Novelist Donald Ray Pollock On Factory Work And Finding Fiction Later In Life
Today's first guest is author Donald Ray Pollock, whose novel the devil all the time has just been made into a new netflix movie premiering next Wednesday. It Stars Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson, and here's a taste in this clip. A young boy has just watched his father pulverized two guys after they made lewd comments about the father's wife, the son's mother. Afterward the father gives his son some advice. You remember what I told you. On. The buzzer gave you. That's what I mean. got. To. Sir. Good sons of bitches out there. One hundred. These that many. Cannonball. In, both the movie and the novel the characters in the devil all the time are driven to extremes whether their fathers and sons, serial killers or preachers. The story begins in the small town of knock him stiff a real place in southern Ohio where Donald Ray pollock grew up. He didn't become a writer until he put in over thirty years at the local paper mill and got sober. But. Once he did start writing. He was noticed quickly receiving both awards and critical. Acclaim. Terry, gross spoke to Donald Ray pollock in twenty eleven when the devil, all the time was first published. Donald, Ray pollock welcome to fresh air. I'd like to start with reading from your new book, the Devil, all the time It's about the second paragraph from the prologue. So would you just set it up for us? What we have here is A young boy's name is Arvin Eugene Russell and he's following behind his father Willard and there and place called knock him stiff and they're going to Willard's prayer logging as a log in the woods where he Wants to communicate with God and So this is where they are. You know early in the morning and their. have finally reached this log. Willard eased himself down on the high side of the law and motion for his son to kneel beside him in the dead soggy leaves unless he had whiskey running through his veins Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse the drinking or the praying. As far back, as he could remember, it seemed that his father had faulted devil all the time. Arvin little with the damp pulled his Co. tighter. He wished he were still in bed even school with always miseries was better than this but it was a Saturday and there was no way to get around it. Through the mostly bare trees beyond the cross Arvin could see whisper smoke rising from a few chimneys, half a mile away four hundred or so people lived in, knock him stiff in nineteen, fifty seven nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken clam or another be it lust were necessity or just plain ignorance along with the tar paper shacks and Cinder Block houses the Holler included two general stores and a Church of Christ in Christian Union and joint known throughout the township as the bullpen. Three days before he'd come home with another black I I, don't condone no fighting just for the hell of it but sometimes, you're just too easy going Willard told him that evening then boys might be bigger than you. But the next time one of them starts his stuff, I want you to finish it. Willard was standing on the porch changing out of his work clothes. He handed Arvin Brown pants stiff with dried blood and Greece. He worked in a slaughterhouse in Greenfield and that day sixteen hundred homes had been butchered a new record for RJ Carol meat-packing. Those boy didn't know yet what he wanted to do when he grew up he was pretty sure he didn't WanNa kill pigs for eleven. Let's Donald Ray pollock reading from his new novel, the Devil, all the time. You know in the reading that you did the father tells the sun that the next time. So many beats him up the sun has to fight back and that seems to be. A recurring theme like in the opening story of your collection of short stories, the collections called knock him stiff. The opening sentence reads my father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the torch in when I was seven years old it was the only thing he was ever any good at. You certainly seem interested in the idea of a father. Kind of indoctrinating a sun on the need to fight back and then egging on to do it even when it's inappropriate. so was is this a story that played out in your life? Well, not so much in my life I. Mean as far as I don't my dad really didn't push me to fight or anything like that. But you know when I was growing up my father and I had a very Uneasy relationship. You've got to understand my dad was born in one, thousand, nine, hundred, thirty he's still alive. You know he's eighty years old and he's still kicking but He was born in. Nineteen thirty grew up in the depression I went to the eighth grade. He was working on the railroad by the time he was sixteen, and then he was in the navy. And, my dad is a very tough. Hard. man Stra very strong man. As and in contrast to that, my mother is very shy kind. Small Bone woman. and. Either fortunately or unfortunately for me, I took after my mother and I believe. When I was a kid, my dad was. Maybe disappointed for not taking after him more. So. You know that's where I guess part of that comes from it and part of it also comes from. Lived in stiff. That's where I grew up and I saw a lot of other fathers who were you know drinkers and hell raisers and they didn't treat their families very well You know maybe they went and worked for a while and. I got enough money to go on another band or whatever, and pretty much left the family to take care of themselves. So, yeah