An Interview With Donald Ray Pollock
Several years ago I was about to board a plane to Virginia where I was to explore the campus of a school that would teach me to become a mortician. It’s since become a joke in various places that ‘I’m here, because my job as a mortician fell through…’ etc. Before boarding the plane, I grabbed a magazine—my memory eludes me as to which magazine it was, some cultural blah blah blah; something where books are mentioned—and during the two or so hour ride I read most of the magazine, finally rereading one portion over and over again.
It was a blurb written about a novel called The Devil All the Time, with corresponding cover art featuring mangled marker-drawn crosses and skulls; and a glowing review from somebody somewhere. The writer’s name was Donald Ray Pollock, a name most people recognize along with the titles of his books nowadays.
Again, didn’t wind up becoming a mortician, but on that trip I stopped at a bookstore and picked up a copy of Pollock’s second book, reading it from cover-to-cover on the plane and car ride back to the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin; and for the first time in a long while I started to find romantic little moments along the barren roads beside our car, having Pollock’s eyes to see that you didn’t need New York to have literature, I guess, that sort of thing.
A month or so later I was cursing myself, finding out that Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, was sort of a prerequisite for the second—set as they both are in similar vistas of rural Ohio, where everything reeks of old death and strange blood. I picked up a paperback copy of his first as soon as I could and immediately set to reading it.
Both times, in similar and yet subtly different ways, I was floored. Knockemstiff reads as if Raymond Carver and Dennis Cooper had a kid and he lived down the street from Scott McClanahan; gloriously fucked-up images balanced against the monotony and odd sense of peace you get when you’re so far off the radar that you forget it even exists. This is Pollock’s coming out into the world of literature, and he does so with no shit-covered stone unturned. With his second, The Devil All the Time, it could be said that Pollock prolonged the sting of his previous short stories and the result is a portrait of American life nearly impossible to forget. The book opens with a father and son walking out to a small grove where they’ve been sacrificing animals, hoping for some kind of good fortune, and from then on it barrels headlong into a story spanning many years and veering off into these dirty cinematic takes on growing up, dealing with death, and out-and-out crime.
After reading Knockemstiff I sent Pollock a long rambling letter about how stunned I was that somebody seemed to be writing about something entirely new that felt extremely close to me. I admit of course that I’ve since discovered authors dabbling in this sort of content, and yet none has done so in a way so effective and jarring as Pollock.
Long story short, I assembled a slew of questions to ask one of my favorite living authors and he obliged, what follows is the result.
GM: One of the things I like most about your work is the balance of the completely fucked up with normal, almost desperately average daily life. A character can just as soon be seen working for hours on end in a gas station as he can dousing religious relics in animal blood. Are these situations approached similarly when mapping out, or writing your stories? Does writing a particularly grisly scene require a different approach, or does it all register simply as writing for you?
DRP: The violence takes a little more concentration and imagination than, say, the average day in the gas station, simply because, though I’ve never killed anyone or made animal sacrifices, I have spent time working in a general store. But it’s all just writing in the end and it’s all hard to get right.
GM: What effect do you think starting out later in life—after working for all that time at something else—has had on your writing now? Was there an inclination you might like to write someday early on?
DRP: I’m sure if I had, say, quit drinking and started writing when I was in my twenties as opposed to mid-forties, my fiction would have been different, but then there’s a good chance everything in my life would have been different. But in what ways, I have no idea. As for early dreams of being a writer, I always loved to read, and I suppose in the back of my mind, especially when I was drunk or high, I fantasized about being a writer. However, it wasn’t until I’d been clean a few years that I had enough self-confidence to actually try it.
GM: Do you write every day?
DRP: I can only work when I’m on some sort of schedule, so I write six days a week when I’m at it, usually from 6 am until 11:30 am, but sometimes switching to nights. I have had periods when I don’t write at all, and they might last three or four months at a time. In other words, I can be very lazy, but I’m trying to overcome that because I quickly begin to feel worthless and depressed when I’m not working.
GM: Have reviews—positive or negative—had any effect on your approach to writing now?
DRP: I think I read almost every review of Knockemstiff, my first book, and I learned that I’m better off not doing that. Don’t get me wrong, reviews are great and I deeply appreciate them, but I get too fucked up about everything when I read them, even when they’re positive. So, with The Devil All the Time, I limited myself to two, and had my wife store the others for the time being. I try my best to ignore the outside world because if I start trying to write to please everybody, I’ll just end up with a mess that pleases no one.
GM: Because style seems to be a major asset in your work thus far—and you’ve acknowledged the influence of short story authors like Denis Johnson and John Cheever for Knockemstiff—I was wondering what authors or narrative choices guided you through The Devil All the Time? Reading each there are obvious similarities, and yet your second book feels unlike a great deal of novels written and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Any thoughts?
DRP: I think the biggest influence on The Devil All the Time was a novel by John Gardner called Nickel Mountain. Not the story, but the way he structured the book. I had quite a few different characters and several separate plot lines and a main story that took place over twenty years, and Nickel Mountain helped me understand how I could arrange everything so that it wasn’t too confusing.
GM: One commonality between both books is the effect a character’s history has on their present actions, so much so that you’ll often weave descriptions of a character’s past with their current situation quite effectively. How important, then, are character histories to you when writing your fiction?
DRP: I think it’s important to know something about the character’s past if you’re going to understand why they are doing what they do in the story. The trick is to blend the past into the present without things getting too choppy or unsettling or confusing or boring. And, of course, to know just how much is needed and what to leave out.
GM: Has there been any interest in film adaptations of your work?
DRP: Well, we sold an option on Knockemstiff to a couple of people from Hollywood, but I’m not sure what’s happening with that. There have been several queries from film people about The Devil All the Time, though no concrete offers yet. I’m probably like a lot of writers in that I see an ad on TV for the next horrible piece of shit Hollywood is coming out with and think: what the hell, even my poor stuff is better than that. But there are still a few people out there making great movies, and so I keep hoping!
GM: Do thoughts of publishing or industry enter your mind when thinking about what you do?
DRP: No, other than to worry about books, the physical objects, being replaced by Kindles and all that other electronic shit. And maybe wondering if I can keep making enough money to get by on. As for the business side of things, I know next to nothing about it. People ask me for tips on how to get published and the only thing I know to tell them is to keep writing and sending their stuff out.
GM: What are you working on now?
DRP: I’m working on a novel set in 1917 in Meade, Ohio. That’s really about all I want to say about it at this point because it keeps changing as I go along.
GM: What’s the best goddamn thing you’ve read in awhile?
GM: Nabakov’s Lolita (I know it’s probably hard to believe I haven’t read it until now). Because I’ve spent significant amounts of time the last few years around people who are so damn smart and “literary,” I’ve become increasingly self-conscious of the gaps in my education and reading. Toward the end of last year, I came across several lists of the 100 greatest novels (granted, these lists are arbitrary, but they can serve as a guide of sorts) and realized I’ve only read maybe half of them. So my aim is to try to correct that as best I can; the only downer to doing something like this is that you quickly realize how terrible your own stuff is in comparison. Besides Lolita, I just finished Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Moviegoer.
Now, as for new stuff coming out soon, keep your eyes peeled for Snapper (Pantheon Books), a novel set mostly in Indiana by Brian Kimberling, and You Only Get Letters from Jail (Tin House), the second short story collection from Jodi Angel. They’re both damned good.