An Interview with Donald Ray Pollock

DonaldRayPollock_Headerby Daniel Long
December 1, 2011


Letters to a Mill Worker…

DonaldRayPollock_HeadshotMy life in New York began in Bronxville, not the Bronx. It was an odd path for a blue-collar man with no winter coat and less than no money. As the name suggests, Bronxville is much like a miniature version of the Bronx, if only tenements could be replaced with mansions and unnecessary fatalities could be substituted for pruned shrubbery and show dogs in cashmere sweaters being walked around a promenade. In my first month in my new community, I was stopped by members of the police force upward of five times for having the indecency to walk home. Certainly one of the signs on either side of Bronxville must say something cordial and predictably charming like “Welcome” or “Enjoy Your Time,” but the most proper welcome to the posh suburban hamlet would read something like the following: “Bronxville: We have cash, and you don’t. We do hedge funds, not hedge clippers. Minority applicants are discouraged from applying.”

This was my first experience with being a nontraditional student. I had made a fair number of the obvious mistakes, and my progression from community college to a graduate program took a number of turns. By the time I became a grad student, I had worked as a wares processor in the back of a Goodwill. I had been the janitor of a mental institution. I had delivered pizza, worked in a jewelry box factory, driven tractors (poorly), and been the night worker of a sleepy country motel. In working with individuals with disabilities—essentially being paid to do something that was considered a “good deed”—I believed (falsely) that I had achieved something of a redemption, and graduate school was the next way out. Sarah Lawrence College accepted me into the fold, and I quickly found myself to be an older student in a rich program full of people who largely considered the Midwest to be a joke for TV and Oklahoma in particular to be a terrible song from a musical. Professors put me to work building shelves and painting houses. I regaled classmates with stories of driving down dirt roads and shooting guns and being attacked by mental patients. I knew something about a carburetor and a blowtorch and a MIG welder, and that was interesting. People found a pleasant joy in hearing no marked acoustical difference between how I pronounced “tin” and “ten” or “pin” and “pen.” In my first writing seminar, there was a bright-haired student from a Hollywood family who had no small obsession with feeling the calluses on my hands. I thought right then that something about this special treatment marked my ascension from being an older student from a working-class family into becoming someone of an abstract celestial sphere of the writing world I vainly labeled as “authentic.”

Well, there is nontraditional, and then there is nontraditional. There is authentic, and then there is authentic.

A year into the program, a classmate and I attended an awards ceremony hosted by PEN, and I found a great pleasure in mocking the schmucks and literati and Williamsburg hipsters coming to the stage to make veiled hints at their future greatness. That smugness was quickly put to rest when I set eyes on Donald Ray Pollock. He reminded me something of the farmers and factory workers from where I was from, though at the time I had no clue that he had dropped out of school to begin work at a meatpacking plant or that he had spent another thirty-two years working in a paper mill in Ohio. There is nontraditional, and then there is nontraditional. There is authentic, and then there is authentic. As he accepted the PEN/Robert Bingham Award, he said a few things that made me listen. He talked briefly about his life and the support he had received from his wife Patsy and thanked the Ohio State University, where he had finished his advanced degree. He talked about his future plans to finish a novel, and then—more humbly and more truly than anyone who had come before—he thanked the audience and the selection committee and made sure that we knew: This was a big deal for him. Something in his words gave it away. Something in his voice. At times I thought he might be getting teary. At times I thought I might be getting teary. There was a buzz, the understated energy of a collective group of people being taken from an auditorium and their preconceptions and being moved. I don’t know what to tell you, those who were not there. I don’t have the words. Donald Ray Pollock took them from me, that and maybe a few other things.

I stored that name, Donald Ray Pollock, in my mind. While I knew that the sincerity and the passion he had displayed were often the bedfellows of mastery, I knew that sincerity and mastery were not always in a committed relationship. There’s all those feelings and words, but putting them together could be the tough part. Later in the summer, I picked up his first collection, Knockemstiff, without any real preconceptions about what I might find. I began to lazily read the first page before bed, but as the hours passed, I found that I couldn’t put it down. There was something in his depiction of small-town life that was honest and true, though he hadn’t left out any of the ugly parts. A day or two passed. The book had stuck with me. At the end of the first story of the collection, “Real Life,” the protagonist—recalling his father beating a man to a pulp at a drive-in movie theater—licks his hands and says, “I wanted more. I would always want more.” Well, I believed it, and I definitely wanted more.

