Donald Ray Pollock On Finding Fiction Late In Life
Donald Ray Pollock On Finding Fiction Late In Life
Knockemstiff, Ohio, is a tiny hamlet in southern Ohio. In the 1950s, Knockemstiff had three stores, a bar and a population of about 450 people. Most of those people, says fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, were “connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another.”
“When I was a kid, it was claustrophobic for me,” he says. “From a very early age, I was thinking about escaping. … It was nice to have a lot of family around … but I just thought that I’d rather be somewhere else.”
Pollock moved 13 miles away, to the town of Chillicothe. A high school dropout, he worked in a meatpacking plant and then in a paper mill for 32 years. At 45, he quit his job at the mill in order to go to graduate school and become a writer.
“I’d always been a big reader, and I loved books, and I always thought writing would be a great way to get by in the world,” he says. “The principle reasons for me, as far as being a writer, were: You were your own boss; you could do it anywhere; and you made lots of money. It wasn’t until I actually began writing that I found out that wasn’t really true.”
Pollock’s first book, published in 2008, was a critically acclaimed collection of 18 short stories set in Knockemstiff. The characters, who regularly brawled, drank to oblivion and assaulted their neighbors, popped into Pollock’s head as he drove around in a truck for the paper factory. Pollock’s second book, The Devil All the Time, is also dark and gritty — some of the characters include a man who regularly makes blood sacrifices in the hopes that those sacrifices will save someone dying from cancer — and a preacher on the run from the law and a manslaughter conviction.
Courtesy Donald Ray Pollock
Donald Ray Pollock dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to work in a meatpacking plant. He then spent 32 years working in a paper mill before quitting to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.
Pollock tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that the violent themes and broken families that make up his stories are a lot like the people he grew up around in blue-collar Knockemstiff.
“I saw a lot of fathers who were drinkers and hellraisers, and didn’t treat their families very well,” he says. “So fathers have a rough time in my work. And I was a father. … And I have always felt that I wasn’t as good as I could have been. So that’s the best [explanation] I can give for why I do what I do.”
When he first started writing, Pollock says he typed out a story by another famous writer at least once a week in order to learn how to put dialogue together and move from scene to scene.
“John Cheever, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, and the list goes on and on,” he says. “If the story wasn’t overly long, I’d type it out. And I’d carry it around with me for a week and jot notes on it, and then I’d throw it away and do another one.”
At first, Pollock says he tried to emulate the subject matter in stories by authors like Cheever and Hemingway.
“I would try to write my own story about some East Coast suburbanite having an affair or something like that,” he says. “So I did that for maybe two years or so, and it just wasn’t working for me at all. Then finally I wrote a story called Back Teen. It’s a very short story, and it’s about these two losers sitting in a doughnut shop. And that was the first thing I had written that I thought wasn’t too bad. So then I just increasingly started focusing on the people that I knew about instead of nurses, lawyers and other people I had no idea what to write about.”
Pollock graduated from the MFA program at Ohio State University in 2009. He received the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Award and the 2009 Devil’s Kitchen Award in Prose for Knockemstiff. His work has also appeared in PEN America, Boulevard, The Journal, Third Coast, The New York Times and Granta.
Donald Ray Pollock Another Interview
Donald Ray Pollock
Post Taken from http://chuckpalahniuk.net/interviews/authors/donald-ray-pollock
Gothic Hillbilly Noir?
Interview by Brien Piech
On the morning of Chuck’s Snuff tour stop in Minneapolis I had awoken short the sight in one eye. Never one to miss a Chuck reading, with a prepaid ticket and voucher for a signed copy in hand, and being an old hand at injuries from my many years as an idiot, I went ahead and kicked-started the old Triumph Bonneville, like an idiot, and rode to the reading James Joyce style. Per internet rumors, I was fully expecting to see Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, Filth) as the reported “opening act,” so the name Donald Ray Pollock brought about a “Donald Ray who?”
