ON THE COUCH WITH ... Donald Ray POLLOCK
DONALD RAY POLLOCK was born in 1954 and grew up in southern Ohio, in a holler named Knockemstiff, 13 miles southwest of Chillicothe, Ohio. He dropped out of high school at seventeen to work in a meat-packing plant, and then spent over thirty years employed in a paper mill in Chillicothe. Currently, he is a graduate student in the MFA program at Ohio State University and still lives in Chillicothe with his wife, Patsy, a high-school English teacher. He hopes to someday teach fiction writing. His stories have appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Journal, Third Coast, Chiron Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, Boulevard and Folio, and he has contributed essays on politics to the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Spanning a period from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, the stories in Knockemstiff (Doubleday/Harvill Secker, 2008) feature a cast of recurring characters who are woebegone, baffled and depraved—but irresistibly, undeniably real. Rendered in the American vernacular with vivid imagery and a wry, dark sense of humour, these thwarted and sometimes violent lives jump off the page with inexorable force. Pollock presents his characters and the sordid goings-on in small-town USA with a stern intelligence and a bracing absence of value judgments. Knockemstiff was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
Pollock, who is currently at work on a novel set in 1965, about a serial killer named Arvin Eugene Russell, recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio.
How did you find out about the longlist?
My agent, Richard Pine, e-mailed me a link to the website. I’d heard of the award, but really didn’t know anything about it. Knockemstiff is my first book, and I’ve been awful lucky with the reviews and the press, but I never thought for a second that it would ever be considered for an award.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I have to confess that I looked to see who else had been put on the list. When I saw some of the other names, I pretty much realised that I don’t have much of a chance of winning. Still, it was an honour to be included with so many good writers.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Have you heard about or read any of them?
Except for the collections by Benjamin Percy and Nam Le, which are both great books, I’m not really that familiar with the titles on the list. Because I’ve been working on a novel, I’ve been reading longer works for ideas about form, etc., and also inspiration, so I haven’t been reading many short-story collections lately.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
As I mentioned earlier, I had heard of the prize, and I absolutely love Frank O’Connor’s short stories, but that was about it really. I was surprised to find out the size of the monetary award. Wow! That amount of cash would keep a guy like me going for a couple of years. (I live in a small town in southern Ohio where the cost of living is still relatively low.)
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
Well, maybe the same as the difference between a binge and a full-blown addiction, one being exhilarating and the other seeming like such a chore to maintain at times. Just kidding! Still, I’m working on my first novel now, and one of the things I miss is the quick “payoff” that I always got when finishing a short story after only, say, three to seven weeks. A novel takes so long and that payoff seems so far away at times (though, in the end, it’s a much bigger one). Also, you have so much more time to begin to doubt the project (at least that’s the way it is for me, but maybe because I began writing so late, I’m still a bit insecure about my abilities to pull it off).
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish great collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
I hope that’s the case! I love to write short stories and really prefer them over novels as far as my own reading goes. I’ve never been able to figure out why they aren’t more popular, especially because people seem to have so much less time to read in this media/tech-soaked world that we live in. They just have so many more options as far as “entertainment” goes. But you would think that the shorter form would appeal to all the workaholics out there who just don’t have time to read a 400-page novel (I’d also think they would be more appealing to people who fly a lot than they seem to be!). But then I know lots of people who don’t read a book a year, which is sad, sad, sad. With that said, it would be terrific if they regained the popularity they had, say, some sixty years ago.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection? Do you favour the darker themes, or will you also enjoy the light-hearted, exotic ones?
That’s a tough question! This morning I guess I’d have to say my favourite short story is “Sea Oak” by George Saunders and my favourite collection is James Joyce’s Dubliners. I do tend to favour the darker stuff, but I also like to see the writer stick some humour in it. Without some funny lines, a lot of stuff, including my own, would just be too depressing for most people.
How much did your MFA help you in becoming a better writer?
You have to understand that I was fifty when I entered the MFA program at Ohio State University. I’d been working in a paper mill for thirty-two years by then, and I didn’t know any writers. So just being around people who loved writing was a new experience for me. I think submitting my stuff to the workshops probably cut a year off the writing of my collection because of all the feedback I received. Funny, but one of the reasons I decided to apply was that it seemed as if every new book I read was written by someone who had been through a MFA program, and I began to think that if you wanted to succeed in this racket you had to go to grad school. Now, I no longer believe that you have to do that, but I’m still glad I did it. For one thing, it provided me a way of getting out of the factory, and also afforded me much more time to write, at least for three years. I’ll finish up at the end of this year, and I’m going to miss that network of support, believe me. Oh, and it also gave me the chance to totally live the life of a writer for a while.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008