…as the American Empire continues to fall apart over the next thirty to forty years, due to greed and corruption and ignorance, writers are going to have some very interesting material to work with. Trouble is always good for literature, and I’m afraid we’re going to have plenty of it.

I shot Mr. Pollock a message letting him know how much I had appreciated his collection. I had never sent a fan letter to a writer, and I couldn’t have made a better choice. Don got back with me, and we began the first of many brief exchanges back and forth about writing and what we were both reading, and when his novel The Devil All the Time was sent to print, he promised to have the promotions people shoot me an advanced reader’s copy. I waited for it to come in the mail, but it never arrived. After a series of exchanges with people at the publishing house, Don asked me if I had finally gotten a book. I told him that it hadn’t come, and he immediately went to the mail and shelled out the cash to ship me one of his own copies. Again, in The Devil All the Time I found a book that I simply couldn’t put down, even when I wanted to. Deeply rooted in the Southern tradition, there was sex and blood, and The Devil All the Time remains the longest book I have read through in one sitting, along with being the only book that—as an adult—has actually given me nightmares. Donald Ray Pollock might be the nicest writer I’ve ever talked with, but when he creates an image, that image haunts you. When he writes a line, it stays written.

New York is full of amazing writers who are authentic or faking it, doing whatever they can to get by until their numbers get called. They are baristas and secretaries and (shudder) college professors who wear the right jackets, heading down some Bronxville trail to walk their dogs. Maybe I am one of those writers now. My stomach is a little bit paunchy. My hands have gotten soft. Who needs writing and hard work when there are immaculate brunches in the East Village to be had at 12:30? A lot of days I wake up unsure about who I am as a writer. Some days I wake up unsure of who I am at all. And I can’t tell you who Donald Ray Pollock is, either, but I can tell you full-heartedly: When you read the work of Donald Ray Pollock, you know it’s Don Pollock. You can tell he is the kind of man who spent countless hours thinking in front of the coal heap, who put in his time. We live in an age of downloads and status updates, fast lights and new magic delivered in the form of pop-ups and electronic chats. When you read Donald Ray Pollock, you’re not just getting a man with an interesting back story who has hung around and seen a few things. Donald Ray Pollock still writes with the old magic, and you can feel it in your bones from the very first line.

The Fiddleback: You and I have a little bit of a history. A few summers ago I was studying in a pretty intensive writing class and was stressing out quite a bit about it and happened to pick up your book. I had seen you give an acceptance speech for the PEN/Robert Bingham Award not too long before, and you came across as this really interesting, humble guy, and it seemed like it would be hard not to root for you if you could write worth a damn. I started your collection one night without too much of a preconceived notion about what I would really get, and I just couldn’t put it down. I ended up shooting you this ridiculous email immediately after I finished. I had never written a fan letter before—and, I suppose, I really haven’t written one since, though I have started some correspondences with writers I greatly admired in an editorial capacity—but Knockemstiff really knocked me on my ass. Despite all odds, you sent me a very cordial response, and we sort of began to communicate back and forth occasionally at that time. I want our readers to know that you’ve got to be one of the kindest, humblest writers I’ve ever met.

Donald Ray Pollock: Thanks for the kind words, Daniel. And though I really, really appreciate all the emails I receive from readers, I sometimes get way behind in responding to them. I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately, and since I don’t carry a computer with me, or even a cellphone, I’m always playing catchup when I get home.

The Fiddleback: A few months back, I had the opportunity to sit down with your editor from Doubleday, Gerry Howard. He and I spent a lot of time talking about the diminishing presence of working-class stories and working-class writers in American literary fiction, which he seems to regard as a very important problem, if his essay in Tin House [“Never Give an Inch,” Issue 45: Class in America] is to be believed. Do you see this as a problem? In what ways? As a working-class guy who also writes and reads literary fiction, are there things you often feel like are missing when you pick up a new book?