father's have a pretty rough time and my work I just. It's just. You know I'm a father. You know I have a daughter WHO's I'm thirty years old now and I have always felt that I. Wasn't. As good as I could have been. Her mother and I were divorced when she was very young she was like a year old and and I wasn't around that much and. That's probably the best explanation. I can give for why treat father's like I do my work. Were you bullied in school. You said you, you took after your mother who wouldn't hurt a fly. So and if you were bullied, would you fight back? Did you know how to actually I wasn't bullied in school I? Never really had any problems with that and yeah, I. Mean a would fight back if I had to but. That situation you know didn't come about very much probably you know just. No more than any other normal kid you know might face that sort of thing. But. Yeah. I mean I wasn't really interested in Working on cars or farm or anything like that was more of A. I won't call myself a bookworm because we really didn't have that many books but you know I like to read and watch old movies and drawl and stuff like that and My Dad. Just you know he's a very practical man I mean, even today you know his idea of success is. Owning your own farm, starting your own business or something like that and I know that he probably looks on what I'm doing now is. A pretty useless way to spend your life trying to write books. Would you describe what the town of knock him stiff was like when you were growing up well, when I was growing up there it was. You know relocated for us. Ok we'll knock him stiff. is about thirteen miles west of chillicothe Theo, which is you know southern Ohio. It was its own little place. You know there wasn't much else around there but it was a community There were three small general stores and a bar and a church, and probably four hundred, fifty, five, hundred people now I probably was related to. At least half those people. So did you find this nurturing being in a town where half the people in it were related to you or incredibly claustrophobic? I think when I was a kid when I was a kid I was claustrophobic for me. You know I was one of those kids I was always unsatisfied I always wanted to be. Else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age. You know I was thinking about escaping from the hauler. I just Thought that I'd rather be somewhere else are somewhere else. But where you are as in Chile coffee which is. PHILADELPHIA, which is about thirteen miles away like you got out but you didn't go very far. I, really didn't get out I mean that's the weird contradiction of that whole thing you know i. Wanted to escape and them what I finally got my chance or whatever I. I chose to stay I'm out at knock stiff at least once a week even today Ladder parents go to visit. My parents are still alive. You know I have a brother and two sisters and they all live fairly close to there and So I. Think though as far as escape goes what happened with me was I quit high school when I was seventeen. And I went to work in a meat packing plant much like Weller work, Dan? And then when I was eighteen I moved to Florida you know that was going to be I was going to get away that you know by moving to Florida and I was down are working a job in a nursery and I wasn't making much money or anything only been there a few months my dad called and said. Hey, I can get you a job at the paper mail if you come back up here so. I chose to come back. You know the paper Mills Calling it was union job and great benefits and. And I knew you know for a high school dropout that was probably going to be the best job I. Ever got. You had that job for. How many years did you work at the paper mill? I? was there thirty two years and you didn't start writing till you were around fifty or is that is fifth well I'm fifty six now and I started writing when I was forty five. Okay. So how come it took so long did you know? When you weren't writing did you know that you had that in you? Well. You know I'd always been a big reader as I said and I love books. And I think maybe in the back of my mind, you know always thought writing would be a great way to get by in the world and you know, of course, I was very naive about it. The principal reasons for me you know as far as being a writer were one, you were your own boss. To you could do it anywhere. And three, you made lots of money. Wasn't until actually began writing it. I found out. That was a real true. But I. Think you know Sorta like maybe a fantasy that? It was in the back of my mind for a long time. I had a problem with drinking and for a number of years and you know it was one of those fantasies that when you got half loaded and You started daydreaming or whatever it was. One of those things that you thought about right thought about. But it wasn't really. You know I went to school when I was in my thirties I went to college I went to Ohio University and I ended up with a degree in English and You. Know even while I was there though I wasn't thinking about being a writer I never took any writing workshops or anything like that. But then finally when I was forty five my dad retired from the paper mill. And there was just something about watching him retire and go home. and. You know that was you know pretty much the end of his career and it really. Bothered me and I. Just. decided. I had to try something else you know. To some other way to. Spend the rest of my life. So. When you decided, you wanted to learn how to write what did that