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Donald Ray Pollock Q&A

Describe your latest project.

Knockemstiff is a collection of short stories set in the holler of the same name in southern Ohio where I grew up. I tried to link the stories together through the place and some recurring characters. Most of the people in the book are trapped in situations that they wish they could escape from (addiction, a bad relationship, a dysfunctional family, mental illness, etc.). There are no blatantly redemptive or "feel-good" endings to my stories, though I think tiny slivers of hope can be found here and there. In other words, I tried to remain true to the way the world really works for the poor and the troubled.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?

I worked in a meatpacking plant in Greenfield, Ohio, in the early '70s, and one of my jobs there involved "pushing" hogs in the basement freezer. The hogs were hung from hooks that were connected to metal wheels on a track. You would get behind five or six of them (they were stiff from the cold) and shove them with your shoulder to the doorway where they were transported up to the cut floor. We probably averaged around 1,700 hogs a day.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I've made several, but the one I remember best is when I drove to Milton, West Virginia, to visit Breece D'J Pancake's grave. Of course, as many readers know, he committed suicide at an early age, a couple of years before his first and only book came out. I stopped at the library in Milton (a pretty small town) to ask a couple of questions about him, but the lady at the desk didn't even know whom I was talking about. Now, I'm sure there are people in Milton who remember him, but that was a little sad, to say the least.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?

I'm not sure about "absolute" happiness, but I am happiest when I go to bed at night knowing that I tried to do my best that day. Usually, that will mean writing at least five hours, getting some exercise, reading a good book, talking with a friend, being nice to my wife. You have to understand that I'm in my 50s now and it doesn't take nearly as much to satisfy me as it did in the old days.

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.

Though it's always changing, my vision of the ideal life today is loosely taken from the Classical and Judeo-Christian ideals of the good life (and the list below is derived, for the most part, from Albert Borgmann's Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life). Be aware that this isn't the way I live my life, but the way I wish I did. In other words, I fall on my ass most days. Still, I think most people would be much better off if they did the following on a regular basis:

A. Know something about the way the world works (science, math, politics, etc.). A lot of the people I encounter have no interest in knowledge for its own sake.

B. Read the classics (poetry, fiction, philosophy), or at least damn good literary works.

C. Get some good physical exercise every day, something that makes you sweat.

D. Take up a musical instrument and practice it.

E. Be charitable, with your money or your time or both.

F. Don't be so damn dependent on technology. When you get to the point where you feel the need to call your mate on the cell phone and let him/her know, just to feel connected, that you are getting ready to step into the checkout line at the grocery store, you need to toss that piece of plastic in the trash.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.

For me, that would be musicians. I listen to a lot of different stuff, from Mozart to Johnny Dowd to Monster Magnet. I don't listen to music while I'm writing a draft, but I do listen to it when I'm revising. There's just something about the way music can arouse the emotions that I find extremely helpful. So if I'm working on something sad or slow, I might listen to Barber's Adagio for Strings, but if I want to crank things up, I might listen to Sixty Watt Shaman's Reason to Live. With that said, I don't overdo it. I mean, I see people walk around all day with music stuck in their ears, and sometimes I wonder if they ever have a single original thought in their heads.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?

I love pretty much all animals (I even have a hard time killing insects these days), but I have a special affinity for dogs. I lost Steerforth, my basset hound, a couple of years ago, and it was one of the hardest things I ever went through. We still have another dog, Traddles, but she's getting old and I expect I'll be going through that heartache again before too long.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?

Why did I waste so much of my time?

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five books that I wish all college students (hell, everyone for that matter) in the U.S. were required to read (and study) their first year (I'd also recommend Bulfinch's Mythology and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, but the five below are a good start):

1. Plato's Republic

2. The Bible

3. The Complete Works of Shakespeare

4. An American Rhetoric by William W. Watt

5. History of the Twentieth Century by Martin Gilbert

÷ ÷ ÷

Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. His stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, the Journal, Third Coast, Chiron Review, Sou'wester, Boulevard, and Folio, and he has contributed essays on politics to the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Knockemstiff
    Used Hardcover $11.95
  2. Knockemstiff
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. Technology and the Character of... Used Trade Paper $23.00
  4. Bulfinch's Mythology (Modern Library) Used Trade Paper $9.50
  5. Nicomachean Ethics (Dover Thrift... Used Trade Paper $4.00

  6. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
    Used Trade Paper $9.50

Donald Ray Pollock is the author of Knockemstiff

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