Donald Ray Pollock
Gothic Hillbilly Noir?Interview by Brien Piech
On the morning of Chuck’s Snuff tour stop in Minneapolis I had awoken short the sight in one eye. Never one to miss a Chuck reading, with a prepaid ticket and voucher for a signed copy in hand, and being an old hand at injuries from my many years as an idiot, I went ahead and kicked-started the old Triumph Bonneville, like an idiot, and rode to the reading James Joyce style. Per internet rumors, I was fully expecting to see Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, Filth) as the reported “opening act,” so the name Donald Ray Pollock brought about a “Donald Ray who?”
No, my hardcover Trainspotting would not be autographed. But there was this Donald Ray Pollock guy. Fine. I’ll maintain a wait and see attitude.
On the cover of his collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, was a praiseful blurb from Chuck himself. The discovery of Craig Clevenger’s awesome The Contortionist's Handbook came immediately to mind as an instance Chuck’s nod paid off in spades. How had I not heard of this Pollock guy?
The Minneapolis venue—the notorious Triple Rock Social Club—was packed nuts to butts with the hyper aggressive excitable young crowd known to populate Chuck’s readings, a festive attitude redoubled by the venue’s reputation as the local home of punk rock. The mild mannered, standoffish Donald Ray Pollock was a figure of contrast in his nondescript long sleeve button up amidst the summer swelter of tank tops and tattoos, sitting alone at a folding table, looking, oh, what was it they said of John Wayne Gacy? Oh yeah, typical. A quiet type. A real sicko.
But after Mr. Pollock’s reading I had forgotten all about missing Mr. Welsh and had my doubts that Snuff might reach the top of my read pile before Knockemstiff would.
When it came time to open up the night I cannot describe the crowd’s facial reactions to his reading of “Bactine,” (the whole one eye thing hampered my viewing) but I can certainly attest to the choked silence and enthusiastic applause. Don’s reading had lived up to his book’s title. Of course I purchased and had him autograph Knockemstiff, and funny thing is, compared to the rest of Knockemstiff, “Bactine” is quite tame. Donald makes Chuck’s work, a man known for inciting mass blackouts and vomit at his own readings, seem family friendly in comparison.
And he was just getting started. His forthcoming novel, The Devil All the Time, slated for release this July, promises to be that thing darker than black all the gothy, unshockable and jaded masochists have been waiting for: a tale to drag them back to that place they awaken from, eager to forget, drenched in cold sweat.
BRIEN PIECH: So you're from Ohio. I also have Midwestern roots. Growing up in northern Indiana, my dad actually worked at the Miles Bactine manufacturing plant, so the sting of that story really resonated with me. Weirder still, you used an old Dodge Super Bee in one story, which is my dream car. If I recall correctly it was a 1970, the last year of the Coronet body. And as kids we used to troll around a dilapidated drive-in theater on our BMXs. There were so many parallels to my formative years in Knockemstiff stories, how much did you root those stories in childhood experiences and draw from the shared themes of life in that rust belt region?
DONALD RAY POLLOCK: Sure, quite a few of the small details in my fiction are inspired by things I saw or did or heard about when I was young. For example, when I was in my early teens, I used to huff Bactine with some other kids; you have to understand that it was around 1969--1972 and we were influenced by the whole hippie culture, even in Knockemstiff. Some of us would do anything for a high, and when there wasn't anything good around, that included strange pills from medicine cabinets, gasoline, glue, morning glory seeds, all sorts of horrible stuff. As for cars, especially because we lived in the country, a set of wheels was a big deal to us. Without a car, or at least a friend who had one, you were stuck in the sticks. I had a buddy who owned a Super Bee, and, yeah, we went to the drive-in a lot when I was growing up. You pay more attention to stuff when you're younger, and that's probably the reason those things have stuck with me and ended up in the stories.
BP: You toured with the infamous Chuck Palahniuk. What was the craziest thing that happened on the road?
