Donald Ray Pollock On Finding Fiction Late In Life
This interview was originally broadcast on July 26, 2011. Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time is now out in paperback.
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.
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.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The characters in the new novel "The Devil All the Time" are given to extremes. Among them, a preacher who dumps a jar of spiders on his head during a sermon and two serial killers. At the center of the story is a father who is obsessed with beating the devil, his wife who was dying of cancer, and their son, who becomes an orphan.
The story begins in the small town of Knockemstiff, which is where the author, Donald Ray Pollock, grew up. He didn't become a writer until he put in over 30 years at the local paper mill and got sober. But once he did start writing he was noticed. After the publication of his first book, a collection of short stories called "Knockemstiff," he received the 2009 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Fellowship.
Donald Ray Pollock novel, "The Devil All the Time," is now out in paperback. Terry spoke to him last year.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Donald Ray Pollock, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from your new book, "The Devil All the Time." It's about the second paragraph from the prologue. So would you just set it up for us?
DONALD RAY POLLOCK: Well, what we have here is a young boy, his name is Arvin Eugene Russell, and he's following behind his father, Willard, and they're in a place called Knockemstiff. And they're going to Willard's prayer log. He has a log in the woods where he, you know, wants communicate with God. And so this is where they are. It's, you know, early in the morning and they have finally reached this log.
(Reading) Willard eased himself down on the high side of the log and motioned for his son to kneel beside him in the dead, soggy leaves. Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the devil all the time.
Arvin shivered a little with the damp, pulled his coat tighter. He wished he was still in bed. Even school, with all its miseries, was better than this. But it was a Saturday and there was no way to get around it. Through the mostly bare trees beyond the cross, Arvin could see wisps of smoke rising from a few chimneys half a mile away.
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, along with the tar-papered shacks and cinderblocks houses, the holler included two general stores and a Church of Christ in Christian Union and a joint known throughout the township as the Bullpen.
Three days before he'd come home with another black eye. I don't condone no fighting just for the hell of it, but sometimes you're just too easy going, Willard had told him that evening. Them boys might be bigger than you but the next time one of them starts this stuff I want you to finish it.
Willard was standing on the porch changing out of his work clothes. He handed Arvin the brown pants, stiff with dried blood and grease. He worked in a slaughterhouse in Greenfield, and that day 1,600 hogs had been butchered, a new record for RJ Carroll Meatpacking. Though the boy didn't know yet what he wanted to do when he grew up, he was pretty sure he didn't want to kill pigs for a living.
GROSS: That's Donald Ray Pollock reading from his new novel "The Devil All the Time." Now Willard, the father, is a man who doesn't know from moderation. The kind of religion he practices is very extreme, he's also very extreme and the kind of violence that he provokes. Would you describe the prayer log, which is the location of the opening scene that you read, the prayer log that the father uses.
POLLOCK: Well, it's just a log that's in the woods, you know, at least a few hundred yards from their house. And Willard is not comfortable praying in a regular church. He likes to be out, you know, in nature. So the prayer log is sort of his church.
I actually got that idea from when I was growing up out in Knockemstiff, there was an old man who lived pretty much on top of the hill behind our house, and he was a very religious man, a very good man, and every once in a while he would go into the woods and pray. And if the wind was just right you could hear him from our house. And, you know, now he wasn't anything like Willard, of course. But that was actually where I got that idea from for the prayer log.
GROSS: But the idea of the prayer log is so much more extreme than what you've just described, because the father uses the prayer log to make blood sacrifices in the hopes that those blood sacrifices will save the life of his wife who is dying from cancer. So how did you think of that? I mean...
GROSS: Not - I know there is an ancient history of blood sacrifices, but to have that in a contemporary novel.
POLLOCK: Well, I don't know. You know, a lot of this stuff is hard for me to explain as far as where I got this from for that from because, you know, I'm not the most - I'm probably the least cerebral writer you're ever going to meet. You know, my stuff comes about by just typing and I just keep working at it. And, you know, I wanted to set it up where Arvin loses both of his parents. So his mother, you know, of course, you know, I decided she had to get sick. And then, you know, with Willard being religious or, you know, coming from a religious background, it just happened, you know, that the blood sacrifices came about.
