Novelist Donald Ray Pollock On Factory Work And Finding Fiction Later In Life

Sep 11, 2020

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

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 pulverize two guys after they made lewd comments about the father's wife, the son's mother. Afterward, the father gives his son some advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME")

BILL SKARSGARD: (As Willard Russell) Now you remember what I told you about them boys on the bus that gave you the black eye. That's what I meant. You just got to pick the right time.

MICHAEL BANKS REPETA: (As Arvin Russell) Yes, sir.

SKARSGARD: (As Willard Russell) There's a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there.

BANKS REPETA: (As Arvin Russell) More than a hundred?

SKARSGARD: (As Willard Russell) (Laughter) Yeah, at least that many. How about I buy you a candy bar, huh?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: In both the movie and the novel, the characters in "The Devil All The Time" are driven to extremes, whether they're fathers and sons, serial killers or preachers. The story begins in the small town of Knockemstiff, a real place in southern Ohio where Donald Ray Pollock grew up. He didn't become a writer until he put in over 30 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 2011, when "The Devil All The Time" was first published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Donald Ray Pollock, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a 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?

DONALD RAY POLLOCK: Well, what we have here is a young boy. His name is Arvin Eugene Russell. And he's following behind his father, Willard. And they're in a place called Knockemstiff. And they're going to Willard's prayer log. He has a log in the woods where he, you know, wants to communicate with God. And so this is where they are. It's, you know, early in the morning, and they're - have finally reached this log.

(Reading) Willard eased himself down on the high side of the log and motioned 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 to 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 fought the devil all the time. Arvin shivered a little with the damp, pulled his coat tighter. He wished he were still in bed. Even school with all its 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 wisps of smoke rising from a few chimneys half a mile away. Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one Godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance. Along with the tar-papered shacks and cinder block houses, the holler included two general stores and a Church of Christ in Christian Union and a joint known throughout the township as the Bull Pen.

Three days before, he'd come home with another black eye. I don't condone no fighting just for the hell of it, but sometimes you're just too easygoing, Willard had told him that evening. Them 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 the brown pants, stiff with dried blood and grease. He worked in a slaughterhouse in Greenfield, and that day, 1,600 hogs had been butchered, a new record for R.J. Carroll Meatpacking. Though the boy didn't know yet what he wanted to do when he grew up, he was pretty sure he didn't want to kill pigs for a living.

GROSS: That'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 son that the next time somebody beats him up, the son has to fight back. And that seems to be a recurring theme. Like, in the opening story of your collection of short stories - the collection is called "Knockemstiff" - the opening sentence reads, (reading) my father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-In when I was 7 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 son on the need to fight back and then egging him on to do it, even when it's inappropriate. So is this a story that played out in your life?

POLLOCK: 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 1930. He's still alive, you know. He's 80 years old, and he's still kicking. But he was born in 1930, grew up in the Depression. He went to the eighth grade. He was working on the railroad by the time he was 16. And you know, then he was in the Navy. And my dad is a very tough, hard man - very strong man.

And in contrast to that, my mother is this very shy, kind, small-boned 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 in me for not taking after him more. So you know, that's where I guess part of that comes from. And part of it also comes from, you know, I was - lived in Knockemstiff. 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 until they got enough money to, you know, go on another binge or whatever and pretty much left the family to take care of themselves. So yeah, fathers have a pretty rough time in my work.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLOCK: I just - you know, it's just - you know, I'm a father. You know, I have a daughter who's about 30 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 I wasn't around her that much, and that's probably, you now, the best explanation I can give for why I treat fathers like I do in my work.

GROSS: Were you bullied in school? You said you took after your mother, who wouldn't hurt a fly. So...

POLLOCK: Right.

GROSS: And if you were bullied, would you fight back? Did you know how to?

POLLOCK: Actually, I wasn't bullied in school. I never really had any problems with that. And yeah, I mean, I 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 farming or anything like that. I was more of a - I won't call myself a bookworm because we really didn't have that many books. But you know, I liked to read and watch old movies and draw and stuff like that.

And my dad just, you know, he's a very man. I mean, even today, you know, his idea of success is owning your own farm or starting your own business or something like that. And I know that he probably looks on what I'm doing now as a pretty useless way to spend your life - you know, trying to write books.

GROSS: Would you describe what the town of Knockemstiff was like when you were growing up?

POLLOCK: Well, when I was growing up there, it was, you know...

GROSS: First locate it for us.

POLLOCK: OK. Well, Knockemstiff is about 13 miles west of Chillicothe, Ohio, 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 450, 500 people. You know, I probably was related to at least half those people.

GROSS: So did you find this nurturing being in a town where half the people in it were related to you or incredibly claustrophobic?

POLLOCK: I think when I was a kid - when I was a kid, it was claustrophobic for me. You know, I was one of those kids - I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping from the holler. I just thought that I'd rather be somewhere else.

GROSS: Well, you are somewhere else, but where you are is in Chillicothe, which is...

POLLOCK: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...About 13 miles away. So, like, you got out, but you didn't go very far.

POLLOCK: I really didn't get out. I mean, that's the weird contradiction to that whole thing. You know, I wanted to escape. And then when I finally got my chance or whatever, I chose to stay. I'm out at Knockemstiff at least once a week even today.

GROSS: Doing what? Are your parents still there?

