Skip to main content

Donald Ray Pollock On Finding Fiction Late In Life.

The author worked in a paper mill and meatpacking plant for 32 years before becoming a writer. His second book The Devil All the Time, set in his hometown of Knockemstiff, Ohio, is now out in paperback.

This interview was originally broadcast on July 26, 2011. Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time is now out in paperback.

26:42

Other segments from the episode on August 17, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 17, 2012: Interview with Sacha Baron Cohen; Interview with Donald Ray Pollock.

Transcript

August 17, 2012

Guests: Sacha Baron Cohen – Donald Ray Pollock

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our first guest, actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen, is famous for taking his characters into the real world and interacting with people who have no idea that they're dealing with a fictitious character.

He's done it with his characters Ali G, a hip-hop wannabe and clueless TV interviewer, Borat, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic and all-around clueless man from Kazakhstan, and Bruno, an Austrian, gay fashion reporter who comes to America and is, of course, clueless and incredibly inappropriate.

In Baron Cohen's latest movie, "The Dictator," which comes out on DVD next week, he plays General Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of the fictitious North African country Wadiya, and he travels to Manhattan to address the U.N. Terry spoke with Sacha Baron Cohen last May, when "The Dictator" was in theaters.

Here's a clip from the film. The clueless dictator is in a health food store, run by an environmentally dedicated young feminist played by Anna Faris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DICTATOR")

ANA FARIS: (As Zoey) Anyway, let me give you the grand tour. Up on the roof we've got this amazing organic garden, and...

SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) Boring. Do you sell any assault rifles?

FARIS: (As Zoey) Oh wait, I got it. Humor, right? I took a feminist clown workshop once. Help, help, I'm trapped under a glass ceiling. I wasn't the best student, but...

COHEN: (As Aladeen) You seem educated.

FARIS: (As Zoey) Yes, I went to Amherst.

COHEN: (As Aladeen) I love it when women go to school. It's like seeing a monkey on roller skates. It means nothing to them, but it's so adorable for us.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Sacha Baron Cohen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.

COHEN: Thank you for having me back, Terry.

GROSS: So this is the first time that you have a character that comes to America, and it's scripted. You know, Bruno's come to America, Ali G's come to America, Borat's come to America, but that has been your character coming and actually talking to real people who didn't know who the characters were and didn't know that they were, you know, made-up characters.

So what are some of the differences for you - first of all, why did you do this as a scripted film? My assumption would be because it was unsafe to do it any other way at this point, between how famous you are now, more people are in on the joke, lawsuits, you've risked your life in other films for the joke. So I assume that's among the reasons why this one's scripted.

COHEN: That's it, and the biggest one was a creative one. We actually just thought we could make a better movie if it had a script and, you know, didn't involve real people. I think pulling off, pulling off a kind of fake documentary of me being a, you know, actual dictator would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible because, you know, we got away with it on "Borat" because Kazakhstan was a real country. So you could say I'm from Kazakhstan National Television, and people would look up Kazakhstan, and it existed.

But if I came this time and said I'm from Wadiya, they'd, you know, look it up and realize it didn't exist, and if I said listen, I'm the dictator of Turkmenistan or, you know, or Libya, they could look it up on Wikipedia and realize that I'm not. So it would have been impossible to, you know, have this real story.

Plus it had got extremely dangerous. On "Bruno," I remember towards the end, you know, we loved the experience. But I did say to the team, you know, at some point we've got to stop because you can only be so lucky, and we'd been incredibly lucky, We were very close a lot of times to, you know, sustaining real injuries and not just me, the crew as well. You know, there was a lot of kind of very violent situations, and we were antagonizing a lot of people who were armed, which we hadn't really dealt with in "Borat."

But with "Bruno," we felt that because he was sort of more of an unlikeable figure, in a way, that you would have to put him in slightly more dangerous situations and situations of homophobia. You know, and in a lot of places where we were dealing with homophobes, a lot of those guys were armed. And so it became - you know, we were very lucky that there wasn't really a problem.

GROSS: Well, I can definitely see why you're doing scripted movies now.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: In the don't-push-your-luck category.

COHEN: Yeah, I've got to say I do miss some of the fun. I miss a lot of it.

GROSS: Well, it must be so weird not to have - I assume, like, you have permits to shoot on the street, and you might have police protecting you as opposed to police trying to arrest you. That must be a new feeling for you.

COHEN: Yes. I mean there was a time, you know, I got so used to the police turning up. You know, with "Borat" I think they came about 45 times. Sometimes it was the police, then the FBI were following us for a while. They thought that - they had so many complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man, and this was Borat, who is supposedly from Kazakhstan, a Middle Eastern man driving through America in an ice cream van, that the FBI assigned a team to us.

