Donald Ray Pollock has been steadily serving up plates of mild horror since his first book of short stories, Knockemstiff, appeared in 2008. Pollock followed the explosion of Knockemstiff with The Devil All the Time, in 2011, his first novel, which also bordered on the genre of mystery, again with generous servings of darkness. His latest novel, The Heavenly Table, continues this tradition with the addition of some good, old-fashioned black humor.
Through its pages, we follow the paths of three brothers, who are eking out a hardscrabble existence in Georgia after their father dies during the course of a bowel movement in the bushes. A dime store pulp novel inspires the smartest of the three brothers to pursue a lucrative life of crime. Their journey is part Homeric, part Dantesque as they accelerate into their own Southern-style apocalypse.
We talked this summer at readings and also online to discuss the state of his unions, humanity amidst poverty, the symbolism of tragic Southern literary figures, and whatever else came to mind.
The Rumpus: Your new book has more humor in it, I thought, than your previous two works. It’s still somewhat dark slapstick, but it’s funny. Was this a conscious shift or just part of the evolution of your work?
Donald Ray Pollock: I’ve always liked reading books that contain funny lines or situations, and maybe because my work is known chiefly for its violence and misery, I made a more conscious attempt with The Heavenly Table to do that myself. Of course, the humor I came up with is, for the most part, a bit crude or guttural, and many people aren’t going to get it or enjoy it, but some do, and that means a lot to me—to know that I made someone laugh.
Rumpus: It reminded me of the humor in that classic anthology of folklore by Vance Randolph, Pissing in the Snow, a collection of Appalachian fables that are more barroom than Aesop. Was that an influence on your latest?
Pollock: I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of that anthology, but you can be sure I’ll buy it now. I think the biggest influence on the book, as far as the humor goes, comes, at least indirectly, from the men I worked with in the paper mill. Some of them could make a dog laugh.
Rumpus: Do you ever receive flack from your fellow Ohioans as to how you portray the characters you write about in southern Ohio? Sherwood Anderson may have gotten some backlash for Winesburg, Ohio, and Sinclair Lewis was definitely on the no-fly list after he wrote Main Street about his hometown.
Pollock: No, not really. I think some people at Doubleday worried about that a bit when Knockemstiff came out, but, with the exception of one or two people who complained that I didn’t do justice to the many good people who lived in the holler, most of the local objections have been aimed at the violence and foul language.
Rumpus: If memory serves me, I remember Flannery O’Connor remarking on her own misfit characters that they represented those not connected to god. Do you have any such symbolism for yours?
Pollock: I think my characters—well, at least a few of them—are hoping or searching for some kind of contact with god. Of course, they go about it in crazy ways and usually fail, but that’s the nature of my characters and part of the story. One of the reasons I write about religion is due to my own envy of people who truly feel the presence of god in their lives, good souls who believe devoutly in a supreme being and an afterlife. I look upon that as a nice way to get by in this precarious world, though I’ve never been able to do it myself.
Rumpus: A moment ago you mentioned the paper mill where you worked for many years. How strong of an influence did working there have on your writing?
Pollock: The biggest influence on my writing, besides snagging some ideas about black humor, was that the paper mill had a program where they paid 75 percent of the tuition and book [costs] for employees who wanted to go to college part-time. I started going to Ohio University when I was in my mid-thirties, ended up with an English degree when I was forty. I’m not sure I would have ever decided to try to write when I was forty-five if I hadn’t already gotten that degree. It gave me a little more self-confidence, to know that I’d managed to complete something like that.
Pollock: No, at least not right now. Probably because I personally knew at least six or seven people in Ross County who died from overdoses in the last three years. The heroin epidemic is just too aggravating and sad and unsettling for even someone like me to live with and think about for the time it would take to write a book dealing with it. Too, I’m really not that in writing about 2016, or even setting anything in the 21st century.
Rumpus: What is your favorite time period to write about and what attracts you to it?
Pollock: So far it’s been the 1950s through the mid-1960s. Part of the reason might be that I was born in 1954 and I look upon my youth with great fondness, like many old men. And, though my work doesn’t focus much on good things, I see that period as America’s heyday. True, we had many problems, like racism and Vietnam, but we still weren’t quite as nuts as we seem to be now.
