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May 1, 2008 | Interview

An Interview with Donald Ray Pollock

Elizabeth Ellen

An Interview with Donald Ray Pollock photo

It takes a lot to get me to read an entire book. I buy, borrow and steal books by the hundreds, but the actual number I read from beginning to end are very few. In the last seven years, I've probably read ten: [this is where I listed the actual ten, but the Hobart editor wisely deleted them saying, "Who really gives a shit what ten books you've read?"]. Most of the time I'd rather read a book I already know and love than take a chance on a new one. I'm the same way with movies. And music. And alcoholic beverages. But I digress.

The point is, I can already tell Knockemstiff is going to be one of those books I read over and over when I should be reading something new. I knew it from the first line: "My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old." But if I hadn't known it then, I surely would have by the time I got to the opening of the second story, "Dynamite Hole": "I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman's scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole." And those are just the first two stories, folks.

There are eighteen stories in all, which may seem like a lot. But somewhere around the eighth or ninth I started slowing down my reading, taking my time with the stories, stopping to stare out the window with a particular image in my mind. I was already dreading the inevitable. And since this is (believe it or not) Pollock's first collection and only book to date, it wasn't like I could run out and find ten more of his books to fill the void. Though he's currently working on a novel that sounds pretty rad. Let's hope he finishes it soon. Until then I'll just be reading Knockemstifffor the fourth or fifth or sixteenth time. You think I'm kidding. Did I mention "Rainy Sunday" yet? It starts like this, "It was one o'clock in the morning on a rainy Sunday, and Sharon was sitting at the kitchen table debating whether or not to stuff another slice of American cheese into her mouth when Aunt Joan called, begging her niece to ride into town." Yeah.

 

* * *

 


You started writing short stories seven or eight years ago, while still working at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe, Ohio. I'm curious what prompted you to start writing at that time and why you chose short stories, as opposed to a novel or memoir. 

When I turned forty-five, I started thinking about mortality, and dwelling on all my regrets about all the things I'd never done with my life. At that point, I'd been at the Mead Paper Mill for something like twenty-seven years. I guess it was a mid-life crisis sort of thing (I heard someone call it a mid-life shift, which sounds more accurate in my opinion!). Anyway, I'd always thought that I'd like to be a writer, at least when I was younger. So I told my wife I was going to try to learn how to write, that I was going to really work at it for five years and see what happened. I figured that I could then go to my deathbed or the nursing home satisfied that I'd at least given it a shot. At the end of that five years, I'd published maybe four or five stories and been accepted into the MFA program at Ohio State. I'd also written enough to know I wanted to keep doing it. So then I quit my paper mill job in 2005. 

I began writing short stories, I guess, because I had very low expectations, and also because I love short stories, much more than novels. A novel has to be damn good to keep me reading more than fifty pages. Also, a novel seemed way beyond my skills at the time. So I told myself that if I could just write one decent short story, well, I'd be more than happy. As for a memoir, the only sort of honest memoir I could write at this point would probably hurt some people who are still alive, and I don't care to get into that kind of mess. 



The assumption being, fiction never hurt anyone? (I ask only as I don't seem to be able to get away with this argument myself... No matter what you call it – fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir – people make assumptions, particularly where the word "I" is involved in a story/novel.) 

No, not necessarily that. I'm sure there's been a lot of fiction that's hurt people. I mean I think fiction writers all take from those around them. What is it Faulkner said? Hamlet is worth any number of old grannies – well, something like that, anyway. But Knockemstiff is fiction, even if, for example, I did once know a guy who drove a yellow Super Bee, or another who lived in an apartment below a pair of nympho nurses. But that's where the reality ends and the fiction begins. 



So you've written "one decent short story." Many more than one, actually. Are you happy? 

I guess I'm as happy as I've ever been in my life, which says a lot. I guess, though, if I had to put a label on how I feel right now, it would be "grateful." Not that many people my age get the chance to start over again. 



