Former mill worker mines dark tales in debut
Chillicothe, Ohio ? The book signing lasted for hours, an indication that the locals hold no grudges against author Donald Ray Pollock for depicting life here as a grotesque blend of drug abusers, wife beaters and sex fiends.
Pollock is a former paper mill worker who drew on social problems that haunted friends and relatives for his first book, “Knockemstiff,” a collection of dark stories set in rural southern Ohio. While it’s fiction, the book is getting national acclaim for its imagery and sense of realism.
His characters are damaged souls. There’s a mother who asks her son to creep into her bedroom with scissors and act out a serial killer fantasy. There’s a drunken father who orders his 7-year-old son to clobber another boy in the restroom of a drive-in movie theater.
The book’s title is a nod to Pollock’s hometown of Knockemstiff, a hamlet of a few hundred people about 10 miles from Chillicothe that had gravel roads, rundown housing, a few general stores and a rough-and-tumble reputation when Pollock was growing up. The roads are paved now, and new homes have been built on 40-acre lots that used to be farmland, but it’s still a crossroads.
“It’s not nearly as wild as the stories in the book,” says Pollock, 53, sipping coffee over breakfast at a local restaurant. “I took that hard-core reputation and sort of cranked it up a couple notches.”
The result is a bleak, sometimes violent look at people on the fringes of Appalachian society who aren’t typical fodder for publishing giants such Doubleday, which released the book in March and printed 27,000 copies. That’s about five times the average for short story collections, said Gerald Howard, who edited the book.
Sales were at 3,000 as of mid-April, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales.
“American fiction by and large is written by people who have gone through, and come out of, our elite educational institutions, which is not to say that those people don’t try to take a hard look at the conditions of American life, because they do,” Howard said.
Pushing the envelope
“But there’s no substitute for experience, and Don is a witness to things that don’t come across the radar of many American fiction writers.”
Pollock said he’s flattered, even a bit embarrassed, by the accolades. Publishers Weekly and The New York Times compared his book to “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 masterpiece on small-town life. Amazon.com put the book on its list of top new releases for March.
“Knockemstiff” is filled with degenerates, but Pollock doesn’t mean to portray his hometown as a gothic freak show.
“I probably pushed the envelope as far as you can go without stereotyping or going too far to the point where you’re just making fun of these people. And making fun of these people was never my intention at all,” says Pollock, a high school dropout who battled his own drug and alcohol addictions.
The book’s characters are trapped in life or in situations that they don’t want to be in, he says. Some are looking for a way out, while others are beyond redemption.
Pollock was lucky to find his own way out.
He got sober in 1986 after a fourth trip to rehab, then started taking night classes at Ohio University, where he graduated with an English degree in 1994.
“All my life, I thought writing would be a nice life but never had the discipline or determination to try,” says Pollock, an avid reader who drove a dump truck at the paper mill. “When I was 45, I realized if I didn’t give it a shot, it would be too late.”
He began his eight-year quest to become a professional writer by typing out stories by Ernest Hemingway and others, studying their use of language and sentence structure. He also took a correspondence course in fiction writing at OU.
Some of his early stories were published in small literary journals. In 2005, with the support of his wife, Pollock quit the paper mill where he’d worked for 32 years to seek a master’s degree in creative writing at Ohio State University.
To leave the factory – and the security of a weekly paycheck – was difficult, but so far no regrets, says Pollock, a trim man with light brown hair who speaks with a slow drawl.
Mastering the craft
“Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk is among Pollock’s fans. The two are to tour together in May for bookstore readings in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Ann Arbor, Mich.
Palahniuk said he loves the fatalistic characters in “Knockemstiff.”
“They work enormously hard to stay stuck in their misery, and that seems more realistic and touching than any standard transformation and happy ending,” Palahniuk said.
Pollock’s former colleagues at the paper mill have enjoyed watching his emergence as a writer. What’s shocking about the grim stories in “Knockemstiff” isn’t the subject matter but where it comes from, said mill worker Curtis Hurley.
“Don is kind of a quiet guy. That’s why when you read the book, you think, ‘Hey, I didn’t know he had these thoughts in his head,”‘ he said.
People in Knockemstiff and Chillicothe, where a few of the stories in Pollock’s book take place, aren’t upset by the crude portrayal. Everyone gets that it’s fiction, Hurley, 51, said.
Ohio State awarded Pollock with a one-year fellowship in January, which he is using to finish a novel about a serial killer in Knockemstiff whose crime spree is intertwined with the story of a teenager yearning to escape life in the hills.
Doubleday has an exclusive first option to publish the novel.
He works on the manuscript up to five hours a day, typing on a computer in the attic of his Victorian-era home that serves as his office. It’s also the only place in the house that his wife will let him smoke. Black-and-white photos of authors such as James Jones and poet John Berryman are framed on the walls for inspiration, and a window to his left overlooks the top of a magnolia tree in his backyard, a serene view when contemplating plot lines.
The writing can be mentally exhausting, but Pollock said he’s confident that he’s got a good story.
Pollock is scheduled to graduate with his master’s degree at the end of the year, and then he’d like to get a job teaching fiction writing to college students.
“I got lucky,” he says, still a bit surprised at his success. “I’ve gotten a lot of nice compliments, and don’t get me wrong, I like to hear them, but I don’t want to get arrogant enough that I believe that stuff. I just wouldn’t be the same writer.”