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'Knockemstiff' Writer Pulls No Punches

To say author Donald Ray Pollock's first book, Knockemstiff, is "gritty" is like calling Antarctica chilly.

In Knockemstiff — named for the southern Ohio town where Pollock grew up — characters beat each other out of boredom, drink to oblivion, soil themselves and assault their neighbors. The raunchy collection of 18 stories spans more than 30 years of violence, failure, depravity and stagnation in a town where residents "live pretty trapped lives," Pollock says.

He tells Scott Simon that the people he grew up with in Knockemstiff, Ohio, weren't nearly as colorful as the pitiful characters that come to life on his pages. It was his experience as a blue-collar worker, Pollock says, that inspired and shaped his narratives. He spent time in a meatpacking plant and then worked at a paper mill for 32 years, married three times, was in rehab four times and finally left his job at the mill to become a writer.

Though he always loved reading and writing, Pollock says, he never had the discipline for the writer's life until he was 45.

"I always read a lot — growing up there weren't a lot of books in the home. By the time I was a freshman in high school I had read everything we had in the small library in school. But I never really had the discipline or wherewithal to try," he says.

Pollock eventually dedicated five years to writing stories that frequently came to him as he drove a truck for the paper factory. Once he found a voice in his head, writing his gritty stories came easily, Pollock says. His prose pulls no punches, and several of his sad townsfolk appear in more than one story.

Pollack acknowledges that it's hard to feel much love for the degenerate residents of Knockemstiff, but at the same time he says it's "not outrageous to think there are people like that in the world."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.