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Donald Ray Pollock On Finding Fiction Late In Life.

Donald Ray Pollock worked in a paper mill and meatpacking plant for 32 years before becoming a writer. His second book The Devil All the Time is set in his hometown of Knockemstiff, Ohio, where he says "nearly everyone was connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another."

26:35

Other segments from the episode on July 26, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 26, 2011: Interview with Kristin Scott Thomas; Interview with Donald Ray Pollack.

Transcript

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Kristin Scott Thomas: 'Sarah's Key' To A Dark Past

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Kristen Scott Thomas, stars in the new movie "Sarah's Key." It's
about a chapter in French history that the French are not proud of and is not
well-known.

In 1942, during the Nazi occupation, the French police rounded up over 13,000
Jews and held them at an indoor cycling arena called the Vélodrome d'hiver or
the Vel d'Hiv. From there, the Jews were sent to death camps.

"Sarah's Key" alternates between the past and the present. Kristin Scott Thomas
plays an American journalist in France, working for an English-language
magazine. She's researching and writing an article about the roundup when she
discovers the home she's about to move into was once occupied by a Jewish
family that was deported in the roundup. Flashbacks tell that family's story.

In this scene, Thomas is an editorial meeting. When the editor suggests a story
on the Vel d'Hiv roundup, the younger journalists at the meeting have no idea
what he's talking about. Thomas explains.

(Soundbite of film, "Sarah's Key")

Ms. KRISTEN SCOTT THOMAS (Actor): (As Julia Jarmond) On the 16th and 17th of
July '42, they arrested 13,000 Jews, mostly women and children. They took 8,000
of them, put them in the Velodrome d'hiver, in inhuman conditions.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Imagine the Superdome in New
Orleans, only a million times worse.

Ms. THOMAS: (As Jarmond) A million times worse, and then they sent them to the
camps.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) You seem to know your stuff.

Ms. THOMAS: (As Jarmond) I covered the 60th anniversary for Time magazine. I
wanted to do a feature, and they gave me half a page, which is why you're going
to give me 10 pages.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Ten pages? No, Julia, I can't give
you 10 pages.

Ms. THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Why not? Readers love history. Most of them haven't
even heard of it. Look at these guys.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Apologies from the youth of today.

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible), it's an old
indoor cycling track. It should be beautiful. Where is it?

Ms. THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Torn down 50 years ago.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As character) Any photos?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) None. That's the point. Over 10,000 people
squeezed together for days, no beds, no toilets, barely any water and not one
image exists.

Ms. THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Well, there's one. There's a wide shot looking down
over some buses outside. That's it.

Unidentified Man #8 (Actor): (As character) It's weird. I mean, normally they
were really good at that. They documented everything, the Nazis. That's what
they were known for.

Ms. THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Mike, this was not the Germans. It was the French.

GROSS: That scene from the new movie "Sarah's Key." Kristen Scott Thomas is an
English actress who has lived in France since the age of 19. She's best known
in America for her roles in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The English
Patient," "The Horse Whisperer," "Gosford Park" and the French films "I've
Loved You So Long" and "Tell No One."

Kristen Scott Thomas, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe the roundup of
the Jews in France in 1942 that "Sarah's Key" is focused around?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, as most people nowadays know, the French was an occupied
country, occupied by the Nazis during the war. And the French police was
clearly being run by the Gestapo, by the Nazis. And they received an order to
round up 22,000 Jews in a period of three days.

They were so desperate to fulfill this quota that they would go to schools.
They went to hospitals. They went to orphanages. And they just got as many of
the Jews as they possibly could, including small, small, small babies and
children. And this was all done by French people.

GROSS: Yes, and that's one of the things that's so shocking. It's not the Nazis
doing this. It's the Nazis ordering it, but it's the French who are fulfilling
the order and rounding up the Jews and deporting them to camps.

Ms. THOMAS: And it's something the French have been extremely wary of talking
about and very, very - and certainly hidden away for a very, very long time.

GROSS: How much did you know about this, like, horrible chapter in French
history before making a film?

Ms. THOMAS: I knew - I think I knew a little bit more than most people. A lot
of people didn't - don't know anything about this period, don't know anything
about this particular round up of - or (French language spoken) as it's called
in French.

I knew a bit, because I had married - coming from England as a very young
woman, I had married into a Jewish family and had been rapidly and quite
shockingly educated as to a lot of the events. And at the same time, I'd been
protecting myself because, you know, some of this information is just really
quite horrific. And this had all been happening to members of my new family,
and, you know, it has a very strong resonance, all of that.

