In Donald Ray Pollock's own words Knockemstiff, Ohio, a "holler" in southern Ohio, is just a place between the hills where a community sprouted up.
"It's sort of its own place. It's got a bar, a church, a couple of stores. It's all gone now, except for the church," Pollock, 53, said in a phone interview last week.
His holler might be a ghost town now, but thanks to Pollock, the little community with the funny name will live on in his first book, Knockemstiff, a collection of connected short stories that are much darker than the town ever was.
"I took away from Knockemstiff itself the atmosphere of being a rough place," Pollock said. "Other towns thought of it as being a rough place. So I took that and cranked it up a few notches.
"I'm sort of drawn to the darker type of fiction. Once I had written six or seven of these stories, someone said, 'Are you going to put in a nice story?' I thought about it but stuck with the gritty mood. I didn't want it to make the book off-kilter."
Knockemstiff contains 18 stories, and Pollock isn't lying. Not one of them is nice - from a 7-year-old being taught by his father how to hurt a man one night at the drive-in, to a lonely middle-aged woman using her adult niece and drugs to lure men back to her home. There are pill-poppers and speed freaks, murderers and drifters, perverts, molesters, and teenage hooligans. Oh, and the fish sticks girl - can't forget her.
So, yes, Knockemstiff is pretty gritty. In lesser hands it might not work, but it flows and rewards with Pollock's touch, from the dead-on dialogue to the fast-paced narrative.
Pollock's voice is authentic and accomplished and, yet, like some of the characters in his book, he didn't graduate from high school. He dropped out and started working at a meat-packing factory. He later earned his GED and worked at the paper mill in nearby Chillicothe for 32 years.
But what separates Pollock from his fictional neighbors is that he always had it in the back of his mind to be a writer.
He enrolled at Ohio University and majored in English, taking advantage of a program offered at the mill which paid for 75 percent of his tuition.
After graduation he started writing short stories and was later accepted to the master's of fine arts program at Ohio State University.
Then came his big break.
One of his stories was published in Western Michigan University's Third Coast magazine and he got noticed.
"I was really lucky," Pollock said. "An agent in New York read it and asked if I had an agent or a book deal. I signed a contract and had someone interested in a book in three weeks."
Pollock is drawing comparisons to Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and William Gay, writers he names as influences.
"I've always been drawn to realistic fiction," Pollock said. "[Gay] wrote his first book about nine years ago. He was a carpenter, he hung dry wall. He started writing in his 50s. He was a big influence on me. I always liked writers who wrote tight stuff, shorter sentences like [Ernest] Hemingway."
Pollock credits his writing style in part to taking up college later in life, and being left alone to read what he wanted.
"It helped me sort of, being on my own. I was reading stuff I liked and wasn't forced to read stuff I didn't like."
All the attention hasn't affected Pollock.
He still lives near the holler, 13 miles away in Chillicothe, with his wife, Patsy, but he doesn't work at the paper mill anymore. Ohio State gave him a fellowship in November to work on a novel.
And what's that novel about?
"A serial killer in 1965 named Arvin Eugene Russell. He grew up in Knockemstiff, left, and now he's coming home."
Oh, to be from Knockemstiff.
Donald Ray Pollock will give a reading at the Shapiro Writing Festival at 6 p.m. April 11 at the University of Toledo's Libbey Hall. The event is open to the public. "Knockemstiff" hits bookshelves Tuesday.
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