No, my hardcover Trainspotting would not be autographed. But there was this Donald Ray Pollock guy. Fine. I’ll maintain a wait and see attitude.
On the cover of his collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, was a praiseful blurb from Chuck himself. The discovery of Craig Clevenger’s awesome The Contortionist’s Handbook came immediately to mind as an instance Chuck’s nod paid off in spades. How had I not heard of this Pollock guy?
The Minneapolis venue—the notorious Triple Rock Social Club—was packed nuts to butts with the hyper aggressive excitable young crowd known to populate Chuck’s readings, a festive attitude redoubled by the venue’s reputation as the local home of punk rock. The mild mannered, standoffish Donald Ray Pollock was a figure of contrast in his nondescript long sleeve button up amidst the summer swelter of tank tops and tattoos, sitting alone at a folding table, looking, oh, what was it they said of John Wayne Gacy? Oh yeah, typical. A quiet type. A real sicko.
But after Mr. Pollock’s reading I had forgotten all about missing Mr. Welsh and had my doubts that Snuff might reach the top of my read pile before Knockemstiff would.
When it came time to open up the night I cannot describe the crowd’s facial reactions to his reading of “Bactine,” (the whole one eye thing hampered my viewing) but I can certainly attest to the choked silence and enthusiastic applause. Don’s reading had lived up to his book’s title. Of course I purchased and had him autograph Knockemstiff, and funny thing is, compared to the rest of Knockemstiff, “Bactine” is quite tame. Donald makes Chuck’s work, a man known for inciting mass blackouts and vomit at his own readings, seem family friendly in comparison.
And he was just getting started. His forthcoming novel, The Devil All the Time, slated for release this July, promises to be that thing darker than black all the gothy, unshockable and jaded masochists have been waiting for: a tale to drag them back to that place they awaken from, eager to forget, drenched in cold sweat.
BRIEN PIECH: So you’re from Ohio. I also have Midwestern roots. Growing up in northern Indiana, my dad actually worked at the Miles Bactine manufacturing plant, so the sting of that story really resonated with me. Weirder still, you used an old Dodge Super Bee in one story, which is my dream car. If I recall correctly it was a 1970, the last year of the Coronet body. And as kids we used to troll around a dilapidated drive-in theater on our BMXs. There were so many parallels to my formative years in Knockemstiff stories, how much did you root those stories in childhood experiences and draw from the shared themes of life in that rust belt region?
DONALD RAY POLLOCK: Sure, quite a few of the small details in my fiction are inspired by things I saw or did or heard about when I was young. For example, when I was in my early teens, I used to huff Bactine with some other kids; you have to understand that it was around 1969–1972 and we were influenced by the whole hippie culture, even in Knockemstiff. Some of us would do anything for a high, and when there wasn’t anything good around, that included strange pills from medicine cabinets, gasoline, glue, morning glory seeds, all sorts of horrible stuff. As for cars, especially because we lived in the country, a set of wheels was a big deal to us. Without a car, or at least a friend who had one, you were stuck in the sticks. I had a buddy who owned a Super Bee, and, yeah, we went to the drive-in a lot when I was growing up. You pay more attention to stuff when you’re younger, and that’s probably the reason those things have stuck with me and ended up in the stories.
BP: You toured with the infamous Chuck Palahniuk. What was the craziest thing that happened on the road?
DRP: Ha! Other than getting back to the hotel late because Chuck had just spent 4-5 hours signing books and talking to fans (damn, that man is dedicated to his readers!), I can’t think of anything. You have to figure, I don’t drink or drug anymore, and I’m in my fifties now. I did all my crazy stuff years ago.
BP: Talk about your upcoming novel The Devil All the Time (due out this July). Should parents keep it out of reach of children?
