Donald Ray Pollock in Minneapolis Tuesday. The Ohio writer emerged from nowhere with his 2008 book of short stories. His first novel has just been published. / Photo by Claude Peck
When, after “a couple hundred” rejections, Donald Ray Pollock sold his short-story collection to Doubleday, he was asked whether he had a novel, or was working on one.
“I didn’t, but I said yes,” Pollock said Tuesday night. “Because that’s what they want to hear.”
Now, three years after the collection, “Knockemstiff,” came out to glowing reviews, Doubleday has published “The Devil All the Time,” Pollock’s first novel. The author read from it at Magers & Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis. He was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio on Tuesday. In August 2008, Pollock was interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's "Bookworm" program.
Genial, polite and wearing a green polo shirt and wire-rim glasses, Pollock in person could not seem further from the violent, drunken, damaged, deranged, cursed and criminal types that people his fiction, which is set mostly in hardscrabble southern Ohio.
Pollock lives with his wife, an English teacher, in Chillicothe, Ohio, but he grew up in the village of Knockemstiff, where his parents ran a general store. A high-school dropout, he worked for three decades at the Mead paper mill in Chillicothe, years that included multiple trips to rehab for his drinking and drug use.
Pollock, 56 and sober for years, only began to write when he was 45. As an adult, he returned to get an undergraduate degree and, later, an MFA in writing from Ohio State University.
He read short segments from the novel’s various interlocking stories -- a steeped-in-blood father-son narrative, a woeful tale of a husband-and-wife team of serial killers who torture and photograph their victims, and a serio-comic saga of a snake-oil preacher and his wheelchair-bound sidekick on the lam from the law. Oh, and let’s not leave out the murderously corrupt sheriff or the sex-crazed minister.
“I sort of like writing about weird characters, I guess,” Pollock said Tuesday.
Pollock told an interviewer that he learned by typing stories of writers he admired, and came to realize that the best writers “don’t fill the page with blather.” His own blather-free writing is lean and swift, story-oriented but also filled with the kind of detail that nails his places, whether a stifling motel room that “smelled like Black Flag” or a diner where a patron has parked his false teeth on a stick of butter.
While his characters are mostly venal and his situations grimmer than grim, there is room in Pollock’s world for warmth, a modicum of decency (though often unrewarded) and, in the novel’s character of Arvin, a stoic sense of a boy struggling to find his way out of a terrible childhood and into his own pockmarked adulthood.
A reviewer at USA Today cited the “brutal beauty of spare writing” in Pollock’s novel, which Pollock admitted he had “a lot of trouble putting together,” partly because he was in the habit of writing short stories.
Why the serial killers? “Someone said, ‘you gotta have trouble if the fiction is going to go along,’ and I guess I have quite a bit of trouble in the book,” Pollock said. “Plus, I’ve always been kinda fascinated by serial killers.”
Pollock said his favorite short story writers are John Cheever and Andre Dubus. “I am very indebted to southern writers,” he said, “and not just Flannery O’Connor. Also Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah and William Gay.”
While on the road to promote “Devil All the Time,” Pollock has written “about half a very bad draft” of another novel, set in Ohio in the 1980s.
As for his late-in-life conversion to a literary life after so many years as a blue-collar worker, Pollock said that “at home, when you are asked ‘what do you do?’ it’s embarrassing to say, ‘I’m a writer.’”