And so we had the FBI and then we had the Secret Service. But there were so many of these instances, and with "Bruno" as well, that for a while it would take about six months afterwards for me not to totally freak out whenever I saw a policeman. And so it was totally bizarre shooting "The Dictator," to actually have cops protecting me. It was...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

COHEN: ...quite ironic. I mean, a lot of the cops loved it, you know. But, I mean, there was one time during the filming of "The Dictator," there's one shot where we are just driving down the street, and I suddenly saw a bunch of police around a hotel room. I said all right, wait a minute, stop the car, and it turned out that Ahmadinejad was staying at the hotel. And I said, all right, great. We've got to shoot something here.

And so basically Ahmadinejad's convoy arrived and, you know, it's a bit of the movie where the dictator is down and out in New York on the street and no one recognizes him because he's had his beard shaved off. And so I was there saying, you know, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it's me. I've still got your tennis shorts. What are you doing? It's me. Ahmadine, where are you? You know, my friend, (unintelligible), you know, you are my doubles badminton partner, why you're not responding?

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: Anyway, the police were so scared. They all were fans and they were, you know, they were saying listen, please don't ruin this for us. We've got, you know, they've asked, you know, the Iranian government have asked us to look after Ahmadinejad. So, you know, if you cross the street we will have to arrest you. So there is a - there's a shot in the movie that is, that we use. You see me surrounded by five cops and those guys are real.

GROSS: And they...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And they didn't arrest you.

COHEN: No, they didn't arrest me but they made it clear if I was going to cross the road that they'd arrest me. So, and I've got this thing where I can't get arrested in America, otherwise my visa then becomes taken away from me.

GROSS: So one of the things you stay away from in "The Dictator" is religion. We don't know if this dictator is Muslim. There's no mention of Islam, there's no mention of the prophet Muhammad, and that's a good thing, I think, because I don't think it's - I mean, Muslims are very offended by anything that parodies the religion but also especially it's considered sacrilege to, you know, parody in any way the prophet. Did you intentionally try to avoid that so as not to be misunderstood, so as not to insult people who you had no interest in insulting?

COHEN: Exactly. I mean, firstly again, he's not an Arab dictator, and he actually says that he isn't in the movie. And so we wanted to really ensure that he was not Arabic in any way. So we created a new language - well, I say that, but he actually speaks at times in Hebrew, which would be strange for...

GROSS: Like Borat did.

COHEN: Exactly, which would be strange for an Arabic dictator. And we created a new alphabet, which was actually a form of Manchu, which is a dialect, Chinese dialect. And we wanted to make sure the architecture was, you know, not exactly Arabic, as well. So we wanted it to be Arabesque but have influences of Africa and other dictatorships, as well.

And in terms of the religion, you know, he's not a Muslim. His religion is himself. You know, he's turned himself into a demigod. You know, and also we wanted to really make it clear particularly after the Arab spring that this was in no way a parody of Arabs. This was a parody of people who oppress Arabs and people who oppress other people around the world.

So that was kind of really crucial, you know, for me to, you know, put out there to show that, you know, that we do support, you know, the rights of people to be free, whatever their religion.

GROSS: Do you get any criticisms from Hebrew-speaking people for using Hebrew in your movies and passing it off as the language of the oppressor or the language of - yeah?

COHEN: Well, when - during the premiere of "Borat" in Israel, they had a screening, and about two-thirds of the way through, somebody shouted in the back row, you know, (unintelligible), which means he's speaking Hebrew. And at that point, the whole audience erupted in applause. You know, I think they loved it, you know, the irony.

I do like the irony of Borat, a deeply anti-Semitic character, speaking Hebrew, and this guy, who is the - you know, wants to annihilate Israel, is also speaking Hebrew.

DAVIES: Sacha Baron Cohen, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in May with Sacha Baron Cohen. His movie "The Dictator" is out on DVD next week.

GROSS: So the movie is scripted, but in promoting the movie you did things that were just in character, and this was really hysterical, when the Academy Awards people - I guess it's the National Academy of Arts and Sciences?

COHEN: Yes.

GROSS: When you were told that he couldn't show up in character for the red carpet, you did a really hysterical video in character in your full dictator regalia with your virgin bodyguards protecting you. And I'm going to play the clip of - we'll just hear the audio of that video that you did.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

COHEN: (As General Aladeen) Good morning, great Satan of America. How are you? I am fine. Thank you. On behalf of the nation of Wadiya, I am outraged at being banned from the Oscars by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Zionists. While I applaud the Academy for taking away my right to free speech, I warn you that if you do not lift your sanctions and give me my tickets back by 12:00 p.m. on Sunday, you will face unimaginable consequences.

