INTERVIEW: Donald Ray Pollock

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Donald Ray Pollock is an American writer. Born in 1954 and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, Pollock has lived his entire adult life in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked at the Mead Paper Mill as a laborer and truck driver until age 50, when he enrolled in the English program at Ohio State University. While there, Doubleday published his debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, and the New York Times regularly posted his election dispatches from southern Ohio throughout the 2008 campaign. The Devil All the Time, his first novel, was published in 2011. His work has appeared in various literary journals, including EpochSou’westerGrantaThird CoastRiver StyxThe JournalBoulevardTin House, and PEN America. His newest book, a novel called The Heavenly Table, was published by Doubleday on July 12th, 2016. It was awarded first place in the International category of the Deutscher Krimi Preis in January, 2017.


How did you conceive of the idea for The Heavenly Table? Where did the seed for the story come from?
At first, my aim was to write a novel centering on Camp Sherman, a real army training camp that was built right in 1917 outside of Chillicothe, Ohio, soon after the United States entered the First World War (they built this huge complex in approximately four months, something that would probably take us ten years to build it today). I was going to have various oddball characters from neighboring regions entering the camp for training and there they would interact and the story would end when they embarked for Europe and the war. But then I began working with the Jewett brothers and finally decided that their story was the one I wanted to tell.

campCamp Sherman

Did you have a clear idea of the themes you wanted to explore before you began work on The Heavenly Table, or did they evolve during the writing process?
For the most part, the “themes” just came about accidently as I was working on the book.

I never set out with anything significant to say or comment on. Instead, I just focus on telling a story.

Why did you decide to write a novel set in 1917? How much research did you conduct in order to portray this period effectively?
It all began with a desire to write a novel about Camp Sherman. I read several small books about the camp written by local historians and then a couple of more extensive histories concerning the early part of the 20th century in America. And I had already read a lot of stuff about World War I over the years. So not a whole lot of research.

Whilst writing The Heavenly Table, did you encounter any difficulties or limitations triggered by the choice to explore such a distant time period? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

None that I can recall. I mean, even though the story takes place a hundred years ago, things haven’t changed that much as far as people’s motives and passions and defects.

Did the historical setting of The Heavenly Table have any impact on your creative freedom as a writer, beyond the restrictions of remaining true to the particulars of a defined time period? To what extent – if at all – was your creative license curtailed?
No, I don’t think so, mainly because I am interested in that time period, and know a little bit about how people lived back then. For example, my great grandparents, who both passed away in the late 1960’s, lived pretty much like Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler.

In his recent STORGY interview, Chuck Palahniuk said ‘Nothing springs from a vacuum. Every phrasing and action is inspired by the real’ (available here). Is this also true when writing about a world long since passed?
Sure. As some reviewers have noted, most of the themes or problems that are dealt with in the novel—crime, poverty, racism, class conflicts, etc.—are still going on today.


How did you develop all the individual elements of the story, such as plot/characters/action? How did you navigate your way through such a multi-layered world and string all these different elements together?
I didn’t really plan anything out or make an outline. I had a vague idea and just kept working at it. It took a long time to connect everybody. I threw away a lot of characters and subplots that didn’t work.

The manner in which characters encounter or discover details about one another is crucial to their specific physical and emotional journey. When and how did you define each character’ importance and resulting involvement within the larger narrative?
I have said at various times that I am a very sloppy writer in that I begin with an idea and just let myself go and see where I end up. And I love inventing characters, so if I come up with, say, a black man named Sugar who has been thrown out of his girlfriend’s house in Detroit, I then decide if he is a “keeper.” And if I think he’s someone I want to spent time with, work with. And if he is, I then figure out a way to work him into the plot. That is, of course, a simplified explanation of how I write a novel, but in the end, it’s almost impossible for me to describe how I work.

All the characters in The Heavenly Table have incredibly rich backstories which provide the reader with an insight into their psychology and motivation, no matter how questionable they might be. How important is character development in your planning/writing?
I love inventing characters, probably more than anything else. I’m not sure why, but I have always been aware in my everyday life that everyone I meet, be it the clerk at the convenience store or the lady walking the dog in front of my house, has a backstory, and I’ve always found it interesting to try to imagine what that might be.

Also, I love reading biographies that deal in some detail with the petty, normal aspects of the subject’s life instead of just the grand parts and events: what he ate for breakfast, what time she got up in the morning. So, yes, developing characters who seem “real” is very important to me.

