“I wondered if there was something I’d rather do with the years I had left and decided I would try to learn how to write short stories.” An interview with Donald Ray Pollock

Donald-Ray-Pollock BETTER

Interview by Jarrett Kaufman

At age seventeen author Donald Ray Pollock dropped out of high school to start work in the small town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. At age fifty-four he is an internationally bestselling author and a pioneer of contemporary Midwestern literary style.

Pollock is a leading figure of a new breed of writing that peels back the sanitized “heartland” image of the Midwest to reveal the often-overlooked rural people. Labeled as “Hillbilly Gothic,” for its focus on the violent and depraved side of small-town folk, and “Country Noir,” for its authentic depiction of dopers and smalltime criminals, his work has paved the way for other contemporary Midwestern writers like Frank Bill and Stephen Markley. His fiction, much like his early life, is shaped by the dark and seedy side of small-town life. A former addict, Pollock is no stranger to the harsh social and economic realities that befall his characters.

Pollock’s first book, a collection of short stories titled Knockemstiff, was published in 2008. It received the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Award and the 2009 Devil’s Kitchen Award in Prose. His debut novel, The Devil All the Time, was published in 2011 to critical acclaim and is the basis for the Netflix film of the same title slated to be released later this year. The Heavenly Table, his second novel, was published in 2016 and has been translated into sixteen languages. Pollock’s work has appeared in various literary journals, including Epoch, Sou’wester, Granta, Third Coast, River Styx, The Journal, Boulevard, Tin House, PEN America, and Folio.

Over the years, his work has garnered attention from the major publishing firms in New York City and snagged interest from major film studio companies in Hollywood. Currently, Pollock is hard at work on his new novel, set in Meade, Ohio, which spans from 1959 to 1981.

Jarrett Kaufman sat down with Pollock on April 13 to talk about his unconventional path to writing, his experience living in the Midwest for sixty-five years, and what means to be a Midwestern writer.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kaufman: Can you talk about your connection to the Midwest?

Pollock: I have lived in Ohio my entire life. I was born in 1954 in Chillicothe, in the southern part of the state, and grew up in a small community called Knockemstiff, about fourteen miles west of the city. My father worked at Mead Paper and owned a small general store in Knockemstiff that, for the most part, my mother ran. I dropped out of school when I was seventeen and worked several jobs—meat processing plant, shoe factory, nursery, etc.—before I got hired on at the same paper mill where my father and grandfather and several other relatives worked. I spent thirty-two years there before quitting in 2005, when I was fifty, when I went to grad school at Ohio State to get an MFA in creative writing. I stuck around until I woke up one morning and realized that I would probably die there.

Did that realization about dying in Chillicothe inspire you to start writing seriously?

I was forty-five when my father retired from the paper mill, and I saw myself doing the same thing in another twenty years. I started wondering if there was something else I’d rather do with the years I had left and decided I would try to learn how to write short stories. I didn’t know how to do anything other than factory work, but I did love to read, even as a kid. Growing up, there weren’t any real books in our house, but there were plenty of romance magazines and tabloids, and even though they were trashy, they did make me realize that reading could be a pleasure. I mostly fumbled around with it in the evenings, and by the time I turned fifty I had published a few stories in small magazines. An agent sold Knockemstiff my second year at Ohio State.

It seems that the Midwest has been having a literary moment.  What do you see happening in Midwestern literature right now? 

I would assume that any “bump” is due to writers and readers finally seeing that there’s much more to the United States than just the East and West Coasts. Just because it’s not necessarily glamorous or cosmopolitan doesn’t mean the Midwest isn’t worth writing about. The problems and lives you encounter in a small Midwestern town are just as interesting, and the same in many ways, like those found anywhere else. All of us have feelings and desires and fears.

What about the Midwestern landscape is integral to your work? 

The setting is extremely important, chiefly because, as Eudora Welty [Elizabeth Bowen] said, “Nothing happens nowhere.” A story or novel set in a nameless, indistinct void just doesn’t work for me. All of my stuff takes place or is eventually connected in some way to Ross County, Ohio, and though I fictionalize the characters and so forth, I try to stay true to the geography and landscape, including the creeks and rivers, streets and roads and parks, the fauna and weather, etc. I’d like to think that a reader could drive through here and recognize it from my books.

Do you think all those jobs you’ve worked over the years helped you write about people—working-class people in particular—in a real, authentic and respectful way?

Absolutely. As with place, I don’t really know any other group of people well enough to write about them with any hope of making them, for want of a better term, “come alive.”

Can you describe and define Midwestern culture? Do you feel your writing embodies that culture?  

