Whitney Pastorek
March 14, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

All those for whom the phrase ”M.F.A. in creative writing” conjures up images of scrawny Jonathan Safran Foer wannabes clogging the coffee shops of Brooklyn should take notice of Donald Ray Pollock. The 53-year-old high school dropout was working in the boiler room of a paper mill in southern Ohio when he decided to go back to school part-time to study English: He’s since entered the graduate writing program at Ohio State University. This month, Doubleday publishes his first book, Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories set in Pollock’s tiny but very real hometown of Knockemstiff, Ohio.

Though Pollock insists the book is fiction, his multigenerational tales of drug abuse, spousal torment, mental illness, and other uncomfortable subjects sure feel like the truth. ”It was a rough place,” says Pollock of the rural holler where he was raised, ”but it wasn’t nearly as wild as the stuff that’s going on in my stories.”

Despite Pollock’s taste for the graphic (he’s currently working on a novel about a serial killer), his demeanor continues to be working-class calm, even as early reviewers and noted authors like Katherine Dunn compare him to giants of the short-story form ? like Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor. ”I’m smart enough to realize that I don’t want to take that seriously,” he laughs. ”[But] I’m glad those are the writers they’ve been choosing. They’re not like, ‘He’s the next Danielle Steel,’ you know?”

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