When blue-collar southern Ohioan Donald Ray Pollock quit his job of 32 years to write dark, haunting stories of the hardscrabble, often depraved town of Knockemstiff, reviewers were throwing around Flannery O’Connor comparisons. His riveting new novel, The Devil All the Time, is similarly peopled with no-good folks from the holler, doing unspeakable things to themselves, and each other.
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What called you to the writing life?
When I turned 45, my dad retired from the paper mill where I also worked. He went home, and you know how most retired people are, especially factory workers: He was just kind of lost. That hit me really hard. I didn’t know how to do anything else.
I’d always listened to my grandfather and father tell stories, and I’ve always read a lot of books. I thought: Well hell, how hard could it be to be a writer?
Dark characters, twisted scenarios, evil everywhere. You seem like such a nice guy. Where do these diabolical stories come from?
I really don’t know. I swear. I’m not anything like the people in my books. I just sort of find it easier to write about troubled people. That’s probably true for most fiction writers. Unless you’ve got a little bit of trouble going on, you don’t have much of a story.
So much conflict in today’s fiction occurs in people’s heads. In your books, the conflicts are totally physical.
I’m better at the thing that I do, rather than trying to get all cerebral and inside people’s heads for a long period of time.
I take a lot of stuff from older crime fiction writers. I have to admit that for the most part, the fiction that I read is from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Got any recommendations?
As far as favorite writers, I’d say Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown—almost all southern writers. I’ve been reading George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, one of his early novels. I’ve just finished The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore. I’ve been into the early English stuff too: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.
You write about poor, uneducated, superstitious people. But there’s no judgment here.
It would be really easy for me to judge. They’re in my head, I’m writing about them. But I think I would much rather leave it open, I suppose, and let the reader do that. It’s really not for me to say. I know that sounds kinda dumb, because they’re my characters. But I’d really rather not.
Was any of this hard to write, with all the serial killers and the rotting corpses and the spiders in church?
[Laughs] You can about imagine what it’s like when you have to go somewhere and read this stuff out loud. I’m sort of a shy person in front of a big group, but then to have to get up there and say some of the words that I say, it is kind of hard to do.
For example, with Carl and Sandy the serial killers, it was hard to even imagine. How would Carl do this to someone? How would they move? That sort of thing.
Well, heck, the whole book was tough for me to write.
What’s your writing schedule?
With this book, for a long time, I would get up around 6:30 a.m., and I would work until about 11. Once I got what I considered a solid draft, I switched to nights—about 8 until 3 or so in the morning.
I do tend to write better at night. But I don’t like to stay up late, so I’m kind of screwed that way.
C.S. Lewis said we read to know we are not alone. What do you want readers to get from this book?
Hmm. [Long pause] This isn’t anything as high-falutin’ as that, but the sense that I told a good story. At least one that kept ‘em turning the pages. That’s really about all I was hoping for.
Glad you quit the paper mill job?
I am now. I had reservations for about two years. Now I don’t have any health insurance. There, I had a paycheck every week, it was a union job, and I made pretty good money.
But after the first book, I guess I went through a dark period when I thought, damn, I’m a one-book writer. Once the book took off, and I started writing the second one, I felt better about it.
But it wasn’t like, “Whoopee! I’m glad I’m out of that damned place!” I did have a pretty good job over there.