DRP: I think part of the problem is that we have such a shrinking number of people who define themselves as being part of the working-class, like they’re ashamed of the label. Hell, Wal-Mart calls their employees “associates,” which has to be a sick joke (I think I read that the CEO makes more every two weeks than one of the associates does all year). Everyone nowadays wants to identify with the rich. Look at the fools who make less than, say, thirty or forty thousand a year and yet raise hell if the government suggests raising the taxes on the top 1%, something that would help the country out tremendously. It’s as if they think that someday they’ll be rich, too. Talk about living in fantasy land. They don’t realize that there’s only enough room at the top for a very small number of people to be wealthy. They also don’t understand that the corporations run the government and, for the most part, the world. Unless the rich, including the corporations, are taxed more, the foreign wars brought to a quick end, and the labor movement revitalized in America, the middle class is doomed, and we are going to end up with just two classes of people: the obscenely rich and the poor. But still, as the American Empire continues to fall apart over the next thirty to forty years, due to greed and corruption and ignorance, writers are going to have some very interesting material to work with. Trouble is always good for literature, and I’m afraid we’re going to have plenty of it.

The Fiddleback: Mr. Howard told me that once they realized what they had with your interlinked collection, it became very important to them to market it as sort of a snapshot of a place, similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Maybe we could even stretch that out into something like James Joyce’s Dubliners, as well. One thing that your Knockemstiff has in common, I think, is this underlying feeling of paralysis. How much of that story collection had to do with capturing a snapshot of the town and the feelings that permeate small-town life versus what you were feeling in your own life at the time?

DRP: There was, at least for me, a feeling of being trapped in Knockemstiff, but maybe I would have felt that way regardless of where I grew up. I know that I felt that same way for many years even after I left, like an outsider, always wanting to be someone else somewhere else. So the overall theme of the book probably has more to do with me personally than with trying to provide people with a “realistic” snapshot of the place. I definitely left out the kinder, gentler aspects of the place.

The Fiddleback: You’ve done a good job of making it clear that many of the desperate feelings and negative connotations (e.g., violence or drug use) that might be connected to small-town life are experienced in bigger cities, too, but as another guy who grew up in a rural area, I have to say I saw a lot of similarities between Knockemstiff and where I’m from that I don’t see between Knockemstiff and, say, New York City. I’m very interested in what feelings in the book are universal, but I would love to hear if you feel as if there are things you describe that are more particular to small-town life and why that might be the case.

DRP: It seems that now there really isn’t much difference between living in a small town and a big city, which wasn’t always the case. Back when I was growing up in Knockemstiff, I knew the names of everyone who lived in the area, maybe 450-500 people. I was probably related to a third or half of them. Today, though I’ve lived in the same house in Chillicothe (not a big city by any means) for the last 15 years, I barely know most of my immediate neighbors. So things have definitely changed in that respect. There was definitely more of a “communal” thing going on in those days, though that probably doesn’t come through in my fiction. Still, we have lost that in the past thirty years. Today people stay inside their houses surfing the net or watching cable or medicating themselves. If they do go, say, to dinner with a friend, a lot of times they end up spending half the time talking or texting someone else on a cellphone, which is either just plain fucking rude or some form of insecurity or possibly even insanity.

The Fiddleback: At this early point in your writing career, many readers still know you more for your amazing personal story—as a former mill worker and high school dropout turned respected fiction writer—than they know you for your wonderful collection and novel. For some, you’ve become the authentic voice of the working class, similar to the way Carver captured the American imagination in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Is there any pressure you feel, as the unlikely torchbearer of the American working class? Is this something you think about or are even aware of? Are there challenges or frustrations that have come as a result of being viewed in this light?

DRP: No, although I spent a major portion of my life working in factories, I certainly don’t see myself in that light. Thank God for that because there’s enough pressure just trying to get up every morning and write. People ask me what my books are about, and I really can’t tell them. I suppose I’m just too close to the work to be able to look at it in an analytical way. I really don’t think it’s good idea for a writer to attempt to explain the work.

When a magazine is being bombarded with hundreds or even thousands of submissions, that first sentence has to be a damn good one or chances are the slush reader is going to reject the story.

The Fiddleback: It would probably be an understatement to state that your life has changed quite a bit over the last few years. If I understand correctly, you worked at Mead Paper Mill for something like twenty-seven years before finally giving it up to pursue your MFA from Ohio State University, and from there you got your book deal with Doubleday pretty quickly. Your day-to-day life as well as the people you come in contact with must have changed just a little bit. What did all of the folks down at your own place of business think when you decided to quit your job to try to pursue life as a writer? Do you still keep in contact with those people quite a bit, or has the change in profession made it too difficult? When they read your books, what the heck do they think? How much of you or your town do they read into your books? Are there any hard feelings?