(As Aladeen) Furthermore, it is an act of aggression that nobody in films have been recognized by the Academy. Where are the nominations for such classic films as "When Harry Kidnapped Sally," "You've Got Mail Bomb" or "Planet of the Rapes"? On top of all this, I paid Hilary Swank $2 million to be my date, and she will not refund a penny.

(As Aladeen) My Sunday calendar is now as empty as a North Korean grocery store. But whatever happens, I still plan to attend director Brett Ratner's after-party, since it's impossible to catch herpes twice. Death to the West. Death to America. And good luck, Billy Crystals(ph). You're fantastic. How was that? Did I sound crazy enough?

GROSS: That's Sasha Baron Cohen in character as The Dictator, after he was banned from the Oscars. Why were you banned in character?

COHEN: I don't know. I mean I'll tell why I was invited. I was invited to the Oscars originally because I did this movie "Hugo" with Martin Scorsese, and the movie got nominated for a few awards. And so I think he was quite an unprecedented thing that the Academy essentially banned me from coming with a beard on. And...

GROSS: And this was to the red carpet and to the Oscars?

COHEN: Yes.

GROSS: OK.

COHEN: Yes. I was not allowed to come. So the head of the...

GROSS: Could you have come yourself or just not come in character?

COHEN: They said I could come as myself. Yes. But the dictator was not to be dictated to.

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: So, but the head of the Academy called my up agent and threatened him, and it became kind of like a, you know, semi kind of mafia-like threat of, you know, if I turned up within half a mile of the Oscars, he said that I would be arrested by one of the 250 plainclothes FBI officers that were, you know, under his command.

They said that there would be repercussions for my career in Hollywood, that I would 0 you know, there'd be repercussions for the film "Hugo." And so - so I issued that statement.

GROSS: But you defied the Academy. You actually showed up in character as the dictator on the red carpet. How did you decide to defy them?

COHEN: Well, they actually capitulated. I mean I put that video out saying that they had until 12:00 and it was obviously, it was a kind of jokey threat, but they actually gave in and they gave, handed me back my two tickets. So...

GROSS: OK. So what you did was, you were talking to Ryan Seacrest, who was doing, you know, the red carpet stuff and, you know, broadcasting from the red carpet, and he was interviewing you and you explained that you had Kim Jong Il's ashes in the urn and that like, oops, you accidentally spill them all over his beautiful tuxedo jacket. And I think you've explained that the, quote, ashes were actually flour and baking flour.

COHEN: Yes. Yes. It was flour. And then I was showing him the irony that the urn was actually made in South Korea. And so I lifted it up and it spilled on him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I kept trying to put myself in Ryan Seacrest's shoes because it was a very funny stunt. At the same time I'm thinking like, God, this is, like, his big night. It's almost, like, you know, in the movie "Carrie," when she's, like, she's finally, like, she's prom queen, they like her after all, and then she has the pig blood spilled on her.

Did you worry, like, you were going to ruin his night, and maybe the flour wasn't going to come out of the jacket and he'd have to be on like global television with a stained jacket for the rest of the evening?

COHEN: Well, I think that's why it was flour rather than something that could stain, and that's why it was something that you could really brush off. And also, that's also the reason, you know, I was, you know, sitting with my co-writer and we were saying, you know, who do we - who do we spill it on, and we only came up with the idea the night before.

And, you know, we thought, you know, do we do it on Clooney or Brad Pitt? And I thought no, we can't do it on them because that really is their big night, you know, that is, you know, Hollywood is celebrating them for the, you know, their, you know, achievement in movies.

You know, really the journalists on the red carpet are just there to, you know, talk about what suit you're wearing and what, you know, and promote various fashion labels. So to cover a suit that was given by a fashion label with a bit of flour that could be brushed off we thought wasn't really such a terrible thing.

And also, after the actual event, I sent him a new jacket that was identical with a little label inside, which said made in the Republic of Wadiya by child slavery.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Any regrets about anything you've done in character that looking back you think did cross the line and was maybe, like, hurtful in a way you didn't want to be or inappropriate in a way that you did expect it to be?

COHEN: There's always a discussion before anything is done. It's, you know, me and my co-writer or, you know, this can be co-writers, and we sit around and discuss the morality of a particular act, you know, is the subject worthy of, you know, having an hour of their time wasted?

Or - and if something worse is happening, you know, then, you know, for example, the hunters in Arkansas, when I'm Bruno, and I'm coming onto them, you know, and being flirtatious with them, which really isn't such a terrible thing.

