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Friday, April 15, 2011

#14 Donald Ray Pollock

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. 

Thank you!


And finally, don't forget to "like" Mourning Goats on Facebook and pick up Chewing the Page: The Mourning Goats Interviews on Amazon! 

Friday, April 1, 2011

#13 Lidia Yuknavitch

20 Questions with Mourning Goats 

Lidia's editor contacted me in February asking if I would do an interview for her upcoming book, The Chronology of Water. I didn't think too much of it because I'd never heard of Lidia at that point, I'm not too interested in memoir, and up until then, have picked all my authors personally...then I read the book. In all seriousness, I want to thank her editor for introducing me to this amazing author. Go buy her new book today and enjoy the interview, I know I did! 

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"
I picture many sad goats, also Jesus.  There was still a lot of unfortunate goat slaughter around his time, as people tried to decide who and what to pray to.  I suspect there may have been goat support groups and therapy.  Underground goat havens. Goats who drank to ease the pain. I don't know what the goats thought of Jesus, but I bet they identified with him a little.

2. To tell you the truth, I read Chelsea Cain's introduction to the book, and said, out loud, "bullshit," after reading it, I agree with every word she wrote. How do you pack so much physical emotion in to such short pieces of non-fiction? 
Wow...THANK YOU!!!  That makes me laugh--what you said--I might have thought that when I read her introduction too!  But I think the answer to your question is that I tried to make the body the point of view.  Rather than a psychology or personality.  I tried to write by and through a corporeal experience -- to keep the body up front -- to keep everything we feel through our bodies the point of the story.  The swimming metaphor helped me to do that.  You know?  In a lot of memoir or nonfiction I feel like the body recedes and the personality or psyche gets big.  I tried to make the body big.

3. You are another Mourning Goats interviewee out of the Chelsea Cain, Chuck Palahniuk, and Monica Drake writing group, what is it about this group that is pouring out great books?
Very fine wine.  Almost exclusively Pinot Noir, because of Chelsea.  Joking aside (though there really is something great about wine), I am humbled every single week by the fact that I get to sit in a room with the most amazing writers on the planet.  It's not just that they are ALL titans of mind and spirit and talent (Cheryl Strayed, Suzy Vitello, Erin Leonard, Diana Jordan, Mary Wysong).  We all not only take extreme pleasure in writing but in the idea that, as Monica Drake says, "writing is a living practice."  We live it together -- the good bad and ugly -- we respect that writing is like a primary relationship -- we push and pull and love one another on the page with as much intimacy and seriousness and love as you would a person.  And as Chelsea says, sometimes we cry in the bathroom.

4. I love your quote, "I believe in art the way other people believe in god," can you go a little deeper in to this? Is writing a spiritual experience to you?
Boy howdy.  It's an altered state.  When I listen to people I respect talk about god or faith or ecstatic states, I think yep, I get that, only not about god.  Shhhhh.  All the times in my life when I was ready to hang it up?  Art was there.  Music or painting or books or plays -- something to believe in greater than yourself.  Something to give you hope and inspire you to do good in the world.  Something so beautiful and life altering you almost can't stand it.  Artists who sacrificed themselves over and over again to bring it to you.  Art gives me a moral compass.  Rules to live by.  How to be compassionate.  How to value beauty.  How to understand my "worth" in the world with regard to giving of myself, rather than to myself. I don't exactly pray to art, but I can sit in a roomful of Rothkos or Bacons or Joan Mitchell paintings and bawl my eyes out just from what it opens up in my chest.  I can pass out from a Beckett play.  I can orgasm from a Kathy Acker book.  Ecstatic states.

5. Your blog is very politically inspired, is this just a hobby, or something that you do outside of the blogosphere?
I'm not very bloggy.  I'm too sporadic to be hip like real blogsters.  But since it's a space you can inhabit however you want, I use it when things piss me off or chafe ... ha.  The only way in which I'm political is that I think we are uber responsible these days for educating ourselves, participating in civil discourse, asking good questions, and actively engaging each other in communities that stretch beyond the self so that our own society doesn't cave in to unbridled power or uneducated moronity.  We live in kind of dangerous times in terms of power and moronity, if you know what I mean.  It's easy to become too passive -- to become a media viewer from the comfort of one's home.  I'm still thinking about what to "do" amidst the current zeitgeist besides make art.  Though I'll say for the record that making art is a political act even when it's not.

