Knockemstiff, Ohio, is a tiny hamlet in southern Ohio. In the 1950s, Knockemstiff had three stores, a bar and a population of about 450 people. Most of those people, says fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, were "connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another."
"When I was a kid, it was claustrophobic for me," he says. "From a very early age, I was thinking about escaping. ... It was nice to have a lot of family around ... but I just thought that I'd rather be somewhere else."
Pollock moved 13 miles away, to the town of Chillicothe. A high school dropout, he worked in a meatpacking plant and then in a paper mill for 32 years. At 45, he quit his job at the mill in order to go to graduate school and become a writer.
"I'd always been a big reader, and I loved books, and I always thought writing would be a great way to get by in the world," he says. "The principle reasons for me, as far as being a writer, were: You were your own boss; you could do it anywhere; and you made lots of money. It wasn't until I actually began writing that I found out that wasn't really true."
Pollock's first book, published in 2008, was a critically acclaimed collection of 18 short stories set in Knockemstiff. The characters, who regularly brawled, drank to oblivion and assaulted their neighbors, popped into Pollock's head as he drove around in a truck for the paper factory. Pollock's second book, The Devil All the Time, is also dark and gritty — some of the characters include a man who regularly makes blood sacrifices in the hopes that those sacrifices will save someone dying from cancer — and a preacher on the run from the law and a manslaughter conviction.
Donald Ray Pollock dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to work in a meatpacking plant. He then spent 32 years working in a paper mill before quitting to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.
Courtesy Donald Ray Pollock
Courtesy Donald Ray Pollock
Pollock tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the violent themes and broken families that make up his stories are a lot like the people he grew up around in blue-collar Knockemstiff.
"I saw a lot of fathers who were drinkers and hellraisers, and didn't treat their families very well," he says. "So fathers have a rough time in my work. And I was a father. ... And I have always felt that I wasn't as good as I could have been. So that's the best [explanation] I can give for why I do what I do."
When he first started writing, Pollock says he typed out a story by another famous writer at least once a week in order to learn how to put dialogue together and move from scene to scene.
"John Cheever, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, and the list goes on and on," he says. "If the story wasn't overly long, I'd type it out. And I'd carry it around with me for a week and jot notes on it, and then I'd throw it away and do another one."
At first, Pollock says he tried to emulate the subject matter in stories by authors like Cheever and Hemingway.
"I would try to write my own story about some East Coast suburbanite having an affair or something like that," he says. "So I did that for maybe two years or so, and it just wasn't working for me at all. Then finally I wrote a story called Back Teen. It's a very short story, and it's about these two losers sitting in a doughnut shop. And that was the first thing I had written that I thought wasn't too bad. So then I just increasingly started focusing on the people that I knew about instead of nurses, lawyers and other people I had no idea what to write about."
Pollock graduated from the MFA program at Ohio State University in 2009. He received the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Award and the 2009 Devil's Kitchen Award in Prose for Knockemstiff. His work has also appeared in PEN America, Boulevard, The Journal, Third Coast, The New York Times and Granta.