Donald Ray Pollock rarely does what’s expected of him. He writes literary fiction, but instead of filling his works with precious moments, he piles them with murder, sex, and characters who stray far from the loosest definitions of “socially acceptable.” After the success of his first collection of stories, Knockemstiff (also the name of his hometown), he chose not to chase the literati to the coasts, but instead stay in southern Ohio where he’d lived all his life. Even his road to success was unusual: After working in a paper mill for 32 years, at age 50, he decided to pursue his MFA in creative writing. Pollock continues down an unbeaten path with his latest novel, The Devil All The Time. Devil features a bleak and often nightmarish vision of the decades following World War II, a world where redemption, on the rare occasions when it does come to town, rides shotgun with soul-scarring consequences. In advance of Pollock’s reading at Magers & Quinn earlier this summer, he talked with The A.V. Club about feeling like an outsider, the definition of happiness, and fucking up.
The A.V. Club: Your path to literary success was atypical. What led you to leave the paper mill to write full time?
Donald Ray Pollock: I started at the mill when I was 18, and for the next 15 years or so I drank, worked, and didn’t do much with my life. Then I got cleaned up, and the mill had a program where they paid 75 percent of your tuition if you wanted to go to college part-time. So I was 35 when I started taking classes at Ohio University. After I got my degree, I kept working at the mill. When I was 45, I decided I was going to try to learn how to write short stories. I’d always been a big reader, and in the back of my mind carried this fantasy of how great it would be to write for a living. My dad retired from the mill that year, and there was something about that that got to me. He left the mill to go home, and that was pretty much it—he was done. So I started learning how to write, and when I was 50 I entered the MFA program at Ohio State University.
AVC: Did you ever feel like an outsider entering the literary world at a later age?
DRP: I didn’t feel that so much when I started writing; I’ve felt that way all my life. I don’t know, man; I guess I was just wired wrong. When I was growing up, I always wanted to be somebody else and live somewhere else. I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable around people. And I’m not trying to romanticize this, because it wasn’t romantic. I wasn’t trying to be a rebel; I just always felt a little out of it. I think that’s why it’s pretty easy for me to identify with people living on the margins.
AVC: The characters in both of your books spend a lot of time stepping outside of society’s rules. Is that at all related?
DRP: When I first started writing, I’d read a story by Andre Dubus and I’d try to write about a lapsed Catholic. Or I’d read a story by John Cheever and try to write about an East Coast suburbanite. I didn’t really know about people like that. Finally, I wrote this story called “Bactine” that’s included in Knockemstiff. It was the first story I’d written that I thought wasn’t too bad. I sent it off, and it got accepted [in a literary magazine]. And then I decided these are the kinds of people I know something about, so I’m going to write about them—at least for right now.
AVC: After Knockemstiff, you were a sudden star. Did you feel any pressure with the process of writing a novel?
DRP: I did, because when Knockemstiff came out, I wasn’t nervous. I was just so happy that someone was publishing my book, it was like, who gives a damn? If it gets bad reviews, at least I published a book. And if I don’t publish anything the rest of my life, at least I got this one out. With Devil, I’ve been really nervous about the reception. And of course when my publisher bought Knockemstiff, one of the first questions they asked me was if I had a novel. I had this vague idea about a couple of serial killers, and that was it. But I said, “Yeah, I got one!” [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to tell them no. So then I set myself up to write a novel, and it was pretty hard for me. My short stories are mostly 10 to 12 pages at most.
AVC: In Devil, you return at least in part to the setting of Knockemstiff and Ohio. What keeps you there both in your fiction and real life?
DRP: When I was growing up, I just wanted to be somewhere else. I didn’t like living in Knockemstiff, and I figured when I got older I’d move off to some big city. I quit high school when I was 17 and worked in a meat packing plant. When I turned 18, I moved to Florida. I was only there a few months, working a lousy job at a nursery, when my dad called and said he could get me on at the mill. And that’s pretty much what fucked me right there. I thought I’d work there a couple years, save some money, and move away. That’s not what happened. Once I got caught up in the mill, it was union wages and I had great benefits. Then I got married, and on and on and on. Now this is where I live, and I don’t think about moving away. I’m satisfied with it.
