“I Can Still Feel It Looming Over Me”: Joe Halstead on West Virginia and “West Virginia”


Joe Halstead’s West Virginia is a moody wild ride of a novel. Dark, momentous, soulful, deeply human – the book turns the mind inside out, questioning the places we live and the reasons why we both leave them and come back. There’s angst and doubt, loss and grief, insecurity and arrogance. It’s the whole mess of the human condition, all wrapped up in city life and Appalachia. In Giovanni’s Room, one of Baldwin’s great novels, Baldwin writes, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” That kind of sentiment, and its ensuing confusion, drives Halstead’s own writing. West Virginia is a page-turner, a mind-burner. I spoke with Halstead over the course of a few days via email. We discussed West Virginia – both the novel and the place – as well as Big Lots, Breece Pancake, NYC, and a whole lot more. Read his words below.

First off, congratulations on West Virginia. It’s a gorgeous, wrought, inspired book. And second, because this question is never asked enough of writers, I want to know what’s your favorite part about it. What line, what moment, what anything?

Thank you, Devin, I really appreciate that. And let me say thank you again for a few reasons, the most important being that I’m a first-time novelist and am lucky to have any interview questions to answer at all.

My favorite part of the book is that section where Jamie goes on the date with Jen, which he does to feel “real” and “at home.” And then Jen starts saying, “Have you ever heard of the first emperor of China?”—and she starts telling him the story about the architect in charge of the tomb that’s this perfectly-crafted-but-ultimately-false Matrix-style world where everything is just so perfect but it’s inauthentic. It’s literally such a fake world that it becomes unnavigable, so unnavigable, in fact, that the architect starts believing it’s real.

It’s great because it’s when Jamie realizes he’s kind of a crock of shit.

It’s funny you should say that – that Jamie’s a crock of shit. I almost wanted to point that out, since he can be judgmental, jaded, cynical. But at the same time, he’s endearing and enthralling and human. How did you go about writing into him, creating him?

Well, it was easy because I am judgmental, jaded, and cynical. Jamie and I really are shitlords. I swore I would eventually become a better person, but, honestly, I just keep getting shittier. I mean, I will buy a taco or some toilet paper for a homeless person and I’ll support everyone’s dreams and give them the shirt off my back, but I can also be cruel, judgmental, all those things you said. My wife, Molly, is my conscience. She really makes me a better person, and she’s quick to call me out on my bullshit. Honestly, I could only become a novelist after I married her. To be a novelist, you have to be totally devoted to it, much the same way you do in a marriage.

The novel drives itself with this near-pulsating momentum. It rushes forward like water, or nature itself. I want to know what drove you toward writing the book, and how it came to fruition. Blah blah blah, you know – what was the process like? I hate that word sometimes. But also – who were you reading while you wrote this? Who do you love?

When I wrote West Virginia, I was in the worst depression of my life. The book was a way for me to deal with those feelings, one of which was the feeling of being homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. I finished the book and it was haunting, possibly cleansing; certainly a breakthrough. But I had no process. I can barely put a sentence together. I would just get up in the morning, go to my day job, open up Word, start writing. At night, I would come home, open up Word, and keep writing.

At the time, I was reading Charles Bukowski, Yuri Herrera, Scott McClanahan, Tao Lin, Mercè Rodoreda, Haruki Murakami, among others. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage came out around the time I started writing West Virginia and I like to think of it as West Virginia’s spiritual sister or something.

Also, every time I finish a book or a story or whatever, he’s like a familiar: I always go back to Breece Pancake. I can always find something new in his stories. I read him when my faith is breaking, actually. And then I go to the next project, whatever that is. He’s like a familiar.

Man, Breece was the first writer I ever loved. It’s a little annoying – most Appalachian writers know of him and then outside of that he sort of has this cult status where people who haven’t read him know that he’s a cult phenomenon and don’t really take him seriously. But that book, his collected stories? I remember buying it for its cover at the Strand when I was like 19, 20 and then reading the whole thing on a bus or a train or some shit. There might be better books but I don’t think I’ve ever loved a book so much.

I feel the same way. Breece should be required reading.

Early in the novel, you write (or your narrator, Jamie, says), “Time passes and people die and every day leaves you with less to say about it all.” I read that on the subway and scrambled for a pen to mark it down. It gets at the core of a lot of this shit, and at the ultimate inability we have as writers/artists/whatever to capture, I don’t know, the real thing. So much of the book is about Jamie searching for something he doesn’t know the name of, or something impossible to find. What was that like to write about? And how do you deal with that sense of, say impossibility, or failure, as a writer?

