00:00:09>>From the Center for the Study and the Teaching
00:00:10of Writing from The Ohio State University,
00:00:12this is Writers Talk. I'm Doug Dangler.
00:00:15Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Ohio and worked for
00:00:1732 years in a Chillicothe paper mill accumulating
00:00:20experiences and stories for his writing.
00:00:22His first collection of stories, Knockemstiff,
00:00:25drew rave reviews and an avid following.
00:00:27His recently released debut novel, The Devil All
00:00:30the Time, returns to the same area for an
00:00:32extended tour of the Knockemstiff style.
00:00:35He's a graduate of The Ohio State University
00:00:38Masters of Fine Arts program, so welcome to
00:00:40Writers Talk, Donald Ray Pollock.
00:00:41>>Hey. Thanks Doug for having me on.
00:00:44>>Well sure.
00:00:46Well, let's start off with this Masters in Fine
00:00:47Arts from this suspicious school,
00:00:49The Ohio State University.
00:00:52>>What did the program teach you?
00:00:53What did you learn when you're getting your MFA?
00:00:55You've got 32 years of experience at a paper mill
00:00:57and some writing and then you went there.
00:00:58So how does the education fit
00:01:00into the picture for you?
00:01:02>>Well, ok, so I was 50 when
00:01:05I went to grad school.
00:01:07I started writing when I was 45.
00:01:10I didn't know any writers or had never been
00:01:12around any work shops or anything like that, so
00:01:17those five years in the beginning I was just sort
00:01:21of guessing at what to do a lot of times.
00:01:28I think one of the reasons I went to grad school
00:01:34so that I would be around other people who were
00:01:37interested in writing and they gave me all that.
00:01:42They sort of taught me, well this is the writer's
00:01:44life, this is what you do as far as reading and
00:01:47working everyday and
00:01:52keeping your butt in a chair.
00:01:56Just basic mechanic stuff even, you know.
00:01:59>>What do you mean by basic mechanic stuff?
00:02:02>>Plot. How do create a scene.
00:02:07I was fairly good with some of that stuff, but
00:02:11most of my stories were very short.
00:02:15I'm talking anywhere from eight to twelve or
00:02:18thirteen pages, and I guess one of the main
00:02:22things that I learned was that
00:02:24I always worked from the last sentence.
00:02:30I would start with one sentence and move to the
00:02:32next, then I would move to the next.
00:02:35Writing a story like that takes a long time, and
00:02:38so one of the first things I learned was hey,
00:02:42just write a rough draft and then you'll have
00:02:45something to work with and you go back.
00:02:48It quickened the writing process up.
00:02:49>>So what does your rough draft look
00:02:51like if it wasn't on a linear kind of writing?
00:02:53What is that rough draft?
00:02:55Do you just want the main scene?
00:02:57The heart of the scene?
00:02:59Where does that go for you?
00:03:01>>Sometimes it might just be an
00:03:03eight or ten pages on a character.
00:03:07It just gives me something to start with instead
00:03:11of that one sentence at a time sort of thing,
00:03:16which maybe had something to do with
00:03:20trying to be perfect or something like that.
00:03:23Art's not like that.
00:03:25It's not going to be perfect.
00:03:28And there were a lot of things, but you know that
00:03:31was one of the big things that it taught me, that
00:03:34this is the life you live if you want to be a
00:03:38writer and that sort of thing.
00:03:43>>What were those first five years like
00:03:45when you were writing the short pieces?
00:03:48It's always been fiction for you I take it.
00:03:51>>You're a writer.
00:03:53You haven't dabbled in other areas,
00:03:54and it's the fiction that works for you.
00:03:57>>Well, at least for the first
00:03:58five years it was all fiction.
00:04:00I've done a few little nonfiction things
00:04:04since then, but I really prefer the fiction.
00:04:06>>Why is that?
00:04:07What is there about making up the story that
00:04:09appeals to you about making up the characters?
00:04:16>>Truthfully, I just think that I'm
00:04:17better at fiction than I am in nonfiction.
00:04:20Sort of like I am with the nonfiction,
00:04:23the things already there to a certain degree.
00:04:28I just find it a little bit harder.
00:04:31Some of the nonfiction I've done is.
00:04:34I did some political pieces for the
00:04:37New York Times, and so I would have to
00:04:40go out and interview somebody or get a
00:04:44story instead of sitting in the attic and
00:04:47getting the story from up here.
00:04:49It's a little harder for me.
00:04:54>>So you're in the attic and you're getting the
00:04:56stories up here, but are those things that you
00:04:59later consciously recognize as ok I'm drawing on
00:05:01this experience to get this, or does it really
00:05:03surprise you at the end when you read and I
00:05:05didn't know that was in there,
00:05:06I don't know where that came from?
00:05:08I don't want to do the idea of where do your
00:05:10ideas come from, but what are they
00:05:13like for you after they come out?
00:05:15>>Well, a lot of times I will recognize things
00:05:18that maybe I heard in the past, or maybe
00:05:21I saw or something like that,
00:05:25but they'll be little things.
00:05:28It's never been anything major - a car somebody
00:05:34drove or maybe a little clip of dialogue I heard
00:05:38at the paper mill fifteen years ago.
00:05:42>>Memorable dialogue though.
00:05:44You've kept it for 15 years and
00:05:46used it in other stories.
00:05:47>>Yes, eventually.
00:05:49>>Now, you said in a New York Times
00:05:51article that for your stories in Knockemstiff,
00:05:52"In writing about the place I amped it up quite a bit.
00:05:54I focused on the trouble and bad stuff."
00:05:57So I had originally planned to ask you
00:06:00about how the Knockemstiff community has
00:06:02reacted to your writing, but then after I
00:06:04had read that I read this post on your
00:06:08Facebook page: "Nice article in the Times.
00:06:10I am very happy for you and my dad would think
00:06:12that seeing that bar mentioned in the New York
00:06:15Times would have been a pretty cool thing.
00:06:18Congrats!" So has the reaction been
00:06:20positive from the community?
00:06:23It has got to be, I'm guessing, a mixed bag.
00:06:26>>Probably 90 percent, 95 percent positive.
00:06:30There were a couple people who were upset saying
00:06:34that I portrayed the town in this
00:06:38particular light, this really negative light.
00:06:45The funny thing about a lot of the people in the
00:06:51community, in the area even, is that because the
00:06:54book is called Knockemstiff and because there is
00:06:59an actual place called Knockemstiff, they have a
00:07:02hard time understanding that it's fiction.
00:07:05They pick the book up and they think that I'm
00:07:10writing these stories about this has actually
00:07:16happened in Knockemstiff, and that's where some
00:07:23people don't really comprehend the difference
00:07:27between fiction and nonfiction maybe?
00:07:32I'm not saying that they're dumb or anything,
00:07:36it's just that because the book was called
00:07:39Knockemstiff they just have other expectations.
00:07:45>>Another quote from you.
00:07:47You said that, "I'd like to write a book that
00:07:50wasn't so violent and weird, but I don't think I
00:07:52can do that with my talent.
00:07:54I don't think it would come off."
00:07:56Why do you feel that way?
00:07:59Why do you feel like it wouldn't come off?
00:08:01What is there that attracts you to darker
00:08:02material like Knockemstiff and
00:08:06The Devil All the Time?
00:08:08>>I think for me and just the way I've always
00:08:11seen the world, and I have always viewed the
00:08:15world as sort of a sad and violent and troubled
00:08:18place for the most part.
00:08:20>>And this is why you went into writing.
00:08:27I find it very easy, and I'm interested in the
00:08:30characters and that sort of thing.
00:08:33With that quote the guy was asking me.
00:08:37We were talking about Barbara Pam and
00:08:42some other English writers and some
00:08:45of their stories aren't like mine.
00:08:47Let's put it that way.
00:08:49>>I can't think of a lot of people
00:08:51whose stories are like yours actually.
00:08:53>>Well and I've tried to write what I think
00:08:59people might call a nice story, and I've never
00:09:03been able to pull it off, you know.
00:09:04I mean it's like, for example, in Knockemstiff
00:09:08the first story in the book is called "Real Life"
00:09:10about this kid who goes to the drive-in
00:09:16with their dad and it's a violent story.
00:09:19Now that story started out when I was trying to
00:09:21write this nice story about a memory
00:09:24I had about my uncle taking me to the
00:09:25drive-in to see Godzilla.
00:09:28We're talking 1960 or 1961
00:09:31or something like that.
00:09:33And we had a really good time and my uncle was
00:09:36this real laid back guy and just a super nice
00:09:39person, and I couldn't write that story and I
00:09:43couldn't write that story until I made.
00:09:46Ok, we've got to have this father who is a drunk
00:09:49and we've got this trouble going on.
00:09:54I've always heard that you have to have a little
00:09:59bit of trouble in your writing or your story to
00:10:03make it interesting and I do go overboard.
00:10:05I know I go overboard. I just find it easy.
00:10:10>>Another MFA at Ohio State described fiction
00:10:14to me as people doing terrible things to each
00:10:18other and that was his definition of it, so I'm
00:10:20starting to wonder what OSU is putting out.
00:10:26But to follow up on that, your public persona
00:10:34seems really at odds with the writing content.
00:10:37I don't want to confuse the author in the work,
00:10:39but arriving at such eccentric, violent, and
00:10:42abusive stories seems like a really interesting
00:10:45moment for you when you're passing that out.
00:10:48Here's a side note: We talked about three years
00:10:50ago at, I think, at the Ohio Book Festival and I had
00:10:52not read Knockemstiff at the time because we were
00:10:54doing a series of interviews, and so
00:10:56I went home and I said this guy seems
00:10:57perfectly nice and I got the book.
00:10:59Oh my God.
00:11:04So tell me about being an author.
00:11:06You go to these things, the people learn about
00:11:08you through the books and what's
00:11:10their reaction to you?
00:11:12What's their reaction to the public persona?
00:11:15Other writers who are like this are much.
00:11:18Chuck Pallanick does a lot of sort of
00:11:25interesting things when he does a reading
00:11:29and I haven't seen you do that.
00:11:31>>No. I'm not a showman and Chuck's
00:11:34just really good at that.
00:11:39I guess probably some people are surprised
00:11:43because I don't know what they're expecting
00:11:47really, some real tough guy I guess maybe.
00:11:54I'm not like that. I never have been.
00:11:59My dad was a tough guy and he's 81
00:12:04and he's still a tough guy.
00:12:09Both my parents are alive.
00:12:12I took after my mother and my mother is sort of a
00:12:17shy, calm, laid back person and I took after her,
00:12:23but at the same time I guess maybe I.
00:12:36Well, I'm not really sure.
00:12:39People's reactions are different.
00:12:42I know Michelle Herman at OSU, before
00:12:45she ever met me I think she was
00:12:47a little concerned about it.
00:12:51She didn't want to be left in a room with me
00:12:53alone or something like that.
00:12:57It was that sort of thing.
00:13:01That's what the writing brings off.
00:13:04>>Well, I went back to the tape and listened to
00:13:06the tape and said is this the same guy
00:13:08because in the interview it was a very calm
00:13:11interview, and then I read the book and said
00:13:13this is quite a remarkable change to
00:13:15have the writing verses the person.
00:13:17Well let's do this.
00:13:19Viewers frequently compare Knockemstiff to
00:13:22Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio due to
00:13:24structural and thematic similarities .
00:13:26What's your reaction to that?
00:13:28Is that something you were conscious about in
00:13:30your mind when you were writing it?
00:13:32Did you have thoughts of Winesburg, Ohio?
00:13:36>>No. I mean probably.
00:13:38I think there are 18 stories in the book.
00:13:42I think I wrote eight or nine of them before I
00:13:44figured out that I had a story
00:13:48collection going on.
00:13:54It was probably with the ninth or tenth story I
00:13:57figured out that we're going to set this
00:13:59book in Knockemstiff.
00:14:04It was at that point I was starting to find short
00:14:07story collections that were linked or
00:14:10all set in one specific place.
00:14:12I had read Winesburg long before that,
00:14:16but I really wasn't conscious of it.
00:14:19It wasn't like I was trying to make a
00:14:24Winesburg for the twenty-first century
00:14:26or something like that.
00:14:28>>Winesburg! Violent! Violent!
00:14:30What were the things that you found?
00:14:33What would you identify as some
00:14:34of the predecessors?
00:14:37Is there something that helped
00:14:40you in your mind structure the book or
00:14:42lend it some of the authenticity?
00:14:44>>Well, there's a collection of stories by
00:14:46Russell Banks called Trailer Park all
00:14:50set in this mobile home park.
00:14:52There's a book and I cannot think of the title.
00:14:54There's a book by the guy who won the Flannery
00:14:58Connor[c5] Award and it was set in
00:15:02a small town of upstate Pennsylvania.
00:15:06I can't think of it right now.
00:15:11Circus in Winter by Cathy Day is another one.
00:15:18James Joyce's Dubliners.
00:15:24There are quite a few of them out there
00:15:28once you start searching for them.
00:15:31>>I think that you're going to read a little
00:15:32something from the prologue to
00:15:34help set up the novel for us.
00:15:38I'll just read the first couple paragraphs here
00:15:40which sort of gives an explanation of the title.
00:15:44"On a dismal morning on the end of a wet October,
00:15:47Arvan Eugene Russell hurried behind his father,
00:15:49Willard, along the edge of a pasture that
00:15:51overlooked a long and rocky field in
00:15:56southern Ohio called Knockemstiff.
00:15:59Willard was tall and raw boned and Arvan
00:16:01had a hard time keeping up with him.
00:16:03The field was overrun with briar patches and
00:16:06fading clumps of chick weed and thistle and
00:16:08ground fog thick as the grey clouds above
00:16:10reached to the nine year old boys knee's.
00:16:13After a few minutes they veered off into the
00:16:15woods and followed a narrow deer path down the
00:16:17hill until they came to a log lying in a small
00:16:19clearing, the remains of a big red oak
00:16:21that had fallen many years ago.
00:16:24A weathered cross fitted together out of boards
00:16:27pried from the back of the ram shackled barn
00:16:30behind their farm house leaned a little
00:16:32eastward in the soft ground parts below them.
00:16:35Willard eased himself down the high side of the
00:16:37log and motioned for his son to
00:16:39kneel beside him in the dead, soggy leaves.
00:16:42Unless he had whiskey running through his veins
00:16:44Willard came to the clearing every
00:16:46morning and evening to talk to God.
00:16:49Arven didn't know which was worse,
00:16:50the drinking or the praying.
00:16:53As far back as he couple remember it seemed that
00:16:55his father had fought the devil all the time,
00:16:58Arven shivered a little with a damp,
00:17:01pulled his coat tighter.
00:17:03He wished he was still in bed.
00:17:05Even school, with all its miseries,
00:17:07was better than this.
00:17:09But it was a Saturday and there
00:17:11was no way to get round it."
00:17:14>>Now one of the things that I think
00:17:16of when you're reading that is that your
00:17:18voice lends a very different character to it.
00:17:20Have you done the audio book for this?
00:17:22>>No. They've done an audio book.
00:17:24>>Who is the reader on that?
00:17:25>>I can't even tell you.
00:17:27>>So you haven't gotten it?
00:17:28>>I haven't even gotten it yet.
00:17:30>>Without getting you in trouble with the
00:17:32person that did that, who would you
00:17:36have wanted if you could choose anyone?
00:17:38What would be the voice of
00:17:40The Devil All the Time?
00:17:44>>Well I'm not sure who it would be.
00:17:46I guess I would probably choose somebody
00:17:48who had a little bit of a Southern twang going on.
00:17:51Other than that I don't know.
00:17:53>>You're open to anybody.
00:17:56>>Anyone that can stand to read though the
00:17:59entire thing out loud I guess.
00:18:00>>So stand to read it?
00:18:02That's the bar that you're setting?
00:18:05Anybody that can stay awake through
00:18:08all the violence, that person can read it?
00:18:10In a review of The Devil All the Time, the
00:18:12Columbus Dispatch said, "He doesn't extend
00:18:14forgiveness to the characters, but he makes even
00:18:17the most evil of them understandable."
00:18:20Tell me about ethics for you in writing.
00:18:25You said that you know you go over the top.
00:18:28Could or has one of your characters gone too far
00:18:31and you reigned it back in, or is that not a
00:18:34question for you, they cannot go too far?
00:18:37>>Well yeah, I think they can go too far.
00:18:43I've had people who've said that I didn't go far
00:18:50enough with some of the violence
00:18:54and the visceral details.
00:18:59>>How do you respond to that?
00:19:02What's your thought about that?
00:19:07>>Well its sort of like well, people are going
00:19:10to say I went too far; people are
00:19:12going to say I didn't go far enough.
00:19:14You can never please everybody.
00:19:17>>I guess I have that Michelle Herman reaction
00:19:18where if someone comes up to me saying I don't
00:19:20think you went far enough with the visceral
00:19:23detail, I would say I don't want to
00:19:25be alone in a room with you.
00:19:26You worry me, sir.
00:19:28You worry me a great deal.
00:19:31But has that been a problem for you in writing?
00:19:33You say in this section I wrote it was good to
00:19:35have written it, but now I have to set it aside
00:19:37because I don't think that it's going
00:19:39to set the tenor that I want because
00:19:41of going over the top.
00:19:45>>The thing with the gritty violence and all
00:19:49of the pretty awful details at times is
00:19:56that I have to make a choice.
00:20:01Am I going to follow what I consider ok, this is
00:20:06the way the book should be written or as I said,
00:20:11am I going to try to please the readers?
00:20:15A lot of the readers I know, a lot more of them
00:20:20are going to read the book if some
00:20:23of those details or if the book's not
00:20:26nearly as violent and gritty as it is.
00:20:30On the other hand, am I going to like the book?
00:20:36Am I going to think that I did the
00:20:38best I could with it?
00:20:49>>Tell me about the research that you go into
00:20:52on the book when you're writing fiction.
00:20:55This is set in the location close to
00:20:57where you grew up even though it's fiction.
00:21:01Is there stuff that you say as an author I have
00:21:03to chase this down, I have to go look it up,
00:21:05even though its fiction, to make sure
00:21:07you get details right?
00:21:10How does that operate for you in fiction, or is
00:21:13it wholly just I can depend on my memory of the
00:21:16conversation I had twenty years ago.
00:21:20>>Well, pretty much with Ross county, with the
00:21:22area around Knockemstiff, I can pretty much rely
00:21:25on my memory.
00:21:27I'm fifty-six years old. I've lived there all my life.
00:21:30Now part of the book is set in southern West
00:21:33Virginia, and I did drive down there and walked
00:21:36around Louisburg and talked with some people.
00:21:40I contacted a guy who works for
00:21:43the historical society there.
00:21:47He was a really nice guy.
00:21:52I needed to know where the bus station
00:21:56was there in 1946, that sort of thing.
00:21:58What street was it on?
00:22:02And he gave me a lot more details than I actually
00:22:05used in the book and I asked him more questions
00:22:08than I needed to, but I got a pretty
00:22:12good sense of it that way.
00:22:15The only other research that I did was I read
00:22:19several books on serial killers, three or four.
00:22:25I was going along ok with it, but then I read a
00:22:31book about John Wayne Gacy called Buried Dreams
00:22:35by Tim Cahill and that book gave me nightmares.
00:22:40>>There's a point you say when I was reading
00:22:43about serial killers and I was going along ok
00:22:45with it then you run into something
00:22:48bad, you've gone pretty far there.
00:22:51Did they just have the descriptions
00:22:54of it or getting into the characters mind?
00:22:56>>Tim Cahill is a really good writer.
00:22:59He's a nonfiction writer and this
00:23:01was his first book.
00:23:04I never even heard of it until
00:23:06I was doing this research.
00:23:08Yeah, it just got very graphic about
00:23:11what Gacy was doing and that sort of thing.
00:23:14After that I decided that's enough,
00:23:18I don't need anymore research on these guys.
00:23:22>>I recall you saying in an interview that you
00:23:25force yourself to stay in the chair and
00:23:27I think you said that earlier.
00:23:29That's one of the things you have to do
00:23:31as a writer, and that is you had to discipline
00:23:32yourself to just stay there and not
00:23:34get up, not go anywhere.
00:23:36How do you do that?
00:23:38Do you have a series of belts that you wrap
00:23:40around and you don't let yourself up?
00:23:42>>No, but I have heard of people doing that.
00:23:45Have someone tie them in a chair.
00:23:46>>Are you serious?
00:23:50>>Usually a writing period is, for me, four to
00:23:57five hours most times and I've got enough
00:24:03self-discipline that I can sit there for four or
00:24:06five hours even if nothing is going on,
00:24:09and there are plenty of days where
00:24:11there is nothing going on.
