David Joy’s novel Those We Thought We Knew is a literary thriller as dark as it is powerful.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“[A] salient novel…Through rich character introspection and acidic dialogue, Joy masterfully encapsulates the larger conversation about America’s hidden past occurring in the real world in real time.”
I can’t write to music. I can’t write in the presence of others. My writing is very much a practice of creating a world and existing wholly within it. Anything outside, anything at all, tends to break the spell.
With that said, music always finds its way into that world because I cannot imagine lives lived in its absence. There’s an old African proverb from Zimbabwe that says, “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” That to say, music is inherently human. So when I’m trying to get to know a character one of the first questions I ask myself is what do they sing in the shower when they’re alone? What song is on the radio while they’re driving? What makes them dance?
Those We Thought We Knew is a book about race and family and place and what it means to belong within a landscape. It’s a book that attempts to force White characters into difficult conversations and spaces. I wanted the novel to peel back and examine layers of White supremacy like an onion. Some of these songs are tied directly to characters. Some are tied directly to story. Some are tied to themes. But overall, I tried to capture the overall mood of the book with this playlist.
If I had my way, you wouldn’t read the descriptions below. You’d read the novel and when you finished you’d come back here and hit play.
Carolina Chocolate Drops “Snowden’s Jig”
An old tune with a complicated history, there’s a brewing an ominous feeling to the melody. As it plays I picture the opening scene of Toya Gardner, a young twenties something Black artist and graduate student, digging up the ground where her ancestors’ bodies once lay.
Mos Def “Sunshine”
There are parts of this book about art and the artist, about the role art plays in the world. Toya is primarily a sculptor but she’s always got a song running through her head. When she’s working, there’s music playing. Her favorite artist is Tobe Nwigwe. The summer this novel takes place she’s become obsessed with an album from Add-2 called Jim Crow The Musical. These things might not be explicitly stated, but I knew them as I wrote her. This Mos Def song seems to capture something about her spirit.
Nina Simone “Ain’t Go No, I Got Life”
This is the one song I played at different points in time while writing this novel. There’s a scene where the grandmother is humming this song and Toya plays it and the two end up dancing in a garden to the music. I even tried to model the last chapter after the way the song shifts midcourse. “The beginning of the song was a lamentation and it had always struck Vess the same way, with an infinite sort of sadness. But what she’d always loved about that song was the promise of what would come, the hope in the way that it ended.
Jason Isbell “White Man’s World”
For these next three songs, I just want to quote lyrics: “I’m a White man living on a White man’s street / I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet / The highway runs through their burial grounds / Past the oceans of cotton // I’m a White man looking in a Black man’s eyes / Wishing I’d never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another White man’s joke / Oh, the times ain’t forgotten.”
American Aquarium “A Better South”
“Down here we’re still fighting for all the wrong reasons / Old men still defend these monuments to treason / To the right side of history, we’re always late / Still arguing the difference between heritage and hate.”
Tyler Childers “Long Violent History”
“How many boys could they haul off this mountain / Shoot full of holes, cuffed, and laid in the streets / ‘Til we come in to town in a stark raving anger / Looking for answers and armed to the teeth.”
Kaitlin Butts “In The Pines”
An old Leadbelly song that’s been recorded by everyone from Doc Watson to Kurt Cobain. Kaitlin Butts version turns the typical gendering of the song around making the narrator female, the audience male, which tracks with some of the novel’s deceptions.
Hank Williams “Ready To Go Home”
As Hank sang in another song, “[we]’ll never get out of this world alive.” “Ready To Go Home” is a call for tidying up one’s house as the moment that awaits us all draws near.
Carolina Chocolate Drops “Peace Behind The Bridge”
Would seem odd not to frame this playlist with another Chocolate Drops instrumental, and much like the turn in the Nina Simone song, this one seems most fitting for the end.
also at Largehearted Boy:
David Joy is the author of When These Mountains Burn (winner of the 2020 Dashiell Hammett Award), The Line That Held Us (winner of the 2018 SIBA Book Prize), The Weight of This World, and Where All Light Tends to Go (Edgar finalist for Best First Novel). Joy lives in Tuckasegee, North Carolina.