The author of “The Heavenly Table” on how television and the paperback fiction of his youth have shaped his fiction. A conversation with Mark Athitakis.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
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In 1917, just as another hellish August was starting to come to an end along the border that divides Georgia and Alabama, Pearl Jewett awakened his sons before dawn one morning with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man. The three young men arose silently from their particular corners of the one-room shack and pulled on their filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labors. A mangy rat covered with scabs scuttled up the rock chimney, knocking bits of mortar into the cold grate. Moonlight funneled through gaps in the chinked log walls and lay in thin milky ribbons across the red dirt floor. With their heads nearly touching the low ceiling, they gathered around the center of the room for breakfast, and Pearl handed them each a bland wad of flour and water fried last night in a dollop of leftover fat. There would be no more to eat until evening, when they would all get a share of the sick hog they had butchered in the spring, along with a mash of boiled spuds and wild greens scooped onto dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed. Except for the occasional rain, every day was the same.
Excerpted from "The Heavenly Table"
Copyright © 2017 Donald Ray Pollock.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Donald Ray Pollock
Where does Donald Ray Pollock belong? The title of his first book suggested one answer: His 2008 story collection, Knockemstiff, was named after the pugnacious southern Ohio town where he grew up. But while Knockemstiff put him on the map, his sensibility is still off the grid. Contemporary literary culture thrives on bright young things and long-toiling midlisters, but Pollock is a longtime paper mill employee who entered an MFA program and began writing in earnest in his fifties. And the parcel of Ohio he writes about is similarly hard to place, more a confluence of other regions than one with a clear definition itself.
"Probably half the people who lived [in Knockemstiff] had originally lived in Kentucky or West Virginia," he says. "Growing up I probably was thinking of where I lived as more being in the South than anywhere else. My thing in my last two novels has been people from different places having this moment or meeting up at some point. Because I'm in southern Ohio, they're going to meet up in southern Ohio eventually."
Which is to say he writes about quintessentially American culture clashes, in a style that suggests multiple locales as well. In his two novels, 2011's The Devil All the Time and the new The Heavenly Table, he collides southern-style preachers, midwestern farmers, and city slickers in prose that accommodates noir, Twain-like humor, and Border Trilogy–era Cormac McCarthy. The common thread is old-fashioned sin and violence. In The Heavenly Table, an army camp is barely holding together, undone by local prostitutes and a gay officer fearfully hiding his orientation; meanwhile, an outlaw band of brothers in Georgia named Cane, Chimney, and Cob have escaped their hyperreligious and abusive father and are determined to spread mayhem on their way north. Pollock's moral universe is unflinchingly payback-oriented: Tardweller, a farm owner who deceives the brothers, gets his comeuppance via a machete in the neck: "He remained upright, his eyes blinking rapidly and his mouth opening and closing like a landed fish sucking air."
Whether they're played for laughs or tragedy, Pollock's bloody milieus suggest we're never too far from our most violent capabilities. In this edited version of our conversation, Pollock speaks about the use of violence in his fiction, religion, television, and his unusual path into publishing. Mark Athitakis
The Barnes & Noble Review: Your first book, Knockemstiff, was set in contemporary southern Ohio. The Devil All the Time was set after World War II. This one is set in 1917. What's prompting you to go deeper and deeper into the past?
Donald Ray Pollock: My initial idea [for The Heavenly Table] was to write a story about an army camp that actually existed here in the town where I live, Chillicothe. Camp Sherman. I was talking to a local historian one day, and he was telling me about the camp, and I thought, I can maybe write a book about this.
I really can't explain why I keep going back into the past, other than I guess I just feel better about the past than I do the present. I'm not tech savvy at all, and I really don't even want to get into all that; I think that to write a contemporary book you have to, at least to an extent. I'm just more comfortable in the past.
BNR: Do you feel that it's easier to write about characters with violent temperaments if you're writing about them in the context of the past?
DRP: I don't think that's it, because I think America is more violent right now than it ever has been, at least around here where I live.
BNR: In your two novels, you're very interested in children who have experienced an extreme religious upbringing that leads to curdled and violent behavior. How much does that match your own perspective on religion?
