A former laborer and truck driver from Appalachia was the only Ohioan to be awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship this year. So no matter what else fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, 57, accomplishes in his career, he forever will be known as one of the Fellows.
More than fame or recognition, Pollock said he is thankful for the grant provided by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which was announced in April, because he doesn't have to concern himself with finding money to put food on the table. The amount he received is not made public and it varies from artist to artist.
"Really, what it meant for me, it was going to give me the opportunity to finish my next book without worrying about how I'm going to pay the bills," Pollock said recently in a phone interview from his home in Chillicothe, Ohio. "That was the biggest thing for me. I was like, 'OK, I can do this next book without applying to Walmart or something because down here around Chillicothe there aren't a lot of jobs to be had.' "
Pollock was born in 1954 and grew up in a "holler" called Knockemstiff. He dropped out of high school when he was 17 and began working at a meat-packing plant. He later earned his GED and worked for 32 years at a paper mill in Chillicothe before he enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts Creative Writing program at Ohio State University.
Pollock lives in Chillicothe with his wife, Patsy, and has written two books, Knockemstiff (2008) and The Devil All the Time (2011), which comes out in paperback July 10.
'He was already made'
Kyle Minor, who was a year or so ahead of Pollock in the same writing program, had read some of Pollock's work before he arrived on campus in Columbus and wanted to meet him.
"The stories he had published were so good that I wanted to meet him and find out about this guy who wrote these stories," said Minor, who teaches creative writing at the University of Toledo and is the author of In the Devil's Territory. "I didn't know much about him. I just knew he was older."
Some of the stories Pollock wrote before attending Ohio State were published in literary journals in the Midwest and South and eventually ended up in Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories that was published to much acclaim.
"He says that he learned a lot in graduate school and benefited from being around people who like to talk about making fiction," Minor said. "My sense of it was always, he just kind of showed up and he was already made. He already had made himself into the writer he was before he came."
Typing them out
Once Pollock at 50 decided to make a go at being a writer, he didn't know where to begin because he didn't know any other writers to draw on their experiences. When he was struggling, he came across a story of an author who used to type out other people's work and decided that was worth a shot.
"I flogged around for like six months. [I know] it takes a long time, but I wasn't improving at all," Pollock recalled. "I started typing out one story a week. It might be a [Ernest] Hemingway story, or a John Cheever story, Denis Johnson, Richard Yates, Flannery O'Conner …"
Pollock would type a story and then carry it around for a week and keep looking at it. Then he'd pitch it in the trash and do another one.
"I did that for about a year and a half," he said. "I did about 75 or 80 stories like that probably."
It helped Pollock break down the structure of the story and became an exercise in self-education.
"I'm not really a good reader. What I mean is, I think I'm not one of those people who can read a story and analyze it just like that," he said. "There was something about typing it out that I was able to see this is where they made a transition, or this is how you write dialogue. Stuff like that, you know, it just got me closer to the page. I really do think it helped."
It was around the time Pollock stopped typing others' works that he began writing his own.
He had found his voice.
"He taught himself how to write in a vacuum, and that's just a mark of extraordinary intelligence," Minor said.
Regular library user
Jennifer Thompson McKell, who now serves on the Ohio State Library Board, recalls meeting Pollock when she was the director of Ross County libraries.
"When Knockemstiff came out, I didn't know who he was or hadn't heard of him and of course Knockemstiff got a huge amount of attention," she said in a phone interview. "And my staff said Don is a regular library user and comes to the library all the time. So I was really excited and we bought numerous copies of Knockemstiff for the library and I read it and I got to meet Don."
McKell calls Pollock a natural storyteller, one with a keen ear for dialogue, especially for turns of phrases in and around places likes Chillicothe and Ross County.
"His writing and the way he depicts people talking and their speech patterns and the place names is very resonant with somebody who lives here or has grown up in the area," she said. "It's kind of an eerie feeling almost because I can just hear echoes of the way people that I know talk or the people that I grew up with, the way they talk, and the speech patterns and the phrases they use. He's got a tremendous ear for the specifics for the way people express themselves here."
Always in Knockemstiff
Pollock, who has always lived in the Chillicothe area, says he has ideas for a few more books and doesn't see himself changing the setting.
"I'm 57, so I probably don't have too many books left in me anyway, so I figure they'll all be around here," he said with a laugh. "I've lived here all my life. I never really lived anywhere else. I've traveled some, but this is the area that I know. I don't really have a desire to leave here, so I'll probably keep on setting everything here."
Even though the real-life Knockemstiff is all but a ghost town, Pollock's version will live on.
Minor talks of that transformation with great admiration: "When you visit Knockemstiff, you just don't see much. He just took a little bit and exploded it into a whole mythological place. The Knockemstiff of that book is about 10 percent Knockemstiff, Ohio, and 90 percent Donald Ray Pollock. He took his imagination and his memories and his nostalgia and his childhood and the people that he knew and he transformed them into something much larger than the material than he received."
Pollock was a little taken aback when he found out he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship because he had been told it was a good idea for writers to enter the contest every year and maybe one day down the road he would win.
This was the first time Pollock entered, so it seems winning the award validated Pollock's decision to quit the paper mill and work toward his dream of being a writer.
"Even if nothing ever happens for me … I can pretty much be satisfied with what's happened so far, with quitting the mill and taking that chance," he said.
But according to McKell, the Guggenheim may just signal even brighter days ahead for Pollock.
"It will be interesting to me 20, 30 years from now to look back and see what kind of career he's had and where he is going to go with this," she said, "and maybe we haven't even seen the greatest things yet."
Contact Bob Cunningham at email@example.com or 419-724-6506.