Tonight I went to see Donald Ray Pollock. He has a new novel out that he’s promoting. I’ve already read his two previous works but was absolutely blown away by his short story collection, Knockemstiff, which I wrote about here.
If you’ve read the book, you know that I had no idea what to expect. Here was a man born in a small town, now living in Chillicothe, Ohio (with a grand population of about 22,000). After a career working in a paper mill, he went to Ohio State University to learn how to write. While getting his MFA, his short stories began to be published. At about the age of fifty, he quit his job and became a full time writer.
His stories are brutally violent as he remorselessly shines a bright spotlight upon his hapless, forsaken characters, who even though beaten down by life, still fight to live another unforgiving day. Picture Trainspotting in Southern Ohio.
So, who comes up to the stage? A mild-mannered gentlemen in his early 60’s, wearing jeans, a button down work shirt, with a pen conspicuously displayed in his shirt pocket. He spoke softly, with the slight Southern drawl that you get from people living in the Southern Midwest (reminding me of my relatives from Kansas).
He reads for about fifteen minutes and then takes questions for maybe twenty-five minutes. He’s quiet, unassuming, ill at ease, possibly even nervous, although he said that he’s been on tour for a while and is now wrapping up.
His work is full of sex, drugs, violence and degradation. Before he starts to work, he comments that some of his previous readings took place near or in the children’s sections of bookstores. Accordingly, he’s now adjusted his readings so that they are palatable to all ages. He frankly admits that these aren’t the most interesting parts of the book, but feels obligated to not offend.
Contrast this to Chuck Palahniuk. He went on a reading tour of Haunted, a set of truly shocking short stories. The story that he publicly read to people was some extreme that it was reported that it wasn’t unusual for one or two people to faint during a reading.
I found it interesting that this mild-mannered man not wanting to offend in public can unleash his id into his stories so ferociously in the quiet of the shed that he writes in back home in Ohio.
When asked what inspired him to write at such a late age, he said that he started to work at the paper mill when he was a very young man. It was the same factory that his father worked at and that his grandfather before him worked at. His initial plan, like a lot of people in that part of Ohio, was to work a couple of years, save some money, and then get the hell out. However, life intervened and he ended up making his life there. When he was 45, his father retired, and he noticed that his father almost immediately went into full time sitting in his lounge chair watching television mode.
He saw that and decided that there was no way that he was going to do that. He wanted something different. As he said, all he knew was factory work and reading. Therefore, he thought he’d try a hand at writing. He enrolled in writing courses at Ohio State, where he was encouraged to get into the MFA program.
He didn’t think that he could ever write a novel, so he thought that he’d start with short stories. After several years, he was profoundly disappointed with the quality of his work. To get around this, he resolved to type, each week, in its entirety, a different previously published short story that he loved / admired. Among others, he published short stories from Denis Johnson and Hemingway. He did this for a year and a half.
In so doing, typing forced him to read the story more carefully, so he could better understand what the author was trying to accomplish and how the author was actually constructing the story. From this experience, he started writing his own short stories again, which were fairly quickly published.
Although the reading was not that exciting and Pollock clearly was not that comfortable on stage, it was interesting to listen to the author of one of the finest set of short stories that I’ve read and how a, ahem, late career man was able to fashion a new life.
Maybe there’s hope for all of us?