DRP: Ha! Other than getting back to the hotel late because Chuck had just spent 4-5 hours signing books and talking to fans (damn, that man is dedicated to his readers!), I can't think of anything. You have to figure, I don't drink or drug anymore, and I'm in my fifties now. I did all my crazy stuff years ago.
BP: Talk about your upcoming novel The Devil All the Time (due out this July). Should parents keep it out of reach of children?
DRP: The Devil All the Time is not a children's book! In fact, I'd be leery of recommending it to many adults. The book is dark, and let's face it, many people don't like that type of stuff. They want a story that will help them forget the real darkness around them, and you really can't blame them. It is set in the Midwest--mostly in Ohio and West Virginia from the end of World War Two to 1966--and is about good and evil and the gray, blurry line that often runs in-between those two absolutes. The cast of characters includes a serial killer husband-and-wife team, a corrupt lawman, insane preachers, and a decent young man named Arvin Eugene Russell. I'm sure some readers are going to think I went a little too far with the grittiness and horror, but that's the world I came up with. There are several different story lines going on that eventually connect, and I divided the book into 7 sections to handle the transitions better. Though I'm not sure how you would classify The Devil All The Time, "Gothic hillbilly noir" might be an apt description.
BP: Just what we need, another genre! This will be your second piece written in a setting before the technological revolution. I know a lot of writers are finding it hard to include technology in their work. The ease of access to information certainly sucks all the fun out of the fact discovery process that seemed to be the big reveal process of so many intrigue based plots. Are cell phones and the internet something you consciously avoid?
DRP: Yes, I tend to see that stuff mostly as a subject for science fiction or satire, but I do understand that's only because I'm not that excited by it. Personally, I'd rather things didn't move so fast. Still, I use the internet quite a bit, as far as email goes anyway, and I'm on Facebook, at least for the time being. And I have a website (www.donaldraypollock.com), though someone else takes care of it. But as for cell phones, and I'll probably sound like a crank here, I don't carry one and consider them mostly a nuisance, though I do realize they're a great tool if used properly, like for emergencies. I think Stephen King once referred to them as "Twentieth Century slave bracelets." I hope there will come a time when people will begin to consider it "cool" or smart NOT to have one. To feel that you need to be connected and jabbering or tweeting or texting to people 24/7 through a piece of plastic, other than for serious business, seems to indicate that you are very insecure or co-dependent or screwed up in some other way. I mean, I've been in the check-out line at the grocery store and heard grown men make a call while they're paying the cashier to tell someone that they are heading to the parking lot now. I've met college students who call their parents four or five times a day. What the fuck? It's an addiction. As for writing, I work in my attic and there is no phone or internet access up there. I need a significant block of time that is quiet and uninterrupted to get anything done. And regardless of what many some researchers say, technology and this weird desire to always be connected has to be making it harder for most people to stay focused on anything for any extended period of time.
BP: Well I’m only 32 and I share those sentiments exactly. They said the machine would reduce us to a three day work week during the Industrial Revolution, and here we are. Especially in this country, Europe laughs at our 40+ hours and one week of vacation. So there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a certain romance, especially from the perspective of a writer, about simplicity and time for silent reflection. If you could have written anything by a LIVING author, what would it be and why?
DRP: That's a tough question. There are a ton of books out there that I wish I had written. I come across a new one at least five or six times a year. For today though, I'm going to say Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, one of the best non-fiction books of the twentieth century, which deals in a brilliant way with the themes, myths and literature generated by World War One. Everything about the world pretty much changed during those four years, bringing about or at least accelerating the modern age, and I find that period fascinating.
BP: You seem like a pretty affable guy, but your writing is so twisted and dark. Tell our readers a bit about your creative process, assuming you're not personally familiar with depraved tweaker trucker sex on Black Beauties and meth, and how you get in tune with that bleakness.
DRP: I hate to admit it, but I'm really a very normal person. As for the "creative process," I have no idea how to talk about that. Where some of the stuff comes from is a mystery to me. I just sit and type and stare at the wall and ideas or scenes or a bit of dialogue begin to form and if I stick with it long enough, it coalesces into a story. I do get a bit uneasy when I meet someone who had read my stuff because a lot of people have a difficult time separating the writer from the work. Some think that if you write about serial killers or sickos, then you must be one, or have at least thought about being one!