Today, in Chillicothe, where I live, though there are many liberal people, there are definitely more conservatives. As many have already pointed out, many of these—conservatives—tend to be leery of “intellectuals,” they actually disdain anyone whom they might view as smarter or more learned or “sophisticated” than themselves, which is one of the reasons they like Trump with his crude behavior and limited vocabulary. They tend to be more religious than people in other parts of the country, though I’ve seen the older, established churches increasingly losing out to the more fundamentalist, evangelical brands where it’s considered perfectly fine to show up looking like you’re headed off to the beach or the cookout after the service. They tend to be HUGE sports fans, to the point where many of them seldom talk of anything else and are also more inclined to get all of their news from FOX or Rush Limbaugh. They desire to be entertained in everything: politics, travel, religion, and on and on, as opposed to spending any time seriously thinking about things.

I tend to set my stuff in the past, before the internet and cell phones and the twenty-four-hour news programs, and it definitely was a different time in many ways. Life was slower, of course, and families were closer. Burgs like Knockemstiff were real “communities.” But all of that started disappearing by the late eighties. And now, in America, we’ve become so homogenized that there’s really not that big of a difference between the Midwest and the South, or the East and the West. At least not like it was fifty years ago.

I’m still influenced by the current Midwestern culture I experience, especially when creating characters. I don’t think that my writing is deep or meaningful, but I try to be as “truthful” as I can be, and that often means writing about people and views that I don’t personally agree with.  It really comes back to southern Ohio being the only place I know well enough to write about, and there aren’t very many people around here sitting in ivory towers discussing the finer points of Wittgenstein.

What writers have influenced you the most?

Mostly all Southern writers have been my inspiration. Flannery O’Conner, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Barry Hannah, along with Tom Franklin, Mark Richards, and quite a few others. I think I was drawn to them mostly because they, for the most part, write about the same people I’ve known all my life, and incorporate country settings into their work. Most of them tend to focus primarily on two subjects, love, and death, which I believe Cormac McCarthy said were the only two things worth writing about. Another reason I’ve been influenced by them more than, say, Midwestern writers, is they are more apt to use humor, having no qualms joking about the most tragic situations.

Your book Knockemstiff seems to explore the lives of violent and desperate characters. How did you go about writing these kinds of characters?

I realize it may be hard to believe, since my work is so violent and saturated with despicable acts and characters, but I don’t read crime novels. Almost everything I know about criminal ways I learned from movies and newspapers and the bars I used to hang out in years ago. When I was writing the stories in Knockemstiff, my main influences were Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Breece Pancake’s collection, Trilobites, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, in addition to scenes from my own life. In many ways, they dealt with the same sort of people I had grown up with or worked with at the paper mill or gotten high with back before I got sober. Like any writer, I sometimes used the people I knew in my work, though not to the extent that they were recognizable. I might use traits from three or four to create a single character, etc. I’ve found that it’s easy for me to write about crime, and it serves as an impetus to keep the story moving along.

Knockemstiff, in my opinion, reveals the dark underbelly of the Midwest, its decay, it’s splintering of small-town communities—which most people from the region see and experience every day—yet people who are not from, or don’t live in the Midwest largely appear to be unaware of this. Do you believe that has to do with the sanitized “heartland” image that’s plastered in magazines and portrayed in movies and TV? 

Maybe it’s more soothing to think of a place like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry as opposed to some crumbling town on the Ohio River like Portsmouth—where the current opioid epidemic initially began—which is populated mainly by the poor, as well as junkies and prostitutes.  As for Knockemstiff, I’ve watched it change from a small, tight-knit community with three general stores and a bar and church, into an ugly nondescript place of houses where few people know their neighbor and you seldom see a kid playing outside. There are a lot of opioid and meth addicts around, and most of them have been in prison at least a time or two. In other words, the place I grew up in has disappeared except in my memories. But only those who lived there from the fifties through the seventies would ever know that.

The small town I grew up in outside of St. Louis has changed drastically, too, from diners and dime stores to fast-food chains and corporate variety stories, which gutted the spirit of the town. I found that same kind of hopelessness at the heart of Knockemstiff. All of the characters in the collection seem so isolated, as their unique communities are erased by the Walmarts and Krispy Kremes. Do you agree?

I’m one of those people who are nostalgic for snail mail and typewriters and three channels on the TV. Don’t get me wrong, I use, for example, the internet, but it wouldn’t bother me a bit if it shut down tomorrow.

Though the big box stores and fast-food chains and hyper-capitalism did suck the life out of thousands of small towns, there were plenty of lonely, damaged people before that all came along. To me, the damaging effect hyper-capitalism has had on the United States and also the world is that it’s created a “sameness” that’s hard to escape from.

✶✶✶✶

Jarrett Kaufman is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Louisiana. He received his MFA from the University of Missouri. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won numerous literary awards, including the Mary Mackey Fiction Award, the Tennessee Williams Short Story Award, the Missouri Writers Guild President’s Award for Fiction, and the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. His stories have been published in The Saint Ann’s Review, Owen Wister Review, The Worcester Review, Raleigh Review, Natural Bridge, Flint Hills Review, The Main Street Rag, and Fiction Southeast. His work has also been anthologized in The Storyteller Magazine, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, and Short Story America.