I lose my shit over things that I don’t understand, things that I have a question about. Things that I’m afraid of. And they’ve always eaten me alive if I’m not writing, ever since I was a kid. So I write. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it works, because you’re right—these things are impossible, and I consider myself a huge failure not only as a writer but as a human being as well. I’m just a wild animal crying out against something he doesn’t understand, a caveman burping at the moon.

Hah, well there’s hope in this work too, though it’s always caught up in the fucked up mess of things. At one point you write, “There are times we all imagine ourselves as someone else, somewhere else, and this perfect world has no logic except, of course, that it’s perfect, and then we forget the perfect world we live in isn’t the real one, but by then it refuses to let us go.” Can you speak more to that idea? I don’t want to fuck it up with my words.

I’m obviously very glad that you asked this question because it’s really what the entire book is about, isn’t it? These masks of inauthenticity we wear, the idea of “counterfeit” worlds, fluctuating identities–and wouldn’t you say it all goes back to that story of Qin Shi Huang’s head architect and the Matrix tomb?

That line is a warning against all of this. West Virginians tell themselves so many lies about the sublimity of West Virginia that they’ve forgotten what’s real. They’ll keep singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” until all the mountains are cut down, the sky is black, and the New River runs red, I swear to God. How do I describe this? It’s like a dreamworld. It’s a doorway into a speculative alternate world where nothing is real, but you’re happy because you’re lying to yourself.

The book presents you with two choices: be yourself and be true to yourself, or surrender to your own dreamworld. I guess it’s up to you to decide what Jamie chooses.

Place is obviously going to come up with this book. You capture so much of both NYC and West Virginia, and I figure a lot of people are gonna ask you to compare the two or whatever. But what struck me so much about West Virginia is this sense of – well, it’s like – so much of the place is poor, beaten down by outside politics, by strip-mining, by the land – and there’s these details you have that I think really capture the mental setting there. It’s like, the trailer next to the Wal-Mart. And the trailer is furnished with stuff exclusively from Big Lots. That detail. We know what Big Lots furniture is like – it’s fine. It does its job. But you know a Big Lots chair from something that’s been around for 50 years. And for some reason that detail, of Big Lots furniture in the midst of all this poverty – that struck me. I felt this weight in me. I don’t know if I have a question here or if I just want you to talk about that more.

I suppose we could think of place as Big Lots furniture in a single-wide trailer. I don’t know if I have anything to say about any particular place. I’m no sociological expert. I grew up in West Virginia and I lived in New York City; but whether this book presents some kind of revelation regarding either place, I guess that’s up to you. I really don’t know. I don’t even know how I’d do that. I mean, I’ve written short stories and now this book about West Virginia, things like that. But I don’t know — I don’t think I can. I can only tell you my own experience. West Virginia could easily be about a poor boy from Missouri, Kentucky, a rural part of India, or a black neighborhood that’s becoming more white, and so on. At the end of the day, it’s a difficult time for people where I come from. They don’t have jobs and they’re addicted to pain pills. They’re just trying to make it in changing times. They get their furniture from Big Lots because where else do you get it from in West Virginia?

Then again, West Virginia used to be something I felt very comfortable with and now I can’t stand it. To this day, sometimes, late at night, I can still feel it looming over me like some kind of hungry, dark animal. So, I guess, in that sense, places do have a power over me, despite what I said earlier.

Hey, what’s wrong with Big Lots furniture in a single-wide trailer?

Just kidding, I love you.

Haha, I mean no offense. Big Lots is fine. But I relate to that confusion or conflict or whatever. My father’s family is from Rochester, and I grew up in DC, but whenever I went up there, maybe because of the class difference or just the snow or the Buffalo Bills being a shitty football team, I always felt it to be some sort of exercise in grounding myself. Or just remembering the world is bigger than I’ll ever understand. It’s funny too – just like Jamie and his arrowhead, I keep these little talismans from up in Rochester. I don’t really know why. What prompted that decision for you in the book? The arrowhead thing?

Much like Jamie, I found an arrowhead when I was 4-5 years old. My dad and I were walking along, it was fall, and I just looked down and there was this perfect—I mean perfect—arrowhead on top of the leaves. I said, “Look, Dad, an arrowhead.” He couldn’t believe it. I still have mine, unlike Jamie. I’ve carried it around for years, and, like Jamie, I always wondered what it was pointing to and if it would be worth it. Anyway, I think I’m going to mail it to Chris and Olivia at Unnamed Press one of these days. I just hope they don’t think it’s a creepy gesture.

