SCOTT SIMON, host:
"Knockemstiff" is tough stuff. To describe the stories in this book as gritty is a bit like calling Antarctica chilly. Knockemstiff, by the way, is a real town in southern Ohio where the author, Donald Ray Pollock grew up. Characters in his stories beat each other out of boredom, drink themselves into stupors, soil themselves, and assault their neighbors. As one character, big Bernie Givens(ph) puts it, I'm 56 years old and sloppy fat and stuck in southern Ohio like the smile on a dead clown's gluteus maximus - and he didn't say gluteus maximus. "Knockemstiff" is the first collection of stories published by Donald Pollack who worked in a shoe factory, then a paper plant for 32 years, married three times, was in rehab four times, finally left his job at the mill to become a writer, and now he has.
Donald Ray Pollack joins us from the studios of KPLU in Seattle. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. DONALD RAY POLLACK (Author, "Knockemstiff"): Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Now Knockemstiff is an actual place, but these aren't the people you grew up with. You take some pains to say that.
Mr. POLLACK: Most of the people around where I live know where Knockemstiff is, so I wanted to make sure that they didn't think it was a non-fiction memoir or anything like that.
SIMON: But on the contrary, you say the people you grew up with were very nice.
Mr. POLLACK: For the most part, they were, yes.
SIMON: Now I want to give people some idea of your prose style and I wonder if I could get you to read the opening of your story Hair's Fate.
Mr. POLLACK: Sure. When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely. Daniel liked to pretend that anyway. He needed the long hair. Without it, he was nothing but a creepy, country studge from Knockemstiff, Ohio, old people glasses, and acne sprouts, and a bony chicken chest. Have you ever tried to be someone like that? When you're 14, it's worse than being dead, and so when the old man sawed off Daniel's hair with a butcher knife, the same one his mom used to slice rings of red bologna and scrape the pig's jowl, he might as well have cut the boy's ugly head off, too.
SIMON: I'm struck by something you say later in the story about this character Daniel. You say he never had anything to celebrate, not once in his whole life.
Mr. POLLACK: Yes.
SIMON: Is that true of a lot of the characters here?
Mr. POLLACK: A lot of the characters live pretty trapped lives. You know, they're caught in a place where they don't particularly want to be in, but at the same time, they just find it too hard to escape.
SIMON: We want to talk about your history, because you - let's put it this way. You come to the craft of being a writer with a whole lot more life experience than certainly the 24-year-old graduate students at the Writer's Workshop in Iowa who come out of Princeton and go there.
Mr. POLLACK: Yeah.
SIMON: But when you were 12, 13, 14, 17, or 18, did you think about being a writer?
Mr. POLLACK: Sure. I always read a lot. Now there wasn't a lot of books in the home or anything like that, but probably by the time I was a freshman in high school, I'd pretty much read everything in the small library we had at the school. And I always thought, you know, maybe that would be a nice way to get along in the world, you know, to be a writer, but I never really had the discipline or the wherewithal to try until I was about 45 years old.
SIMON: What happened?
Mr. POLLACK: I just realized that if I ever wanted to do anything else with my life, I was going to have to try now. And so I told my wife that I would give it five years and see what happened, and at the end of the five years I had published maybe four stories.
Mr. POLLACK: And been accepted to the MFA program at Ohio State.
SIMON: You worked 32 years in a paper plant, right?
Mr. POLLACK: Yes.
SIMON: What kind of work?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, it was all factory work, of course. I wasn't in management or anything, and the last 18 years that I was there, I worked in the power plant and took care of the ash coal silos. You know, I kept them empty, drove a truck, pretty much just all labor.
SIMON: Did you let your mind wander, were salting away stories?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, yes, I mean after I got used to the job it was pretty easy to day dream, so I think some of the ideas probably came from while I was driving the truck.
SIMON: Well what's the process of writing like for you?
Mr. POLLACK: Once I could get the first line of the story and a voice in my head, the writing, I won't say came easily, but I could always get something. Once I got a voice in my head was - you know, I had this person talking to me. And then a lot of revision.
SIMON: I want to give people some idea of the quality of the opening line you have in stories. Almost at random the story Bactine begins, I've been standing out around Rasseville with my crippled uncle, because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else and spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole. Wow, what a beginning.
Mr. POLLACK: Yeah, that was a good one. I think readers are so impatient that if you don't get them with the first sentence or two, you've probably lost them, you know, a lot of times.
SIMON: We mentioned that you'd been married three times, right?
Mr. POLLACK: Yes.
SIMON: Which is - I'm sorry if this is intrusive, but the wife who agreed that you got to try it now sweetheart, five years to be a writer, is that woman to whom you're still married?
Mr. POLLACK: Yes, it is. I'm still married to her and we're doing well.
SIMON: What were those five years like? There must have been some anxiety.
Mr. POLLACK: I didn't have a lot of expectations.
Mr. POLLACK: And so when I started out I also didn't know too much about how to begin, and so I would type out stories that I liked on a typewriter.
SIMON: You mean type other stories out?
Mr. POLLACK: Yes, type other writer's stories. You know, I'd never been in a writing workshop or anything and I - you know, it just seemed to be a way to get closer to figuring out how other writers did what they did. So I did that quite a bit.
SIMON: What stories, do you remember?
Mr. POLLACK: Several from Dennis Johnson's Jesus' Son, quite a few were Hemmingway stories, some Flannery O'Connor, Barry Hannah stories, John Schafer, Richard Yates, I tried quite a few different writers.
SIMON: What would you learn by typing?
Mr. POLLACK: I think one of the principle things I learned from typing the stories out was how dialog works. Also just, you know things about structure and you know, I could read a story, but I really wouldn't see how it worked until I got closer to it.
SIMON: Is there something to be said for waiting until you're pushing 50 to start writing?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, I think for me, working all those years in the paper mill and being around all those blue collar people, you know, union workers and you know, even being married a couple times, all that kind of stuff, it helps as far as you know, having a lot of life experience. You know, I've got a lot of stories that I think I could tell if I can just put them down on paper.
SIMON: Mr. Pollack, it's been a pleasure talking to you.
Mr. POLLACK: Thank you, Scott. It's been a pleasure talking to you too.
SIMON: In Seattle, Donald Ray Pollack, his new book, his first, is "Knockemstiff."
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SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from Donald Ray Pollack's story Real Life on our website npr.org/books. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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