DRP: I'm Episcopalian, and I'm very liberal as far as religious views. One of the reasons I was attracted to Episcopalianism is because you don't really even have to believe in God. Where I grew up, there was a little church and it was very fire-and-brimstone. I know a lot of people who believe in the Bible literally, that whatever is in the Bible is true. Between the politics and the religion, it kind of gets mixed up into this brew of people who are Christians but who have some strange ideas about an eye for an eye. I have always been fascinated with people who can believe that strongly in something. When I write about it, that's where it's coming from. I'm just fascinated that somebody could really believe that the earth is only 4,000 years old or whatever.
BNR: So it's more the rigidity you're critiquing than religion, per se.
DRP: I'm not critiquing religion. I think religion's a good thing. If nothing else, it gives us some rules to live by. I'm even a little bit envious of someone who can believe it. At least they have that belief. They are going through life thinking they're going to heaven, this isn't all, this isn't the end or anything like that.
BNR: The three brothers in the Jewett gang are obsessed with a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket, which I'm assuming is modeled after [Confederate outlaw] Bloody Bill Anderson, using it as a model for their criminal behavior. That becomes their Bible, in a way.
DRP: Actually, I didn't get the idea for that dime novel from Bloody Bill Anderson. Until you brought his name up I'd forgotten all about him. I wanted them to have a book, and I goofed around with a few titles and came up with that. In my unconscious mind I might have been thinking about Bloody Bill Anderson, but I wasn't really thinking about him at the time. For Cane I suppose it's sort of an inspiration; he uses that as a kind of textbook on how to get out of where they are. Chimney is interested in the sex and the violence, of course. Cob is just a little leery of it, I think, after his brothers get to talking about it more seriously.
BNR: When people talk about your influences, they often mention John Cheever or Flannery O'Connor or Denis Johnson or Cormac McCarthy. This book strikes me as more intentionally Twain-like.
DRP: I don't think Twain was really on my mind so much, but I was trying to make the book funny, at least in places. I was trying to model it on a better version of a dime novel. Some of the characters who pop up, when those got on the page it was like, This is an opportunity. I can use this to do some funny stuff.
BNR: Do you feel that for each book you need to make the violence more grotesque, visceral, intense? I think about the scene where Tardweller is killed in this book, or in your previous book, the scene of a tent preacher pouring spiders on his head.
DRP: I'm not consciously trying to say, OK, this one's got to be even weirder than the last one. I want things to happen, and with these people, this is the sort of thing that occurs in their lives. With the death of Tardweller, compared to some of the stuff that goes on nowadays, that wasn't that violent, I guess, to me. I hate to say it, but for the last four or five years I've been influenced a lot by TV, stuff like Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. They go so far with some of the violence in these shows I'm thinking, Well, OK, I can do this and people aren't going to be freaking out.
BNR: How is television helpful for a novelist?
DRP: I think the big thing is the plot. You have this character who appears maybe in the third episode and then he's back in it in the tenth episode. There's just so many plot threads going through these shows, and I think that's what they do best, besides coming up with the characters. I think that if you're going to write a novel you have to have some sort of plot. I've read a few that don't really seem to have one that are really good, but I don't think that one of mine would come off if I didn't have some sort of plot, or at least pushing the action forward as much as I can.
BNR: What elevates a novel beyond the plot for you? I suppose that's a way of asking what the negative effects of television are.
DRP: The language. As far as getting to a point where it's better than a dime novel, the language and the way that you treat the characters, where you care about the characters or you just don't give a damn about them. I can't really say that I've read that many dime novels, but I would say that that would be a part of it, and maybe just a more involved plot instead of "Bloody Bill robs banks and eventually gets killed," that sort of thing.
BNR: You do a good job of ventriloquizing this bad, overly florid, pulp-novel writing at a couple of points in The Heavenly Table. I would imagine that maybe you'd spent a little bit of time looking into them.
DRP: When I was a kid we didn't have any books in the house. My parents, though, did read a lot of romance magazines and true-crime magazines, that sort of thing. When I started reading that's what I was reading. We're talking from, say, 1960, and that stuff was pretty . . . I doubt very much it was written very well.
BNR: There's something about the language of The Heavenly Table that seems to match the time in which it was set. I think that's true about The Devil All the Time, too, which has this '50s and '60s, Jim Thompson–esque, noir-ish vibe, while this is a little bit more countrified. How much do you think about the relationship between language and dialogue and the time in which your writing is set?
DRP: With The Devil All the Time I was definitely trying to write short sentences for the most part and not waste a word if at all possible. With this one, when I began there were some long sentences in there, and I just went with that. Of course, as I revised I changed some of it, and I cut some sentences and added on to others. Once I got the rhythm, it played in my head while I was working. I was trying to put the reader into 1917 as much as I could.
BNR: Did you spend much time researching life in southern Ohio in 1917?
DRP: There are about four or five local historians around here who have written small books about Camp Sherman, so I read those. I looked up a few things on the Internet as far as what would things cost at that time. Other than that, no. That was about it as far as the research goes. I just recently saw a quote from somebody who said, "If you've got to do a bunch of research for a book, you're not ready to write." There's not a lot of stuff there that somebody probably couldn't just invent. I just didn't feel comfortable with doing the whole historical accuracy thing.
BNR: What helped you break away from being focused explicitly on the military camp?
DRP: The brothers. When I started writing this thing I was flailing around like crazy trying to figure out where my story was. One day these three brothers just appeared on the page. It's one of those things. I think when you're writing fiction there's some things that you just can't explain. They appeared. For several days I wasn't really paying that much attention to them, I didn't know if they were going to be in the book or not. One morning a few days after that I just started writing that first chapter, and by the time I finished it I thought, I think this is my story. I still had the camp in there at that point, but then the farmer came along, and his son runs off and he thinks he's going to join the army. I've got to say, the book was a real mess for quite a while.
BNR: How long in total did it take to write the novel? DRP: It took a long time. I got lucky: The Devil All the Time did really well in France and Germany, so I kept getting invited back to France. I did a lot of traveling for a couple years while I was trying to work on the book. But the problem with me is that I'm not a good traveler. I can only work at home, and every time I did a trip I went to France maybe nine times I lost a month to get back into the rhythm and just to get back to working again. I would say that [The Heavenly Table] took around three years, but with a lot of interruptions. I had told my wife at the beginning of last year, "I'm not going anywhere this year, I'm finishing this book," and I managed to do that.
BNR: Is there a distinction between how European and American audiences respond to your work?
DRP: With the French and the Germans, they're looking at my work as a picture of what it's like to live in the Midwest. I think with the American readers, it's more like, "Hey, it's just a good story." The French are really into this sort of genre or whatever that I write in, people like Daniel Woodrell. I think that they see writers either write about the East Coast or the West Coast, and then there's these people that are writing about the Midwest, and their books are probably about what it's really like over there. The French are, I've got to say, terrific readers. They're probably a lot more into books than we are.
BNR: When Knockemstiff came out you were presented as an example of a working-class writer who was writing quality fiction. Around the same time, a debate started surging arguing that MFA programs are enclaves for the privileged, and that there was a whole American class that was being neglected in books that the big houses were putting out and written by MFA grads. Do you buy into that argument? Do you think that territory has changed at all since you've started publishing?
DRP: I went to an MFA program when I was fifty. I quit my job and I had a chance to go to this program at Ohio State, and they were going to give me a stipend for three years as long as I taught a class every quarter. I looked upon it as, OK, this is my way out of the paper mill. Because I wasn't going have to worry about getting a job right off the bat, and I was also going to be around people who loved writing. And I'd never had that before. It was a fantastic deal for me. The people that I was with in that program, they weren't privileged or wealthy.
With that being said, though, I don't think you need to go to an MFA program to learn how to write, or to be a writer. Basically, it's reading and writing, and you can do that working at Walmart. If you've got the drive, you can do that selling shoes or whatever. Some people go to an MFA program believing, "This is what I want to do. I want to be a writer," and by the end of that program they realize, "No, I don't think I want to be a writer." There's a lot of work and there's a lot of disappointment.
BNR: Not a lot of pay, often.
DRP: Yeah, not a lot of pay. It's an expensive way, I guess, to find out that that's not what you want to do. But at the same time, it gives other people a leg up, at least a little bit of time to learn what this thing's all about.
BNR: Do you still teach?
DRP: No, I don't. I'm a lousy teacher. I found that out when I was in that MFA program. I was a fifty-year-old factory worker, and I was teaching freshman comp to eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. I couldn't get it. It was a big disappointment at the time, because my plan was to try to maybe publish a collection of stories and then land a job at a small college somewhere. I thought that would be a really nice way to live. But then I got up there and figured out, "You're so terrible at this." It was like, I can either go work at Walmart or I can try to write.
July 10, 2016