July 09, 2011
My mother was the one who sent me Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF. She had heard him on NPR, called me that day and told me about the interview. Then she read the book and it was all over for her, true love. It’s sort of like my daughter with Justin Bieber. KNOCKEMSTIFF is a captivating, extraordinary book that will knock you over but, amazingly, Donald Ray Pollock’s second book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, is even better. It was a pleasure to talk to Donald Ray Pollock about his new book. He is modest, kind, and one of those people whose success makes you happier than it does jealous.
The Devil All The Time starts and ends in Knockemstiff, Ohio. Do you think this landscape is part of your psyche, part of your internal life that will always come out in your writing? Do you still live in Ohio?
Yeah, I still live in Ohio, about 13 miles or so from Knockemstiff; in fact, I have lived in the same county all my life. Because I never left, I do believe the place is an integral part of who I am, and by extension, that means it’s probably going to be part of any future work I might do. I’m not very “worldly,” you might say. I do some traveling occasionally, but I’m always glad to get home. It’s just very hard for me to relax anywhere else.
Fans of Knockemstiff know that you worked as a laborer in a paper mill for 32 years. Are you sick of talking about that part of your life? If not, can you tell me what kind of hours you worked in the paper mill and when did you find the time to write? Was anyone else writing at the paper mill? Did you let them know that you were writing on the side or was it a secret activity? Also, last part of this question, can you tell me exactly what you did at the paper mill? Okay, that wasn’t the last part of the question, this is: do you miss it at all?
The last 18 years I was at the paper mill, I worked as an “ash truck driver.” We burned coal for energy at the mill, a couple hundred tons a day, and I was the guy who took care of the ash silos and emptied them out. And, yes, the job was as dirty as it sounds. I usually went to work at 4 AM and punched out around 1 PM. Then I’d go home and take a nap and write in the evenings (keep in mind, though, that I didn’t start trying to learn to write until I was 45, five years before I quit the mill and went to grad school). I didn’t know any other writers, and as far as I know, the only person who knew what I was trying to do was my wife. Hell, I’m still embarrassed to say I’m a writer when people ask me what I do now, though writing is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever attempted. I had a good job at the mill, and I did miss it for a couple of years: the routine and the friends. Money, of course, is also part of it because I had a paycheck coming in every week. I’ve never felt confident enough to get a job as a teacher, so I’ve just been trying to string together a living off the writing, which can be, to say the least, pretty shaky at times.
So when you say it was as dirty as it sounds does that mean that at the end of each shift you were covered in ash? Was it black or gray? Did you look some guy in a Coors ad, you know emerging from some flaming background wearing work boots, your face with an ash beard?
Well, I did come home occasionally with just the whites of my eyes showing, but that was only when the system plugged up and I had to bust it loose with a rod or two-by-four from below. The ash might be black one day and gray the next. That depended on the quality of the coal, how well it had burned up, etc.
The Devil All The Time begins with an act of tremendous violence. It’s a riveting and unsettling scene. And then, somehow, the violence only grows from there to the point where I was reading about people doing things I had never, ever, even imagined. (I think it’s a better read if the reader doesn’t know ahead of time what’s coming up, so I’m not going to name any of these acts). Where do these stories come from–is this all out of your head, or is it based on nuggets of stories you’ve heard, or have you actually witnessed any of these acts?
Most of the violence that takes place in the book came from my imagination, though, for example, I did witness a beating much like the one you mention when I was maybe ten years old. Too, in my using days, I spent a lot of time in bars and houses where it seemed, at least to me, that the threat of something bad happening was always hovering in the immediate background. I guess I’ve always looked upon the world as a somewhat sad and violent place. When you think about the horrible stuff that some people do to each other in the real world–killing their children is just one unfortunate example–I don’t think the violence in my book is really that far-out.
What do you mean by “using days”? Heroin? Were you addicted or was this just a time in your life when that kind of stuff was happening? And when you were in that time of your life, were you always emotionally the writer, the guy who was involved but also floating outside of it and watching everything, taking notes in a sense?
Mostly I was a drunk and a pothead. I took a lot of pills. As for heroin, though I tried it a couple of times, I was afraid of it. Keep in mind, that my job was the most important thing I had going for me, and I didn’t want to lose it. I suppose I was observing everything going on around me, but not as a writer. Too, I usually had a hard time recalling details the next day. I also want to add that there wasn’t a damn thing “romantic” or wild or crazy about my drinking, etc. It was, for me, a miserable way to live.