Growing up in a small town, what were your hobbies/interests? Was reading one of them? Or did that come later? Did you excel in English in school? Were your parents readers? 

Well, as for hobbies, I always loved to read. My parents, however, were not big readers. We mostly had stuff like National Enquirer and romance magazines and junk like that in the house. So I'd pick up a book here and there and probably read everything in the Huntington High School library by the time I was fourteen or so. My heroes were writers like Faulkner and Hemingway. Too, I was always fascinated by old horror films like I Walked With A Zombie and The Mummy's Ghost (I watchedChiller Theater coming out of Columbus, Ohio, on Channel 10 every Friday night during the Sixties), along with noir crime films from the Forties and Fifties. As for sports, or whatever, I played, but I was never good enough or serious enough to, say, join the school teams. I mostly hung out with what most people thought of as the losers. 



How do you think your parents and friends perceived your reading habits? Was it something you kept mostly to yourself? 

I didn't go around bragging about it, I'll tell you that. It was, at least in my mind, a sign of weakness, and Jesus, I already wore glasses, and so kept it mostly to myself. I think my old man considered it that way, too, that you were a sissy if you had your nose stuck in a book all the time. This sounds fucking bad, I know, but it was a pretty common notion at the time. You didn't need brains back then to get a decent job. 



I'm interested in the time period between when you were writing stories and working in the paper mill and when you actually entered Ohio State's Creative Writing Program. Talk about that progression. I think I read you'd dropped out of high school. Obviously, you must have gotten your G.E.D. and gone back to school for a bachelor's degree at some point. Did you attend a community college while working at the mill? 

I quit high school as soon as I finished the 11th grade. I didn't like living at home and a foreman at a meatpacking plant told me he could get me a job. So I promised my dad that I'd get my diploma if he let me quit. I enrolled in a program that I think was called American Schools, where I basically bought the textbooks from them and some outlines and took the final exams at my old high school. I actually had my diploma before my class graduated. Later, when I was in my mid-thirties, I quit drinking and doing dope. The paper mill had a program set up where they would pay 75% of your tuition if you wanted to go to college part-time, so I started going to a branch campus of Ohio University. I started really just to have something to do with all my spare time since I wasn't using anymore. I managed to get a BA in English when I was forty, but I didn't do anything with it. I didn't take any writing workshops or anything, just lit classes. 



You said in your interview with Chuck Palahniuk on Amazon that at one point when you started writing, you typed out other people's stories... I've always wanted to do this but somehow never got around to it. It seems like it could be very helpful exercise, similar to reading a particular story over and over again, which I certainly have done. What stories did you type? 

I did this because I had no idea about how to write a story, and I grew frustrated after a while. To make myself think I was actually doing something, I began typing out stories by Hemingway, Denis Johnson, Flannery O'Connor, Sam Lipsyte, John Cheever, and others (I probably typed fifty out that first year). I discovered that this got me closer to those stories, helped me to finally see how they were put together. 



Do you remember the first story you typed? Is there a particular story you found to be the most helpful, that you typed more than the others? 

I think the first story I typed out was Hemingway's "Indian Camp." I typed out several Hemingway stories in a row, and maybe because they were the first ones, I think they were the most helpful to me in trying to see how a story was put together. But still, I think they all helped in one way or another. 



Name some of the places you first started sending your fiction and talk about the rate of rejection vs. acceptance over the years... I'm not sure I should mention this, but Aaron [Burch, Hobart editor] and I were horrified to discover recently that we'd rejected the opening story in Knockemstiff – "Real Life" – over two years ago. Did you find much immediate success in publishing or did the acceptances mostly come later, after you'd entered Ohio State? Are the stories you'd written prior to attending OSU mostly unchanged? 

