The characters in Knockemstiff are nasty and violent little slaves to ego. They huff Bactine and get into ill-advised fights and fuck like animals when the mood strikes them. It's surprising, then, to meet Donald Ray Pollock in person. He's a compact man with an easy smile, and he dots the air with apostrophes left behind from all his walkin' and talkin'. It's hard to believe that the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, really exists, but it's even harder to believe that some of these nasty creatures crawled from Pollock's head.

You dropped out of high school and worked in a paper mill for a couple decades. What brought you back to academia and creative writing?

DONALD RAY POLLOCK: When I was in my mid-30s, I quit drinkin' and quit druggin'. And I found after about a year or two that I needed something to do. The paper mill had a program where they would pay 75 percent of your tuition if you wanted to go to school part-time, so I started going to Ohio State University and I ended up with a degree in English.

How did you start writing fiction?

I was 45 when I started writing, or trying to write. I wasn't really writing; I was trying to figure out what the fuck you'd do when you write. Hemingway was a big influence mainly because when I started I would take a story I really liked, someone else's, and I would type the story out.... You can read the story, but you get so much closer to the writing of it when you type out someone else's words. Plus it trains you to be able to stay in the chair and type, which is the main thing. I mean, you got to stay in the chair.

Bologna and other luncheon meat figure into all of these stories, and usually in a really disgusting way. What's your relationship with bologna now?

I like bologna. I eat it once a year now, kind of a bologna binge. My first job in a factory, I worked at a meatpacking plant, so I know what goes into that stuff. And for a year after I worked there I couldn't eat meat at all. It was pretty awful. This was back in '72. It's probably more sanitary in those places now.