6. I saw that your new book, The Chronology of Water, has a book trailer, what do you think of it, and book trailers in general? Is it a way to intrigue non-book readers? 
I love it!! It's fantastic!! Everyone!  Go immediately to 
Ha.  My husband Andy Mingo made that film/book trailer.  So I'm quite fond of it.  But it's also just a kick ass little movie.  And yes, the Oregon ocean is very freezing in November.  To answer your question, I like book trailers.  I understand why it makes authors cranky to have to produce "media" in addition to writing books, but I also understand that the gaps between modes of artistic production are closing, so inter media or multi media forms are exciting to me.  Books merging with music or visual art -- that's always excited me.  I've collaborated on projects that emphasize those mergings.  I'm for it.

7. It says on your website that you became a writer in 1986 and the first story in, The Chronology of Water, with the same title, is a piece focused on your daughter, is this the story that made you consider yourself a writer? 
Probably.  The event of my daughter's death is what cracked me open as a person, and what came out after I regained my wits and emotions, was writing.  And when I wrote that story, something got reflected back to me that didn't depend on the outside world's judgements or rejections.  My own intelligence and creativity.  That's all.  For some of us, that's a profound moment.  To claim an intellect or creative impulse -- to embrace it -- to say "mine" without shame or apology -- to stand up.  By the way, when I wrote that short story, I was in Diana Abu Jaber's creative writing class at UO.  She said, "Um, Lidia, I think this might be a book."  That was 20 years ago.
I'm slow.

8. Hawthorne Books sent me out a copy of The Chronology of Water, and a postcard with a picture of the cover on it. Is it true that they are doing a cover and a "censored" cover? What do you think the response to it will be? 
Yes there is a version with a "belly band" that covers up a naked breast with an in focus nipple on the cover.  I wrote an essay about that called "About a Boob, or, The Hermeneutics of a Woman's Body" over at the Rumpus.  It's been a little odyssey, actually, for both me and the publisher, Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books.  I have very strong opinions about what is culturally, commercially, and literarily "sanctioned" in terms of the female body and its representation, and what is considered troublesome or problematic.  Talk about hypocrisy.  But the book's main metaphor is swimming.  So there is a woman in water on the cover.  And for anyone with itchies about that, there is a swank charcoal gray belly band.  Removable.

9. Our first interview on the site was with Stephen Elliott, Editor-in-Chief at therumpus.net, who have picked The Chronology of Water for their book of the month in March, how did the come to be?
Cheryl Strayed forwarded it as her selection when asked by The Rumpus.  The folks at the Rumpus, Stephen, Isaac, and a woman named Julie Greicius, have been incredibly kind and generous to me.

10. You don't write just memoir, you have books of short stories, a book of criticism, and you have a novel coming out, The Small Backs of Children, next year; which was your favorite to write? Why? 
I'm not sure I have a favorite, though fiction is my heartbeat I guess.  I love the form of fiction writing -- and by that I mean less than conventional fiction writing, because I am a language and form junkie.  I like to play in fiction.  Like paint.  Or music.  I'm not sure "memoir" is the best description for what I did in COW...it's more of a body story.  Wish there was such a category -- Whitman would be happy.  I suppose what I love most about writing is the poetics of it.  Swimming in language is like swimming in a very, very large pool. or the ocean.  I will say this, COW nearly did me in emotionally.  But then so did The Small Backs of Children.

The most FUN I've ever had writing a book is one I just finished -- a novel called Dora: A Head Case. Crazy fun.  Like laugh out loud fun.

11. With the authors I've interviewed, it seems as though one theme is the same for them all, their life is non-stop, action packed. Married, teaching, running Chiasmus Press, writing, doing readings, how do you do it? 
Pharmaceuticals.  Swimming.  Meditation.  Active sex life.  These things give me balance.