mean? Any. Writers or anything in for a while I just sort of scribbled and struggled. And then I'd read an interview with a writer and I can't recall her name now or no it was a lady. But she talked about typing out other people's stories as a means of maybe getting closer to them or just learn how to put a story together. and. So I started doing that. Who did you type out? I typed out a lot of different stories I. I was typing out a story at least once a week and that went on for about a year and a half. So John. cheever hemingway. Flannery. O'Connor Richard. Yates Dennis Johnson the you know the list just goes on and on if it was a story that I really liked and it wasn't. Long I, type it out, and then I carry it around with me for a week and you look at over and you know jot notes on stuff like that, and then I'd throw it away and do another one. Typing a story out, just was a much better way for me to see how you know person puts dial together or you know. Moose from one scene to the next that sort of thing. Was it hard for you to find your subject matter as a writer? Well when I first started. Trying to learn how to write. As. I said like maybe I would copy out John cheever story. So then I would try to write my own story about some East Coast suburbanite having unfair. Something like that or maybe I'd write about a re Rita Andrei debut story, and then I'd write about a Catholic priest. and. So I did that for maybe two years or so and it just wasn't working at all for me. and. Then filing maybe at about two and a half years, I wrote a story that's included in the book. Knock him stiff called back teen. And it's a very short story. and. It's about these two losers sitting in a donut shop. And that was the first thing that I had. Written that I thought wasn't too bad. And so then I increasingly started focusing on you know the people that I knew about instead of nurses, lawyers, that sort of thing that I had absolutely no idea. How to write about There's a passage in your new novel that's about a bus driver and the bus drivers father had gotten a certificate from the railroad for not missing a single day of work in twenty years and bus drivers. Mother always held this up as like what you could do. If you really you know were strive and tried to accomplish something when the bus drivers father died the bus driver hope that that certificate would be buried with his father's. We didn't have to look at it anymore, but instead his mother just like. Put It on the wall, display it in the living room. And then the bus driver thinks it wore on you after a while other people's accomplishments. I love that sentence did you ever feel that way I mean he kochman here seems. So relatively small like a good attendance record and not to knock that. But for that to be like, you know the zenith of somebody's life is. You. but did you feel that way that a war on you? Other People's accomplishments? I don't think that I paid so much attention to other people's. Successes or whatever. But I, know that I was aware you know by the time. I was thirty two or so and I've been working at the mail for about fourteen years. And I knew that all the guys that I had come in with you got hired about the same time as mayor guys even much later than that. You know they own their own home. Maybe. They owned a boat and they had two or three vehicles and they were married and had kids and on and on and on. You know in contrast to them. I've been divorced twice. I'd filed bankruptcy when I got sober I was living in this little very small apartment above this garage. Of. Motel Room and I've been living there for about. Four or five years. I owned a black and white TV that my sister had given me and I had this seventy six chevy that had the whole side of smashed in and that was it. You know for fourteen years of working there. That's what I had. And so you know there was that sense I guess of me just being a failure. Wasn't really that I wasn't jealous of those people or anything like that. I, mean I had enough sense to know that you know where I ended up was my own fault. But there was always that that idea in back of my head that. I could have done more you know I could maybe went to college or something you know. I'm sure you know if I'd wanted to go to school when I was eighteen, my dad would try to help me. and. That's not the route that I chose though how has your life changed? Now as a published writer, you have a collection of short stories. You have a new novel you got a thirty five thousand dollars cash prize, the pen, Robert Bingham Award. So, what's different about your life? well, I have a lot more time to just set on the porch and. Smoke and daydream. Think it's a legitimate. Yeah well, at least that's what I tell my wife. But my life hasn't really changed that much I. Mean I get a lot more emails. Now you know that sort of thing, but you know I still live in the same house I still pretty much. You know my daily routine is. I really can't say that it's changed that much. It's a good life and I'm thrilled that you know I've got a publisher and. You know had at least a little bit of success. You know I know a lot of writers out there a lot of writers out there who are much better than I am. And would. Probably give their left arm. To be setting, you know where I'm setting today. Well Donald Ray, pollock thing you so much for talking with us. Terry I appreciate. It. Made my day. Donald Ray pollock speaking to Terry Gross in twenty eleven. The devil all the time a new movie based on his novel of the same name.