By now Donald Ray Pollock’s story is well known among writers and aspiring writers here in the Midwest, where a turn off the highway might land you in Pollock’s hardscrabble hometown of Knockemstiff, Ohio. After dropping out of high school, Pollock worked for thirty-two years at the Mead paper mill in Chillicothe, married three times, checked into rehab four times, then at the age of fifty, sober and with a handful of published stories in hand, enrolled in the MFA Program at Ohio State. How he went from processing paper in a factory to seeing his debut work of fiction, Knockemstiff, in print and among the most widely praised books of 2008, is almost as remarkable as the stories themselves.
DO UNTO YOUR NEIGHBOR, THEN SPLIT reads the t-shirt of one of the few residents of Knockemstiff who manages to get out, and in each of these eighteen scabrous, headlong stories there’s no limit to the damage neighbors inflict upon neighbors, fathers upon sons, and all these characters inflict upon themselves in their efforts to escape their impoverished lives. This is rural noir elevated to art, gritty realism at its very best.
Knockemstiff won the PEN/Robert Bingham Award. During a visit to the Purdue MFA Program, where he gave a reading, visited classes, and talked to the editors of the Sycamore Review, Donald Ray Pollock took the time to speak with The Rumpus and answer our burning questions.
The Rumpus: Let’s begin with beginnings. You write some of the hookiest first lines I’ve ever read. Some are shocking, as when the narrator tells of coming across a brother and sister having sex in the woods. Others just grab you by the throat with the force of the voice. Are the first lines inspired sparks or do you take many drafts to nail those openers?
Donald Ray Pollock: When I started graduate school we did this publishing class where we learned about submitting and read interviews with editors from different magazines. A lot of them said they got so many submissions that unless the first page stuck out or the first paragraph or even the first sentence they’ll probably send it back. So part of my idea was that if I have a really good first sentence maybe they’ll read on a bit further. At least half, maybe more of the stories in Knockemstiff started with the first sentence; I got it down then went from there.
I had this bad habit of not writing out a first draft and going back. For me it was the first sentence, then the second sentence, and I might be several weeks on the first page instead of writing a draft and trying to figure it out from there. Now I’m trying to break myself of that habit because I’m working on a couple novels and I know if I tried to write those books the way I wrote the stories it would take me years to finish.
Rumpus: Your stories are full of sex and violence and characters doing extreme, often terrible acts to themselves and others. There’s rape, murder, suicide, spousal battery, and child abuse. Name the drug—these characters have done way too much of it. Pick a page and chances are a law is being broken by someone somewhere in Knockemstiff. Were you conscious of taking these characters to extremes? Or were the extremes natural extensions of the characters and their environment?
Pollock: The way I saw the characters these things just happened naturally. At the same time—and I know it’s probably not apparent when you read the book—but I really tried to hold back because I didn’t want it to become a cartoon. I cut a lot of stuff that was even farther out there than what’s in the book.
Some people get to the second story [told from the point of view of a rapist and murderer] and say, I can’t go anymore. I remember a class I taught at Ohio State where I assigned a Mary Gaitskill story, which really wasn’t that bad, and I had this one girl refuse to read it. But better that reaction than no reaction at all. I didn’t set out to shock people. I don’t think my book is any more shocking than if I went out right now and brought back your local newspaper and found a story that happened around here yesterday or the day before that’s just as shocking as anything in my book.
Rumpus: At the same time, your stories are damn funny. I know that Flannery O’Connor might blush, but reading Knockemstiff I thought of O’Connor. There’s the whole gothic/grotesque element. Plus much of your comedy comes from dialogue and your mastery of regional speech. How important is humor in your work? And how do you find the right balance between humor and despair?
Pollock: I don’t know about the balancing part, only that I kept working and working and it just sort of turned out. As for the humor, I worked in a paper mill all my adult life and there were a lot of funny guys there. So you pick up on that. Even though something really bad might have happened to somebody you can still make a joke out of it. I tried to put a lot of humor in the book because the situations, the things that happen in my stories—if there wasn’t any humor, by the time you finished reading the book you’d probably want to kill yourself.
Rumpus: Something else you do that reminds me of O’Connor is you give even the most reprehensible characters the equivalent of a moment of grace. I’m thinking of the hermit from “Dynamite Hole” who cries as he buries his victims’ bodies and of the steroid-addled wannabe Mr. South Ohio who only sees his son’s worth the moment before the kid has a heart attack. O’Connor has her own M.O. for giving her characters grace, but what about you? Were you conscious of trying to offer something like redemption to your characters?
Pollock: Yes, I was aware of it. I want to believe that even somebody like Jake in “Dynamite Hole,” even somebody who does something horrid, is capable of feeling guilt or being ashamed, and I think a lot of these people do feel that way. Of course there are some that don’t, who are never sorry for their actions, but I didn’t want Jake just to be this maniac on the page. I wanted him to have humanity. Otherwise it wouldn’t come off as a decent story.
Rumpus: I saw on your website that you’re working on a novel about a serial killer. So that issue must come up in the new book. Do you talk about work in progress?
Pollock: Actually I’m working on two novels. That one, and another about a guy in the early ‘80s who has a drinking problem. I hope to have at least one of them finished by the end of the year. The [drinking] one seems to be going a lot quicker. It’s really tough to write about someone who kills people when you haven’t actually done it, and not turn it into your typical serial killer novel.
Rumpus: This gets into the difficulty of writing a novel after focusing exclusively on short stories. But in a way you took a step in the direction of writing a novel by linking up the collection. Story cycles are among my favorite forms. I’m always talking up books like I Sailed With Magellan by Stuart Dybek, The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’m curious about how writers make these books, which are rarely chronological and often are more about a place than individual characters.
Pollock: When I first started out, I was trying to write stories about nurses and lawyers and a lot of people I didn’t know anything about, and they just weren’t working. So I took a correspondence course with a guy at Ohio University. He gave me ten exercises, and one of them resulted in the story “Bactine.” It pleased me a lot more than anything else I’d ever done, so I kept messing around and by the time I got to Ohio State I’d written maybe eight stories. In my first quarter there I read some linked collections and it got to me that I could link all these up. One especially called Eyesores, by a guy named Eric Shade, all set in this little place in Pennsylvania, was the big inspiration for me. For the next sixteen months I worked my ass off and wrote the other ten stories.
The Rumpus: And how about Knockemstiff itself? You grew up in a real town in southern Ohio called Knockemstiff. What made you decide to name this fictional place after your actual hometown? Why not make it up?
Pollock: First of all, once it occurred to me to call my book Knockemstiff there was no other title. I wouldn’t even consider anything else. I grew up there and even though there’s nothing really left now, the place made a big impression on me. There’s a great book called The House of Breath by William Goyen, about a house and these characters that live there. But I read an interview with his wife, an actress, and she said she went back to the house after she’d married him and expected it to be incredible, but it turned out to be just this little dumpy house. There was nothing there. And that’s what Knockemstiff is like. The place used to be a tight-knit community. It’s not any longer. Now it’s pretty much a ghost town. But at one time there was a bar; there were three stores; a church. Five hundred people or so lived there, and I was probably related to half of them. It was known as a pretty rough place. It had this reputation, and what I did with my book was I took that reputation that I could remember from when I was a kid and I just cranked it up a little bit.