DRP: The Devil All the Time is not a children’s book! In fact, I’d be leery of recommending it to many adults. The book is dark, and let’s face it, many people don’t like that type of stuff. They want a story that will help them forget the real darkness around them, and you really can’t blame them. It is set in the Midwest–mostly in Ohio and West Virginia from the end of World War Two to 1966–and is about good and evil and the gray, blurry line that often runs in-between those two absolutes. The cast of characters includes a serial killer husband-and-wife team, a corrupt lawman, insane preachers, and a decent young man named Arvin Eugene Russell. I’m sure some readers are going to think I went a little too far with the grittiness and horror, but that’s the world I came up with. There are several different story lines going on that eventually connect, and I divided the book into 7 sections to handle the transitions better. Though I’m not sure how you would classify The Devil All The Time, “Gothic hillbilly noir” might be an apt description.
BP: Just what we need, another genre! This will be your second piece written in a setting before the technological revolution. I know a lot of writers are finding it hard to include technology in their work. The ease of access to information certainly sucks all the fun out of the fact discovery process that seemed to be the big reveal process of so many intrigue based plots. Are cell phones and the internet something you consciously avoid?
DRP: Yes, I tend to see that stuff mostly as a subject for science fiction or satire, but I do understand that’s only because I’m not that excited by it. Personally, I’d rather things didn’t move so fast. Still, I use the internet quite a bit, as far as email goes anyway, and I’m on Facebook, at least for the time being. And I have a website (www.donaldraypollock.com), though someone else takes care of it. But as for cell phones, and I’ll probably sound like a crank here, I don’t carry one and consider them mostly a nuisance, though I do realize they’re a great tool if used properly, like for emergencies. I think Stephen King once referred to them as “Twentieth Century slave bracelets.” I hope there will come a time when people will begin to consider it “cool” or smart NOT to have one. To feel that you need to be connected and jabbering or tweeting or texting to people 24/7 through a piece of plastic, other than for serious business, seems to indicate that you are very insecure or co-dependent or screwed up in some other way. I mean, I’ve been in the check-out line at the grocery store and heard grown men make a call while they’re paying the cashier to tell someone that they are heading to the parking lot now. I’ve met college students who call their parents four or five times a day. What the fuck? It’s an addiction. As for writing, I work in my attic and there is no phone or internet access up there. I need a significant block of time that is quiet and uninterrupted to get anything done. And regardless of what many some researchers say, technology and this weird desire to always be connected has to be making it harder for most people to stay focused on anything for any extended period of time.
BP: Well I’m only 32 and I share those sentiments exactly. They said the machine would reduce us to a three day work week during the Industrial Revolution, and here we are. Especially in this country, Europe laughs at our 40+ hours and one week of vacation. So there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a certain romance, especially from the perspective of a writer, about simplicity and time for silent reflection. If you could have written anything by a LIVING author, what would it be and why?
DRP: That’s a tough question. There are a ton of books out there that I wish I had written. I come across a new one at least five or six times a year. For today though, I’m going to say Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, one of the best non-fiction books of the twentieth century, which deals in a brilliant way with the themes, myths and literature generated by World War One. Everything about the world pretty much changed during those four years, bringing about or at least accelerating the modern age, and I find that period fascinating.
BP: You seem like a pretty affable guy, but your writing is so twisted and dark. Tell our readers a bit about your creative process, assuming you’re not personally familiar with depraved tweaker trucker sex on Black Beauties and meth, and how you get in tune with that bleakness.
DRP: I hate to admit it, but I’m really a very normal person. As for the “creative process,” I have no idea how to talk about that. Where some of the stuff comes from is a mystery to me. I just sit and type and stare at the wall and ideas or scenes or a bit of dialogue begin to form and if I stick with it long enough, it coalesces into a story. I do get a bit uneasy when I meet someone who had read my stuff because a lot of people have a difficult time separating the writer from the work. Some think that if you write about serial killers or sickos, then you must be one, or have at least thought about being one!
BP: I guess “normal” is up to interpretation. You were in your 50s when you finally published. But the product was well worth it. Any advice for aspiring writers, especially younger writers in their 20s and 30s in a hurry to get their work out there?