BP: I guess “normal” is up to interpretation. You were in your 50s when you finally published. But the product was well worth it. Any advice for aspiring writers, especially younger writers in their 20s and 30s in a hurry to get their work out there?
DRP: I was forty-five when I decided to try my hand at writing and fifty-three when Knockemstiff was published. I have read that a writer or a musician or whatever should usually figure working as an apprentice for around ten years, and I'd been working hard for seven before Doubleday bought the book. I think you just need to figure that it's a long haul to get anywhere, and that you need to have patience and write every day. And if you're in a hurry, you need to work twice as hard. Too, and I know this has been pounded into the ground, you need to read a lot. If you don't love to read, then you're probably not going to make it as a writer. And don't wait as long as I did before you start!
BP: Collections are notoriously difficult to sell. But Knockemstiff made it to the shelves on Doubleday, as your first effort, no less. Beyond the standard advice about getting a few examples published to lend the work legitimacy, what was your experience like shopping a collection, and getting it picked up by a very reputable publisher?
DRP: I was very lucky with Knockemstiff. An agent read one of my stories in Third Coast and called me, asked if I had a book and if I had an agent. I had just finished what I thought might be a collection of stories and sent the manuscript to him (I'd been planning on sending the book out to the different contests, like the Flannery O'Connor and the Iowa, etc.). A couple of weeks later I signed with Inkwell, and they sold the book maybe a month after that. I repeat: I was very lucky. There are a lot of writers out there who are much better than me and still waiting to catch that break. The only thing I can say is that agents really do read the small magazines and once in a while, if you stick with it, something good happens. A writer definitely needs to have more patience than most people.
BP: Were your kids shocked to find out how messed up their dad is in the head?
DRP: Well, my daughter and I get along pretty well, and she's never mentioned that she thinks I'm a psycho or anything. I did drink and drug a lot when I was young, but I've been clean for over twenty years now. She barely remembers those days, thank God.
BP: I've heard that Stephen King writes in a secluded shack with no internet access while he listens to Megadeth and Iron Maiden all day. Do you have any quirks or odd techniques that help you access your voice?
DRP: Not really. As I mentioned, I write in my attic and there's no internet or phone up there. I will go through a period of maybe 3-4 months when I get up around 6 AM and write until 11 AM, then I'll switch over to nights and write from, say, 8 PM until 2 AM. Believe me, there are a lot of days when nothing much is happening, but I stay at the desk. I work better at night, but prefer getting the work out of the way early in the day, so I don't have it hanging over my head. I do listen to music some when I'm revising, but avoid it when I'm trying to put the first draft or two together. One thing about the music: I pick maybe 3 or 4 albums and listen to them over and over again, until I'm really no longer even aware that they're playing. They're providing a background rhythm or a mood, I guess you could say. I drink a lot of coffee.
BP: Nothing about Knockemstiff crossed me as a text that might translate well to the screen. Salon said that the film adaptation of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (one of Chuck's all-time favorites) failed by being both too faithful to the subject matter and not faithful enough. Somehow that's how I see Knockemstiff turning out should anyone ever have the ambition to attempt it. Do you write with screen in mind? And if it were adapted for film, what sort of misgivings do you have?
DRP: Well, I'm not sure what the writer meant by that statement. How in the hell can you be too faithful and not faithful enough at the same time? Anyway, no, I don't write for the screen in mind, though I would venture to guess that most writers in 2011 are influenced at least a little by the movies. I can see Knockemstiff probably working better as some sort of TV serial, like Deadwood, for instance. I would have no misgivings at all if someone made it into a movie or whatever, as long as the check didn't bounce! No matter what a director and screenwriter does with the material, the book is going to remain the same.
The Devil All the Time hits shelves July, 12.
See Donald Ray Pollock on tour, starting in July!