And my mother-in-law, funnily enough, was herself hidden - a child during the
war - and hidden in some distant part of France, away from Paris. And they had
been on the run. You know, they had been hiding from - moving from one place to
another, as was my father-in-law. And they had suffered the consequences of
that and deep, deep, deep psychological scars.

And she is now a psychoanalyst and she belongs to a group of people who are
very concerned to keep alive the memory of these children who were hidden
during the war.

And so they campaigned for plaques to be put up on various buildings where
children were taken during the war. So you'll walk down a Paris street, and
you'll see a plaque saying: On this day, seven children were taken from this
school. And then you'll walk 250 yards down the street, and on the other side,
you'll see: On this day, three families were taken from this building. And then
you walk a bit further along, you come to a hospital - and it's quite shocking
and a good reminder of how important it is to keep these things in our
conscience.

GROSS: You know, a difference between living in England and in France, and
you've lived in both, you grew up in England and have lived in France since you
were about 19?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah, I mean because France was occupied by the Nazis, there were
collaborators in France, which is not something that happened in England.
England was never occupied. England just fought against the Germans. So have
you found yourself, during your life in France, sometimes wondering who was a
collaborator and who wasn't, who resisted and who turned in Jews?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh yes, certainly, and I think that's something which is - it's
something that people say, you know, hmm, what were you doing during the war.
It's still very much present, this idea of - and there's an expression that
even kids will use if somebody, you know, is a goody-two-shoes in school or
sucks up to the teacher or whatever. You know, they'll be called a collabo(ph)
and...

GROSS: For collaborator.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, so it's definitely remained in sort of the - in the air, you
know, this idea of people who collaborated or didn't collaborate. And of
course, now the people who are still alive and could be accused of that or have
been accused of that are beginning to die.

So you'll - and during the time I've been living in France, there have been a
great number of cases brought against people who are very, very old and
probably about to die anyway but accused of collaboration and accused of doing
terrible atrocities during the war.

There have been a number of those cases that I've seen go through the press.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kristen Scott Thomas, and she's
now starring in the new film "Sarah's Key," which is set in the present and in
1942 during the French round-up of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of
France.

You know, theoretically, I would've thought that moving to France would have
narrowed the kinds of roles you would be accepted in, but it seems to have
broadened it in a way. You've been in some really interesting French films,
including "Tell No One" and "I've Loved You So Long." How did you get your
footing in France as an actress after you moved there?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I moved there as a very young woman. I did my training, my
acting training, there, and I started work in the theater. And then my first
job was, in fact, on an American movie being shot in France, and then...

GROSS: That was Prince's movie, "Under the Cherry Moon," right?

Ms. THOMAS: That's right, that's right, yeah.

GROSS: How did Prince discover you?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I'd been doing a play in a - I'd been in Marguerite Duras's
play "In a Field in Burgundy," and then I got a call to go up for an audition
to play one of the girlfriends in this film, you know, girlfriend that has one
line. And so I dash up to Paris, put on my prettiest dress and go to this
audition.

And while I'm doing the audition, I see everybody sort of in a huddle behind
the camera and a lot of muttering going on. And they said: Would you like to
audition for the lead? And, you know, it was a complete surprise. And I said:
Well, yes, I would like to audition for the lead, but I thought the lead had
been cast.

And the lead had in fact been cast, but they decided to uncast it and give it
to me instead. So I was in shock I think is the only word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: And so it kind of took off from there. And then I went to - I
followed that movie to its opening in L.A. and then hung around in L.A. for a
bit and saw what was out there for me and really didn't like it, came back to
Europe and just started from scratch really.

But I had this experience, and I had this unlikely and brilliant experience of
working on a film directed and starring Price, who was at the time the height
of his powers and the height of his popularity.

GROSS: So I just need to ask you about working with Prince. He's such a great
performer. But he seems so inscrutable. Was it easy to talk with him? Was he -
did he communicate?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, he does - of course he communicated, and the more time we
spent together, you know, working on this project the more we got to know each
other and the less shy and inscrutable, as you say, he became.

And then suddenly the curtains would come down, the blackout, and you wouldn't
be allowed to talk to him because he was creating or doing his music or - with
somebody like him, there's always a million people, a sort of barrage of a
million people around him, you know, sort of stopping you from becoming too
friendly or whatever it is. There's - I think everyone's slightly afraid that
you're going to be their favorite, and they're going to get downgraded.