Rumpus: We are nuts now, verging on surrealism. Do you think nostalgia gives us blinders when we imagine the past? The ’60s were pretty hellacious.
Pollock: Sure it does. Nostalgia is partly illusion in that we remember things differently as we get older, etc. But that doesn’t mean, when historians look back on the 1950s, say, from the year 2090, it won’t be judged as a saner, slower, less narcissistic, more family-focused, and economically secure time.
Rumpus: The time period does provide an interesting contrast to your characters. The ’50s and ’60s have left us with a lot of iconic memories and images.
Would you call your work Gothic?
Pollock: I’m not sure what the proper label might be, or the most accurate one, but someone once called my stuff Southern Ohio Gothic and I thought that was fair.
Rumpus: They love you in France, too. Do you think they find your characters exotic?
Pollock: I really have no idea what the French think of my characters, or why The Devil All the Time did so well there. I do think they view my writing itself as exotic—though that’s probably not the best term for it—to a small extent, mainly because I say things that most French writers would probably hesitate to say for fear of offending someone or upsetting public sensibilities. I don’t think that answers the question, but I’m not much good at figuring readers out or I would probably be writing bestsellers.
Rumpus: Do you sense any sort of literary or artistic movement coming out of Appalachia? Any recent bursts of energy?
Pollock: I don’t really think the outburst is recent; there have always been writers in Appalachia. But maybe people are paying more attention to them now. Plus there are a lot of writers from the South who would probably have once figured they needed to go to New York to make it who have stayed closer to home—people like David Joy, Tom Franklin, Sheldon Lee Compton, Wiley Cash, Mark Powell, and Alex Taylor.
Rumpus: You mentioned in one of your readings recently that you were thinking of writing a book about Rainsboro, a town near you in southern Ohio. I’m curious about a town being an inspiration for a novel. What about this burg inspired your literary muse?
Pollock: It was really just the name that inspired me: Rainsboro. It’s located near Rocky Fork State Park. I have probably driven through that little place a thousand times, but, in that weird way my mind works sometimes, one particular evening it just hit me the right way, I guess. Created a mood more than anything else. And then I started thinking about a woman and her young son who end up there.
Rumpus: Is mood one of the major forces which inspires a book for you?
Pollock: I don’t think I’d call it a major force, but it is important as far as hitting the right notes or nuances with a character or scene. For example, if it’s a sad scene, I need to feel that way, at least to a slight degree and for a short while, to get it right. Which is why I sometimes listen to music when I’m revising. Music creates moods for me quicker than any other medium.
Rumpus: Kurt Vonnegut once mentioned that music was the medium that came the closest in making him believe in god. Is that your sentiment too?
Pollock: Well, I guess music is the one universal art form that most people can be moved by, regardless of where they come from, and for many it might be the closest they get to god, but I think taking a trip out into the country, away from the light pollution, and looking at a clear night sky is what does it best for me.
Rumpus: Now that you have published three books that for the most part center on southern Ohioans, has your worldview changed on how you regard your fellow man? What have you learned by writing about them?
Pollock: No, I don’t think writing fiction has changed my worldview. I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist in regard to mankind. Though there are still many good people out there in the world, it seems that they’re vastly outnumbered by the stupid, selfish, violent ones.
Rumpus: In your own life, though, you have had some fortunate upturns. After working many years in the Chillicothe paper mill, a life I envision via the Diego Rivera murals in Detroit, you had the courage and opportunity to break away and pursue writing. And of course creative writing is not known for its guarantee of a lucrative and lofty style of living. And to add to that, you were in were in your “middle years.” Yet look what happened. What parting advice do you have for those of us frozen in the headlights or simply baffled by life?
Pollock: Of course, it depends on what your dream might be, as to whether or not it’s still possible when you’re, say, fifty or sixty. You won’t ever pitch for the big leagues, for example. But I believe anyone, regardless of age, can write if he or she is willing to do the work, and I’m talking about spending at least an hour or two at it almost every day for five to ten years. And if a person does this for just a couple of years and discovers that it just isn’t for him, that’s okay. At least he can move on knowing that he gave it his best shot.
Author photograph © Amber Pollock.