Donald Ray Pollock spent 32 years working in a Chillicothe paper mill before he pursued an MFA at The Ohio State University. Eventually, to much acclaim, he turned out Knockemstiff—a book of short stories named after his tiny hometown in southern Ohio, as well as his second work of fiction, a novel titled The Devil All the Time. The proposal for his third book garnered the Chillicothe-based writer a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012. Here Pollock talks about growing up in a small town, making big plans, and finding his way home. ++When I was a kid, the dream was to just leave Knockemstiff. One of the big topics of conversation—especially when you got to be 12, 13, 14 years old—was where you were going to go. We’re talking back in the late 1960s. So California especially was the place to go at the time. It wasn’t about living in Paris or London or Rome or anything. Just getting away from Knockemstiff was the big thing. I think a lot of kids go through that. They just want to get away from home. And most of those people, just like me, did not get very far away. I’m like 13 miles from that place today. It’s just the way things turned out. ++When I was growing up, Knockemstiff was maybe 500 people. It was its own little community. I knew people who lived there who maybe went to Chillicothe once or twice a year—and that was it. There were three little grocery stores, a church, and a carryout, which later turned into a bar. Some of those people worked for farmers, or they worked for a sawmill or something like that. And so if they didn’t want to go to town, they didn’t have to. ++The big city was Cincinnati for us. When I was a kid, I don’t remember ever going to Columbus. And it doesn’t make any sense because it’s a lot shorter drive to Columbus than it was to Cincinnati. I was never really interested in baseball that much, but anybody who was where I lived was a Reds fan. Definitely. I can remember people listening to games on the radio. And through the summer it seemed like they were always on. ++We were one of the wealthier families in Knockemstiff, in that my dad had a job at the paper mill, and he also owned one of the stores, and he owned some land. I’ve got a brother and two sisters. We went swimming, we had horses to ride. A lot of times my mom made it so we weren’t even allowed in the house until later on. We weren’t by any means well-off. My dad worked hard to get what he had and we had to do work around the place, even when we were small. ++I dropped out of high school and then I got lucky—my dad got me a job at the paper mill, which at that time was the best that a high school dropout was going to do around here. Initially my plan was to work there a couple years and then leave. But, you know, after a couple years I’ve got bills, I got married, this and that happens, and pretty soon I’m stuck. For the first few years I really did not like working there at all. But later on, after I sort of cleaned my act up and quit drinking and other stuff, that’s when I began to appreciate how good I had it. ++I always felt a little disappointed and angry and everything, especially before I quit drinking. It’s sort of like I could never appreciate the simple things in life, which are definitely the best. A lot of it is internal stuff. And you know, it took a while for that all to kick in. But eventually it did. And just seeing other people who had practically nothing and me having—well, I made good money at the mill. We were union and I had great benefits and all that. Sometimes I almost wish I hadn’t quit. I’ve been very lucky—in a lot of ways. It’s been a pretty incredible last few years. ++My parents are still alive and I go out to Knockemstiff usually about once a week or so. And my brother and two sisters still live around here, plus quite a few relatives. People have told me—and I’ve even thought of it myself, now with this new thing that I’m doing—I could pretty much work anywhere. When I was a kid I would never have dreamed I would say this, but I just can’t think of any place I’d rather live. I’ve done a lot of traveling in the last four or five years and I’ve never been able to really feel comfortable. I never feel at ease until I’m back here. It’s home, I guess. For me. —As Told to Amy Brownlee
For three decades, Laura Pulfer was a presence in our city’s print media—reporting for the Cincinnati Post; as publisher and editor of this magazine; and from 1995 to 2003 as the award-winning metro columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, where she weighed in on everything from white collar crime to Barbie’s slut shoes. Then she retired, taking her quick wit and incisive grasp of urban affairs to the quiet countryside near Bellefontaine, Ohio, population 13,322. That’s where she lives now with her husband, Mike—close to grandchildren, horses, and teenagers willing to carry her bags to the car. When we talked, she explained the pleasures and challenges of her corner of the world. ++Bellefontaine is only about 45 minutes from Lima where we both grew up, so it felt like home pretty quickly. From years of living in Cincinnati there are things you kind of get used to. We have a Walmart, but we don’t have a Macy’s. Most everything of the day-to-day stuff we absolutely don’t miss, but anything I say about how much I love living in a small town is no knock on Cincinnati. I loved living in Cincinnati. But you kind of want different things at different times in your life. ++Mike and I were talking about how we don’t have any sports teams here. Everybody’s a Bucks [Buckeyes] fan, but we don’t have the Reds, we don’t have the Bengals. So when you go to a football game here at Bellefontaine High School the stands are packed, and not just with people who have children playing—it’s people who follow that team. And when band competitions take place at Bellefontaine, again, the stands are packed, but it’s an event for people who don’t have kids in the band, too. And when they have the spring concert, they keep having to move it to a bigger and bigger venue, because we don’t have a symphony: This is it! ++Something that I liked so much when I moved here—and I have to be careful so I don’t sound uppity—but in Cincinnati people did know me as somebody who wrote for the newspaper, and