Donald Ray Pollock doesn’t tell the kind of stories you want to read right before bed. Crimespree magazine said The Heavenly Table, Pollock’s latest novel, was like a collaboration between Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy “during a weeklong meth binge in a whorehouse.” As a compliment.
Strike that. It’s no one’s cup of tea. But it might be your shot of bourbon.
In The Heavenly Table, a trio of brothers escape the harsh and austere life their father has created when the old man dies. The year is 1917. Inspired by a pulp story they’ve come to treat as family Bible and guiding star, the Jewett brothers decide their next act will be a life of crime. In a parallel story soon to careen into the Jewett’s cross-country spree, Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, desperate to keep their farm after being swindled, look out for their wayward son. Nearby, a new military camp pulls farmhands into the machine of World War I. The story is not for the dainty, but readers who give The Heavenly Table a chance will be rewarded with a bounty: beautiful craft, humor, and humanity.
Lori Rader-Day: Where did The Heavenly Table start for you?
Donald Ray Pollock: I began thinking I was going to write an historical novel about Camp Sherman, a huge army training camp that the government built on the edge of Chillicothe, Ohio, right after the United States entered the First World War, the main idea being that I’d bring in characters from the surrounding states who’d connect and collide in the camp. I worked on that for a while, and then one day the Jewett family appeared, and I decided, after messing around with them for a few days, that they were the story. So I started over.
Lori Rader-Day: The new novel is a departure from your previous work in that it’s set in the past. Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to write about 1917?
Donald Ray Pollock: I’ve always been fascinated with the history of Western civilization from around 1900 to 1970. The world changed so much during those decades, and I’d already read a great many books about it, so the research didn’t amount to much, especially after I gave up the idea of writing a true historical novel. If you take away the radio and the electricity, my great grandparents lived pretty much like people did in 1917.
Lori Rader-Day: The new novel is not a departure from your previous work in that it’s thick with degenerates. Can you talk about why you love to write about the dark underbelly of humanity?
Donald Ray Pollock: When I first began writing, I took to heart the old axiom that you need trouble in your fiction, and I happened to know quite a few people who had led chaotic, poverty-stricken lives, so I had a base to work with. Also, and though I’m very, very limited as a writer, I just seem to have an ability to bring that world alive, if that makes any sense. The danger though is that when you become known for focusing on miscreants and criminals, then some readers begin to see all your characters that way, whether they are or not.
Lori Rader-Day: The Heavenly Table uses a point of view I’m pretty sure every writing instructor in the known universe tells aspiring writers not to use, but then you pull it off masterfully. How did you decide to let your point of view roam around as it does? What were the challenges?
Donald Ray Pollock: I like to expand even secondary characters past the point of just being necessary plot devices or “filler.” Everyone you meet has a story, from the bus driver to the grocery clerk to the mailman, and I try to keep that in mind always. The challenge, of course, is to know just how far you can go with a minor character without it either boring or confusing the reader or slowing down the flow of the story. Sometimes I succeed, other times not so much.
Lori Rader-Day: The Jewett brothers are the heroes of the book but outlaws. Any influences that helped you write bad characters that readers can root for?
Donald Ray Pollock: Well, I guess it could be seen as a variation on the old Robin Hood story, and I think it comes from living most of my life around people who view the rich and powerful in our society as dangerous and untrustworthy. Unfortunately, they hardly ever pay for their crimes. Never before in our history have people felt more angry and betrayed and helpless than they do today, mostly because, due to the internet and the twenty-four hour news programs, they see so much evidence of the corruption. And it just gets worse and worse to the point where it’s surreal at times. I’ll bet Bonnie and Clyde had plenty of hungry people rooting for them.
Lori Rader-Day: If someone read only your books, they might begin to think that your area of Ohio is the center of hell. What do people back home think of how you’re immortalizing the area?
Donald Ray Pollock: As far as I know (and I don’t know much), the reactions are mostly positive, but you have to understand I hear from just a few people around here. I think people outside Ross County have the impression that, because Chillicothe is a small town, everyone must know me or my work, but that’s not the case.
Lori Rader-Day: I bet you get letters. What fun things do readers want to say to you?
Donald Ray Pollock: I once received several emails from a man who wanted me to help him burn down Los Angeles.
The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock
Published July 12, 2016
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.