Southern Ohio Gothic: An Interview With Donald Ray Pollock
, October 9th, 2016 09:15
Speaking to the author of The Heavenly Table about empathy with darkness, dead presidents and grotesquery, Sean Kitching finds a writer in possession of both a confident, unique - even defiant - sense of voice and serial doubts about his own success.
Despite turning his hand to professional writing relatively late in life, long-term Ross County Ohio resident Donald Ray Pollock’s three books to date, Knockemstiff, The Devil All The Time, and The Heavenly Table, have received glowing accolades from fans and critics alike. 2008’s Knockemstiff, a collection of intertwining short stories set in the near ghost town of the same name where Pollock was born and raised, displayed an early talent for empathising with, and convincingly portraying, the grotesque, the damned and the simply unlucky that recalled the humour and grit of Harry Crews. Grim and sometimes surprisingly funny in a way that makes it hard for the reader to look away, even when they might wish to do so, the collection was recipient of the Robert W. Bingham PEN prize in 2009.
Pollock’s first novel, 2011s The Devil All The Time, remains one of the most outstanding debuts of the past decade: following clearly in the lineage of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, William Gay and Daniel Woodrell, the novel nevertheless attains an identity uniquely Pollock’s own. Its large cast of characters, rendered in wonderfully hard-boiled prose that’s simultaneously beautiful yet disturbingly pathological in its subject matter, are gritty and believable whilst displaying a wildness of imagination that at times makes them appear almost surreal. Although Pollock’s prose doesn’t flinch from portraying the gorier aspects of their behaviour, some of the descriptions of less violent acts (the serial killer couple in their dilapidated automobile, the killer picking his rotten teeth with a rusted penknife) are equally as unsettling. The book featured in 2012’s Publishers Weekly Top Ten Books of the Year and has been translated into numerous other languages.
In that year, he was also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship Award. His latest novel, The Heavenly Table, tells the tale of poor sharecroppers turned infamous bandits, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett, injecting a little more dark humour into his own brand of American Gothic, and further cementing his reputation as one of the best novelists of his generation. The Quietus spoke to the humble and unassuming Pollock, via email, about his inspirational backstory, his contemporaries and inspirations, bringing dead presidents back to life, possible film adaptations of his work and his forthcoming trip to the UK.
Your backstory has been covered plenty of times elsewhere, but could you please briefly outline it here for the benefit of Quietus readers.
Donald Ray Pollock: When I was forty-five, my father retired from the Mead Paper Mill, the same place I’d been working at since I was eighteen. I had a brief moment when I imagined myself doing the same thing in another twenty years - putting away the hardhat and the work boots and propping my feet up in front of the TV - and it shook me up a little. So I decided I wanted to find something else to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t know anything but factory work, but I loved to read; and so I decided to try to learn how to write. I worked at it for eight years (I finally quit the mill when I was fifty, with thirty-two years of service and went to a MFA program) before Knockemstiff, my first book, was published. As for how I feel about any success I‘ve had, I just feel extremely lucky. Writing is a tough racket, and there are a lot of writers out there better than me who can’t seem to catch a break.
I recommended The Devil All The Time to many friends, some of them novelists themselves, and the response was always hugely enthusiastic. Were you at all taken aback by the response to it, or did you know you had something special when you were writing it?
DRP: No, I’m always doubting my work, even when people are kind enough to say good things. I still have a hard time believing I’ve written some books, let alone that they’ve actually done pretty well.
Out of the many labels that have been applied to your work, is there one that you feel fits you most comfortably? I’ve read Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill and William Gay - those guys are great, but they don’t have the level of detail that your books do. Are there any other contemporary authors that fans of your work should try?
DRP: Somebody once called it ‘Southern Ohio Gothic’ and I sort of like that one. But ‘Grit Lit’, which I believe Daniel Woodrell coined, is another label that fits. A few writers I’d recommend to people who like my stuff are David Joy, Alex Taylor, Paul Luikart, Matthew McBride, Kyle Minor, George Singleton, and Mark Powell.
I’m a huge fan of Harry Crews and Joe R. Lansdale, were either of those authors an influence on your work?
I’ve read everything by Harry Crews, my favorites being Naked in Garden Hills and The Hawk is Dying, along with his memoir A Childhood, which puts ninety percent of all other memoirs to shame – but I haven’t had a chance to read any Lansdale yet. People tend to think I probably read a lot of contemporary mystery/crime fiction, but I don’t. I know that sounds strange because of the nature of my work, but I started this gig late, and there are so many older books that I feel I should try to read before I kick that I don’t spend much time reading contemporary anything. As far as writers who have influenced me, the list includes Flannery O’Conner, Barry Hannah, Richard Yates, William Gay, Faulkner, Harry Crews, Denis Johnson, James M. Cain, and Cormac McCarthy.