If a woman was being flirtatious with a man, I don't think a man would get extremely upset; he might blush. But - so there was no real logical reason why a man being flirtatious with another man should get a man incredibly upset unless the subject exhibited some deep-rooted homophobia.

So, you know, when it's something like that, we do always question the morality. And, for example, if a woman was pregnant or, you know, there was somebody who was poor or somebody who was undeserving, you know, I'm certainly much more reluctant to do anything, and those people would be ruled out.

And, you know, if you look at the Ali G show and you look at generally the people who I interview, they tend to be white, wealthy, powerful males, you know, in positions of extreme influence.

GROSS: So in addition to your movie late last year there was "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's movie, which is based on a book about, you know, a children's or a young adolescent's novel about the rediscovery of the very early filmmaker George Melies.

And I'm just thinking what it must've been like for you to not only be in character but to be in somebody else's character. It's not a character you created. It's not something you have a lot of control over, and also you probably have to do a lot of takes, as you would in any movie, not only to get it right but just to get, you know, get it from different angles which the film director will need, you know, coverage.

Do you have the patience for that? Since you're so into, for lack of a better word, you know, like, guerilla filmmaking.

COHEN: Yes, I did. I mean, part of the reason I agreed to do that movie was I knew I was going to make "The Dictator." I knew it was a different genre, and I knew I had to learn how to make a real movie. And so I said, you know, Marty, if I make this movie, do you mind if I sit by your side and ask you a variety of inane and, you know, often idiotic questions about how to make a movie?

And he said fine. And I ended up sitting next to him by the monitor, watching how he directed.

GROSS: What's a kind of question you asked him?

COHEN: Well, I would ask basic stuff like - because there's so much improvisation on my movies, you know, because it's a scripted movie but, you know, we improvise a lot. So, you know, we do a couple of takes that are scripted and then half an hour of improvisation.

So I said how do we make it an interesting shot? And he said, well, you know, I said how do we get any movement to the camera while we're improvising? Because often, comedies can be very, very static. And he said, well, he goes, you know, there's a method that Kurosawa uses, which is you put two cameras, you put them on sticks, and then you put them on dollies, and then you keep on moving them around.

And so, you know, he knows every movie that's been made since the beginning of cinema and actually in every continent, and he's memorized every single movie. So it was incredible. He was giving me incredibly obscure movies to look at, which inspired me for the character in "Hugo" and inspired me for "The Dictator."

And I kept on asking him about it and also asking the other people on set how I would, you know - I basically abused everyone on set and abused the fact that they were sitting ducks for six months.

GROSS: Well, Sacha Baron Cohen, it's been great to have you back. Thank you so much for coming back to our show.

COHEN: Thank you having me back. Thank you for letting me speak for so long.

DAVIES: Sacha Baron Cohen spoke with Terry Gross in May. His movie "The Dictator" is out on DVD next week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The characters in the new novel "The Devil All the Time" are given to extremes. Among them, a preacher who dumps a jar of spiders on his head during a sermon and two serial killers. At the center of the story is a father who is obsessed with beating the devil, his wife who was dying of cancer, and their son, who becomes an orphan.

The story begins in the small town of Knockemstiff, which is where the author, 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. After the publication of his first book, a collection of short stories called "Knockemstiff," he received the 2009 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Fellowship.

Donald Ray Pollock novel, "The Devil All the Time," is now out in paperback. Terry spoke to him last year.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: 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 communicate with God. And so this is where they are. It's, you know, early in the morning and they 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 was 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 cinderblocks houses, the holler included two general stores and a Church of Christ in Christian Union and a joint known throughout the township as the Bullpen.

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 easy going, Willard had told him that evening. Them boys might be bigger than you but the next time one of them starts this 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 RJ 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." Now Willard, the father, is a man who doesn't know from moderation. The kind of religion he practices is very extreme, he's also very extreme and the kind of violence that he provokes. Would you describe the prayer log, which is the location of the opening scene that you read, the prayer log that the father uses.

POLLOCK: Well, it's just a log that's in the woods, you know, at least a few hundred yards from their house. And Willard is not comfortable praying in a regular church. He likes to be out, you know, in nature. So the prayer log is sort of his church.

I actually got that idea from when I was growing up out in Knockemstiff, there was an old man who lived pretty much on top of the hill behind our house, and he was a very religious man, a very good man, and every once in a while he would go into the woods and pray. And if the wind was just right you could hear him from our house. And, you know, now he wasn't anything like Willard, of course. But that was actually where I got that idea from for the prayer log.