GROSS: My guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." You know, in the reading that you did, the father tells the son that the next time somebody beats him up the son has to fight back. And that seems to be a recurring theme like in the opening story of your collection of short stories. The collection is called "Knockemstiff." The opening sentence reads: My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.
You certainly seem interested in the idea of a father kind of indoctrinating a son on the need to fight back and then egging him on to do it even when it's inappropriate.
GROSS: So is this a story that played out in your life?
DAVIES: Well, not so much in my life. I mean as far as I don't - my dad really didn't push me to fight or anything like that. But, you know, when I was growing up my father and I had a very uneasy relationship. You've got to understand, my dad was born in 1930. He's still alive, you know, and he's 80 years old and he still kicking. But he was born in 1930, grew up in the Depression. He went to the eighth grade. He was working on a railroad by the time he was 16 and, you know, then he was in the Navy. And my dad is a very tough, hard man, a very strong man. And in contrast to that, my mother is this very shy, kind, small-boned woman.
POLLOCK: And either fortunately or unfortunately for me, I took after my mother. And I believe when I was a kid my dad was maybe disappointed in me for not taking after him more. So, you know, that's where I guess part of that comes from.
And part of it also comes from, you know, I was - lived in Knockemstiff, that's where I grew up, and I saw a lot of other fathers who were, you know, drinkers and hell raisers and they didn't treat their families very well. You know, maybe they went and worked for a while until they got enough money to, you know, go on another binge or whatever and pretty much left the family to take care of themselves.
So, yeah, fathers have a pretty rough time in my work. I just...
POLLOCK: You know, it's just, you know, I'm a father. You know, I have a daughter who's about 30 years old now. And I have always felt that I wasn't as good as I could have been. Her mother and I were divorced when she was very young, she was like a year old, and I wasn't around her that much and that's probably, you know, the best explanation I can give for why I treat fathers like I do in my work.
GROSS: Were you bullied in school? You said you took after your mother who wouldn't hurt a fly.
GROSS: So - and if you were bullied would you fight back? Did you know how to?
POLLOCK: Actually I wasn't bullied in school. I never really had any problems with that and yeah, I mean I would fight back if I had to, but that situation, you know, didn't come about very much. Probably, you know, just no more than any other normal kid, you know, might face that sort of thing.
But, yeah, I mean I wasn't really interested in working on cars or farming or anything like that. I was more of a - I won't call myself a bookworm, because we really didn't have that many books. But, you know, I liked to read and watch old movies and draw and stuff like that. And my dad just, you know, he's a very practical man. I mean even today, you know, his idea of success is owning your own farm or starting your own business or something like that. And I know that he probably looks on what I'm doing now as a pretty useless way to spend your life, you know, trying to write books.
GROSS: Would you describe what the town of Knockemstiff was like when you were growing up?
POLLOCK: Well, when I was growing up there it was, you know, really...
GROSS: First, locate it for us.
POLLOCK: OK. Well, Knockemstiff is about 13 miles west of Chillicothe, Ohio, which is, you know, southern Ohio. It was it's own little place. You know, there wasn't much else around there, but it was a community. There were three small general stores and a bar and a church and probably 450-500 people. You know, I probably was related to at least half those people.
GROSS: So did you find this nurturing, being in a town where half the people in it were related to you or incredibly claustrophobic?
POLLOCK: I think when I was a kid, when I was a kid, it was claustrophobic for me. You know, I was one of those kids - I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping from the holler. I just thought that I'd rather be somewhere else.
GROSS: Well, you are somewhere else, but where you are is in Chillicothe, which is about 13 miles away. So like you got out but you didn't go very far.
POLLOCK: I really didn't get out. I mean that's the weird contradiction to that whole thing. You know, I wanted to escape and then when I finally got my chance or whatever I chose to stay. I'm out at Knockemstiff at least once a week even today. You know, I go to...
GROSS: Doing what? Are your parents still there?
POLLOCK: I go to visit my parents. Yeah, they're both still alive. You know, I have a brother and two sisters and they all live fairly close to there.