You seem like the nicest, kindest person. Do you think in order to write the beautifully written but horrific scenes that you have in The Devil All The Time, that the writer has to approach if from a place of calm and peace? Or do you feel that violence inside of you when you write it?
As Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” That makes sense to me (at least I’ve gotten the violent part down!). If I’m riled up about something, I’m probably not going to get any work done. Being someone who isn’t very good at handling distractions or resentments or anger, I have to work hard at keeping those at bay. And, like most everyone else, I have personal issues that rise to the surface now and then, and I guess those help add to the “tension” in the work and also fuel any ambition I might have as far as writing goes. If I was living in a pure state of grace, I probably wouldn’t bother with writing fiction.
And I must point out, that in spite of the atrocities committed by these characters, some of them are quite sympathetic–I want them to get away with everything, move out of town and feel safe. Some of them are rotten through and through, but even those characters have a fully realized internal life that lets the reader understand how they got to the place they’re in in the book. I felt bad for all of them. Do you feel affection for all of them?
Sure, I think the fiction writer has to care deeply about his characters in order to spend that much time with them. I don’t necessarily condone or agree with what some of them do, but I do feel empathy for them, even the worst. I’ve made enough bad decisions in my own life to realize that it’s very easy to screw everything up. It could be a matter of where you were born or how you were raised; or it could come down to just one wrong turn in the road or crazy night. One thing I agonized over was deciding how much of the violence needed to be put down on the page and how much should be left to the reader’s imagination. In the end, I decided, since the book is so dark anyway, to leave quite a bit of it out, as far as visceral details, etc. I think some readers will criticize this, but others will be relieved.
I love Arvin’s feelings toward the dog, Jack. And one of my favorite pieces of dialogue in the book is when Sandy is watching a soap opera and she says to Carl, “Those people are so screwed up . . . They don’t know what they want.” Both these moments show an unawareness on the part of the characters–they can’t see how murky, fetid and dank everything around them is and so they look instead at these other things: soap opera characters, a dog. In fact, no one in this book seems to understand how profoundly messed up their situation is. Is this how you see them surviving everything they go through?
Yes, I think a lot of people use denial and as a coping mechanism, in much the same way that an alcoholic can be killing himself with booze, yet think that everything is going to be okay, that the drinking isn’t the problem, that it’s somebody else’s fault, that he’ll quit tomorrow, etc. It’s sometimes hard to face the truth about yourself, so you turn your attention to other things, often stupid or pointless things, and ignore the reality of the situation. I’ve done that plenty of times.
We have to talk a little about religion because Jesus and the Bible are running through this book along with buckets of blood (I must point out to readers that in the acknowledgements you actually thank Dr. John Gabis for answering questions about blood). Do you think religion and violence go hand in hand like faith and sin?
Well, I know I cranked up the weirdness and bloodletting quite a bit in the book, but as has been pointed out thousands of times, if you look at history, probably more people have been killed over religion than almost anything else in at least the last two thousand or so years and it’s still going on. It’s a shame that the idea of God or some sort of Creator is so often manipulated to excuse the violence that people inflict upon one another. Being a person who wasn’t raised in any religion (my parents didn’t go to church), it’s hard for me to fathom how people can become so warped in their beliefs. Maybe that’s why I find it interesting, because I view, for example, the basic tenets of Christianity, as just common sense rules to live by, but religious people often see things on an entirely different–sometimes wonderful, but oftentimes insane–level.
And one technical question: how did you manage all these characters? Did you have charts? Did you understand and know each character’s storyline before you write it out, or did you figure it out as you went along? And how did you know ahead of time how all these people would intersect? I’m amazed by how you brilliantly organized all these characters in a way that the reader never lost track of who was who, and always felt intimate with the story. Each time I was with a new character, I almost forgot the other storylines as I was so absorbed in whichever chapter I was reading.
I didn’t use any charts or outlines, though maybe I should have! I’m not sure, though, if I could work that way. I’ve discovered most of my characters and stories by typing, not necessarily by thinking or planning (I’m one of the least “cerebral” writers you’re ever going to meet). If I have everything planned out beforehand, I’m not likely to find out anything new. From what I remember, I had three of the characters in mind when I began: the serial killers and Arvin, the boy. I also had a very vague idea of how the book should end. The other characters and, for the most part, the story, just came along as I kept working. Once I had a rough draft, my biggest concern was how to arrange it all so the reader didn’t end up totally confused. I used up a lot of paper trying to figure out how the different strands and characters should connect.
You discovered your characters and stories by typing! I love that. It’s going to be the advice I give my students from now on: Do what Donald Ray Pollock does and just start typing.