POLLOCK: I go to visit my parents, yeah. They're both 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 17, and I went to work in a meatpacking plant, much like Willard worked in. And then when I was 18, I moved to Florida. You know, that was going to be - I was going to get away, you know, by moving to Florida. And I was down here working a job in a nursery, and I wasn't making much money or anything. And I'd only been there a few months, and my dad called and said, hey, I can get you a job with the paper mill if you come back up here. So I chose to come back. You know, the paper mill was calling. It was, you know, union job and great benefits. And I knew, you know, for a high school dropout, that was probably going to be the best job I ever got.

GROSS: You had that job for a long time. How many years did you work at the paper mill?

POLLOCK: I was there 32 years.

GROSS: And you didn't start writing until you were around 50? Or is that - is 50...

POLLOCK: Well, I'm 56 now. And I started writing when I was 45.

GROSS: OK. So how come it took so long? Did you know - when you weren't writing, did you know that you had that in you?

POLLOCK: Well, you know, I'd always been a big reader, as I said. And I loved books. And I think maybe in the back of my mind, you know, I 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. Two, you could do it anywhere. And three, you made lots of money.

GROSS: Ha.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLOCK: And so it wasn't until I actually began writing that I found out that that wasn't really true. But I think, you know, I was sort of, like, maybe a fantasy that, you know, 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, you know, when you got half-loaded and, you know, you started daydreaming or whatever, it was one of those things that you thought about - or I thought about. But it wasn't really - you know, I went to school when I was in my 30s. 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 45, 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, some other way to spend the rest of my life.

BIANCULLI: Author Donald Ray Pollock speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG LAZY'S "UNEASY STREET")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with author Donald Ray Pollock. His novel, "The Devil All The Time," has been adapted into a movie that starts streaming next week on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So when you decided you wanted to learn how to write, what did that mean?

POLLOCK: You know, I didn't know any writers or anything. And for a while, I just sort of scribbled and struggled. And then I read an interview with a writer, and I can't recall her name now. I know 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 learning how to put a story together. And so I started doing that.

GROSS: Whose stories did you type out?

POLLOCK: I typed out a lot of different stories 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, Denis Johnson - you know, the list just goes on and on. If it was a story that I really liked and it wasn't overly long, I'd type it out. And then I'd carry it around with me for a week and, you know, look it over and, you know, jot notes on it and 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, a person puts dialogue together or, you know, moves from one scene to the next, that sort of thing.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to find your subject matter as a writer?

POLLOCK: Well, when I first started trying to learn how to write, you know, as I said, like, maybe I would copy out a John Cheever story. So then I would try to write my own story about some East Coast suburbanite, you know, having an affair or something like that. Or maybe I'd write about a - you know, I'd read a Andre Dubus 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 finally, maybe at about two and a half years, I wrote a story that's included in the book "Knockemstiff" called "Bactine." 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 just 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.

GROSS: There's a passage in your new novel that's about a bus driver, and the bus driver's father had once gotten a certificate from the railroad for not missing a single day of work in 20 years. And the bus driver's mother always held this up as like what you could do if you really, you know, were a striver and tried to accomplish something. And when the bus driver's father died, the bus driver hoped that that certificate would be buried with his father so he didn't have to look at it anymore. But instead, his mother just, like, put it on the wall to display it in the living room.

POLLOCK: Yes.

GROSS: And then the bus driver thinks, it wore on you after a while, other people's accomplishments.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLOCK: Yeah.

GROSS: I love that sentence. Did you ever feel that way? I mean, and the acknowledgment here seems so relatively small. Like, a good attendance record, not to knock that, but for that to be like, you know, the zenith of somebody's life is...

POLLOCK: Right.

GROSS: Yeah. But did you feel that way, that it wore on you, other people's accomplishments?

POLLOCK: 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 32 or so and I'd been working at the mill for about 14 years, and I knew that all the guys that I had come in with, you know, got hired about the same time as me or guys even much later than that, you know, they owned their own home, and 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'd been divorced twice, I'd filed bankruptcy. When I got sober, I was living in this little, very small apartment above this garage. It was about the size of a motel room, and I'd 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 old '76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it. You know, for 14 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. It 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'd ended up was my own fault. But there was always that idea in the back of my head that I could've done more. You know, I could have maybe went to college or something. You know, I'm sure, you know, if I'd wanted to go to school when I was 18, my dad would have tried to help me. And, you know, that's not the route that I chose, though.

GROSS: 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 $35,000 cash prize, the PEN/Robert Bingham Award.

POLLOCK: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: So, like, what's different about your life?

POLLOCK: Well, I have a lot more time to just sit on the porch and, you know, smoke and...

GROSS: Daydream and think it's a legitimate part of your work?

POLLOCK: Yeah, pretty much.

GROSS: (Laughter).

POLLOCK: Yeah. Well, at least that's what I tell my wife, anyway.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

POLLOCK: But my life hasn't really changed that much. I mean, I get a lot more e-mails 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 a 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 sitting, you know, where I'm sitting today.

GROSS: Well, Donald Ray Pollock, thank you so much for talking with us.

POLLOCK: Hey, Terry, I appreciate it. You've made my day.

BIANCULLI: Donald Ray Pollock speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. "The Devil All The Time," a new movie based on his novel of the same name, premieres next Wednesday on Netflix. After a break, we'll hear from Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the co-creators and co-stars of the comedy series "PEN15," which begins a new season next week on Hulu. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things," the new movie from writer-director Charlie Kaufman. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BLUES DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.