DRP: Actually, I worked at the paper mill 32 years, with a year in other factories before that. But really, my life hasn’t changed all that much with the exception that I don’t get up at 3 am anymore to go punch a clock and haul coal ash. I mean, I get emails from readers now and I occasionally get asked to read somewhere and I have met some wonderful writers and I probably have a better chance of publishing my next book than someone new, but that’s about it. People think that everything changes when you publish a couple of books, and I realize that’s true for some, but that hasn’t been the case with me.

As for the reactions I’ve gotten from local people, they’ve been mostly positive. Of course, there are people who find the books too violent or weird or obscene, but that’s okay because everyone has their own tastes. You can’t please everyone.

The Fiddleback: What about your wife? From the outside, she looks like she must be a pretty good woman. How’d she react when you decided it was time to pursue your writing career? She’s a teacher, yes? It seems like there must have been a lot of faith there, that she might be something like the wife of Noah. What does she think when she reads all of this animal sacrifice and sex and serial killing you’ve got trapped in your mind? Has it led to any interesting conversations? She doesn’t hide the knives, does she?

DRP: My wife, Patsy, has been wonderful in her support (she just retired from teaching in the public school system). She never, not once, tried to talk me out of my decision to leave the paper mill. As for reading my work, we really don’t talk about it. She’s definitely not into all the violence and weird stuff that I write about (she’s more Charles Dickens than Cormac McCarthy), but she doesn’t criticize me unless I make a grammar mistake!

The Fiddleback: So you went to OSU to get your MFA, which I think a lot of us realize probably isn’t necessary to being a writer, though it is nice to have the time and to have something like a writing community if you don’t otherwise have it. My guess is that beforehand you didn’t have it, and boy do I know that feeling. What’s it like to have writer friends and to, presumably, spend more time talking about literature? Is it something you felt like you were missing before, or was it one of those things where you didn’t realize you had been missing it until you had it? I have a feeling your OSU buddies got a kick out of you. At least on paper, you’re a funny guy.

DRP: I decided to go to grad school for the following reasons: (1) I saw that as my best way out of the paper mill because the program was going to give me a stipend for three years; (2) I felt a need to be around other people who were interested in writing; (3) I’d been writing long enough (5 years) to know that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life and thought I’d go to grad school and get a teaching job in a small college and write in my spare time. Unfortunately, I discovered that I wasn’t that great at teaching. I’m not bad, I think, with something short, maybe five days or so, but I quickly run out of things to say after that. I believe that part of the problem was that, when I was in grad school, I focused a little too much on my own writing and not enough on learning how to teach, which takes a lot of work if you want to do it right.

It was great to be around other writers for those years and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Still, though it’s nice to talk to people about books and writing, I’m not one of those who need to be around a literary community all the time. At the end of the day, we all go it alone.

The Fiddleback: And before I leave the subject of MFAs: The other day I was talking to someone about MFAs who brought you up as a prime example of why people don’t need them. Clearly, this sort of disregards the fact that you have one yourself! You sat through the workshops and put in your time. I won’t exhaust you with it too much, but do you want to weigh in on this argument? What did an MFA give you? I know you’re an avid reader, and if you’re anything like me I would guess at the very least it put a different pile of books in front of you than what you might have been exploring before.

DRP: I don’t think a person needs to go through a MFA program to become a writer, not at all. All a writer really needs to do is write, read, and be aware of what’s going on around him, and by that I mean he or she needs to put the cellphone and the other gadgets away and pay attention. The Internet is one of the worst things that ever happened to writers because it’s so addictive and such a time suck. He needs to learn how to sit in the chair for a certain amount of time every day, which is what just about everyone will advise; he needs to read at least two books a week; and he needs to have patience and not give up, no matter how many rejections he gets.

The Fiddleback: I’ve read in a number of different interviews that one of the exercises you did when you were first started writing fiction was to retype stories by other writers you admired, such as Denis Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor. I was once told that Hunter Thompson purportedly typed Madame Bovary just to see what it felt like to type a great book, and I understand that’s another book you enjoy quite a bit, as well. What about a story’s structure did this teach you? Is it too subconscious to really say, or are there trends and patterns about how stories are put together that you can describe for us?

DRP: I’m not an astute reader by any means, and I think that typing stories out just got me closer to the text. I could read a story over and over, but not really understand how the moves were made unless I copied it.