So I think that was happening a lot. We were so young. When I think back now,
it's just crazy. He was 24, and I was 23 or something. And all these people
sort of running around him, no one running around me, but people running around
making sure, you know, everything was all right, cups of tea, cups of coffee,
this, that and whether the carpet under his feet was fluffy enough, and, you
know, all this kind of thing. It's just - it seems completely mad.

And it sort of put me off that whole show-biz thing. It sort of put me off
stardom. And in fact, one of the producers came into my dressing room just
before we wrapped the movie. They came in to talk about promotion. And they
said: Now, Kristen, very simple question, do you want to be a star or not?

And I really had to think about it. And at the end of it, I said: Well,
actually, I don't really want to be a star, thank you very much. I want to be
an actress. I don't really want to be a star. And - which is good because I
didn't - I never really was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you actually have a choice, like yes I want to be a star, so make me
a star?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I think what they meant by that was would I be game to go and
do, you know, the massive amounts of promotion, would I be game to go and be
photographed and this, that and the other and, you know, did I want to get out
there, basically, into the media.

And the answer was no. So I just sort of stuck to my guns. And I've been
plodding through my career, and I've had times which have been extremely
exciting creatively and, you know, artistically. And I have had other times
when I've been tearing my hair out, thinking when am I going to get another job
that it's actually worth me getting out of bed for because it just isn't - it's
just the same old, same old thing, and it's really, really dull.

And for the past - I would say for the past six, seven years, I've just been
doing things that I've really loved and really enjoyed, a mixture of French
film, small roles in English-language films that have been quirky and great
British theater, which is what I'm doing at the moment, which I'm absolutely
thrilled about.

GROSS: Let me tell you, I see a lot of movies, and I'm so often frustrated. I
mean, there's so many movies that aren't very good, and I guess you must feel
that, too, as an actress, that there's a lot of stuff out there that you don't
feel is worth your time.

Ms. THOMAS: Some of I read, and I think why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: What's the point of spending so much money to do this?

GROSS: And time.

Ms. THOMAS: When other projects that I've read can get green-lit because they
haven't got a 24-year-old star in it, or they haven't got - or it can't be
shown on primetime TV at 8 o'clock because whatever.

Pictures that I think are beautiful, have actual - who are poetic, who are
inspirational, these movies that are, you know, that have a real strength to
them, a real force to them, a sort of life force to them won't get made because
they're not general enough or something, which is why working in France is, for
me, the option I prefer simply because the stakes are so much lower.

Sure it still costs money to make a movie, but because no one's expecting, you
know, massive windfalls and no one is - the competition isn't so stiff because
it's a French-language market, so if it escapes the French-language market and
goes onto foreign soil, as "Sarah's Key" has done, as "I've Loved You So Long"
has done, then that's a bonus, and it's great, we're really happy. But
basically, you know, if the film works in France, it's already great, and we're
really happy.

GROSS: My guest is Kristen Scott Thomas. She stars in the new film "Sarah's
Key." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with actress Kristen Scott Thomas. One
of the films she's best known for is "The English Patient," which was released
in 1996. It's set in the Saharan Desert before and during World War II. Colin
Firth plays her husband. Ralph Fiennes plays a count conducting a geographical
survey.

You end up having a very passionate affair with the Ralph Fiennes character in
this film, and it's very romantic, very tragic movie. What impact did it have
on your career to be the beautiful romantic leading lady?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, it made a change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: From being the - sort of the one that never gets the guy, the
unhappy one lurking in the background. It was great fun playing this sort of
radiant woman, the sort of woman that everybody wants to be, you know, loved,
beautiful, looking great sandy and with the love of poetry and love of nature
and this incredibly handsome, rugged, grumpy count passionately in love with
her. I mean, that's sort of what everybody wants, isn't it?

And I was able to do that for six weeks or something. It was great fun.

GROSS: So were you thought of for a lot of other romantic leads after that?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh definitely, yes. Every time there was a desert, I'd get the
call, and it's a sort of aristocratic, sharp object of desire. That's what I
was categorized as at one point, I think.

GROSS: And is that what you wanted?

Ms. THOMAS: No, I wanted variety. I think that's what we all - actresses and
actors really, really want is variety. I find that the moment I make a film
which involves a lot of soul-searching or deep emotion, I'll invariably pick a
very silly comedy to do afterwards, which I will then kick myself for doing.
But that's usually what happens.

