Where fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock comes from, "it's embarrassing to say 'I'm a writer.'"
Pollock made the observation when he appeared in Minneapolis on Tuesday to read from his first novel, "The Devil All the Time."
Although he and his wife, an English teacher, live in Chillicothe, Ohio, Pollock grew up in the hardscrabble southern Ohio village of Knockemstiff, which provided the title for his out-of- nowhere collection of short stories in 2008.
As portrayed in his fiction, the region is characterized by dive bars, rusted trailers, battered churches, drugs, booze, casual sex, blue-collar jobs and routine violence. No wonder fiction writing isn't viewed as a legitimate pursuit.
Pollock, a high school dropout, worked for three decades at the Mead paper mill in Chillicothe, years that included multiple trips to rehab for 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 in English and, later, an MFA in writing from Ohio State University.
After "a couple hundred" rejections, Pollock sold his short-story collection to Doubleday. A critic at the New York Times praised its "fresh, full-throated voice," "steely, serrated prose" and "jolting sparks of humor."
Three years later, Pollock has published his first novel, much of it set in southern Ohio, as well as West Virginia.
Doesn't look the part
Genial, soft-spoken, polite and wearing khaki shorts, 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 who populate his fiction.
He read short segments from the novel's various interlocking stories -- a steeped-in-blood father-son narrative, a woeful tale of a husband-wife team of serial killers who torture and photograph their victims, and a seriocomic 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.
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. From his well-tuned dialogue, it's clear that Pollock is writing about people whose voices he knows well.
While his characters are mostly venal and his situations grimmer than grim, there is room in Pollock's world for warmth, humor, 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 horrific childhood and into his own pockmarked adulthood.
Quite a bit of trouble
Why the serial killers? "Someone said, 'You've 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 kind of 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," to whom he's been compared for his love of the Gothic and grotesque. "Also Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah and William Gay."
Before going on the road to promote "Devil All the Time," Pollock wrote "about half a very bad draft" of another novel, set in Ohio in the 1980s. "The money's not great," Pollock said, "but novels pay a little better than short stories."
Claude Peck • 612-673-7977