And so I think though as far as escape goes, what happened with me was I quit high school when I was 17 and I went to work in a meatpacking plant, much like Willard worked in. And then when I was 18 I moved to Florida. You know, that was going to be, I was going to get away and that, you know, by moving to Florida.
And I was down there working the job in a nursery and I wasn't making much money or anything, I had only been there a few months and my dad called and said hey, I can get you a job at the paper mill if you come back up here. So I chose to come back. You know, the paper mill was calling. It was, you know, union job and great benefits. And I knew, you know, for a high school dropout that was probably going to be the best job I ever got.
GROSS: You had that job for a long time. How many years did you work at the paper mill?
POLLOCK: I was there 32 years.
GROSS: And you didn't start writing till you were around 50 or is that, is 50...
POLLOCK: Well, I'm 56 now and I started writing when I was 45.
GROSS: OK. So how come it took so long? Did you know when you weren't writing, did you know that you had that in you?
POLLOCK: Well, you know, I'd always been a big reader, as I said, and I loved books and I think maybe in the back of my mind, you know, I always thought writing would be a great way to get by in the world. And, you know, of course, I was very naive about it. The principle reasons for me, you know, as far as being a writer were, one, you were your own boss. Two, you could do it anywhere. And three, you made lots of money.
POLLOCK: And so it wasn't until I actually began writing that I found out that that wasn't really true. But I think, you know, it was sort of like maybe a fantasy that, you know, was in the back of my mind for a long time. I had a problem with drinking and for a number of years.
And, you know, it was one of those fantasies that, you know, when you got half loaded and, you know, you started daydreaming or whatever. It was one of those things that you thought about, or I thought about. But it wasn't really, you know, I went to school.
When I was in my 30s I went to college. I went to Ohio University and I ended up with a degree in English. And, you know, even while I was there, though, I wasn't thinking about being a writer. I never took any writing workshops or anything like that.
But then finally, when I was 45, my dad retired from the paper mill and there was just something about watching him retire and go home and, you know, that was, you know, pretty much the end of his career. And it really bothered me and I just decided I had to try something else. You know, some other way to spend the rest of my life.
GROSS: So when you decided you wanted to learn how to write, what did that mean?
POLLOCK: Well, for me, I didn't actually know what it meant. And, you know, I didn't know any writers or anything. And for a while I just sort of scribbled and struggled. And then I had read an interview with a writer and I can't recall her name now. I know it was a lady. But she talked about typing out other people's stories as a means of maybe getting closer to them or just learning how to put a story together. And so I started doing that.
GROSS: Whose stories did you type out?
POLLOCK: I typed out a lot of different stories. I was typing out a story at least once a week and that went on for about a year and a half. So there were quite a few stories. John Cheever, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Yates, Dennis Johnson, you know, the list just goes on and on.
If it was a story that I really liked and it wasn't overly long, I'd type it out. And then I'd carry it around with me for a week and, you know, look it over and, you know, jot notes on it and stuff like that. And then I'd throw it away and do another one.
Typing a story out just was a much better way for me to see how, you know, a person puts dialogue together or, you know, moves from one scene to the next, that sort of thing.
GROSS: Was it hard for you to find your subject matter as a writer?
POLLOCK: Well, when I first started trying to learn how to write, you know, as I said, like maybe I would copy out a John Cheever story. So then I would try to write my own story about some East Coast suburbanite, you know, having an affair or something like that.
POLLOCK: Or maybe I'd write about, you know, I'd read an Andre Dubus story and then I'd write about a Catholic priest. And so I did that for maybe two years or so and it just wasn't working at all for me. And then finally, maybe at about two and a half years, I wrote a story that's included in the book "Knockemstiff" called "Bactine."
And it's a very short story and it's about these two losers sitting in a donut shop. And that was the first thing that I had written that I thought wasn't too bad. And so then I increasingly just started focusing on, you know, the people that I knew about instead of nurses, lawyers, that sort of thing, that I had absolutely no idea how to write about.
GROSS: My guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." There's a passage in your new novel that's about a bus driver. And the bus driver's father had once gotten a certificate from the railroad for not missing a single day of work in 20 years.
And the bus driver's mother always held this up as like what you could do if you really, you know, were a striver and tried to accomplish something. And when the bus driver's father died, the bus driver hoped that that certificate would be buried with his father so he didn't have to look at it anymore. But instead his mother just like put it on the wall to display it in the living room.