I interviewed Keegan Lester not long ago, and in talking about West Virginia, he mentioned how one of the things he loved about being down there was how people often used like 10 words when 3 would do. This sort of elliptical nature of language. That comes across in your novel. Jamie’s father sometimes says the most beautiful things. There’s something simultaneously joyful and sad about that. Jamie’s father, who is capable of being an artist and wants to be an artist and feels often in the way an artist does – he doesn’t make it. And he’s in this place that is at once so ripe for art but so wrong for it. There’s tourists and insiders and outsiders and people sometimes speak the most beautiful things and people often say nothing at all. Can you speak more to that? And to the way you captured that?

I love Keegan. He and I just met not long ago, but I already love him.

To answer your question, though, I know for a fact that West Virginians are among some the wisest people in the world. My parents, for example — they always have the weirdest, most beautiful things to say about everything. They truly are artists and philosophers. They just don’t know how to articulate those feelings into art because they never had good opportunities. My dad might’ve been the next Picasso, but he never had any opportunity. The guy got a job when he was twelve years old, left home, and built his own one-room house out in the woods. And that house is still standing to this very day. The point is, he never had time to go to a big fancy school or read a book or paint a picture because he was working twelve hours a day.

West Virginians are brilliant people, though. I don’t know why. It’s probably for reasons that have to do with poverty and violence and not with art. I don’t know. I do know that it’s not a project or a vanity thing. It’s not a cause for excitement. The problem right now is you have people like J.D. Vance out there on CNN, shooting off at the mouth and giving people the wrong idea about what it’s like to be an Appalachian person. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy, then you know that J.D. thinks he’s the model for Appalachian success — a man who “escaped” his “circumstances” and “made” “something” of himself by going to Yale and getting a big, fancy job at some dumb company out in California. There are many roads, and his is one of them, but I think his is a false consciousness. West Virginians and other Appalachians — people like my parents, my sister — are not lazy people who surrendered to their circumstances. They’re people who didn’t have the same opportunities as J.D., but they’re still happy. Some people get lucky, some people work hard and never get lucky. The media has got the wrong operations manual regarding West Virginia and Appalachia as a whole. It’s got a brand of voyeurism that’s just no good.

For sure. It seems everyone has been affected these past months and years from the media’s branding of Appalachia. Or, well, the media’s branding of everyone – from various ethnic groups to various class groups. But yeah, when Hillbilly Elegy came out, I felt immediately distrustful. It felt like it might present some false hope.

The devil does go about like a roaring lion, seeking what he may devour.

On the other end, when you write of NYC, you manage to capture that liminal state of trying to make it as a writer. It’s not just alcohol and cigarettes and Xanax, it’s also start-up culture and advertising and what you have to do to support yourself to get by. Jamie knows in some sense that he can’t ever escape it, that there’s something beautiful about it regardless of the anxiety. What are your thoughts on NYC and the way in which people try to make it as writers?

New York City is the most beautiful place in the world. I lived there for some time and now, when I return, I always cry a little. I really mean that. I’ll be on the train and I’ll just start crying because I’m so happy. It’s because when I was young, I had this idea of a writer in New York searching for his or her place in the world—you know the fantasy, an apartment above a coffee shop, a typewriter in one corner, a mattress on the floor in the other, you’re always wearing a ceremonial black trench.

But the idea of a writer going to New York City to “make it” as a writer is total bullshit. It’s just this idea that hipster losers like myself used to believe in. If there’s one thing I wish I could do, it’s grab people by the face, kiss them, look in their eyes, and say, “Please don’t let a place have any power over you.” A place is not the expression of your soul. A place is just where space begins existing.

In that sense, what do you see happening to West Virginia as both a place and a haven for artists? The state has been appropriated and judged and politically and corporately fucked in the past and even now and I’m wondering what you think its future is, and what the arts will be like in the state a year, ten years, 100 years from now.

As far as artists go, there are great artists living in West Virginia. But there’s a scary new wave taking shape in West Virginia as well. There are local people—artists—who believe that you should be a martyr for the “good of West Virginia.” But, again, they’re just living in that Chinese tomb, that Matrix world, we talked about earlier. They’re fighting for something in the wrong way, maybe without understanding anything of what it means. Their art is dead and sparkling, with no energy—a kind of filter over reality. And that’s fine. They made up their version, and I made up mine. At the end of the day, West Virginia is like King Lear regressing from the throne to the cave. It may have a future, but it’s not much of one. It will never be a haven for artists or anybody, frankly, as long as West Virginians keep worshipping their oppressors. West Virginia has been sacrificed on the altar of profit by lumber companies, coal companies, drug companies—the list is endless. And West Virginians are victims, believe me. But West Virginia will never get any better as long as West Virginians worship their oppressors. I keep saying that, but it’s true.

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