The Devil All The Time: Donald Ray Pollock On Writing

Donald Ray Pollock’s 2008 short story collection, Knockemstiff, is a collection of raw and powerful short stories about life in the “holler” of Knockemstiff, Ohio. While his descriptions are humorous, the characters and their actions are often horrific. In Don's version of Knockemstiff, characters are striving to escape their desperate lives by huffing Bactine, popping steroids, committing incest and other random acts of violence. The first story, "Real Life," starts with:

“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 good at.”

At times, Don’s stories are not easy to read, though they are very tough to put down. These are dark and gritty tales. I devoured the collection and became such a fan that I drove to Johns Hopkins University to see Don give a reading to MFA students in April, 2009. The Director of the program introduced Don by comparing his work to Flannery O’Connor. While there, Don read some scenes from his work in progress. I can still recall the tension as he first revealed this husband and wife roaming the back roads of West Virginia on a killing spree. This murderous couple is one of the three threads of his new novel, The Devil All The Time. In her review for the Columbus Dispatch, Margaret Quamme wrote: “Beneath the gothic horror is an Old Testament sense of a moral order in the universe, even if the restoration of that order itself requires violence.”

Here’s an excerpt from the first page of The Devil All The Time, which was just released on July 12th:

"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 what was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seems that his father had fought the Devil all the time."

Interviewer: I was struck by the similarities of the opening of the novel with the short story "Real Life." In both, a father beats up a man in front of his young son. There's many differences too, of course. Can you tell me about your interest in the theme of a father's influence on his son?

Pollock: Well, for many of us, the father is the biggest influence in our lives, at least during what might be called the "formative" years. That's the way it used to be anyway. And my father was a tough, hard-as-nails man with a very forceful personality (and he's still kicking at eighty-one). I, on the other hand, took after my mother quite a bit. She's small-boned and quiet and a bit shy. It was impossible for me to be like my dad, and I think he was disappointed in that when I was growing up. Though I eventually came to terms with that, I think it did leave a mark.

Interviewer: How much do you think your novel has changed from when you read that excerpt at John Hopkins back in April, 2009?

Pollock: At that point, back in the spring of 2009, I only had three characters that I was working with: Arvin, the boy, and the serial killer couple. I was still trying to figure out the "story," and that took until around the end of that year. The other characters came along as I kept working, and so I guess the novel did change in many ways over time. In the beginning, the novel was going to be based almost entirely on the serial killers, and then, as these other characters popped up, I decided to try several different storylines and have them converge near the end.

Interviewer: So after working in a paper mill for thirty-two years, you went back to school for a MFA. Knockemstiff was published while you were still a student. What was that experience like?

Pollock: Everyone, or almost everyone, in a MFA program wants, more than anything, to publish a book, and I got lucky, plain and simple. I did start getting asked to submit to magazines and I was interviewed some, but really, most things stayed pretty much the same for me. I know I had this idea that my life would be different after I published a book--and I think many beginning writers think the same way-- but that's not what happened. As for grad school itself, it was a wonderful experience, with the exception of teaching freshman comp!

Interviewer: I recall you talking about how you wrote in your attic each day without distractions. Is that still your routine?

Pollock: Yes, I still write in my attic. There's no internet or phone up there. That stuff takes away your ability to stay focused, and so it stays downstairs. Too, though I can see the benefits of technology and "social networking"--heck, I'm on Facebook now and have a website--you shouldn't allow it to take over your life. To feel that someone should know your every move, or that you need to know what someone else is doing every minute of the day, is, frankly, insane behavior.

Interviewer: What's one piece of advice you'd give a writer who is making the move from writing short stories to writing a novel?

Pollock: Read as many novels as possible, then write a really sloppy, rough draft of the book as fast as you can. By the time you finish revising that, you might not have much left of the original draft, but you'll have something to work with.