POLLOCK: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: And then the bus driver thinks: It wore on you after a while, other people's accomplishments.
GROSS: I love that sentence. Did you ever feel that way? And the accomplishment here seems so relatively small, like a good attendance record. Not to knock that, but for that to be like, you know, the zenith of somebody's life is, you know.
GROSS: Yeah. But did you ever feel that way, that it wore on you, other people's accomplishments?
POLLOCK: I don't think that I paid so much attention to other people's successes or whatever, but I know that I was aware. You know, by the time I was 32 or so, and I had been working at the mill for about 14 years by then, and I knew that all the guys that I had come in with, you know, got hired about the same time as me or guys even much later than that, you know, they owned their own home and maybe they owned a boat and they had two or three vehicles and they were married and had kids and on and on and on.
You know, in contrast to them, I'd been divorced twice, I'd filed bankruptcy. When I got sober I was living in this little, very small apartment above this garage. It was about the size of a motel room and I'd been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black-and-white TV that my sister had given me and I had this old '76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it.
You know, for 14 years of working there that's what I had. And so, you know, there was that sense, I guess, of me just being a failure. It wasn't really that - I wasn't jealous of those people or anything like that. I mean, I had enough sense to know that, you know, where I had ended up was my own fault.
But there was always that idea in the back of my head that I could have done more. You know, I could have maybe went to college or something. You know, I'm sure, you know, if I had wanted to go to school when I was 18 my dad would've tried to help me. And, you know, that's not the route that I chose though.
GROSS: How has your life changed now as a published writer? You have a collection of short stories. You have a new novel. You got a $35,000 cash prize, the PEN/Robert Bingham Award.
GROSS: So, like, what's different about your life?
POLLOCK: Well, I have a lot more time to just sit on the porch and, you know, smoke and I don't know.
GROSS: Daydream and think...
GROSS: Daydream and think it's a legitimate part of your work?
POLLOCK: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.
POLLOCK: Yeah. Well, at least that's what I tell my wife, anyway.
POLLOCK: But my life hasn't really changed that much. I mean, I get a lot more emails now, you know, that sort of thing. But, you know, I still live in the same house. I still pretty much, you know, my daily routine is pretty much the same. You know, it's never changed, well, you know, since I quit the mill and went to grad school. I really can't say that it's changed that much.
You know, it's a good life. And I'm thrilled that, you know, I've got a publisher and, you know, I had at least a little bit of success. You know, I know a lot of writers out there - a lot of writers out there - who are much better than I am and would probably give their left arm to be sitting, you know, where I'm sitting today. Yeah.
GROSS: Has your self image changed? Because, you know, for years you thought of yourself as this big failure. You worked at the paper mill, paid no attention to the job, just kind of got it done, punched the clock, watched your friends be much more successful than you were, at least in their marriages and their homes.
So, you know, you felt like a failure. You had an alcohol problem for a while until you were 32. And now you're, you know, you're a pretty successful writer. I'm not going to say you're a household name but, you know, you have two books published. You get good reviews.
GROSS: So has your self image changed?
POLLOCK: Yeah, it has. It's changed a lot, but that started happening even long before I started trying to learn how to write. I mean, once I got sober and once I, you know, I went to a lot of meetings and I tried to work the program and get rid of a lot of baggage and, you know, straighten out the past and all that.
And once I started just doing those things and also becoming a more just responsible worker, you know, at the paper mill, once I started doing those things my attitude towards myself and towards other people even started changing.
You know, I can remember when I was, you know, I just started - told my wife I was going to learn how to write short stories. And I said if I can just write one decent short story I'll be satisfied.
And, you know, even though, you know, I've been able to do more than that, I think that I would've probably been OK, you know, with everything if it had just been that one story. I don't have that unsatisfied feeling going on in my head anymore.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, Donald Ray Pollock, thank you so much for talking with us.
POLLOCK: Hey, Terry, I appreciate it. You've made my day.
DAVIES: Donald Ray Pollock spoke with Terry last year. Pollock's novel, "The Devil All the Time," is now out in paperback. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. And you can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.