It seemed unlikely that Donald Ray Pollock's debut collection, Knockemstiff, published in 2008, would cause much fuss in the literary world. Its 18 stories feature a cast of characters so unseemly and depraved, so lacking in common sense or decency, that the book seemed destined to sell a few copies to a few weirdoes and be forgotten. But Pollock's voice is so assured and his vision so precise (and his humor so black) that critics couldn't help but praise the book as a minor masterpiece.
Even The New York Times weighed in, comparing the collection favorably to another Midwestern story cycle, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. The Times did note, however, that while the depravity of Anderson's characters was hidden beneath socially acceptable veneers, Pollock's characters "wear their grotesqueness high up on their sleeves." Knockemstiff features addicts of many kinds, drunks, kidnappers, prostitutes, child molesters, wife beaters, child beaters and a mother who makes her son act out sexual fantasies in which he pretends to be the mass murderer Richard Speck. Pollock manages to refrain from both judgment and sentimentality, allowing the exact amount of grace necessary to keep his stories honest and, almost miraculously, free of cynicism.
Knockemstiff's popularity wasn't hurt by the feel-good backstory of its author. Born and raised in the actual Southern Ohio holler of Knockemstiff, Pollock dropped out of high school to work in a meatpacking plant. After a brief time in Florida, he returned to Knockemstiff and spent the next 30-some years at the paper mill in nearby Chillicothe. Taking night classes, he earned an English degree from Ohio University, and he learned to write fiction by typing out the stories of authors he admired: Denis Johnson, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway. He published his first story, "Bactine," when he was 51, in the literary journal at Ohio State University. The editor was so impressed that she convinced him to enroll in Ohio State's M.F.A. program. Two years later, Knockemstiff was published.
Now Pollock's first novel has been released. Set in both Knockemstiff and Appalachian West Virginia, and along the highways of the Midwest and the South, The Devil All the Time weaves together three interlocking narratives and spans the time between the end of World War II and the 1960s. One strand features Willard Russell, who has survived the horrors of the war and is now feverishly trying to save his beloved wife Charlotte from cancer by making blood sacrifices at his prayer log out back. Another strand follows the married couple Carl and Sandy, serial killers who pick up hitchhikers only to photograph and kill them. The final strand centers on the preacher Roy and his crippled cousin Theodore, who, having failed to bring Roy's wife back from the dead (after murdering her), go on the lam for the next two decades. The heart of the book, though, is Arvin Russell, the son of Willard and Charlotte, who, like many of Pollock's characters, tries like hell to escape his fate.
I interviewed Pollock the week The Devil All the Time was released. He drove me around Chillicothe and then into Knockemstiff. We talked as he drove.
So when you're answering questions now, do you feel you're on the spot, or have you been doing it long enough to feel comfortable being interviewed?
I'm nervous. Because you never know what these people are gonna ask you. And I'm not really that good at explaining. I get asked questions that I really have no idea on how to respond.
Well, this older guy asked, "While you were writing this novel, you know, the novel's very violent; what did you learn about violence while writing this novel?" I just had no idea. I mean, I don't think I learned anything.
The story is set in that period we normally think of as being America's Golden Age — Eisenhower, the middle class, America the superpower, high standard of living. But for the characters in your books, it's a totally different world. So why that time period?
Well, I just think that I feel more comfortable writing about that period. Say from the early '50s through the '70s. I just feel real comfortable. And probably, too, I'm a little nostalgic for that time.
That's funny. You know, for someone who has read your books to hear you say you're nostalgic.
My dad had a job, he had a good job; we would have been considered middle class. But most of the people I grew up with were not. They didn't see any of those boom times, I guess you might call them. And you know, when LBJ started the social programs, Knockemstiff was one of the places where they sent a guy to help build a baseball diamond so the kids would have somewhere to play.
Right, right, America's in the boom times, but there are social programs. So the social-program guy shows up in Knockemstiff, and — in your story, anyway — the guy they send molests a kid, right?
There were people, like my dad, who worked at the paper mill; several people out there had fathers who worked at the paper mill. I think maybe one or two worked at the prison. One or two worked at what they called the atomic plant down in Piketon. So there were some people with some good jobs. But then there were a lot of people, I mean, I really don't know how they were living. Their dads didn't seem to work, or not very much. Then there were others who, they just worked on a farm. Of course that was a period when you could still farm. A farmer might hire a dozen people every once in a while. Bring in the hay or whatever.
Are you aiming in your work for a kind of social history?
You know, with this book ... I wasn't aiming for anything literary. I was aiming for — you know, I wanted this gritty sort of crime-story type thing that just kind of reads fast and that maybe people will keep reading.
So the serial killers, and the hitchhiking theme.
I hitchhiked a lot back then.
I hitchhiked up and down California. And you do run into the freaks. I'm not saying you always run into serial killers. What was the guy's name in Chicago?
Well, Gacy — I read a book on him before I started this book. He killed one or two in the late '60s, but then it was in the early '60s that he went on his big spree. He killed mostly hitchhikers. Of course not all, but most of them were hitchhikers. And then there were a couple guys out in California doing that in the '70s.
Carl and Sandy just started a little earlier, I guess.
In the "Rainy Sunday" story in Knockemstiff, there's Sharon and her aunt, who are picking up men, and the aunt may or may not be killing these guys.
Yeah, I wanted to leave that open.