DRP: I was forty-five when I decided to try my hand at writing and fifty-three when Knockemstiff was published. I have read that a writer or a musician or whatever should usually figure working as an apprentice for around ten years, and I’d been working hard for seven before Doubleday bought the book. I think you just need to figure that it’s a long haul to get anywhere, and that you need to have patience and write every day. And if you’re in a hurry, you need to work twice as hard. Too, and I know this has been pounded into the ground, you need to read a lot. If you don’t love to read, then you’re probably not going to make it as a writer. And don’t wait as long as I did before you start!
BP: Collections are notoriously difficult to sell. But Knockemstiff made it to the shelves on Doubleday, as your first effort, no less. Beyond the standard advice about getting a few examples published to lend the work legitimacy, what was your experience like shopping a collection, and getting it picked up by a very reputable publisher?
DRP: I was very lucky with Knockemstiff. An agent read one of my stories in Third Coast and called me, asked if I had a book and if I had an agent. I had just finished what I thought might be a collection of stories and sent the manuscript to him (I’d been planning on sending the book out to the different contests, like the Flannery O’Connor and the Iowa, etc.). A couple of weeks later I signed with Inkwell, and they sold the book maybe a month after that. I repeat: I was very lucky. There are a lot of writers out there who are much better than me and still waiting to catch that break. The only thing I can say is that agents really do read the small magazines and once in a while, if you stick with it, something good happens. A writer definitely needs to have more patience than most people.
BP: Were your kids shocked to find out how messed up their dad is in the head?
DRP: Well, my daughter and I get along pretty well, and she’s never mentioned that she thinks I’m a psycho or anything. I did drink and drug a lot when I was young, but I’ve been clean for over twenty years now. She barely remembers those days, thank God.
BP: I’ve heard that Stephen King writes in a secluded shack with no internet access while he listens to Megadeth and Iron Maiden all day. Do you have any quirks or odd techniques that help you access your voice?
DRP: Not really. As I mentioned, I write in my attic and there’s no internet or phone up there. I will go through a period of maybe 3-4 months when I get up around 6 AM and write until 11 AM, then I’ll switch over to nights and write from, say, 8 PM until 2 AM. Believe me, there are a lot of days when nothing much is happening, but I stay at the desk. I work better at night, but prefer getting the work out of the way early in the day, so I don’t have it hanging over my head. I do listen to music some when I’m revising, but avoid it when I’m trying to put the first draft or two together. One thing about the music: I pick maybe 3 or 4 albums and listen to them over and over again, until I’m really no longer even aware that they’re playing. They’re providing a background rhythm or a mood, I guess you could say. I drink a lot of coffee.
BP: Nothing about Knockemstiff crossed me as a text that might translate well to the screen. Salon said that the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (one of Chuck’s all-time favorites) failed by being both too faithful to the subject matter and not faithful enough. Somehow that’s how I see Knockemstiff turning out should anyone ever have the ambition to attempt it. Do you write with screen in mind? And if it were adapted for film, what sort of misgivings do you have?
DRP: Well, I’m not sure what the writer meant by that statement. How in the hell can you be too faithful and not faithful enough at the same time? Anyway, no, I don’t write for the screen in mind, though I would venture to guess that most writers in 2011 are influenced at least a little by the movies. I can see Knockemstiff probably working better as some sort of TV serial, like Deadwood, for instance. I would have no misgivings at all if someone made it into a movie or whatever, as long as the check didn’t bounce! No matter what a director and screenwriter does with the material, the book is going to remain the same.
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock,
Writer Remains Literary Voice of Knockemstiff By CHARLES McGRATH
Writer Remains Literary Voice of Knockemstiff
By CHARLES McGRATH
Taken from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/books/donald-ray-pollock-still-the-voice-of-knockemstiff-ohio.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
KNOCKEMSTIFF, Ohio — There used to be a road sign, pocked with bullet holes, marking the beginning of this little village in southern Ohio, but someone stole it a few years ago, and there hasn’t been much urgency about putting up another. The residents already know where they are, and not many strangers pass through. One of the two main roads in town, Shady Glen, eventually runs out of pavement and turns to dirt.