The Fiddleback: One of the other names on that list of writers you retyped—and the only one that really surprised me—was Sam Lipsyte. I love Lipsyte, but somehow I wouldn’t have pegged you for a Lipsyte guy. You both write some really fantastic sentences, but your voice seems so natural that it didn’t occur to me until I read more about your work habits that there are times that it takes you hours just to get one sentence down. Are there certain things within a sentence that trouble you? What are you looking for? Like Sam, you also have a knack for starting a story with these really terrific lines, and I wonder what you need to have in a first sentence or sentences to really feel confident that you’ve gotten a story off to a good start.

DRP: Lipsyte is one of the best and funniest writers out there. And really, just because I write gritty, violent stuff that’s heavily influenced by the Southern tradition, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to other stuff. For instance, I love the work of Muriel Spark and J.F. Powers and William Maxwell.

As for spending a lot of time with individual sentences, especially first lines, in the beginning I did this mainly because I wanted the editor of the magazine to keep reading. When a magazine is being bombarded with hundreds or even thousands of submissions, that first sentence has to be a damn good one or chances are the slush reader is going to reject the story.

The Fiddleback: Who are you reading now? Are there any particular writers you love to follow? With someone like Sam, it’s clear that you admired his work enough to type out his stories, but are there writers whose influence you worry about or can’t read while you’re writing?

DRP: Lately, I’ve become aware of just how spotty my education is and I’ve decided, even though I’m getting old, to try to remedy that as much as possible. So I’m starting at the beginning and reading as much of the Greek and Roman writers as I can: Homer, Sophocles, Livy, Tactius, Cicero, etc.

I’m also reading quite a bit of non-fiction these days, books about World War I, just because I’m fascinated with it, along with stuff about the demise of our culture, which I think is the big story going on right now. For example, when you have freshmen in college who have never read a book on their own, or can’t find Iraq on a map, well, things are seriously fucked up.

The Fiddleback: For a while, you were working on another novel while you were writing The Devil All the Time, about a guy in the early ‘80s with a drinking problem. Is that still on? What projects are you working on? Are you a novel guy now, or do you think we’ll see another collection in your future?

DRP: Well, I’ve put the novel about the alkie on hold for now and am working on something entirely different. The only thing I should say about the new book is that it’s set in 1918. As for novels versus story collections, I figure I’ll try to write a couple novels and see what happens. To be honest, they pay a little better than story collections, and since I don’t have a teaching job (or any other job other than writing), I need to look at the money situation.

The Fiddleback: You certainly don’t come across in any of your work as much of a moralizer, but there are trends in the book. For instance, it’s safe to say that any preacher or holy roller that pops up probably isn’t that holy after all. There’s a distinction made between professing of faith and truly being faithful. You also show a great appreciation for life while at the same time making it clear that life in itself is not necessarily promised to anyone. If Cormac McCarthy can whittle Blood Meridian down into being about “human evil” or The Road into being about “human goodness,” maybe you might whittle down The Devil All the Time for us? And if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, that’s all good and well, but I’d love for you to tell us why. The answer may or may not tell us much about the book, but it will definitely tell us something about your writing process.

DRP: I certainly don’t see myself as a “moralizer,” at least in my fiction, though I realize I come off as an old curmudgeon in interviews. As for compressing the overall theme of The Devil All the Time into a couple of lines, I can’t come up with anything, and that probably has to do with what I said earlier, that I’m not very good at explaining my own work.

The Fiddleback: Let’s talk about this novel, The Devil All the Time. To dumb it down to its most simple terms without giving too much away, it interweaves a coming-of-age story with that of a sociopathic killer. It’s moving and honest, but it’s also a little bit darker than what I might have expected. It’s been pretty uncommon for me to read any book so quickly from cover to cover, and—at the risk of making myself sound like a more fragile reader than I think that I am—I must admit that it’s the only book I’ve ever read which gave me nightmares. I really thought I was past that point in my life, but there you have it. With all of the elements you interweave throughout this novel, I guess what I would like to ask is this: If you could have it your way, what things would you want a reader to take from this book? As far as my nightmares go, I would expect you to say something like, “better that reaction than no reaction at all,” but was there anything deeper you wanted or expected? Do you even think about writing in those terms?

DRP: I really don’t have anything I want the reader to take away from it other than thinking it’s a good read, something they wanted to finish. As for commenting on that quote, well, I hope, like any writer, that my work gets better over time.



Donald Ray Pollock