AVC: Devil is really dark, particularly for literary fiction. Did you ever feel any internal or external pressure to soften it in hopes of capturing a wider audience?
DRP: I did, but I never had any pressure from my publisher. But at times, I did think it was maybe going a little too far. I had so many reactions to Knockemstiff. A lot of people hated it. Some got to the second story and said they couldn’t finish it. But there were a lot of people who liked it, too. You’re always hoping you can attract a bigger audience, but at the same time, I’d hate to give up what I write. If I could write Chick Lit or something like that and make money off it, that’d be great. But I just can’t do it. These are the kind of people I write about.
AVC: Without giving away any plot points, it’s fair to say you’re not afraid to kill off your characters. It creates an edgy atmosphere for the reader, because no one seems to be safe. Is that by design, or just where the story led you?
DRP: When I began Devil, I started with the two serial killers. Then I quickly added Arvin so I could have someone to bounce off Carl and Sandy. I had a vague idea of how I wanted the book to end, so a lot of the people who got killed off were to make sure Arvin was in a position to meet Carl and Sandy. I’m not a thinker as far as the way I got to that point. The way I figured it out was to just keep typing. Also, too, I do believe the world is a pretty sad, troubled, and violent place. Maybe that’s why I focus on the trouble. Even though there are good people and good things, there’s also a bunch of messed up stuff. And I learned early on, you have to have some trouble in your stories. I definitely go overboard on that, but I have a lot more fun writing about the trouble.
AVC: Your work—and in particular, Devil—doesn’t feature too many happy characters. Do you think happiness is out of reach for the types of characters you write?
DRP: Yeah, nobody really turns out too happy in any of my stuff. [Laughs.] It’s really strange, because I’m actually a pretty happy person. I’m not walking around giggling or anything like that, but I’ve got this feeling that everything is okay with my life. I’ve got problems, but nothing so big I can’t handle. As far as the people I see and pay attention to in southern Ohio, the only time they’re happy is when they’ve just scored some dope or got a welfare check, or when they’ve got a new girlfriend, or whatever. That’s happiness for them. And that’s not real happiness, if you think about it. And when they get that pill, they’re happy for a few hours, then it’s right back to the same shit again. To be fair, most of the people who live around here don’t live like that, but those aren’t the people I watch.
AVC: It seems you have a place in your heart for characters who do bad things, and in some cases, really bad things. Is this purposeful, or are you trying to pick a scab and make your readers care about a person whose actions they normally would have a hard time justifying?
DRP: It’s very easy for me to feel sympathy for people who are messed up. It’s not that I’m a pseudo-saint or a great person. I had a lot of trouble with drugs and alcohol when I was younger, and I know how easy it can be to mess up the rest of your life. One bad turn, one bad night, one big mistake, and everything is screwed up. Or maybe you were just born in the wrong house and raised in a bad way. I guess I can understand.
AVC: In Devil, religion and violence continually bump up against each other. Do you think they’re inextricably linked?
DRP: Unfortunately, I think they’re very intertwined. I wasn’t raised in a religious home, so I’ve always had a hard time understanding how there could be so many religious people who could be so violent. So many use religion as an excuse for taking over someone’s country or making them believe what you believe. Religion can be a good thing, but basically the way I look at it is that it provides a moral code, common sense. But then people distort it and use it as an excuse to be a bully. It’s sad, but that’s the way it’s worked for a several thousand years now.
AVC: Speaking of religion, your characters don’t find much redemption. Do you ever feel guilty about that?
DRP: I don’t, but like I said before, I do worry about making readers too uncomfortable to continue with my books. I sometimes wonder if I should hold back, provide some redemption or what-have-you for the reader. Really, what it comes down to, is that I know a lot of people who have messed their lives up and come out of it. After I sobered up, I felt if I was able to achieve some sort of peace and understanding about how I fucked up, I could try to live a good life from that day forward. That’s where I could redeem myself. So it’s not guilt as much as worry.
AVC: Enough worry to ever give your characters some true, light-through-the-clouds redemption?
DRP: Well, that probably won’t happen. [Laughs.]