the prize for Ce Lien Entre Nous, which is the translation of his book, “The Line That Held Us.”

“I would say the novels that I write have more cinematic potential than a lot of books,” Joy said. “My novels tend to be fast and take place over a pretty small period of time. They are fairly straightforward and set in reality, which are all things that lend themselves to adaptation.”

So, what is the 38-year-old’s creative process and how often does he produce a new book for his avid readers?

The majority of his process revolves around getting to know his characters in an intimate way so they become real in his mind. He writes a novel it seems every two years. 

David Joy and actress


“I always joke that they might not eat at the Waffle House, but if they did, I know how they’d order their hash browns,” he said. “I have to get to know the character enough that I could put them in any situation and know how they are going to react.”

But knowing a character so well also puts a lot of weight on him as a writer to end that story in a way that is befitting of his main characters.

“When I finished my first novel, I had been up close to two days. I spent the last 10 hours reading the final paragraph over and over. There is not a word in that final paragraph that is not meant to be there.”

Joy remembers always wanting to be a writer, but he wasn’t sure of the proper way to become an influential one. He grew up in Charlotte when it was a smaller city. He remembers fishing and doing a lot of things outside with his family.

When it was time to choose a college, he selected WCU because of the location, where he could nurture his writing talent. He received a bachelor’s degree in 2007 and a master’s in English in 2009.

He credited WCU professor Deidre Elliot as the most influential person to help him grow as a writer. Elliot taught creative nonfiction. Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies Ron Rash also played a major role in his development.

So, what is in Joy’s writing future? If his first handful of novels and movie are any indication, fans and readers will continue to experience captivating writing from the Catamount who found his passion and how to make it work for him.

“Eventually there came a shift where I think I recognized that I was able to do something that a lot of people couldn’t. But it just took a really long time. I was a slow study.” 

Office of Web Services