The characters in Knockemstiff are nasty and violent little slaves to ego. They huff Bactine and get into ill-advised fights and fuck like animals when the mood strikes them. It's surprising, then, to meet Donald Ray Pollock in person.
He's a compact man with an easy smile, and he dots the air with apostrophes left behind from all his walkin' and talkin'. Pollock worked in a paper mill for three decades before going back to school, and he's now hard at work on his MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University.
It's hard to believe that the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, really exists, but it's even harder to believe that some of these nasty creatures crawled from Pollock's head, and that many of the stories are loosely based on real-life incidents.
Based on the violence in Knockemstiff, have people on this press tour expected you to be crazy violent?
No. [Pause.] Well, they haven't told me to my face. You know, I'm 53 now, I've tamed down a lot from my younger years. I'm a grandfather now. My only bad habits are I still smoke and drink a lot of coffee, but other than that, I pretty much don't abuse myself. I can't afford to.
You dropped out of high school and worked in a paper mill for a couple decades. What brought you back to academia and creative writing?
When I was in my mid-30s I quit drinkin' and quit druggin'. And I found after about a year or two that I needed something to do. The paper mill had a program where they would pay 75 percent of your tuition if you wanted to go to school part-time, so I started going to Ohio State University and I ended up with a degree in English. I was 45 when I decided to try and write. When I was 50 I got accepted at the MFA program at OSU—well, that program, they pay your tuition if you get accepted, and in return you teach freshman comp or something so that's how I've been doin' that.
I detect a strong Harry Crews influence in your stories. Are you a Crews fan?
I'm a fan of most of his books from the beginning until I guess the last couple. The Gospel Singer and Car, all that stuff is great.
A lot of people have compared your book to Winesburg, Ohio because of the Ohio setting and the multiple stories about one community. Was that an influence?
I read Winesburg about five or six times over the course of 20 years. I guess it had an influence as far as me figuring out I'd be better off just setting up the stories in one little place rather than spreading them out.
How did you start writing fiction?
I was 45 when I started writing, or trying to write. I wasn't really writing; I was trying to figure out what the fuck you'd do when you write. Hemingway was a big influence mainly because when I started I would take a story I really liked, someone else's, and at that time I was using a typewriter and I would type the story out. I'd usually try and choose a fairly short story. You get so much closer to writing, you can read the story, but you get so much closer to the writing of it when you type out someone else's words. Plus it trains you to be able to stay in the chair and type, which is the main thing. I mean, you got to stay in the chair. So it was kinda good training for that, typing out Hemingway, John Cheever, Richard Yates.
Did you start out immediately writing linked short stories?
When I started the program at Ohio State, I had written about six of those stories, maybe seven. The next year and a half, I wrote 10 or 11 more. They came fast in grad school because I was in writing workshops all the time. Most of them ended up set in Knockemstiff and then when I was almost done, I tweaked a couple to connect them. Once I finished the book, somebody said, "Why the hell didn't you just write a novel?" Until that person said that to me, it never occurred to me. I was like, "Man, I fucked up! I should've written a novel!"
You are working on a novel about a serial killer that's also set in Knockemstiff. How does writing the novel compare?
It's been a lot harder. I decided I just had to write a draft. I sat down and in about 35 days I wrote a draft. I wrote four or five hours every morning and I'd never look back. [Before that] I would start the first chapter and go back and work on it and it got so every day I would start the first chapter. After I finally got the draft done, at least I had something to work with. It was a real piece of slop. It was 270 pages, but it was horrible. But this is where it begins; this is where it happens. Out of that 100,000 words, there were 6,000 words that were really any good, and that was basically the main characters and basic idea. That was six months ago, and I've been rewriting ever since.
You evoke a great sense of place. Even in "Honolulu," which is the only story that really leaves Knockemstiff at all, you really evoke the area. Are you ever going to move out of Knockemstiff?
I'm not sure yet. I haven't thought that far ahead yet. Damn, if I could finish that novel, I'd be so happy. I imagine I can squeeze another good book out of the area. I thought maybe after the novel I would do a collection of stories based on the paper mill.
Has there been any response from friends and family yet?
The response I've been worried about mostly is because I'm publishing a book called Knockemstiff and I live 13 miles away from [the real] Knockemstiff. A lot of people have this impression that I'm writing a memoir-type thing of growing up in Knockemstiff and when you tell them it's fiction they still think it's about Knockemstiff. So once they read the book, hopefully they'll discover it's not a memoir. I'm not really sure I want my mom and dad to read it. My dad is 78 and my mom is 76. My parents aren't big readers; they read the newspaper and a magazine once in a while. They haven't expressed a lot of interest in reading the book. When I quit the paper mill, they asked me, "If you got a good job, why are you giving it up?" They're still a little worried about that, I guess.
Can you see yourself writing about an upper-class family?
Even now, I've been in this MFA program for two years and I've taught freshman comp, and I can't imagine writing a story about an English professor. I think probably most of my stuff will be about blue-collar—I hate to call 'em lower-class people—but people who are struggling to make a living, mainly because those are the people I am interested in. I'm not interested in somebody who's rich.
Bologna and other luncheon meat figure into all of these stories, and usually in a really disgusting way. What's your relationship with bologna now?
I like bologna. I eat it once a year now, kind of a bologna binge. My first job in a factory, I worked at a meatpacking plant, so I know what goes into that stuff. And for a year after I worked there I couldn't eat meat at all. I worked there for probably eight months. It was pretty awful. This was back in '72. It's probably more sanitary in those places now.