The author Donald Ray Pollock grew up in this backwater, along with many of his cousins, and he used the village as both the setting and the title for his first book, “Knockemstiff,” a collection of linked stories in which nearly all the characters are violent or abused, and most are serious drinkers (one swigs Old Grand-Dad from his car ashtray) and inventive drug users besides. The substances they ingest include marijuana, meth, mescaline, hashish, angel dust, OxyContin and Seconal (in suppository form).
“The Devil All the Time,” Mr. Pollock’s new book, a novel due out on Tuesday from Doubleday, is also partly set here, and a prologue explains, “Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.” These days the village is a lot tamer than it must have been back then, when people from elsewhere gave it a wide berth. The two bars, Hap’s and the Bull Pen, have closed, and the cinderblock general store that Mr. Pollock’s parents used to run has been remodeled into a house for one of his two sisters. The ball field that a Vista volunteer built in the late 1960s is overgrown with weeds and briars. Many of the original houses have burned or been knocked down and replaced with double-wide mobile homes.
Driving through town at the end of June, Mr. Pollock, who now lives in nearby Chillicothe, said there were lot of theories about how his hometown got its name, including a story about two women getting into a fight over a man in front of the church and the preacher overhearing one say she was going to knock the other stiff. More likely, he said, was that the name came from moonshine brewed there in the ’20s and ’30s. “In writing about the place, I amped it up quite a bit,” he added. “I focused on the trouble and bad stuff.”
Mr. Pollock is a small, boyish-looking 56-year-old with short, blondish hair, a bushy soul patch under his lip and a tattoo on his left forearm that says “Carpe Diem.” He speaks with a bit of a hillbilly twang, and his manner is gentle and deferential. All his life he dreamed of getting away from the area, he said, but now it looks as if he’s stuck here. Hating high school, he dropped out in 11th grade and went to work in a meatpacking plant before moving briefly to Florida. Then his father called and said he could get Mr. Pollock a job at the Mead, as everyone who works there still calls the big paper mill in Chillicothe, even though it’s now owned by Glatfelter. The Mead paid good wages, and moreover, it was a convenient place to drink and do drugs — Mr. Pollock’s two main interests back then.
“I always liked the flunky jobs, where I didn’t have to think a lot and didn’t attract much attention,” he said. “I was drinking a lot and smoking a lot of weed, and didn’t want a job with any responsibility.” For most of his years there, he drove a dump truck, hauling away coal ash.
“The paper mill — they were great enablers,” he added. “You could lay off and not get in much trouble.” But the mill also paid for four trips to rehab, and on the last one, in 1986, he said, “something clicked.” He has been sober ever since. In the late ’80s, Mr. Pollock began attending Ohio University part time, and in 1994 he graduated with a degree in English literature. “I was always a big reader, even when everything was bad and miserable,” he said. When he turned 45 he decided to learn how to write. “I didn’t have much confidence,” he said, but decided to give it five years. “I hate to call it a midlife crisis, but I had got to the point where I felt the need to do something else with my life.”
He began by retyping the stories of writers he admired — Hemingway, Cheever, Richard Yates. “I’d type one and sort of carry it around with me for a week, reading and rereading, and then I’d pitch that one and do another. I probably did that for 18 months. I’m not a real close reader and typing those stories out gave me a chance to see this is how you make a transition, this is how you do dialogue. You don’t fill the page with blather. I knew that in the back of my head, but it still helped to see it.”
Mr. Pollock’s early efforts at writing stories of his own went badly. “I was copying Cheever and writing about lawyers and nurses, people I didn’t know anything about,” he said. But then he began a story, eventually included in “Knockemstiff,” called “Bactine,” based on his boyhood experience of huffing, or sniffing, that antiseptic to get high.