The Devil All the Time is such a dark book, yet the prose is so beautifully wrought that I was compelled to continue reading even when my stomach was slightly turning. Sentences like: ‘Nowadays, fucking her was like sticking his staff in a greasy, soulless doughnut.’ grossed me out easily as much as the gorier parts of the book. Were you aware when you were writing that you wanted to produce something different to the sparser prose of Daniel Woodrell, for example?
DRP: I wasn’t aware of much of anything when I was working on it. It was my first attempt at a novel, and I was just flailing about trying to write one, and that meant coming up with a lot of words, which is probably one reason I didn’t stick with the style that I’d used in Knockemstiff. Another thing I don’t do is think about The Reader while I’m writing. If I did, I’d probably leave sentences like the one you mentioned out of the book because I’d start worrying about peoples’ reactions. Now I just do that after the damn thing is published.
The Heavenly Table is considerably less pitch black in tone than The Devil All The Time. Did you decide from the onset to try and write a funnier book and if so, was this as much for your own benefit as for your readers? I was initially concerned that the humour might dilute the book’s intensity in comparison to its predecessor, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Was this something that concerned you also?
DRP: Yes, after I had the characters figured out, I decided to try to write something that was gritty and violent, but also funny. I didn’t want to follow up The Devil All the Time with another relentlessly dark story. It wasn’t until I’d finished it that I began to worry (a lot!) that people wouldn’t get the humor, or that it would seem out of place with the story I was telling.
Can you explain why the darkness is so prominent in your work? Would it be fair to say that, like Harry Crews, your examination of the darker aspects of human behaviour is driven by a desire to empathise with and understand why a character behaves the way they do?
DRP: I really have no idea where the darkness comes from. Other writers have said that there are two subjects worth writing about, love and death; and since I’m a complete flop when it comes to love, I chose death. Too, maybe because of where I came from, I do find it easy to empathise with and write about certain groups of damaged or downtrodden people: the poor, the addicted, etc. One bad break - the idiot family you were born into, an unwanted pregnancy, an early arrest, and so on - leads to another, and before long everything just seems hopeless.
Did The Heavenly Table take as long to write as your debut? How has your writing process changed since Knockemstiff?
DRP: My writing process has changed in that I now just write a long, sloppy draft, so I have something to work with, and then go from there. When writing the short stories for Knockemstiff, I proceeded sentence by sentence, but I realised that if I did that with a novel, it would take me ten years to finish one.
Even so, there was a five-year gap between The Devil All the Time and The Heavenly Table, the reason being that not long after I started the Table, my wife and I bought another house and I decided to put the book away and work on the house for four or five months; it just got easier and easier not to write. Then, around the time I started back up on the book, I began receiving invitations to come to Europe, and ended up going over ten times in a three year period. Each time I went for a week, I probably lost a month working. So I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t stop.
The New York Times regularly posted your election dispatches during the 2008 campaign. What is your take on the current presidential nominees and if you could bring back one president from American history to sort out the current situation, which would you choose?
DRP: Because the United States government is run by rich people, the NRA, and corporations - Christ, even the Supreme Court is in their pockets now - I really try my best not to think about politics these days. It’s a busted, corrupt system, and I’m a much happier person when I don’t get wrapped up in all the insanity. I don’t think there’s anyone who can fix it, though I’d love to see Lyndon Johnson take on Mitch McConnell and his Republican cohorts. He’s always gotten a bad rap for Vietnam, but other than FDR, he instituted more programs to help the poor and to stop racism than any other president. The man had balls when it came to dealing with those who got in his way.
Both of your novels would make excellent films, or better still, HBO style mini-series. Would you have any preference for either of those formats? Has there been any interest in purchasing film rights? And are there any ‘dream’ directors you would choose to be involved in such a project?
DRP: The rights to Knockemstiff have been sold, but I don’t know what’s going on with that. Someone has just bought a second option on The Devil All the Time, and some people are now working on the film script. So both of those are tied up, and I can’t really say who with at the present time. As far as ‘dream directors’ go for The Heavenly Table, everyone who reads it keeps bringing up the Coen brothers, but that’s aiming pretty high. I think Knockemstiff would do well as a TV series, but The Devil... seems more like a movie to me. My fingers are crossed!
I understand you are coming to the UK in October for some promotional activities. Have you visited our shores before?
I have been to England twice, in 1993 and 2014, both times on vacation. I love England and English writers; heck, I just finished reading a biography of Anthony Powell.