You Gotta Be Careful About That: An Interview with Donald Ray Pollock
Donald Ray Pollock is a really nice guy. Sure, he writes some of the most brutal and gritty fiction today, but he’s the kind of guy who will buy you lunch even though you are interviewing him. He’s the kind of guy who will ask you questions about you and your work. I drove to Chillicothe, Ohio, where Pollock is from and still hails, to eat Italian sandwiches in a pizza shop and bar and talk about writing and his astonishingly brilliant and complex new book The Heavenly Table.
I first met Don at a reading in Xenia, Ohio, a town best known to you as the setting for Gummo. This certainly makes sense, yes. Pollock’s work is violent and dysfunctional, narratively playful and ultimately, has the deep stink of black humor soaked into it. I introduced myself after getting him a cup of coffee, black, filled up about half way. He was kind and receptive to talking after he got back from the road; he was heading south and a bit west for a few weeks, but said to get in touch with him when he got back. He gave me his email, and we talked for a bit about grad school and his decision to leave the paper mill, at which he worked for over thirty years.
Pollock’s latest novel, The Heavenly Table, is truly a masterful work. Set in the south and rural Ohio at the dawn of the First World War, the novel contains multitudes and an assortment of seedy characters –a rag-tag band of brothers-turned bank robbers, a farmer trying to get sober even though his son just left for the war without telling him (or maybe he not), a gay army lieutenant stationed on a base state-side…and even that barely scratches the surface. What Pollock does is weave together a ruddy tapestry of Americana that reaches so far back into our roots that one cannot mistake its relevance about the present.
Recently, I talked to Don about The Heavenly Table, about writing, about working at the mill, about his book The Devil All the Time being turned into a movie, and so much more.
NR: War plays in the background of The Devil All the Time, and World War I provides the context for The Heavenly Table. Meanwhile, most of these characters probably don’t even know where Germany is on a map. What context does the war provide us? Why was it relevant to you, to this story?
DRP: The book deals at times with “progress,” and people’s reactions to, say, cars and telephones and machine guns that fire three hundred bullets per minute. And the First World War sort of symbolizes, for me anyway, the real beginning of the Twentieth Century, in which we see more “progress” occur in fifty or sixty years than man has seen in his entire time on Earth. Also, to be honest, I began the book as an historical novel about the real Camp Sherman built on the edge of my hometown, Chillicothe, in 1917 right after America entered the war. Then the Jewett brothers appeared and I nixed the Camp Sherman story, but kept the time period and some of the material I already had dealing with the camp, etc.
In the setting of The Heavenly Table, the country is at war, and there is a pervading feeling of senseless violence and economic unrest in the country. You are reaching back to a time that people could argue parallels our current one in many of the same ways. Are you trying to say something about violence in America? I’ve read in interviews you are a bit averse to writing about the present, but does that necessarily mean you are averse to trying to say anything about the present?
I don’t think I’m ever trying to make a statement about anything. I’m really just trying to tell a story. However, I have various interests and beliefs, like everyone else, about the past and also about what’s occurring in the present; and these are going to pop up in my work and influence it or pull it in a certain direction, even if the story takes place a hundred years ago. So, if I mention all the media attention that the brothers get, it might be because of my disdain for the twenty-four hour news cycles on TV. I suppose the main reason I don’t write about the present is that I can’t quite get a handle on it. It’s too “close.”
I’d say much of the humor in this book is derived from the differences in social classes–the attorney general gets mad that Bill Wilson’s wedding cuts into his tee time, making him angrier at Bill for getting killed than at the boys for killing him; and Reese’s father doesn’t really care that his son was gunned down because he saw him as a waste and a financial burden. I’m wondering if this humor, albeit black as coffee, is intentional? Am I wrong for laughing or finding humor in these segments?
It was intentional, and thank God you found some of it funny. Otherwise, I’d have to say it was accidental! I do know, however, that my type of humor isn’t for everyone, and many people aren’t going to get it or find it amusing. I know it might sound strange since my work is so dark and at times hopeless feeling, but I like the idea of making people laugh. So I figured if I hit the mark at least once in a while, it was worth it.
I read that you have a rather sizable French audience. This got me thinking about some other writers I know who write crime fiction or maybe, just darker, more violent work and how they are well-received in France as well. Why you think that might be? What are the French perhaps willing to do that U.S. audiences aren’t?
For one thing, I don’t think the French people pay as much attention to bestseller lists or sales figures when it comes to picking up a book. In the States, a man who never reads book reviews goes in the airport bookshop looking for something to read, and he picks up something he saw listed on the best list. He figures it must be good or it wouldn’t be on the list. So the “list” or the sales figures has a lot of influence on what people read over here. But in France, I think readers pay more attention to the actual book reviews, and they’re a lot more of them over there than in the States. Also, the French are interested in all of America, not just the East coast and the West Coast. So they will be more inclined to pick up a book set in Appalachia or the Midwest than many Americans will be.
