A couple years ago I got the news that Chuck Palahniuk was bringing his circus to St. Louis to support the novel Snuff and I read that there was a second author traveling with him in support of a first book of short stories called Knockemstiff. Great title. So I looked into to him. Turns out Donald Ray Pollock writes exactly the sort of heart breaking, bone shaking, fucked up realistic/comic/tragic work that makes people want to get off the wii and start mainlining the hard stuff, (books, I mean). When I went to see the Palahniuk tour, I was at least as excited to see DRP, who stood up in front of the 500+ people there and layed down some serious literary blacktop with his short story Bactine. Like William Gay, he was over the half century mark in age when his first book was published and thus entered the game with a lifetime of experience and seasoning informing his high octane prose which kicks ass and breaks glass from thirty paces. His first book, Knockemstiff, is a collection of shorts all linked in a fictional take on a real geographic location, the titular town in Ohio. He is currently working on his first novel.
Why a short story collection first?
As most people know by now, I was forty-five before I decided that I wanted to try and learn how to write. In all honesty, short stories just looked easier than novels at the time. I didn't know any writers, and I hadn't taken any workshops or anything like that. In other words, I really didn't have a clue as to where and how to begin, but I figured the best approach was to start with something small and maybe work my way up. So I typed out stories by writers that I admire, and then I carried them around with me and studied them, tried to get as close as I could to them. I told myself early on that if I could write just one really good short story, I'd be happy (I guess I still feel that way).
Where did Knockemstiff, the collection, come from?
The first two years that I was trying to learn how to write, I wrote mostly stories about characters that I didn't really know anything about: nurses, lawyers, professional types, etc. I'd read a John Cheever story and then try to write about a suburbanite, or I'd fall in love with an Andre Dubus story and try to write about a lapsed Catholic, that sort of thing. But every one of those stories was a failure. Then I took a correspondence course on fiction writing from a professor at Ohio University, Michael Brown. There were ten assignments, and somehow I ended up writing “Bactine” for one of them. That was the first thing I ever wrote that seemed to “work” for me. After that, I decided to stick to the place and the people that I knew something about. I had maybe seven of the stories pretty much finished when I began grad school; and then over the next sixteen months or so I wrote the other eleven and revised the older ones. I figure now that I'll probably rely on southern Ohio as my principal setting and source of inspiration because, let's face it, I'm not “worldly” in any sense of the word, other than I've had the usual troubles and heartaches that most people go through. I've lived in this area all my life and now I'm fifty-four. Too, I'm not concerned with being known as a “regional” writer or any of that other bullshit. I mean, if someone sets all their fiction in NYC or L.A., isn't he or she also somewhat a “regional” writer?
“Real Life” opens the collection and we see Bobby as a young boy, then we're given a glimpse of him as an adult in Knockemstiff's closer, “The Fights.” While not exactly triumphant, it's as close to a happy ending as the book could have plausibly had. Does it reflect an optimism regarding more of the characters in between?
That's a tough question! I wanted to leave the ending a bit ambivalent so the reader could make his or her own decision. A mushy ending, say, one with Bobby riding off into the sunset and a glorious future, would not have fit in with the overall “tone” of the book. Besides, there's enough books out there with sweet, happy endings. I have no interest in writing fantasy; and I'd rather try and look at things honestly in my own writing. Life is hard for most people. However, with that said, I must admit that there is a part of me that wants to believe that Bobby does stay sober and breaks away from the holler. He's also in one of the stories in the middle, one called “Pills.”
In the Del and Geraldine saga, too, amidst all the awfulness, there's a tenacious, resilient tenderness that keeps the worst of their humanity from completely swallowing them. While circumstances are completely unkind to the population, it is their own nature that the characters just can't seem to circumnavigate, does anybody get out alive?
I'm sure I'm not going to explain this very well, but one of the main ideas that I'm interested in is that most people, at some point in their lives, end up feeling “trapped.” It doesn't matter who you are: a hillbilly, a CEO, a big-time lawyer, a housewife in Chicago. It might be a bad marriage or ignorance or a drug problem or mental illness or poverty or just the feeling that you should have been a rock star instead of a chiropractor. At the same time, all of these people, including Del and Geraldine, have other feelings, too, better, more noble ones that reveal their underlying humanity. Sure, Del feels trapped by his marriage to Geraldine, but at the same time he loves her and wants to protect her. Like everything else, it's complicated. And, though I'm not sure that most of the people in Knockemstiff “get out,” I do believe they survive.
Why go to school at this stage in your life?
As I mentioned earlier, I began writing when I turned forty-five. I went through a period where I felt very disappointed with the way my life had turned out; I'd been at the paper mill for twenty-seven years at that point. Don't get me wrong: the mill was a great place to work in many ways, but I'd gotten to the point where I felt, like many of my characters, “trapped.” I'd always carried around this dream in the back of my mind that writing would be a nice way to make a living (I was very naive!), and so I told my wife that I was going to spend the next five years trying to learn how to write fiction. I didn't expect any sort of success, but I told myself that if I worked hard for those five years, then I could give myself permission to quit and go on to my grave knowing I'd at least given it a shot.
But by the time the five years had passed, I'd published several stories and I'd been accepted into the MFA program at Ohio State University. There were several reasons for going: one, I'd finally be around some writers; two, I'd finally be able to workshop some stories; and three: I'd written enough by this time to know that I wanted to keep doing it, and the program provided me with a way to finally break away from the mill, in that I was going to get a stipend for the next three years. With that said, though OSU was great to me in so many ways, I don't think a person needs to go to graduate school to become a writer. I just finished my degree about ten days ago.
How did the tour with Chuck Palahnuik come about?
Well, for one thing, Chuck and I have the same editor, Gerry Howard, at Doubleday. Gerry sent him a review copy of my book and Chuck offered to blurb it. I then met Chuck in Columbus when he was doing the Rant tour. The next year, when Snuff was about ready to come out, he asked if I'd like to so some readings with him. Listen, Chuck Palahniuk is one of the nicest people you're ever going to meet, and he's helped a lot of writers over the years. And those tours have to be grueling, but the man is dedicated to his fans.
Did it confirm or challenge any notions you had about what kind of writing or writer you want to do or be?
If anything, it gave me a glimpse into what it's like to be a bestselling author. Most writers that I know are doing good if 20-40 people show up at their readings, but Chuck has 400-600, sometimes more. And what I admire most about him is that he's managed to stay down to earth and not get the bighead.
When was the last time you ate a fishstick?
Ha! I guess it's been maybe four or five years ago at my mom's house.