The Book That Changed My Life: Donald Ray Pollock

Donald Ray Pollock’s fiction explores a certain bleak undercurrent of American society. His 2008 debut, Knockemstiff, focused on the unpredictable lives of the residents of an Ohio town. The Devil All The Time, published in 2011, abounds with characters obsessed with rituals or consumed by violence. And his new novel, The Heavenly Table, depicts two sets of harrowing lives set on a collision course in 1917. Pollock’s fiction is often memorably jarring, and dissects the compulsion toward violence held by some, as well as the awful effects that it has on those around them. We discussed one book that’s had a particular effect on his life: Breece D’J Pancake’s The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake.

How did you first encounter Breece D’J Pancake’s fiction?

I think I picked up a remainder copy of the U.K. paperback in a bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. This would probably have been sometime in the early 1990s. I found out he’d committed suicide in 1979, and that the collection had been first published in 1983.

What aspect of his stories resonated the most with you?

The characters. His work is focused on the poor and lower middle class in West Virginia, and I had grown up around the same kinds of people in a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio. But though I knew the “rule” that it is easier and probably better for the writer to write about the people and places he’s familiar with, I still didn’t think anyone would be interested in stories set in and around where I lived. Even when I wrote about people at the bottom of the rung, I didn’t put them in Ohio. Finally, after messing around for over a year without any success, I read an interview with a writer in which she said that she used to type out other people’s stuff, and I began doing that: Cheever, Yates, O’Connor, Carver, Hemingway, Chekov, etc. I learned a lot doing that, but it wasn’t until I typed out “Trilobites,” the first story in Breece’s book, one that I’d read several times, that I was determined to place a story in southern Ohio. Several years later, after I’d published five or six stories myself and was in grad school studying creative writing at Ohio State University, I drove down to Milton and visited his grave.

Do you have a particular favorite out of the stories in the collection?

That’s a tough question, but “Time and Again,” which is a brief story about a serial killer haunted by his deeds, would be my all-around favorite, though several of the others, especially “Trilobites,” “In the Dry,” and “First Day of Winter” are more accomplished. Still, what he manages to do in those six pages is masterful (and creepy!).

Is there an aspect of his fiction that you’ve found to be most influential in terms of your own work?

Breece’s style was a lot like Hemingway’s, clear, concise, and spare; and I tried to emulate it as well as I could, especially with my first two books. There isn’t one wasted word in any of his twelve stories.

Do you find yourself revisiting the collection with some frequency?

Not so much now, but only because, since I started this gig fairly late in life, I feel there are just so many other books I need to read.