DONALD RAY POLLOCK’S books are a wonderfully bloody business. His first, Knockemstiff (2008), a collection of linked stories centered in his hometown, was published when he was 54 years old to great critical acclaim, winning the PEN/Robert Bingham Prize. He followed this with the novel The Devil All the Time (2011); a veritable carnival of murder, misguided faith, sex, abuse, and many, many bodies. His newest, The Heavenly Table, is another beautifully written story about very bad people doing very bad things. Pollock is a champion of the downtrodden, the overlooked; marginalized people with slippery moral compasses who plow through their surroundings on their own terms, typically resulting in mutually assured destruction. But it’s a glorious destruction with a fine literary edge to its prose; a literary companion to Nick Cave’s song “O’Malley’s Bar,” perfect for those of you who like your storytelling to come with a body count.
Here, Pollock endures my nerdy questions about form and composition and shares his fears as a writer.
KAREN BRISSETTE: Your first book, Knockemstiff, was a collection of overlapping character studies all taking place in a single location in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio or Dubliners. It’s unusual enough to debut so successfully with a short story collection, but to do so with a story cycle is practically unheard of these days. What led you to choose this particular form? Was it always intended to be a story cycle, or did you set out to write a novel that started to make more sense as stories?
DONALD RAY POLLOCK: It definitely didn’t begin as a novel. I didn’t have the confidence to think that I could write something that long that would hold together (actually, I still don’t). Though it probably sounds unbelievable that someone could be so dense, I had already written eight or nine of the stories before it occurred to me that I was on my way to writing an entire book centered on Knockemstiff, and that happened only because I heard people in grad school talk about linked story collections. As for the advantages of the short story over the novel, the primary one for me is a much quicker payoff. You maybe finish a short story in a month or so, but working on a novel, that, if you’re as slow as I am, seems to go on forever.
Your unusual approach to narrative structure is one of my favorite things about your work. The linked stories of Knockemstiff, the dual story lines of The Devil All the Time that eventually intersect so nicely, and the short alternating POV chapters of The Heavenly Table that read like a series of spliced-and-interwoven stories in which characters are magnetically drawn closer and closer to each other until they collide spectacularly. And as much as I hate to be the jackass who asks you about your process, how much of this structure is mapped out beforehand — do you start out with a vision of how you want to tell your story, or does it shape itself organically as you proceed?
I have never been able to outline something and then stick with the plan, which makes for a lot of wasted time. I really just start with a small kernel of an idea and begin typing. I go off in many directions for a while, and then I finally discover the story I want to tell, the one I want to spend a lot of time with. For example, with The Heavenly Table, I initially started out thinking I would write a historical novel about Camp Sherman, a huge army training camp built on the edge of Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1917. Some of the main characters included grave robbers, a doctor whose wife was addicted to opium, and several soldiers from various parts of the country. And then one morning, in that mysterious way the creative process works, along came the Jewett brothers; and a few days later, I abandoned the other characters and story and set off with them. So it’s all very “organic,” and messy, but it’s the only way I can really discover the story.
Last boring question about structure, I promise! In The Heavenly Table, you managed to cram 72 chapters and an epilogue into 391 pages, by switching up the POV every four to five pages. What made you decide to write such short chapters?
I always have a great fear of boring the reader. I knew the book was going to be fairly long, so I decided to write short chapters that I hoped would help move the story along at a fast pace. After I finished, I began to wonder if maybe I overdid it, accelerated it too much, but then doubting myself is what I do best. In the end, all I can do is hope that some will like the way I did it, and pray that not too many hate it.
Your work falls into that blurry subgenre of literary fiction with many colorful names: grit lit, hick lit, hillbilly noir, country noir, backwoods noir, rural gothic, etc. Do you have a preferred term for these kinds of stories?
The way I see it, labels are necessary as a way to describe a book or its genre in a nutshell; and though I really don’t have any preference, someone once called my stuff “Southern Ohio Gothic,” and I’m a little partial to that one.
Whatever you call it, why do you think these kinds of stories have been experiencing such a renaissance lately? What do you consider to be the lineage of the genre? Are there any authors you particularly admire that we should also be reading?
I’ve heard some people complain that they’re a little tired of reading fiction set on the East Coast or the West Coast, among the affluent and educated; and a lot of them, maybe because the majority of people or at least readers, live in urban areas, now look upon rural areas and characters as a bit, I don’t know, “refreshing.” Or at least not the same old stuff. As for the lineage of rural gothic, the simplified version as I see it would be Faulkner > Erskine Caldwell > Flannery O’Connor > Davis Grubb > Harry Crews > Barry Hannah > Daniel Woodrell > William Gay > Ron Rash (of course, I’m leaving out a lot of writers who had a part in it). Some of the newer writers that people should take notice of, some funny, some noir, some gothic, are George Singleton, Alex Taylor, Mark Powell, David Joy, Sheldon Lee Compton, Scott McClanahan, and Tom Cooper.
Your work is characterized by an almost operatic violence, in which many characters come to horrible ends. How much do you consider the readers’ reactions while you’re writing, and does it ever cause you to rein in the carnage? Or are you more like George R. R. Martin, who I always imagine as taking gleeful delight in killing off his characters? Have you ever written anything and thought “no, dude, that’s just too much”? Have you ever had a horrified editor tell you that?
No, unfortunately, I seldom think of the reader while I’m writing, and because of that, much to my wife’s chagrin, I will probably never come close to hitting the best seller list (at least that’s my excuse!) The reason I find it nearly impossible to write, say, a magazine article someone has asked for is that I immediately start thinking and worrying about the reader (and the editor), in a way I don’t have to if I’m working on a novel that I don’t yet have a contract for. Basically, I write for myself and hope there’s something in it that Doubleday likes. As for stuff in my work that made even me a little nervous, I did write a couple of scenes in The Devil All the Time that I later cut because they might have had people questioning my sanity, well, more people anyway, but that’s about all.
Despite this focus on violence and other rather bleak themes, your writing is beautifully expressive, even lyrical. Do you think this relieves the readers’ potential discomfort with the subject matter by prettifying it, or does the contrast only accentuate the impact of the horror?
Thank you for saying that. It means a lot to me. I really don’t know the answer to the question, just that I try my best to write as well as possible, and to be clear. I have to work at it; unlike some writers who are blessed with the ability to pump out one beautiful sentence or metaphor after another, I have no “natural” talent for writing. One thing I’d like to say is that I try to minimize a lot of the “horror” by making it quick or using backstory and “remembering” to describe it. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but, for example, readers find out about most of Carl’s crimes, the serial killer in The Devil All the Time, when he’s reliving them through memory.
Although your characters do so many appalling things, they are not wholly unsympathetic. How do you strike that balance between a reader’s natural inclination to seeing justice served, atrocities punished, and their equally natural inclination to connect with characters they’ve come to “know” over the course of a book? Is there a character you’ve written to whom you yourself feel an emotional attachment? Is there a character you’ve written with any autobiographical elements? (And if you say Jasper, we will require proof, and I don’t know if LARB’s standards of decency will allow for that.)
Ha! Good one about Jasper. Maybe because of my own personal troubles in the past, I have always been able to summon up empathy for people who end up living terrible lives, many through no real fault of their own, and I also understand how one thoughtless act or mistake often leads to ruin. So there’s that. It’s easy, of course, to make someone either totally despicable or totally good, but people, even the ones I write about, are a little more complicated than that, and one of the fiction writer’s toughest jobs is to make his characters “human,” so that the reader does develop these mixed emotions you mentioned. And, yes, I’ve felt an emotional attachment with several of my characters, especially Bobby in three of the Knockemstiff stories and Arvin in The Devil All the Time, and with both of those some autobiographical elements came into play.
Your books always contain themes of poverty, addiction, and violence. Do you consider your work nihilistic? Pessimistic? Realistic?
I suppose a little bit of all three. I try to be upbeat in my personal life, and I know that I’m a very lucky person who has had a great life, but I’m a born pessimist. I have always viewed the world as a harsh, violent, unfair place, and it shows through in my work. On occasion, I even complain about not being able to write a “nice” story.
I am myself from a tiny village in the tiniest state of them all, and I developed my hunger for books at an early age, always drawn to authors like Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy, who tapped into that sense of yearning and restlessness so well. Did your earliest reading habits follow a similar trajectory? Do you have any influences or favorite authors that might be surprising to your fans?
There were no books in our home when I was growing up, and my earliest reading, unfortunately, consisted mainly of trashy romance and true crime magazines. Two of the first books I was obsessed with were Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop and Earl Thompson’s A Garden of Sand. I was maybe 13 when I first picked up Morley’s book in the school library, and I think what interested me most was his descriptions of the Parnassus bookshop, probably because I had never seen one. With Thompson’s novel, I was 15 or 16 when I read it, and it was the first book I’d encountered that contained characters much like some of the people I’d grown up with; and I really didn’t know you could write about people like that. As for some of my favorite writers, the list is huge, but includes Nabokov, Cheever, Yates, early Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, John Williams, Vasily Grossman, Michel Houellebecq, Jim Crace, Beryl Bainbridge, on and on. I know I’m considered a crime fiction writer, and I imagine most people figure I eat that stuff by the bale, but, to be honest, with the exception of David Goodis, Jim Thompson, and James M. Cain, the only time I ever read crime fiction is when I’m asked to blurb it. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but I started late in this racket, and there’s just so many other books I feel I should read before I die.
Like Madame Bovary, many of your characters experience disappointment or tragedy resulting from unrealistic worldviews or expectations they have developed by reading books, and books are often demonized as bad influences:
Eula had insisted that Eddie finish the sixth grade before he was allowed to quit school, and the farmer was convinced that a big part of the boy’s problem had to do with his education. In other words, he had gotten just enough of it to fuck him up for the real world. Ellsworth had seen it happen before, mostly to flighty types like horny spinsters and weak-eyed store clerks with a lot of time to kill. They would stick their noses in a book and then all of a sudden Ross County, Ohio, wasn’t good enough for them.
Is this attitude something you encountered growing up? Or is this just you winking at your readers?
The book stuff with Ellsworth is meant more as a joke, showing how backward he is in some ways, but I did encounter this attitude to an extent when I was growing up. There were people in Knockemstiff, heck, probably even teachers at my school, who didn’t believe that books could teach you much, and that those who read a lot were essentially dreamers and loafers. You have to remember that this was back when a boy coming out of high school could still land a union job if he tried. Granted, more people in southern Ohio were starting to go to college, but it wasn’t seen as an absolute “necessity” like it is these days.
Your characters are frequently outsider types; restless people living in small towns whose dreams are bigger than their prospects. Do you think that this restlessness is specific to people growing up in small towns or do you think it’s just hardwired into the human condition to want to be somewhere else, somewhere different?
I don’t think it matters if they live in a small town or a metropolis, a lot of people are going to think that their lives might be better if they could just move somewhere else, but not just that. Many of them want to be someone else, too, and I find it a subject worth writing about because, in a sense, it’s an almost universal feeling that most experience at one time or another, not just small-town losers. You can be a Princeton grad with a million dollar salary and still feel trapped.