He submitted the story to The Journal, a literary magazine published by the English department at Ohio State University, and it made such an impression on one of the editors, Michelle Herman, that in 2005 she persuaded him to quit his job and enroll in the M.F.A. program there.
“I was completely convinced of his talent,” Ms. Herman said recently. “It’s not often you see someone that gifted and that rough around the edges on the page. People today have all taken classes. What he needed was really basic, rough copy-editing.”
Erin McGraw, who taught Mr. Pollock at Ohio State, said of his decision to enroll there, “It was an amazingly courageous thing for him to do,” and recalled that when he turned in his first story: “I just about fell out of my chair. I couldn’t get over the disconnect between the stories — dark, violent, often lurid — and the gentle, extremely gracious person who wrote them.” She added: “He worked very hard. He didn’t have any desire to be some kind of idiot savant.”
When “Knockemstiff” came out, in 2008, its rawness and originality attracted a good deal of critical attention. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Miles compared the book to Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” and said: “False notes are rare, Pollock’s voice is fresh and full-throated, and while these stories travel negligible distances, even from one another, the best of them leave an indelible smear.”
Mr. Pollock’s new novel is, if anything, even darker than the stories, and its violence and religious preoccupations venture into Flannery O’Connor territory. The characters include a husband and wife team of serial killers, a predatory minister and a spider-eating backwoods preacher convinced that he can raise the dead.
“I’m probably the least cerebral guy you’re ever going to meet as a writer,” said Mr. Pollock, who works in an attic room, filled with weight-lifting equipment, in a Victorian house he shares with his third wife, Patsy. “I just keep knocking away till something comes. I would like to write a book that wasn’t so violent and weird, but I just don’t think I can do that with my talent. I don’t think it would come off.”The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock,
5 most disturbing Excerpts
The 5 Most Disturbing Passages From Donald Ray Pollack’s The Devil All the Time
“On one of the Solomons, he and a couple other men from his outfit had run across a Marine skinned alive by the Japanese and nailed to a cross made out of two palm trees. The raw, bloody body was covered with black flies. They could still see the man’s heart beating in his chest. His dog tags were hanging from what remained of one of his big toes: Sergeant First Class Miller Jones. Unable to offer anything but a little mercy, Willard shot the Marine behind the ear, and they took him down and covered him with rock at the foot of the cross. The inside of Willard’s head hadn’t been the same since.”
“Holding the jar above him, Roy looked out over the crowd and took a deep breath and turned it over. A variegated mass of spiders, brown ones and black ones and orange and yellow striped ones, fell on top of this head and shoulders. Then a shiver ran through his body like an electric current, and he stood up and slammed the jar to the floor, sending shards of glass flying everywhere. He let out that awful screech again, and began shaking his arms and legs, the spiders falling off onto the floor and scurrying away in all directions.”
“Thinking he was being affectionate, she turned to kiss him just as he plunged the sharp point deep into the side of her neck. He let go of her and she fell sideways, then raised up, grabbing frantically for the screwdriver. When she jerked it out of her neck, blood sprayed from the hole and covered the front of Roy’s shirt. Theodore watched out the window as she tried to crawl away. She only went a few feet before falling forward into the leaves and flopping about for a minute or two.”
“Even with the sacrifice of the lawyer, Charlotte’s bones began breaking a couple of weeks later, little sickening pops that made her scream and claw gashes in her arms. She passed out from the pain whenever Willard tried to move her. A festering bedsore on her backside spread until it was the size of a plate. Her room smelled as rank and fetid as the prayer log.”
“A couple of days later, Willard began picking up animals killed along the road: dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, and deer. The corpses that were too stiff and far gone to bleed out, he hung from the crosses and the tree limbs around the prayer log. The heat and humidity rotted them quickly. The stench made him and Arvin choke back vomit as they knelt and called out for the Saviour’s mercy. Maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat. The ground around the log stayed muddy with blood.”
The Devil All the Time is available at booksellers and www.amazon.com.
—By Tania Jachens