Donald Ray Pollock worked as a laborer and truck driver until he was 50, when he enrolled in the English program at Ohio State University. While there, his debut short story collection Knockemstiff was published. His first novel, The Devil All the Time, was published when he was 57 years old. His work has appeared in various literary journals; and in 2009, he won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. In 2012, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
His second novel, The Heavenly Table, follows two interwoven stories. The first concerns the Jewett Brothers—Cane, Cob, and Chimney as they embark on a bank robbing spree from rural Georgia to Meade, Ohio. The other story follows Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, an Ohio farming couple struggling to survive after Ellsworth is swindled out of their life’s savings.
Eventually, the paths of the Jewett Brothers and the Fiddlers cross as a huge ensemble of characters populate the pages of this sprawling novel.
The Heavenly Table is painted on an enormous canvas with two converging stories and multiple subplots. Did you outline these adventures or did they arise spontaneously?
I am a very messy writer. I began the book with the intention of writing a novel set around Camp Sherman, an army training camp built in 1917 at the edge of Chillicothe, Ohio. However, because my own “creative process” is not governed by anything even close to rational thinking, I eventually ended up with a story centered mainly around three poor sharecropper brothers from Georgia who use a pulp novel about an outlaw named Bloody Bill Bucket as the inspirational guide to change their lives. After I finally had those characters in place, I ditched the others, and then the episodes fell into place spontaneously, as I pushed the book forward.
When I sit at the desk long enough, things will happen, but I shouldn’t waste so much time, especially at my age.
Your writing style has been compared to those of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Cormac McCarthy. Your work has been described as Southern Gothic horror. How would you describe your style?
I’ve been heavily influenced by Southern writers, that’s for sure, especially by the way they deal with place, religion, and poverty; and by their creating quirky characters. Probably the Carver comparison came about because I come from a blue collar background and write about people stuck on the bottom rung of the system. As for ‘horror,’ it’s not the Shirley Jackson/Stephen King supernatural stuff, but rather, I write about the everyday and much, much worse real horror we see or read about in the media: murder, drug addiction, family abuse, insane religious beliefs, etc.
I think ‘Southern Ohio Gothic’ might be a more accurate label, just so people don’t get the wrong idea and figure I write about zombies or vampires. [Laughter].
You once said readers are much better at seeing themes in your work than you are. Will you talk a bit about that?
I don’t have any ‘themes’ in mind while I’m writing; and then after publication, I try not to think any more about the book than I have to. I’m usually filled with doubts about my work, so that’s just an invitation to regret what I might have done better. Also, I figured out a long time ago that I’ll never be a critic, or an intellectual. My brain just can’t seem to make the connections necessary for critical thought. I’m proof that you don’t have to be all that smart to be a writer. [Laughter].
You worked as a laborer and truck driver until you were fifty. You also once said if you had “quit drinking and started writing in my twenties as opposed to mid-forties” many things would have been different. Will you tell us about your path to becoming a highly regarded author?
One thing that’s common about people who’ve had addiction issues is we have a hard time being satisfied. After I got sober, even though I had a good job and was happily married, I still felt something was missing. Then around the time I was forty-five, I watched my father retire from the mil. It made me stop and think about my doing the same thing in another twenty years. I had this sudden urge to try to do something else with what was left of my life.
When I was in my thirties, I’d managed to get a degree in English through a program at the paper mill that paid most of the tuition for employees who wanted to take college courses. Since I’d always loved reading, I figured I’d try to learn to write. After flailing about for five years and publishing five or six short stories, I quit my job at fifty, and enrolled in the MFA program at Ohio State University. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, but I knew by that time I wanted to be a writer.
As far as if I’d started writing earlier, who knows? Perhaps I’d have six or seven books out by now instead of three and reside in Vermont or Montana instead of Ohio; or maybe I’d have flamed out early and ended up living in a homeless shelter somewhere. [More laughter].
Did your experiences as a factory worker and truck driver end up informing your writing?
I think what I got most out of my years working in a factory was a sense of how people talked and developed a feeling for black humor. Some of the men I worked with could joke about anything, the most terrible event, and somehow make it funny; and when you live in a world as messed-up as ours, that’s really not a bad thing to be able to do. Also, when you punch a clock for thirty-two years, you become accustomed to living by a fairly rigorous schedule, which probably makes things easier as far as showing up at the desk every day and trying to write.
The Heavenly Table captures the atmosphere of 1917 Georgia and Ohio. Did you do a great deal of research before writing the novel?
Not really. I’d already read enough history over the years about the first decades of the 20th Century to have an idea of what everyday life was like then. I did read quite a bit about America’s entry into WWI before I decided that wasn’t really my story; but other than looking up a few historical facts about automobiles and the prices of goods, I just used my imagination.
The Heavenly Table and The Devil All the Time concern people trapped in situations where there seems to be no escape. Will you talk about that in regard to storytelling?
Probably because of my own personal troubles when I was younger, I have always had some empathy or understanding for people living sad, terrible, even worthless lives; and I find it a subject worth writing about because it’s really an almost universal feeling.
While my focus is mainly on poor, uneducated people who can’t seem to catch a break or just act stupidly, you can also be beautiful and smart and well-off, and get caught in a situation from which there is no escape: a loveless marriage, a job you hate, or a dream you didn’t pursue. For some people, this feeling might last only a short while, and for others it might last forever, but I’d say most of us experience it at some point in our lives.
I found The Heavenly Table to be remarkably adroit at weaving multiple subplots and backstories into the main narrative. That seems to be part of your storytelling style.
As I’m working on the principal characters and trying to figure out the plot of a story, ideas for other characters and their backstories appear. Some are easily dismissed, but others feel like keepers, and I turn them into subplots. The big problem is how to make all this stuff fit without it appearing forced. I realize this is a simplified version of what really goes down, but it’s the best I can do. I honestly have no idea where this stuff comes from.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
Probably that writing is a job that you have to work at just like any other, and waiting for ‘inspiration’ before you sit down at the desk isn’t going to get you anywhere.
You’re hosting a dinner and you can invite five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
This is one of those questions I tend to overthink, so I’m just going to go with my first inclinations. My grandfather, Ray Pollock, who died in 1959 from a heart attack while working on the railroad when I was five years old. John Keats, my favorite poet. The writer William Gay, whose life story was a big inspiration to me when I was starting out and whom I never got to meet before he passed. Lastly, just for kicks, I’ll throw in Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy because I’m told my grandfather laughed his ass off the one and only time he saw one of their films.
What’s coming next from Donald Ray Pollock?
I am working on a novel set in Ohio in 1959 called “Rainsboro.”
Congratulations on penning The Heavenly Table, a compulsively readable, multi-tiered and picaresque literary novel that stands alone in the current crop of popular fiction.