GROSS: But the idea of the prayer log is so much more extreme than what you've just described, because the father uses the prayer log to make blood sacrifices in the hopes that those blood sacrifices will save the life of his wife who is dying from cancer. So how did you think of that? I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Not - I know there is an ancient history of blood sacrifices, but to have that in a contemporary novel.

POLLOCK: Well, I don't know. You know, a lot of this stuff is hard for me to explain as far as where I got this from for that from because, you know, I'm not the most - I'm probably the least cerebral writer you're ever going to meet. You know, my stuff comes about by just typing and I just keep working at it. And, you know, I wanted to set it up where Arvin loses both of his parents. So his mother, you know, of course, you know, I decided she had to get sick. And then, you know, with Willard being religious or, you know, coming from a religious background, it just happened, you know, that the blood sacrifices came about.

GROSS: My guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "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: My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven 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.

POLLOCK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So is this a story that played out in your life?

DAVIES: 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, and he's 80 years old and he still kicking. But he was born in 1930, grew up in the Depression. He went to the eighth grade. He was working on a 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, a very strong man. And in contrast to that, my mother is this very shy, kind, small-boned woman.

POLLOCK: 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. I just...

(LAUGHTER)

POLLOCK: 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 know, 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.

POLLOCK: Right.

GROSS: So - 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 practical 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, really...

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 it's 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 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. You know, I go to...

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 and that, you know, by moving to Florida.

And I was down there working the job in a nursery and I wasn't making much money or anything, I had only been there a few months and my dad called and said hey, I can get you a job at 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 till 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 principle 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, it 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.

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

POLLOCK: Well, for me, I didn't actually know what it meant. And, you know, I didn't know any writers or anything. And for a while I just sort of scribbled and struggled. And then I had 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 there were quite a few stories. John Cheever, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Yates, Dennis 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.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLOCK: Or maybe I'd write about, you know, I'd read an 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: My guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Ray Pollock and his new novel is called "The Devil All the Time." 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: Mm-hmm. 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? And the accomplishment 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, you know.

POLLOCK: Right.

GROSS: Yeah. But did you ever 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 had been working at the mill for about 14 years by then, 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 had ended up was my own fault.

But there was always that idea in the back of my head that I could have done more. You know, I could have maybe went to college or something. You know, I'm sure, you know, if I had wanted to go to school when I was 18 my dad would've 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: Mm-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 I don't know.

GROSS: Daydream and think...

POLLOCK: Yeah.

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

POLLOCK: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: Yeah.

POLLOCK: But my life hasn't really changed that much. I mean, I get a lot more emails 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 pretty much the same. You know, it's never changed, well, you know, since I quit the mill and went to grad school. I really can't say that it's changed that much.

You know, it's a good life. And I'm thrilled that, you know, I've got a publisher and, you know, I had at 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. Yeah.

GROSS: Has your self image changed? Because, you know, for years you thought of yourself as this big failure. You worked at the paper mill, paid no attention to the job, just kind of got it done, punched the clock, watched your friends be much more successful than you were, at least in their marriages and their homes.

So, you know, you felt like a failure. You had an alcohol problem for a while until you were 32. And now you're, you know, you're a pretty successful writer. I'm not going to say you're a household name but, you know, you have two books published. You get good reviews.

POLLOCK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So has your self image changed?

POLLOCK: Yeah, it has. It's changed a lot, but that started happening even long before I started trying to learn how to write. I mean, once I got sober and once I, you know, I went to a lot of meetings and I tried to work the program and get rid of a lot of baggage and, you know, straighten out the past and all that.

And once I started just doing those things and also becoming a more just responsible worker, you know, at the paper mill, once I started doing those things my attitude towards myself and towards other people even started changing.

You know, I can remember when I was, you know, I just started - told my wife I was going to learn how to write short stories. And I said if I can just write one decent short story I'll be satisfied.

And, you know, even though, you know, I've been able to do more than that, I think that I would've probably been OK, you know, with everything if it had just been that one story. I don't have that unsatisfied feeling going on in my head anymore.

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

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

DAVIES: Donald Ray Pollock spoke with Terry last year. Pollock's novel, "The Devil All the Time," is now out in paperback. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. And you can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:54

John Brown And Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths In The Fight To End Slavery

In The Zealot and the Emancipator, historian H.W. Brands reflects on two 19th century leaders who fought the institution of slavery in different ways: one radical and the other reformist.

31:39

How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution

As a teen, Heidi Schreck debated the Constitution in competitions. A film of her Broadway play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is now available on Amazon Prime. Originally broadcast March 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue