20 Questions With Mourning Goats
Donald Ray Pollock
I was introduced to Don by the Chuck Palahniuk website, a few years ago and have never been the same. He writes in a way that you don't grasp until after you're done reading, and once you do, you have a smile on your face that takes time to fade. He's not only an amazing author, but a great guy. Enjoy interview fourteen!
1. What do you think of when you hear the term, Mourning Goats?
I think of a man I use to work with at the paper mill. His name is Charley, but everyone called him "Goat" because he had a well-groomed van dyke beard. He used to come to work very hungover at times, which reminds me of the "mourning" aspect of your question.
2. You just sold your novel, The Devil All The Time, to Doubleday, so what can you tell us about it? When can we expect it out?
The Devil All The Time is set mostly in Ohio and West Virginia during the 1950's and 1960's. Picture a tough, upright young man, a pair of serial killers, a corrupt sheriff, dirty preachers, religion, lust, revenge, death, the often smudged line between good and evil, etc. The dust jacket art is fantastic; as my friend Chris Tusa said, it's sort of a cross between Faulkner and Orwell. The Devil All The Time will be published on July 12, 2011.
3. I heard about your story collection, Knockemstiff, from Chuck Palahnuik. Any idea how it got in his hands, and what it meant for the book?
Sure, the book was placed in Chuck's hands by my editor at Doubleday, Gerry Howard, who is also Chuck's editor. I think a lot of things in publishing work this way. Of course, having Chuck's endorsement helped the sales tremendously. He's a damn nice guy, that's all there is to it.
3. What was it like going back to school after 28 years? Do you think being a big reader made it any easier?
Well, I started attending college in 1988, which was, thank God, before computers began taking over (Did you know that scientists are now saying that they will be able to build a robot that's smarter than humans within thirty years? If that happens, we're screwed, though I guess it's inevitable that we will destroy ourselves, right?) Anyway, I probably did much better in school at age 35 than I ever would have at 19 or 20. For one thing, I was sober by then, I'd already been married a couple of times, and I had a lot of the horse-shit out of the way.
Being a big reader will help make just about anything easier. It's hard to believe there are people enrolled in college these days who have never read a book on their own. It would be nice if, instead of lowering the standards of college classes so that people who are practically illiterate can pass, we could create more jobs for our citizens who, let's face it, aren't cut out for higher education. Sorry, but I'm one of those people who believe that grades one through eight should be nothing but lots of reading, writing, and math, along with phys. ed. Get back to the basics and quit fucking with new-fangled approaches or state tests. Make it tougher on students, not easier. And figure out something to do with those who can't cut it or won't try. But then what do I know? I was a high school dropout.
4. You said in another interview that you write from around 6 am to 11 am; is that still how you work, or did things change when you started writing the novel?
Well, I worked mostly mornings on The Devil All The Time until the last four or five months, and then I switched to nights, from around 7 or 8 pm until 2-3 am. I like the idea of doing my work in the morning, of getting something done first thing so I don't have to fret about it all day, but I probably write a little better at night. Still, the main thing is to make the attempt every day.
5. It sounds like you're a voracious reader; anything recently that's blown your mind?
Believe me, I don't read that much. I try to read two books per week. I know that sounds like a lot to some people these days, but it's not, not if you want to be a writer anyway. Or anything else for that matter. I've got friends who read much more than I do. Think of all the hours the average citizen spends watching TV or playing video games or talking on their cell phone or handing their Facebook "commitments." Don't get me wrong, I can become as strung out on that junk as the next person, but it's not a good way to spend a major portion of your life (and I realize others would argue that reading isn't a good way either).
Except for Fred Venturini’s novel, The Samaritan, the best fiction books I’ve read recently are all new story collections: From the Darkness Under Our Feet by Patrick Michael Finn, One Last Good Time by Michael Kardos and Volt by Alan Heathcock. Great non-fiction books I've read in the last couple of months include Gulag by Anne Applebaum, Fraser's Penguins by Fen Montaigne and King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. I’m looking forward to reading the new memoirs by Mark Richards and Andre Dubus III.
6. Are you planning on focusing more on novels now that one is under the belt or do you think you'll go back and forth between novels and shorts?
I'm not sure yet. I have a new novel started (just barely), so that's pretty much all I'll be working on for next 18 months or so, and that's as far as I want to plan ahead. I'm not one of those people who can work on several different things at once.
7. In a lot of interviews, it sounds like you started writing because you had a mid-life crisis; do you think that's it, or do you think you just made the decision to go after something you knew you had in you?
Well, I think I just refer to that time as a "mid-life crisis" because I don't know what else to call it. But it wasn't like I was going to blow my brains out if I didn't change careers. If I'd waited, oh, just a few more months when I was going through that deal before I started writing, I would probably still be working at the paper mill and be happy with it.
8. Your story reminds me a lot of Craig Clevenger's; he wanted to be a writer, quit his job, and went for it. What do you wish you would have known before you quit?
Nothing. If I had known some of the things I discovered later on--such as the difficulty of landing a decent teaching job, what such a job entails (hard work!) if you do it right, the cost of health insurance, etc.--there's a very good chance I would not have left the paper mill. I had a good job there.
9. You've said that you were 45 when you decided you wanted to learn to write. Do you think people learn how to write or are they born to write?
I definitely believe you can learn to write. Why not? Hell, you learn to be a plumber or drive a truck or be a lawyer, don't you? Granted, it takes longer to become a good writer than, say, a grill cook, but it's still a learned activity to a great degree. Certainly talent in involved, but it mostly comes down to hard work, like anything else. You can be the most talented writer in the world, but if you don't do the work, you might as well be whacking the heads off chickens in a processing plant.
10. One of my favorite pieces of advice that you give is that a person must learn to sit in the chair if he wants to be a writer. What's another big one for you?
You must read a lot if you really want to be a writer. If you don't love books and love to read, you'll never be a very good writer. And don't just read the type of stuff you like or aspire to write yourself. Read the classics, read poetry, read history. With the American library system, being ignorant or illiterate is inexcusable today, totally a matter of laziness and poor parenting and too much cable TV and "social networking." Texting your pal to tell him/her you're taking the trash out or just left the grocery store is not only insane behavior--at the very least either a sign of egomania or complete helplessness/co-dependency--but is time wasted. Those minutes add up. Do you want to go to your grave knowing that you spent a substantial chunk of your life tweeting?
11. With Knockemstiff, you did your first book tour--did you like it? What would you like to see happen with The Devil All The Time as far as touring goes?
Even though I'm one of those people who has a hard time getting up in front of an audience and reading, I loved most of it. It's very hard for a shy person to stay stuck away in a room months or even years and then suddenly emerge and go out and read in front of a group. Still, it was a great experience, and I'm grateful for it. I met a lot of wonderful people. As for the tour for The Devil All The Time, the most I can hope for is that people like the book, and we sell a lot of copies.
12. How has the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship helped you finish your new book?
The PEN/Bingham did just what it's supposed to do--gave me the free time to work on a novel. Going to New York and receiving that award has to be up there in the six or seven best days of my life so far.
13. I have read that you wanted to teach. What made you go after that, and how has it been so far?
Though I'm probably shooting myself in the foot by admitting this, I have come to the conclusion in the last couple of years that I'm not a very capable teacher. To be good in the classroom, you have to at least think that you know what you're talking about, and I don't have that confidence. Perhaps it's because I started too late, I don't know. I don't think I'm bad with short gigs, like a week-long workshop or something like that, but I run out of new things to say after a few classes.
14. You have a website and a blog, but I didn't see a Facebook page. Did I miss it? What are your thoughts on social media these days?
Actually, I'm still trying to figure that out. I was on Facebook for a few months and then dropped off when it started taking up too much time and space in my head. I have a very addictive/compulsive personality, and I found myself messing with FB when I should have been writing (believe me, sometimes I will do anything to keep from writing) or reading or exercising or anything else. Not only that, but I believe people need a certain degree of privacy and quiet time, whether they realize it or not. But now I’m back on FB, as of last week. Believe me, I understand that it’s a great "marketing" tool, and also a great way to find people (and organize revolutions!). Still, I have to admit that I’m one of those dinosaurs who sometimes pines for the days of snail mail and typewriters and rotary phones.
15. I enjoyed reading your blog, but has the experience of quitting the mill, writing the book, going to school, and changing your life been all smiles? What were some of the struggles that you want to remember?
I really can't say I had any "struggles." I had a lot of rejections, and I spent a lot of time staring at the wall in the attic, but I'd be hesitant to call that sort of thing a struggle. Since I tend to compare my life with the lives of people who have it worse (not better), I see myself as very, very lucky. You have to understand that most of my "struggles" took place before I began writing, in the years before I got sober.
16. Drinking and writing go hand in hand, and you haven't had a sip since 1986. Do you think you'd be where you are today if you hadn't made the decision to quit?
If I hadn't stopped drinking in 1986, I would have been dead by 1990 or so. I still think about that, about how lucky I was to have that little moment of clarity one sick, hungover morning when so many people around me just kept on using until they died or ended up completely wasted.
17. You remind me of a darker Raymond Carver, maybe in the way you see the people that you write about. Was he a big influence and/or who is??
Of course, I read Carver's stories, and I think his spare prose style has been a big influence, but as far as subject matter/tone, etc., I've probably gotten the most from the Southern writers--Barry Hannah, Flannery O'Conner, William Gay, Tennessee Williams, Larry Brown, Faulkner, Harry Crews. But right now my favorite fiction writers are J.F. Powers and Muriel Sparks and William Maxwell.
18. What do you think Ms. Herman, at Ohio State University, meant for your writing career?
As I've said many times, I'd probably still be working at the paper mill if it wasn't for Michelle. She published my first story in The Journal and encouraged me to apply for grad school. She's been great to me and many other students at OSU.
19. Knockemstiff had a rather high print run for a short story collection. How did that come about? Did it make you nervous at all?
I have no idea how they calculated the number of copies to print. Actually, I don't even recall how many copies were printed. The main thing I was concerned with was that they not lose any money on me. I figured if they didn't lose any money, well, maybe they would be willing to take another chance on me. The same with The Devil All The Time.
20. What does Don Pollock have planned for 2011?
I live a very quiet, small-town life for the most part. I get up and work a while, then try to get some exercise and read and that's about it. Last night I went to a high school basketball game; tonight I'll probably watch a movie; tomorrow morning I'll go to church (St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chillicothe, Ohio) with my wife. Except for doing a book tour this summer, I'll probably just keep plugging away at the new novel.