Debut Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Donald Ray Pollock

Bloom: In your interview with Terry Gross, you said that as a kid, you liked reading and bookish things, so what was it about high school that made you drop out? What made you decide to leave Ohio and head for Florida—why there?

Donald Ray Pollock:  I was one of those troubled teenagers, I guess.  My father and I didn’t get along and I ran away from home a lot, thus I missed a lot of school.  Plus, for some reason I can’t really explain, I always felt like an outsider, and I thought, rather naively, that I would feel better about myself if I moved somewhere else.  A geographical cure, so to speak.  As for why I picked Florida, well, I just wanted to leave and I was a little bit familiar with it; I really didn’t put a lot of thought into where I would go.  I lived there just a few months, worked in a plant nursery most of that time.  Of course, the irony is that today I live just a few miles from Knockemstiff.  In other words, I never did “escape.”

Bloom: Was there anything about Florida that surprised you when you arrived, or after you’d been living there for a bit? How was it like and unlike your life back in Knockemstiff?

DRP:  Heck, compared to Knockemstiff, Florida was an exotic playground:  alligators and palm trees and hippies smoking dope on the beaches and beautiful girls.  But, as I said, I’d been there before for a week or two at a time, as a runaway, so nothing really surprised me.

Bloom: Has your own later start as a published author and your subsequent success — the PEN/Bingham Award, Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten, a Guggenheim — given you a desire to talk to other aspiring writers, either young or old?  If so, what is it you most want them to know about your journey?

DRP: The desire to talk to other writers is pretty much fulfilled by the readings and traveling that I do.  It’s nice to go out and meet people once in a while, but it’s hard for me to work when I’m doing that.  I suppose if I was going to give somebody advice it would be to learn to stay in the chair no matter what and also to be patient.  I realize that sounds a bit simplistic, but there aren’t any magic formulas or anything.  As Daniel Woodrell told me once, “It’s a tough racket.”

Bloom: Your story collection Knockemstiff opens and closes with the same character a generation apart. Many characters reappear throughout the 18 stories. How did you keep track of who was who and what they’d done over the decades that the book spans

DRP: I really don’t know.  I didn’t keep a chart or anything if that’s what you mean.  The stories were written over a four year period, and when I decided that I was going to link them (there are 18 stories in the book and this occurred to me after maybe the 8th one was finished), I started looking for ways to insert past characters into the new stories.

Bloom: How was writing the novel a different experience from writing the stories?  Did it feel natural to you to go from stories to a novel, or did you feel any pressure to “graduate” to a novel?

DRP: It was intimidating, mainly because I hadn’t written anything over maybe 15 pages before.  It definitely didn’t feel natural.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure it all out, and, in the end, I just decided to work with short chapters that were essentially “individual” scenes.  They weren’t quite short stories, but a few of them might be considered close.

Bloom: There is some gritty material in your work.  Do scenes from your fiction—either as you’re dreaming them up, or after you’ve written them down—ever give you nightmares? Do you ever take something out because it’s too gruesome?  If so, is it that it’s too gruesome for you, or for a reading audience that’s in your head?  If not, does that mean you write without the reader too much in mind?

DRP: No, I don’t get nightmares from my own stuff.  Actually, I think the only book that has ever given me nightmares is Tim Cahill’s Buried Dreams, which is about John Wayne Gacy.  I have taken out scenes that I thought might be a little too gruesome or icky for the reader, but that’s always done on the last revision.  Up until that point, I try not to think too much about the audience because I think that sometimes gets in the way of telling the story as honestly as possible.

Bloom: What do you mean by, “I would like to write a book that wasn’t so violent and weird, but I just don’t think I can do that with my talent. I don’t think it would come off.”?

DRP: I’ve never been able to write what would be considered a “nice” story, something like Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead or Jim the Boy by Tony Earley, though I’ve tried several times.  And I can’t explain why.  Every writer has his/her own subject matter, I suppose, the stuff that gets the juices flowing.

Bloom:  Had you felt pressure to write like Robinson or Earley (from someone/somewhere), or was it that you admired/responded to their work and thought you might try to emulate them?

DRP: No, I really didn’t get any pressure from anyone to change my style or subject matter.  I do, however, admire them.  I can see why someone would want a “nice” story; a person works all day and comes home tired, and maybe they don’t want to read about violence or trouble or whatever.  They just want to read about a decent character trying to do the next right thing.

Bloom: What was it like being in an MFA program when you were 50 years old?  Were there other older students, or did you find yourself surrounded by twenty-and-thirty somethings?  Did you feel like you had something unique to offer the community by virtue of your life experience?”

DRP: There was one person there older than me, which was a surprise.  Grad school was a fantastic deal for me, in that it got me out of the paper mill for good and put me around people who were interested in writing, something I’d never had before.  I’ll always be grateful for that.  As for having something unique to offer, no, I was just a factory worker who had written some stories.  There were people there who had led far more interesting lives than me.

Bloom: You mentioned typing out great short stories by master authors as part of your writer’s apprenticeship.  Do you ever type out stories now, pieces you fall in love with or want to learn something from? What are you reading now?

DRP: Not as much as I used to, but occasionally, if I’m having a bad day at the desk, I’ll type something out that I really love, maybe a page or two just to get inspired.  As for what I’m reading now, it’s mostly non-fiction at the moment.  I just finished a fantastic book about World War One called The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund and also Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges, which is about the decline of literacy in the United States, along with how the country and the government have been taken over by corporations.  I’m just beginning Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman and The Great Tradition, a collection of essays on the benefits of a good “classical” education and how to acquire one.  Though I’m not quite a Luddite, I’ve become very interested lately in the repercussions of having too much technology.  Maybe to be ruled by machines is our destiny, but I’d like to see a bit more resistance.


Click here to read more about Donald Ray Pollock and his work.

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