Monday, July 18, 2011

Donald Ray Pollock, Q & A

Do not miss Donald Ray Pollock's appearance this Wed. night at Subterranean Books at 7 p.m. Mr. Pollock will be reading from and signing his new novel, "DEVIL ALL THE TIME". This book is guaranteed to make many Top Ten lists of books from 2011 & also several Best Book of the year lists. I am very thankful I was able to catch up with Donald in between book events this week and in advance of his trip to St. Louis. What follows is a Q & A we just finished up today. Many thanks to Donald Ray for his time and thoughtful answers.

S&W's) When people here the words "regional writer" it's like a curse word to some. I just have never understood that. The writers I love best, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, William Gay, are among those who've gotten that label. Shouldn't it actually be a compliment? These writers write what they know best & what they know is fascinating to most anyone who have read them. Why try to write about some area or people you know nothing about? I prefer hard core realism.

DRP) I think a large percentage of writers could be considered "regional". I mean, if most of your fiction is set in or around New York City or Dublin or Boston, hell, you're still focusing on one place. It definitely doesn't bother me to be known as a Midwestern writer or an Ohio writer or, heck, even a Ross County writer. Because I've lived in southern Ohio my entire life, there be something seriously wrong if the place wasn't a very important part of me.

S&W's) It was a long journey,(32 years at the paper mill, 5 years learning the craft at 45 years old,going back to school and getting the MFA), to getting KNOCKEMSTIFF published. How satisfying was it to hold that first book in your hands and realize you did it?

DRP) As for what I felt when I got my hands on that first finished copy of KNOCKEMSTIFF, I'd rank it among the four or five best experiences of my life. I felt, I guess , more than anything, extremely lucky. I mean, it's what every writer dreams of, right?

S&W's) You've used Knockemstiff, Oh., your hometown as a setting in both books. However, you also use Coal Creek, W.V. quite a bit in the new novel. Why Coal Creek W.V. as a setting?

DRP) Well, I'm not really sure. I knew that I had to move Arvin away from Meade, so that he would eventually end up on the road and meet up with Carl and Sandy, and so I chose a place that I figured I could write about. West Virginia isn't a whole lot different from Southern Ohio.

S&W's) I know you're gonna get asked this a lot and I believe people will make comparisons, so I'll go ahead and ask now. How much of an influence has Flannery O'Connor had on your writing?

DRP) There are many southern writers who have had a big influence on me: Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, Chris Offutt, Harry Crews, Ron Rash, Flannery O'Connor, the list goes on and on. I can tell you that I copied "A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND" on an IBM typewriter at least twice when I was starting out.

S&W's) Your books are dark, they're brutal, the characters seem to be always wanting to run away from something or aspiring to to be more than they are. Yet, there is such a sense of realism and honesty, and humanity, that you can't help but fall in love with these characters no matter their flaws. Your thoughts?

DRP) Even though many of my characters are mostly bad people, I think they would be very difficult to write about if I didn't feel at least a little empathy for them. And at fifty-six years old, I've seen a lot of people screw their lives up, and so I can understand ( to an extent, anyway) how easy it is to do that.

S&W's) Lets talk about working class writers like Larry Brown & William Gay and one of my new favorites, Frank Bill, for a moment. Did those writers inspire you and do you think that they have given voices to the voiceless?

DRP) Well, as I said, William Gay and Larry Brown have influenced me alot, along with Frank. But not just their writing. These are people who worked blue collar jobs for years while they were learning how to write. More than anything, they gave me hope that maybe I could do the same.

S&W's) There are two big events coming up soon, that you will be appearing at. The first is a reading & book signing event in St. Louis on July 20th at Subterranean Books and the other is Frank Bill's Book Launch in Corydon,In. on Sept 10th. For those folks who haven't been to one of these events, what can they expect when they come out?

DRP) Well, I don't know about Frank's book release party in Corydon, bas as for me reading in St, Louis, ha! I'll just read parts of the new book for maybe 30 minutes and then answer questions if anyone is still awake. In other words, I'm not a showman!

S&W's) Young kids today who want to be writers, and who might be in the same shoes you were as a young man. What advise would you have for them?

DRP) The first thing you need to realize is that if you don't love books and love to read, then you're probably not going to make it as a writer. Reading comes first. Then you have to learn to sit in the chair and write every day, or at least try to write. Figure on doing that for several years before anything starts to happen. When you go out, leave your cell phone and your ear buds at home and pay attention to the world around you.

S&W's) "DEVIL ALL THE TIME" is the best book published in 2011 that I have read. I cannot imagine anything coming close outside of Frank Bill's debut. To me it's an instant classic. It will no doubt draw comparisons to "Wiseblood", amongst others. Did you ever foresee being able to write something so good, that it will probably still be read long after we are both dead and gone?

DRP) Man, I really appreciate your wonderful and generous words about the book, but I have to admit I'm still not sure how "good" it is. Only time will tell, I guess.

S&W's) I don't want to give away anything about the ending of "DEVIL ALL THE TIME" I have to be careful here. However, my question to you is, any chance you will pick up and revisit it in another novel in the future? Is it something you want to come back to, or is it something you've even thought about?

DRP) I really don't know yet. I have thought that I'd like to write a novel about Hank, the storekeeper, at some point, but I've got a couple other things planned first.

S&W's) How important is life experience to writers? I just can't see how all these young writers can entertain people my age, when they haven't done, seen, or experienced much yet. Wouldn't you say life is the best teacher?

DRP) Sure, life is definitely the best teacher. Still, even if all you've done is go to school, you've still experienced quite a bit of life or the human condition with your family and friends, that is, unless you've stayed in your room all the time playing on the computer or texting or whatever. I do wonder about young people who are so obsessed with "social networking", ,which,really, is mostly bullshit. Don't get me wrong; I can get as hooked as anyone on that stuff, but I do try to limit myself. You're not going to find much material to write about if most of your time is spent trying to say "connected" through a little piece of plastic. Too, a college grad should probably spend a year or two working around people before they enter a MFA program, though I'm sure as hell not saying you need to spend thirty-two years in a factory!

S&W's) In regards to music, what kind of impact has groups like Drive By Truckers, Lucero, Hank III, and Steve Earle had on you or your writing?

DRP) I've listened to all these people, of course, but I think the way that music influences my writing is a little different.What I mean is that when I'm revising , I pick several albums and listen to them over and over, until I'm not really hearing them anymore, at least not mindful of the lyrics. For "THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME", I listened mostly to the following albums when I was doing the revisions (which took a long time): the first two Allman Brothers records, a piano tribute to Radiohead( Christopher O'Reilly's, "True Love Waits"), a collection of old gospel songs on Smithsonian Folkways, the self -titled album by Clutch,and Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night". These were used, basically, to help me get in certain moods.