Much of your writing focuses on characters that live on the fringes of a more established society; experiencing displacement and economic and financial hardship. What draws you to such outsiders and their struggle to fit in and battle to survive in an often treacherous world?
I think part of the reason I stick with characters who are poor or who don’t get along that well in the larger society is that I grew up with such people around me. People who would be considered “outsiders.” And a lot of these people felt trapped by fate or bad luck or whatever, or at least I thought they did. I knew lots of people who were forever making big plans for the future, but yet couldn’t make that first big leap toward a better life. I was one of those people for many, many years, more specifically, a factory worker with a drug and alcohol problem, and thus I’ve always had a certain empathy for those who never manage to dig themselves out of the hole they were born in. And, with today’s economy and the takeover of politics by the rich and the corporations, those holes get deeper all the time. It was much easier to do that when I was growing up in that a high school dropout could land a union job in a factory and have a nice, middleclass life if he was willing to work.


Your short stories and novels are set in rural regions where characters – and readers–experience and explore the beautiful, and often brutal, border lands and landscapes of American back country. How important is setting to your writing and why do you chose such provincial backdrops for your work?
I choose the rural because it’s really all I know. I have lived in Ross County, Ohio, my entire life. I don’t mind visiting big cities for a couple of days, but I could never live in one. I can understand the attraction they have for many people, but they are just too noisy, hectic, and crowded for me.

Loyalty and friendship are key themes in The Heavenly Table; as seen in the unbreakable bond between the Jewett brothers, their relationship with the Fiddlers, and Cob’s friendship with Jasper. How integral is this theme in your work and how does it affect your character and plot development?
I’m not sure I can answer that question, but our current president makes a good case for the importance of friendship and loyalty in that he evidently isn’t loyal to anyone except his “family,” and it is disgusting to watch him cast blame and throw his people (and these are people I have absolutely no empathy for!) under the bus as casually as a man might take a piss in order to save his own neck.


Conversely, many of your characters are dishonest and deceitful and display such traits during their battle/s to maintain – or gain, power or advantage. As a result, distrust and fear are rife within The Heavenly Table. Is this a commentary on the state of play today? How does it relate to modern existence?

Well, greed and lying and bids for power have always been around, but in the past the majority of people were tempered and held back at least a little by religion and commonsense and an inherent morality. But today all of the things that used to curb the bad impulses are rapidly disappearing and it is making us all a little nuts.

Your writing is often described as violent; however, the violence only serves as an extension of the characters and their psychological and emotional make-up within the worlds you create. Have you ever been asked to reduce or remove the violence from within your work? Has this ever been an issue for your editors/publishers?
Not really. There were a couple of episodes in The Devil All the Time that my editor asked me to “soften”, but that’s really all I can think of.


The structure of The Heavenly Table and the way in which each scene flows into the next has a very cinematic quality to it – perfectly suited for a cinematic adaptation or high production value TV series. Have any of your short story collections or novels been optioned or received interest from the film industry?
Yes, I have been greatly influenced by movies and I think watching them closely has helped me how to figure out how to tell a story. The rights to Knockemstiff have been sold to a couple of TV producers, but I haven’t heard anything about it in a while, so I don’t know what’s happening there. The Devil All the Time has been optioned and, though you can never be sure until the cameras start rolling, it looks more and more like it might be made into a film. A couple of people did inquire about The Heavenly Table, but we’re still waiting.

John AjvideLindqvist wrote a collection of short stories titled ‘Let The Old Dreams Die’ within which he revisited characters from his earlier novels, such as ‘Let The Right One In’ and ‘Handling the Undead.’ Might you ever return to Knockemstiff or West Virginia and Southern Ohio? Will your fans ever have the opportunity to meet your characters again?
I will always return to southern Ohio in my fiction, mainly because it’s the only place I know well enough to write about with any degree of accuracy or feeling.

What are you working on now? What’s next? Can your fans look forward to another collection of short stories at some point in the future?
Though I have sometimes said I would never write a novel with a cellphone in it, I’ve now broken that promise and am now working on a novel set in 2016 about the heroin epidemic in southern Ohio. As for short stories, I’ve got a few that just need a little work, and so I’ve been thinking lately of trying to put together another collection after I finish the novel.


The Heavenly Table was published by VINTAGE.


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