Ha! You dogs! No, really, I read slush for The Journal my first year or so at OSU, and I got a much better understanding of the whole submission/rejection process. Heck, I realize now that I'm lucky any of my stories got published. There are just so many writers submitting and so little space open for stories. I've probably gotten around 200 rejections so far, and I'm sure there will be plenty more, but I was one of those people who believed (and still do) in the shotgun effect: just send out ten copies of the story and hope one of them gets a little bit of attention. I realize that editors probably hate that, but I didn't have that much time to waste (I was pushing fifty!). I actually published a couple of stories early in my writing career, and then went maybe two years before I had anything else accepted. As for the stories I wrote prior to joining OSU, I changed the endings of a couple of them for the book, tweaked the sentences a little. 



How valuable do you think going to OSU has been, both in terms of improving your writing as well as forming connections in the literary community? Do you think you'd be where you are now if you hadn't entered an MFA program? 

Well, first, the MFA program at Ohio State was fantastic for me, both in terms of being able to workshop the stories for the book and in terms of just being around people who loved writing, which, of course, I'd never had before. The workshops probably saved me at least a year's worth of work, maybe more. Still, with that said, I don't believe people need to join a MFA program to succeed at writing. I used to think that because it seemed like all the new authors had been through a graduate writing program of some kind. It's a great place to "hide out" for a couple of years while you're working on your craft, but don't pay for it. In other words, only go to a school that will fund you if at all possible, unless you opt for a low-residency program that allows you to keep your day job. 



What writers/books do/did you admire, both prior to and since going to OSU? Have they changed much? 

I've read pretty extensively, I guess, but mostly fiction. It's a mixed bag, I guess, as far as favorites go: Hemingway, Jim Thompson, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, William Gay, David Goodis, Earl Thompson, Denis Johnson, George Saunders and Dawn Powell. Others include Tom Franklin, Sam Lipsyte, George Singleton, Tobias Woolf, Chuck Palahnuik and Breece Pancake. Madame Bovary is one of my favorite novels. 

Really, my tastes haven't changed much since going to OSU. I read more novels now, but that's mostly because I'm trying to write one. Some of my peers are really into "experimental" stuff, but I get very impatient with it. I mean, I can see the value of it to an extent, but, well, for one thing, I'm not that "witty." You have to be smart to write that stuff. 



Had you always planned for these stories to be linked? Or did that decision come later? Which stories did you write first? 

The first pieces I wrote that actually seemed to be stories were "Bactine," "Hair's Fate," Fish Sticks," and "Discipline." If you're very familiar with those, then you can see that I didn't start out with a plan to write a linked collection. That came later, maybe around the time I'd written nine or ten of the stories, after I got to grad school. I heard people talking about all these linked collections that were coming out, some of them even being referred to as "novels," which really didn't make any sense except as a selling point. But I then realized that I could link the stories by geography and maybe "theme" if nothing else.

You're an example of someone who appears to be an "overnight success." An agent contacted you after reading your story "Lard" in Third Coast. It was only a month after that, I believe, that two major publishing houses were vying for your collection. How did the agent come to read, "Lard"? Randomly? Or were they handed the journal with your story earmarked? What was that month like? From the time you first heard from the agent until you'd signed with a particular publisher? 

Gee, I don't know about "overnight success." After all, I haven't set the world on fire in terms of sales, but I have been extremely lucky. I know lots of writers who are better than me, but they just can't land a publisher. Nat Jacks, who works for Inkwell management, just picked up a copy of Third Coast and turned to the story at random. The little bio in the back said that in was in the MFA program at Ohio State and he found my email address, asked if I was looking for an agent, and if I had a book. Fortunately, I had just finished what I thought was a book maybe seven or eight weeks before. That was around the first of December, 2006, and by the end of the month I had signed with Inkwell. Those guys were good – before the end of January, I was talking to Doubleday and another big house. 

As for what I felt, I just tried to stay calm and not get my hopes up. I knew that a short story collection would be hard to sell without a novel in the works to back it up. Actually, after I found out Doubleday was going to sign me, I felt stunned for a couple of days. I had always just figured that, if I could publish Knockemstiff at all, it would be with a small publisher. As I said, I was freakin' lucky! 



What I like about your stories is they're not afraid to be about something. I mean, shit happens in them... I think I've become accustomed lately to reading stories that are pretty and well written but not exactly plot driven. Yours manage to be both. One of my favorite stories in Knockemstiff is "Dynamite Hole" and it's a perfect example of this. You've got a guy who's sort of a recluse, sort of a Boo Radley character, who comes across a brother doing his younger sister out in the middle of nowhere, and you somehow manage to make it a really beautiful, moving story, with lines like this one, "All the hard years and the loneliness flowed out of me and bubbled up inside that little girl like a wet spring coming out of the side of a hill." And I wonder if this has something to do with you waiting until you were a little older to start writing? I don't want to get too cheesy, but it's sort of hard to resist the comparison, that maybe all the hard years and loneliness flowed out of you here in these stories... 

Probably because I'm not an "intellectual," or whatever, I use action and strange shit to get the story moving. If I can get the story moving, then something is bound to happen, you know? In other words, I'm not smart enough to write anything else. Along with that, I should say that writing about "ideas" can get pretty boring. 

As for "all the hard years," I suppose, since I got started so late, I do have a lot of material to work with if I can just get it down on paper. I know a lot about "regrets" and fucking up. 



In the story "Fish Sticks," a teenage boy named Del steals a paperback called Reds from a pharmacy and proceeds to read it over and over again, obsessed with the main character, a young man who's hooked up with two young, drug addicted girls. The paperback becomes so real for Del and his buddy that they actually set out for Florida in search of these girls. Of course they don't find them, or any other girls for that matter, and things turn ugly pretty fast. I'm assuming the book Reds doesn't actually exist, but was there one similar to it that you read as a teenager? It's interesting because I don't feel like I've ever been as overcome by a novel as an adult as I was by the books I read as a teenager. I can totally see how these boys got sucked into this fictional world and went out in search of it... 

Reds is a real book! Jack W. Thomas wrote a bunch of these paperbacks back in the Sixties and Seventies, mostly about teenagers in some sort of trouble. I read that book two or three times, probably because I didn't have anything else to read at the time. I've always wondered what happened to him, Jack W. Thomas, or even if that was his real name. 



You and I are both from small towns in Ohio, albeit you're from the southern end and I'm more from the middle. But there's a similar sense of isolation to these small towns, I think. They're very much their own little worlds. And the people in them, like the characters in your book, can feel trapped. It seems like people either leave at college age, or they don't leave at all. I've given your book to a few people and while they flew through the stories and really loved them, they also found them somewhat bleak and depressing, which you must hear a lot. But to me they're just reflective of the lives I hear about every week. Every time I call home (Lexington, Ohio) I hear about someone's young niece or nephew OD'ing on heroin or stealing prescription drugs from their grandmother's medicine cabinet and no one seems to have more than a part time job or any desire to go to college... You know, it's bleak there. And your last story in the collection, "The Fights", really hit home for me. The NASCAR stickers and Confederate flags and racism ("There were hillbillies in Knockemstiff, Ohio, who wouldn't watch a TV show that had blacks in it.")... I know these people. My grandparents refused to watch The Jeffersons. I remember having to go to their bedroom to watch it. And the last time I drove by one of the houses my mother and I rented when I was in high school, there was a Confederate flag hanging from the porch. It sort of shocked me. Do you feel a similar love/hate, push/pull relationship with Knockemstiff? 

I feel nostalgic for the place as it used to be, back in the Fifties and Sixties, but I'm probably just missing my youth more than Knockemstiff. When I was a teenager, I hated the place, but I got over that a long time ago. As for people reading the stories and being horrified, it seems that those readers are, for want of a better word, urbanites. Most everyone in my county can see the humor, even the little bits of compassion, heck, even my mom can pick up on it! And you know as well as I do, there's crazy and mean stuff happening everywhere, not just in Knockemstiff or Lexington. 



There's a lot of violence in your stories and I wonder if that isn't reflective of small towns as well. While I was reading your book I started making a list of all the stories I'd heard or knew about growing up... suicides, botched suicides with gruesome results, a woman my mother bartended with who "lost it" one day and drowned her two small children in the creek, another guy she bartended with who "lost it" and "accidentally" killed his girlfriend (I think coke had something to do with that one) ... What is it, do you think, about small towns that is so conducive to violence? It seems to almost infuse the people who live in them with a certain rage. Last time I went home I took my boyfriend to the bar my mom had worked at, that I'd practically grown up in, and inside of ten minutes, some guy wanted to fight him. It was literally, "When you leave, I'll be waiting in the parking lot. You're dead." We've never had that experience anywhere else. 

I think that there's often a distrust of strangers in small communities which sometimes leads to violence, but overall, I'm not sure small towns are more violent than big cities. There's just more people to take the hits in a big town, and so you don't notice it nearly as much. But there's violence everywhere. As for the violence in my stories, I think I just paid more attention to it when I was a kid, mostly because I was skinny and wore glasses and felt weak. It is true that Knockemstiff had a reputation back then for being a rough place, somewhere you wouldn't want to go unless you knew somebody who lived there.

In "I Start Over" a 56 year-old man, his wife, and adult son are waiting in a drive thru line at a Dairy Queen. The guy's sort of thinking about how much his life sucks... his wife thinks he's fat and doesn't really want anything to do with him anymore, his son's done so many drugs that he's essentially a vegetable... and some teenage jackasses in the car behind him are pissing him off. At one point in the story the man thinks, "I'm beginning to believe that anything I do to extend my life is just going to be outweighed by the agony of living it." That seems to be a philosophy shared by many of the characters in the book. In fact, it seems like it could almost be the theme of the book. 

Well, I suppose with this book, I do go a bit overboard on the idea of being trapped in a bad situation, but it's theme that really interests me. I think everyone knows people who have felt trapped in the life that they're living. I know I've encountered a bunch of them: in the holler, in the paper mill, in 12-Step meetings. Maybe in the future, I'll focus more on the people who break free of that feeling. Also, I should probably add that people who are consistently successful just don't make for good stories. 



Many of your stories concern people sort of stuck taking care of other people, be it a result of old age or dementia, as in "Honolulu" or "Holler", or drug use, as in "I Start Over", or a car accident, as in "Bactine" and "Rainy Sunday". "Rainy Sunday" happens to be my favorite story in the collection and I think it's because you do such a great job of writing from a woman's perspective, and, more specifically, the perspective of a woman caring for a husband who's not exactly "all there" anymore. I love this woman, Sharon. She has such a laid back attitude about everything. In the story she comes home to find that her husband has torn down all the curtains and pretty much destroyed the inside of their house but she doesn't freak out. She takes a box of doughnuts into her bedroom, locks the door, and starts planning for their future: "Taking a doughnut from the box, Sharon bit into it, a chocolate cream filled. Raindrops splattered against the window. She ate the doughnut and wondered what it would be like to live in the desert. Everything there would be new. She could go on a diet and Dean could get his head dried out. They could do whatever people do who live in the sand." Did you find it challenging to write from the female perspective? Have you had experience being a caregiver? 

I'm glad you think I did okay with the female perspective in that one. I don't think it was that hard, but I tried not to make it too complicated either. I've never been much of a caregiver myself (I was always the one who needed cared for!), but quite a few women in my family could definitely qualify for Alanon. Of course, most drunks and druggies will latch onto someone who will keep bailing them out, whatever, and, as I said, I know a lot of those kind of people. Also, while I was working on some of these stories, my aunt was in a rest home with Alzheimer's, and I used to visit her occasionally. All of that stuff probably had something to do with the caretaking that goes on in Knockemstiff



You use product names a lot in your stories, which is something I'm always on the fence about in my own writing. But it really seems to work in yours. The mention of a Zero candy bar or Pabst Blue Ribbon or RC Cola, for instance, really puts the reader immediately in a particular environment. Were you ever wary of using them? Or did it feel natural? 

I was wary of overdoing it because product names usually "date" the story. However, at the same time, it did feel natural to place stuff in there that could help provide some sort of "time frame." Some of the ideas for these stories began as a sort of "tribute" to certain things and places that I remembered: the Torch Drive-in, for example. And the products kept popping up in my memory and I finally just gave in and put them on the page. I can definitely see the danger with doing that though. Who's going to remember Zero candy bars in fifty years? 



In "Bactine", two men who barely know each other waste some time huffing Bactine together. "My brain felt like a frozen beach bottle," you wrote, which I thought was a brilliant description. It'd never occurred to me that anyone would huff something like Bactine. In fact, I hadn't thought of the stuff since I was four or five and my grandfather finally switched to doctoring my cuts with it instead of the dreaded Methiolade (now there's something to huff!). Why Bactine? Was this something you experienced or witnessed? Is it cheaper than gasoline, and/or easier to come by? 

When I was a teenager in Knockemstiff, I used to huff Bactine with some of my buddies. This was the late Sixties, early Seventies, and we were always looking for some kind of buzz. It was fairly easy to come by, and didn't taste quite as nasty as gasoline, though it was still pretty horrible. 



You said you're trying to write a novel. How's it going? Can you tell us anything about it? Are you reading anything in particular for inspiration? 

The novel is going slow right now. I've written a very clunky first draft, but all the stuff going on with the publication of Knockemstiff has me unable to really focus right now. I'm a bit obsessive/compulsive, and so it's all or nothing most of the time. I figure everything will die down concerning the story collection here pretty soon, and I plan on working my ass off on the novel all summer and fall. It's a combination serial killer/coming-of-age story set in southern Ohio in the summer of 1965. I've read some biographies of serial killers, that sort of thing, along with just a lot of novels, though no one in particular. 



Do you have a certain work routine you like to stick to? Morning? Night? Broom closet? Office? 

Though I think I do my best writing at night, I try to aim for 3-4 hours in the morning, as soon as I get up. Later, I go back up to the attic for a couple hours in the evening and mostly just mess around with what I worked on that morning. A lot of days I just sit in the chair, which I believe is the most important thing to do (and the hardest). However, as you know, if we're not sitting there when the words come, then they're lost forever. I think anyone can probably write, but most people can't handle sitting in the chair everyday like that. They start thinking about vacuuming the house, washing the car, etc. Anything sounds better than writing when you've been sitting there racking your brains for just one lousy sentence for a couple of hours. 



I read in one of your New York Times pieces that you have a Carpe Diem tattoo. What prompted you to get that? Do you have any others? 

After I got sober back in 1986, I found out that "Carpe Diem" means "Seize the Day." This was similar to the "One Day At A Time" advice found in 12-Step Meetings, but sounded a little more "forceful" to me and I liked that. I originally had it tattooed on my upper right arm, but that ink finally became blurred, and I had it covered up. Because I still try to live by that credo, I now have "Carpe Diem" on my left forearm. Oh, yeah, I have some other tattoos. 



Last question. In "Bactine" there is this amazing line, "They were the kind of women who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair." Now, I've heard some kinky shit, I get the candy bar reference, but how the hell does someone wake up with apple fritter in their hair? 

Look, these women are lonely. Ha! 



Dear God, I hope I'm never that lonely! Thanks so much for participating in this interview, Don. I will be first in line when the novel comes out. 

Thanks for doing this, Elizabeth, and no, I'm pretty sure that you will never be that lonely!

image: Knockemstiff cover design


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