GROSS: If you don't mind my bringing this up, I know your father was killed in
a flying accident. He was in the Royal Navy. And six years later, your
stepfather, also a pilot in the Royal Navy, was killed in a flying accident. I
can hardly imagine how traumatic that must have been. What sense did it give
you of the fragility of life to have two fathers killed in the same way?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, that question requires a lot of answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: And I can tell you that it has certainly been part of that - it's
so deeply part of who I am that to describe what sense it gives to my life
would, you know, it has taken my years on a couch. But it certainly is...

GROSS: You're talking about therapy?

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, it's just part of me. That's just the way it is. You know,
some people grow up with their parents yelling at each other. Some people grow
up with their parents, one of their parents seriously ill, and another can have
a, you know, seemingly perfect childhood. It's just what your given, your lot,
and you just get on with it. It sounds very British, all that, doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, it's funny. I don't think I'm the first person to point this
out, but in "The English Patient," you die in a flying crash, in a plane crash.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, lots of people picked up on that when the film came out. I
can't remember what my answers were to all the questions, but now it seems - it
seems - I mean, it was a long time ago, "The English Patient," what, 12, 15
years ago. And I think that probably that was one of the reasons I really
wanted to play that part because I did feel very emotionally linked to the
events that go on in the film and that, you know, the idea that the man will
come back for you, all those kinds of things.

I mean, you don't have to be a therapist to understand that. You know, it's
very, very easy, simple. And those were the things that drew me to it, to be
rescued by a man who you're at death's door after an airplane crash. You know,
that's simple.

GROSS: Can I get your take on the Rupert Murdoch tabloid scandal? You know,
you're British. I'm sure you have a lot of friends who mostly act in England
and who have been hounded by the tabloids. Certainly, you know, Hugh Grant
because you starred with him in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and he had his
problems with the tabloids.

Ms. THOMAS: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah, so your quick take on that?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, he's been fantastic. I mean, I've seen him come out of the
starting blocks and just be amazing on television and being really articulate
and clever and really - I'm really happy to see he's doing all this.

GROSS: Have you ever been a victim of...?

Ms. THOMAS: In fact, at the moment - yeah, a couple of times. But, I mean, you
sort of - it's very, very, very unpleasant. It's a horrible feeling of being
tracked like that, of being hunted. It's a horrible feeling of the damage, the
collateral damage that is done because somebody may say something about you,
which you can sort of brush off, but then your children hear it, too, and then,
you know, I've had - I've had to, you know, mop lots of faces with things that
people have said because they'd heard that their parents had read it in the
paper and things that have basically been totally untrue, as well as things
that have been true.

But made - things that are true and perfectly OK in everyday but life but when
written in a certain - described in a certain way become, you know, sort of
unworthy and unpleasant and just miserable. So we'll see what goes on. I mean,
it's absolutely fascinating, all this, what's going on at the moment, quite
extraordinary.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. THOMAS: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Kristen Scott Thomas stars in the new film "Sarah's Key." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Donald Ray Pollock On Finding Fiction Late In Life

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The characters in the new novel "The Devil All The Time" are given to extremes.
There is a preacher who dumps a jar of spiders on his head during a sermon to
demonstrate how he lost his fear of spiders. There's 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. Describing Pollock's new novel in The New York Times, Charles
McGrath wrote: its violence and religious occupations venture into Flannery
O'Connor territory.

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

Mr. DONALD RAY POLLOCK (Author, "The Devil All The Time"): 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.

Mr. 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. 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 taught 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. So is this a story that played out in your life?

Mr. 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, 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.

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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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.

Mr. POLLOCK: Right.

GROSS: So - and if you were bullied would you fight back? Did you know how to?

Mr. 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?

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

GROSS: First, locate it for us.

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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: Do a lot - are your parents still there?

Mr. 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?

Mr. POLLOCK: I was there 32 years.

GROSS: And you didn't start writing till you were around 50 or is that, is
50...

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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, and
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, to 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?

Mr. 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 may be 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?

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLOCK: Or maybe I'd write about a, 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 really 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...to display it in the living room.

Mr. POLLOCK: Mm-hmm. Yes.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLOCK: Yeah.

GROSS: I love that sentence. Did you ever feel that way? I mean 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.

Mr. POLLOCK: Right.

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. POLLOCK: Mm-hmm.

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

Mr. POLLOCK: Well, I have a lot more time to just sit on the porch and, you
know, smoke and I don't know. I, yeah...

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

Mr. POLLOCK: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. 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.

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 a, 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.

Mr. POLLOCK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So has your self image changed?

Mr. 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.

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

GROSS: Donald Ray Pollock is the author of the new novel "The Devil All The
Time." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can
also download podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
138605683

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.

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