So are Sharon and her aunt models for Carl and Sandy? Did you have them in mind when you started thinking about the novel?
No. The only character in The Devil All the Time that survives from Knockemstiff is Hank.
Right. And other than him, I wasn't really thinking too much about that other book. I was trying to get it right as far as Hank goes, but that's about it.
Didn't your family own a grocery store?
Yeah. I'll show you.
And is that the model for Maud Speakman's place, where Hank works?
Yeah. But there was also a woman who owned another grocery store about, oh, three miles away. And her name was Maud. It wasn't Speakman, but it was Maud something else. It started with an S, though.
Did you used to work in your family's store when you were a kid?
Oh yeah. A lot.
Did you sell a lot of baloney?
We sold a lot of baloney.
Because baloney comes up over and over again in your stories and in your novel.
Baloney's a staple.
There's baloney. Hot dogs show up all the time. And paper-bag disguises.
No prime rib in my books.
No, no prime rib. And photographers. You've got a thing against photographers.
I was just winging it, man. You know? I mean, what do they do with these hitchhikers? I wanted Carl to be this guy who sat around the apartment all the time.
He's ugly. And sort of festering. As opposed to these beautiful people going out and doing this stuff. What's the Oliver Stone movie?
Natural Born Killers.
Right. Where you have two of the most beautiful people in the world running around killing people. But Carl, especially, is just a gross individual.
There's a cousin of mine. See that guy on that mower?
There was that Brad Pitt movie, Kalifornia. Did you ever see that, where he's a serial killer?
I don't think so.
It's actually pretty good. And he's got this woman with him. But I just don't look upon those — in my head, I don't see serial killers as being beautiful people.
Except, who was it, Ted Bundy?
Ted Bundy was. He was a handsome guy.
So what road are we on now?
We're on Huntington Pike.
Were you worried about The Devil's critical reception?
I was nervous.
It's getting pretty freaking good reviews.
Well, yeah, I can't complain about the reception. I've only had what I consider one bad review and that was with Kirkus.
You have brothers and sisters?
Yeah. I've got two sisters and a brother. I'll show you where a couple of them live. But OK, then, the Mitchell Flats ...
What do your brothers and sisters think?
Well, my brother is — we get along OK, but my brother's been through some rough times. And he's, you know ...
He's not clean?
No, he's not clean. But he's one of these guys that just works, and he's not married now or anything. He's been married once and been divorced. He lives by himself. But my dad is one of these guys who, you know, to him, being successful is you own your own farm, you've got your own business. Writing books is like, ugh, why would anybody spend their time doing that? And we really, we just don't talk about it. He'll ask me where I'm going next and stuff like that, but he doesn't — he's never read anything.
He hasn't read any of it?
He doesn't read any of it. My mom has. But my dad, no. I think my dad's a little afraid of what he might find in it. I don't know.
Does that surprise you, that he's not interested?
No. I knew. And it's not like it bothers me. I just as soon he didn't read it.
What do your sisters think about all this?
My sisters are real supportive.
Has anyone in your family ever left Knockemstiff, or left Chillicothe? Left the area?
My immediate family? No.
Now all this through here, on both sides, there was none of this, none of these houses.
And was it grown up like this with trees, or was it clear?
Well, this was a field, and this was like a swamp. In fact this place right here, that was called Foggymoore. None of these houses were here. Now this house was here. It was the guy that owned all the land from here to my dad's.
How long have you been clean?
Well, the people you hang around became different, right?
Well, yeah. I mean, I ran around with those guys up until then. You know, I was working, and they never did work much, but I always worked. But I still hung around with them a lot. Well, probably until the last, until the last couple years I was drinking, and then I wasn't really hanging around too many people at all.
The idea of these road books, which is what your Devil is, in a sense — it's a road book. These characters all leave and start traveling and start moving. But just like in Knockemstiff, they all come back, and none of them gets away; nobody gets away.
Yeah, Arvin ends up back in Knockemstiff.
Yeah, exactly. The only characters who ever end up leaving Knockemstiff, even in the short stories, die. The only one I can think of who doesn't die is the sister of Charlotte; she takes off, and nobody ever hears from her again. So if you do make it out, you die. And the only outside forces that come into Knockemstiff are the do-gooders from the government, and they molest the children. So it's kind of like this closed-off world.
Well, when I was writing this book, I guess I wasn't really thinking of themes. You know, I just had these characters, and I wanted to somehow weave several different story lines and I wanted to somehow connect all these towards the end. And I had this vague idea of how I wanted to end the book. So for me it was like a nuts-and-bolts type thing. I mean, OK, so Roy's going to meet Carl and Sandy, so what's going to happen to Roy? You know, his daughter is dead, and he killed his wife. It's only logical that Roy dies, too. He doesn't make it back to Coal Creek.
Of course not.
So a lot of that was just plot devices. Other people, readers, can see things in a book that the writer can't.
I don't think you were thinking, "OK, they've left Knockemstiff; now I have to kill them." But I do think it's sort of interesting that in all the stories you've written, without thinking about it, that is what happens.
Right, and that could just be, unconsciously, when I was growing up and when I was a young man, I always wanted to be somewhere else. You know, after I cleaned my act up, I started accepting myself for who I was and I became satisfied. This is who I am. And I'm pretty much satisfied with just staying here. But you know, I have thought about maybe trying to move away. Especially since my wife's retired. But I doubt if I do.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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