00:24:14I also know that if I don't sit there really
00:24:19there isn't anything that's going to go on.
00:24:22I have to sit there at least for a
00:24:26fairly good amount of time.
00:24:32>>The pure mechanics of this now.
00:24:36Do you have a sign saying "Do Not Disturb"
00:24:38and you're up in the attic and
00:24:40everybody knows to leave you alone.
00:24:42I'm curious as to how that works out.
00:24:44>>Oh yeah.
00:24:45>>So you've got that authenticity now.
00:24:46You've got those two books you're like
00:24:48"I'm going upstairs for my four hours.
00:24:50I'll be down to have lunch."
00:24:52>>That's pretty much it. There's no cell phone.
00:24:54There's no Internet. There's nothing up there.
00:24:56>>So do you write long hand or computer?
00:24:58>>No, I have a computer up there,
00:25:00but its not hooked up to the net.
00:25:02>>It's death for a writer to have the Internet?
00:25:03>>Yes, I believe that.
00:25:06>>What are you working on now?
00:25:08>>I'm working on another novel.
00:25:10I don't really want to say too much about it.
00:25:13I can tell you this: it's set in the early 1980's
00:25:16in Mead, Ohio, near Chillicothe.
00:25:21That's about it right now.
00:25:23That's all I want to talk about.
00:25:28How long have you been working on that?
00:25:30>>Probably four or five months.
00:25:33Now the last month hasn't been good.
00:25:35I really haven't gotten any work done,
00:25:38just a lot of stuff with the book
00:25:40and I get easily distracted.
00:25:42Really for the last month it has
00:25:44really been sitting on the porch talking
00:25:48to the stray cats, that sort of thing.
00:25:50Not working.
00:25:55>>Have they started talking back?
00:25:57>>In their own special way I guess.
00:25:58>>What's your method when you're teaching?
00:26:00I know you're an MFA, but I'm pretty sure you
00:26:05>>I taught at OSU when I was in grad school.
00:26:09>>So how do you turn the corner on that
00:26:10and say what will work for me as a writer?
00:26:12How do you communicate that to other people?
00:26:15>>Well, I'm not teaching now, ok.
00:26:18Part of that is that when I went to grad school
00:26:20I had this idea that ok, I'll go to grad school.
00:26:24I left my job that I had been at for years
00:26:26and I will try to write a book.
00:26:29I'll get a nice job at a college
00:26:32teaching and that will be it.
00:26:35Unfortunately I discovered that
00:26:38I wasn't a really good teacher.
00:26:43I didn't have the confidence that it takes.
00:26:47To teach, you have to at least think
00:26:49that you know what you're
00:26:52talking about and I don't have that.
00:26:58For me, I was ok if it was a weeklong workshop or
00:27:02something like that, but after about a week I run
00:27:05out of things to say because there really
00:27:08are only so many things you can say.
00:27:12Like a creative writing class, it really comes
00:27:15down to you either do the work
00:27:16or you don't do it.
00:27:20We can workshop the stories and critique them
00:27:23and try to guide a person as far as this is
00:27:31nice and you shouldn't have done this,
00:27:36something like that. I just don't have the...
00:27:40For me, it just comes down to basics:
00:27:45Sit in the chair, write everyday, read as
00:27:50much as you can, and just keep working at it.
00:27:55>>That's what led you to just
00:27:57tie the kids to the chairs.
00:27:59That was the problem?
00:28:03>>You're going to sit here and
00:28:05write the whole time.
00:28:07>>Most of the classes that I had you'd
00:28:09have to tie the kids to the chairs I think.
00:28:11>>Alright, well that's good advice
00:28:13and in no way am I endorsing that.
00:28:15I want to be very, very clear.
00:28:17But Donald Ray Pollock, I thank you very much for
00:28:21being here today on Writers Talk with your new
00:28:24book The Devil All the Time, and you've got
00:28:27Knockemstiff and one coming out that you won't
00:28:29tell us anything about, but it will be out
00:28:31sometime in the future.
00:28:33>>It will be awhile, yes.
00:28:35>>Well thank you very much.
00:28:36>>Thank you, Doug. Thanks for having me on.
00:28:38From the Center for the Study and the
00:28:39Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University,
00:28:40this is Doug Dangler. Keep writing.
Note : Transcripts are compiled from uncorrected captions