12. The story, Ecstatic State, is about dating your now husband, Andy, do you think that a support system at home is important when one of your occupations is centered around being alone? 
HUGELY.  I have a writing room and both Andy and my son Miles understand its sacred status.  Miles grew up understanding "mamma is writing right now" as a normal part of our household.  He's very respectful about it--even tells other people not to bother me.  But the other side of that is that I can hear them and smell them and feel them on the other side of the door.  Always.  An the animal in me needs that too.  To have the Mingo and Miles near me even in my solitude. 
I'm lucky too because I can write in furious speed flashes.  I could never write away from Miles and Andy, which I think is not the case with other writers...my "alone" is self induced.  Probably a keen trick I picked up from childhood -- creating alone worlds to survive no matter what is going on "around" me.

13. The Chronology of Water is coming out on the kindle, today (April 1st, 2011), what do you think about e-publishing and the move to digital?
Well I think it's exciting, because I'm a person who is always excited by new forms that are triggered in the ZOOM of our world, but right this second I guess it goes without saying it's a bit of a bummer for the artist/writer.  On the other hand, the books I've written have never made a ton of money, and I didn't write any of them with money in mind, so perhaps I won't miss it. Like I said before up top, multi media modes are pretty exciting to me.  I'm waiting for the nano technology where we won't even have techno objects to hold.  It'll all be "in us."  Cyborg nation.

14. Amazon's description of your book starts out, "this is not your mother's memoir," which I love, and agree with, what pushed you to write these stories down? 
Chuck Palahniuk dared me.  True story.

15. What do you think is the most difficult part of running Chiasmus Media? (Also, EPIC website!)
Not enough money to hire helpers.  Not being able to publish a zillion astonishingly unique writers.  Not enough people who want to read books that require a brain or that make your brains have cerebral sex...but it's nice to be small and "in the pocket," too...

16. Where do you see publishing going? Do you see it expanding into more of a mixed media? 
I guess you can tell from my answers that I'd say YEP.  A good example is Jaded Ibis Press, run by the wicked cool Debra Di Blasi in Seattle.  Also, when chiasmus comes out of hiatus in the fall, watch for something beyond textual.  Like I said, that doesn't bother me. But we do need to come up with structural models for production, distribution, and the divisions of labor and compensation that make sense...

17. It looks like you're doing some touring in the coming months, are you excited about it? What have your tours in the past consisted of? 
I'm hella excited!  Also terrified!  HA.  I've never had "tours" in the past.  I've only worked my ass off on my own to beg people to come let me read.  My dear friend Lance Olsen and I have done fairly well at making our own bling together.  We've read together wonderously in the past in SF and Seattle and Portland -- had great fun making it all up.  But it's exhausting.  Lance and I also invented a terrific writer's conference here in Portland called The Writer's Edge that has generated a ton of enthusiasm and created a tribe of thrilled innovative writers.  Lance is the Managing Editor of Fiction Collective Two.  So what I'm saying is, we've had to make ourselves up in terms of readings and performances.  But why whine? It's from the ground up.  Or underground.  Or counter-culture.

This mini-tour I'm doing in Seattle/Chicago/NYC/LA/SF/Colorado...brand new for me. But I am psyched.  Some of the events are performances, and I have a background in performance art so I'm tickled about that.  Like the plastic swimming pools we'll have on hand when I perform with Cris Mazza and Davis Schneidermann in Chicago.  

18. What's your favorite part about teaching writing and literature? I would think that talking about writing every day would be the best job in the world. 
Yes, that's cool.  What you say.  But I think my favorite part is running into the student...well hell, I really don't think of the people I work with as students any more -- just people -- running into the person who has a secret.  And their secret is, they are brilliant.  And they are just beginning to let their secret out.  And you get to be there for the start of that...the opening moment...and you get to usher them toward their own light.  It takes my breath away.  The people whose paths I've been lucky enough to cross blow the top of my head off.

19. What is the best advice you've received, or want to give, or both, to the writers reading this interview? 
Be who you are, don't let anyone tell you there's only one way to do things, and for the love of goats, don't stop.  Ever.

20. What's next for Lidia Yuknavitch
Trying to seduce someone into buying the Dora: A Head Case novel and finishing a new novel I'm currently tit-high in called Virgin, based on Joan of Arc.  And loving the people I love as hard as I can in this hard world.  THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME TALK TO YOU!

Thank you!