Are you interested in movies, and what was the last one you saw? Do you find inspiration in movies or television?
I watch one or two movies a week. The one I watched a couple of nights ago was Born to Be Blue with Ethan Hawke. It was about Chet Baker, the jazz musician and junkie. Also watched The End of the Tour, the movie about David Foster Wallace, which, though I never knew Wallace, I thought was well done as far as showing how uncomfortable being on a book tour can make someone who just wants to sit in a room and write.
I think everything I read pretty much influences me to a degree. Or everything I come in contact with might be a better way of putting it. As for music, I sometimes play it when I’m revising. I pick an album and play it over and over at low volume, one that puts me in a certain mood, I guess you might say. And I think I’ve learned a few lessons about telling stories from some of the stuff that’s on TV now, shows like Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, etc.
That’s so cool to hear you say you’ve probably learned some lessons about storytelling from TV.
I think part of it is that a lot of people 30 or 40 years ago who got out of college, maybe they wanted to be a novelist or a short story writer…but now, people seem to want to write for TV or movies. When I did a couple creative writing classes when I was at OSU, you’d have maybe 18 people in the class. At least half of them wanted to write a movie. They weren’t interested in writing short stories; they wanted to write for film. And I can see that, we’re such a visual culture now. And I think we’ve got a lot of those TV channels like HBO that are showing stuff that now that there’s no way you would have gotten by with that on the big four. Television has come a long way.
You’ve sold the rights to two of your three books to Hollywood and your work really does feel quite cinematic in a lot of ways. Do you think about that stuff when you’re writing?
No, I don’t think about it when I’m writing, and I don’t know how much I’m influenced by it, but I just figure I must be.
By this point, most people are familiar with your backstory, but I did want to ask you what your job was when you worked with the mill?
My job at the paper mill, at least the last eighteen years I was there, was ash hauler. I worked in the power department, and we burned coal. The coal, of course, turns into ash and goes into silos. I drove a dump truck and kept the silos empty.
Did working at the mill teach you anything about writing?
Punching a clock for thirty-two years will teach you a little bit about discipline if nothing else. And without discipline you won’t ever be a writer. It is tough going to the desk every day and wondering if anything good is going to come out of it.
Do you like being on the road for this new book? Do you find you are getting more attention with it?
I am and then I’m not. When you spend so much time alone in a room working on a book, and then you are asked to go out and stand in front of an audience and read from it, well, it can get a bit uncomfortable at times. And I can’t get any new work done as long as I’m doing it. However, I’m not a total recluse, so I do enjoy meeting people, seeing new places.
I don’t think I’m getting quite as much attention as I did with The Devil All the Time, mainly because the old story about the hick who worked in a paper mill and wrote a couple of books has run its course, and that’s what got me a lot of attention in the beginning. However, I have received, I think, the best reviews of my “career” for The Heavenly Table, and so I feel like I’ve been blessed. The crowds have been a little bigger, at least in certain places.
Tell me a bit about what you did between these last two books, between The Devil All the Time and The Heavenly Table? Did you take any time off or just keep writing?
When Doubleday bought Knockemstiff, they asked me if I had an idea for a novel, and I said yes, and so after that, I figured I’d better start working on it. But with The Heavenly Table, I started on it thinking I was going to write a historical novel about Camp Sherman. And I worked on it a while and then I quit. I didn’t work on it for somewhere between 14 and 18 months. My wife and I bought another house and I thought, “Well, let me do some work on this house for a while.” And then the longer I didn’t do any writing, the easier it got not to write. Then I started working on the book again, and that was around the time I was starting to get invited to go to Europe. So I went to Europe maybe 10 times over three years. I’m not a good traveler. I mean, I don’t mind traveling that much, but I can’t work when I’m away from home. So each time I would go to Europe there would be a big pause. It took me what seemed like forever to write that third book. The traveling’s great, to be able to do that, but if you can’t work in a hotel room or in an airport or something like that…I’ve heard other people say this but, you sort of end up talking about writing more than you actually end up writing. You gotta be careful about that.
So what’s next for you, then? Have you started writing anything new? And if so, what can you tell us about it?
I learned my lesson. I can’t go that long without doing some work. I’ve waited until The Heavenly Table was finished, and then I started thinking what’s next. I’ve come up with an idea, and now I’m working on it. I can do maybe 2.5 or 3 hours a day right now because I really don’t really know where it’s going, but I’m hoping after I get back from Germany in November I’ll come home and work 4 or 5 hours a day. I can tell you some of the main characters are a mother and a son and they end up in a place called Rainsboro, which is an actual town near here on 50, but I’m going to be playing with that a little bit. I’m going to move it closer to Rocky Fort State Park/Lake. Rocky Fort opened up in 1952; the book’s going to be set in 1959.