they would smile when they saw me because they felt like we knew each other. When somebody smiles at me here, I generally know that they’re doing that because they’re sort of a nice person. Or they see something in me that they might like, but they know that they don’t know me. And—this sounds so idyllic because we have crime like everybody does—but when you go to the movies here, if your purse is hanging open, somebody will say, “Ma’am, your purse is hanging open.” Or, if you’re struggling to the car, before you know it some high school kid has swooped in and picked up your package. And you never for a minute think of giving chase because you know they’re headed for your car. ++Bellefontaine has done a pretty good job of trying to move things into Main Street that are not things that Walmart has. For instance, we have a really, really, really good Italian pizza place—one that would be a destination—and that’s in our downtown. There are some empty storefronts, but some families who have lived here forever [and made] their fortunes have redone places on Main Street. I can’t imagine they’ll get the money back but I hope they have lots of satisfaction because it really looks nice. ++I always felt that Cincinnati was so pretty and had so many things that I enjoyed and enjoyed doing. But it’s just easier to [live life here]. As Cincinnati got bigger, as Hyde Park got more prosperous, it got harder to do things. You know, there were more lines. There are no lines here. And if there are, if you’ve got white hair—which I do—lots of times people will give you cuts. ++I’ve thought about the difference in small town living now from when I was a child. When I was 13, I went to New York City to visit my New York cousins, and it just seemed like they were from Mars. Their clothes were different, their music was different, they sounded different. Now the descendents of those New York cousins come here every summer, and our kids all listen to the same music. I mean, they’re connected on the Internet and television. There are lots of differences between small towns and cities, but the culture? Not so much anymore. —As Told to Albert Pyle
If you were a comedy club fan here in the 1980s and ’90s, you certainly remember Drew Hastings. Hip, spike-haired, and bespectacled, Hastings honed his craft in Cincinnati for a decade or so before taking his dark humor to Los Angeles, where his career included TV pilots, comedy tours, and a standing ovation on The Tonight Show. But a funny thing happened in 2005: he decided he’d had enough of L.A. and bought a farm outside of Hillsboro, Ohio. And then it got even funnier: He ran for mayor in 2011 and won. We caught up with him one afternoon and learned how passionate he is about the place he now calls home. ++Before I moved to Hillsboro, the only exposure I had to small towns was Martins Ferry, on the Ohio River. My grandparents lived there and I would go for vacations and summers. It was a quintessential small town: the World War I soldier statue in the park; the courthouse; the ice cream parlor; and elderly grandparents who seemed to know everybody. So I had a good connotation of small towns. But I was very definitely a loft-living urban guy. ++I have a unique insight. As a touring stand-up comedian, I was in every Midwest small and medium market 10 times in 25 years. I got to see the Dubuques; the Evansville, Indianas; the Troy, Ohios; over and over again. Some really declined, some managed to find a way to survive—the most visible way being becoming a casino town. A lot of [casino towns] piss their money away or they don’t plan it right. A success story is Lawrenceburg, Indiana. One of the few places that did it right. ++One of the things that came up today [at a Hillsboro economic development meeting] was we need to attract tourism. That’s what all small towns say. And the first thing I thought was, “Define tourism.” Because I can tell you, with the legalization of marijuana in a lot of states, recreational drug users are now considered a tourist demographic—not a demographic that I particularly want to court. ++It’s an exciting time to be mayor of Hillsboro. I have hired as our Safety and Service Director—what you call a city manager—a guy who was instrumental in Over-the-Rhine development. I’m like: Over-the-Rhine? But that’s the kind of historic buildings we have. He’s been dealing with the same infrastructure that we’re dealing with in Hillsboro. I’m a huge fan of history and buildings. I’ve been to Europe five or six times, and you’re in a place in England—in Canterbury or Kent—and you’re like, “Oh my God, this place was built 700 years ago and it’s still here. It’s a restaurant and people are eating here!” I want to make sure that one day when some guy like me walks through Hillsboro in 2313, he goes “Oh my God, this place was built in 1820 and they’re serving food here!” ++Our job is to ensure that the infrastructure of our little civilization of Hillsboro remains intact or improves for the next people who get it. In Cincinnati, what if somebody said, “Tear the damn old Netherland down,” and there wasn’t some guy who said “No way! Look at this place. You gotta keep this!” Somehow the place got saved. ++[Here] they want to tear down the Mother Thompson home—arguably the most historic building in Hillsboro. I took it to the press; now it’s a big-ass fight. It’s a fight I didn’t want, but somebody has to say, “There’s only once chance to save history.” It’s an overused phrase, but it is so effing true. Without our historic buildings, we’re just a strip mall. ++Those places like Easton in Columbus—those outdoor shopping malls that try to create the feel of a small town? We are what they want to be. Sometimes I really do think it takes an outsider to look at a place and say, “You people don’t know what you’ve got here.” ++I believe the biggest export of a small town is its young people. The challenge is getting young people to come back. Not when they’re 55 and they’re taking care of their aging parents; when they’re 25 and they’re having kids and they want to have a life in the town they grew up in. You want to create that town, where people want to move back when they’re 25, not 55. —As Told to Linda Vaccariello
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