Monday, 6 October 2008


James Joyce once claimed that if Dublin were ever to be destroyed it could be recreated from the pages of Ulysses. In his debut short story collection, Donald Ray Pollock performs his own remarkable act of literary resurrection by putting an Appalachian ghost town back on the map.

His book, Knockemstiff, is reminiscent of Joyce’s Dubliners both in the way its downtrodden characters reappear in different stories and in the paralysis that prevents them from ever getting away. Though its raw honesty can make for an uncomfortable reading experience, Knockemstiff is one of the most intimate and vivid portraits of a place and its people that I have encountered in fiction. It is a major achievement and deserves to be read long after the 'holler' from which it takes its name has disappeared.

It is my great pleasure to present this brand new author interview. Don is a quietly inspiring character, as you will see. And for those of you who missed it first time around, here is a previous post which links to 'Pills', one of the stories in the book.

How and why did you become a writer?

I went through this mid-life shift or crisis or whatever you want to call it when I was 45 years old. I had been working in factories around 28 years by then, and I was just disappointed in my life, I guess. It hadn’t turned out like I had planned, in other words. So I asked myself what I’d like to do for the rest of the time I’ve got left in this world and the only thing that really appealed to me was being a writer. I had always been a big reader and I had a degree in English literature (the paper mill where I worked had a programme in which they paid for most of your tuition if you wanted to go to school part-time). So I told my wife that I was going to give it 5 years and see what happened. I didn’t know any writers and had never taken a creative writing course or anything, so I wasn’t sure how to start. For a year or so, I typed out stories by other writers that I liked, along with working on my own stuff. At the end of the 5 years, I had published maybe 6 stories in small literary magazines and been accepted into a MFA program at Ohio State University. I made the big leap and quit my mill job then, in 2005.

What can a short story do that a novel can’t?

That’s a good question. For me, as a writer, short stories appeal to me more than novels simply because there is a quicker payoff for one thing. Also, I tend to like stuff that is cut to the bone and short stories are much easier to revise 10 or 12 times than a full-length novel.

Which writers have made a difference to you?

Well, there are so many, but I remember reading an article about William Gay, the southern writer from Tennessee, publishing his first novel when he was in his early 50s. This was right around the time I was going through that mid-life bullshit, and he was a big inspiration. Gay had pretty much been a carpenter and worked odd jobs all his life. I’m fairly certain he didn’t go to college or anything like that. I think his story got me to thinking that maybe I, too, could do this thing if I really worked at it. As for other influences: Carson McCullers, John Cheever, Richard Yates (especially The Easter Parade), Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, Will Self, and Magnus Mills, among, as I said, many others.

What is your writing regime?

Mostly, I try to get up around 6:00 AM and work until 11:00 AM (I work in my attic, which is the only place I’m allowed to smoke in the house). If I’m revising, I find that I can go longer, so I’ll work a couple more hours in the evening (in the evenings, I allow myself to listen to music). Of course, a lot of days I don’t really get much done, but I still make myself sit in front of the computer or the typewriter. I think it’s good training, forcing yourself to sit there even if nothing is happening. If you can’t sit in the chair for an extended period of time every day, then you probably won’t make it as a writer because that’s really the hardest damn thing about it.

Over how long a period of time did you write the stories in Knockemstiff?

I wrote a couple of them (‘Bactine’ and ‘Fish Sticks’) pretty early, maybe after I’d been writing for, say, 18 months. Then I tried to write stories for a couple of years that were about people I really didn’t know anything about, for example, nurses and lawyers and rich people. I eventually figured out that, at least for the time being, I better stick to the people and the place that I know. So I started focusing on the holler again. I had maybe 7 of the Knockemstiff stories finished when I entered graduate school and wrote another 10 or 11 in the next 16 months or so (from August 2005 until November 2006).

How have people from Knockemstiff responded to your book?

Surprisingly, the reaction has been pretty positive, though I’m not sure how many people out there have actually read the book. I think I’ve only heard of one person who really hated the book. I tried to make sure that everyone in my county was aware that the book is fiction and not some memoir about growing up in the holler. I think a lot of people in Knockemstiff decided not to read it after they found out that it was fiction.

In what ways has being a published writer changed your life?

I get a lot more emails! And believe me, I appreciate them. Also, I did some travelling that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, especially when the book first came out. But really, it hasn’t changed things much for me, as far as what I do. I live a pretty simple life: I write in the morning and then take a long walk and sit on the porch and talk to my dog a lot. Sometimes I don’t see anyone but my wife for several days at a time (one reason I like getting the emails). I try to read at least one or two books a week. With that said, I know that I was extremely lucky to find a publisher like Doubleday. I know lots of writers who are better than me and are still looking for that first break.

How would you feel about a movie adaptation of your work?

I’d love it! Heck, I figure the movie version always gets more people to buy the book. Then, of course, there’s the money aspect, which would make it possible to just keep writing for another year or two without worrying about ending up in the soup line. But, though there have been several good movies made from short story collections, like Short Cuts and Jesus’ Son, I realize that’s a long shot for Knockemstiff. I mean, I can see it as a movie, but then I know nothing about film.

What are your future writing and publication plans?

Right now I’m working on a novel which I hope to have completed by the end of February 2009. That’s it, really. I’m not a person who can work on several projects at once. To finish something, I need to get obsessed with the story and I can’t do that if I’m bouncing around. After the novel is finished, I’m writing a short story for Peter Wild in England for an anthology of fiction inspired by music from The Velvet Underground. I’ve also got three or four short stories that I’d like to revise and try to get published. Then, if everything works out, I’ll begin another novel next May.

Are there any new writers out there whose work you admire and would recommend?

I can't say enough good stuff about Keith Lee Morris' recently published novel, The Dart-League King (Tin House). Also, look out for Kyle Minor's short story collection coming out in November, In the Devil's Territory (Dzanc Books). Any short stories by Keith Banner, including his collection, The Smallest People Alive. And if you haven't already, check out Sam Lipsyte's Venus Drive, another great and quirky short story collection, and Jason Brown's Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work: Stories.

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