An Interview with Chris Offutt

Nonfiction, Nonfiction

By Austyn Gaffney

Chris Offutt is the author of six books, including short story collections, a novel, and memoirs. His most recent book, My Father, The Pornographer, chronicles the life of his father, a writer of science fiction and erotica.

He is also a screenwriter, writing for shows including True Blood, Weeds, and Treme. His essays, full of insight, wit, and compassion, have been published in magazines such as Harper’s, Oxford American, and The New York Times Magazine, and his work has been widely anthologized.

I talked to Chris Offutt on a warm August afternoon from my back porch in Lexington, Kentucky. He was on his front porch outside of Oxford, Mississippi, where he teaches Fiction and Screenwriting at the University of Mississippi. He was a warm, open, and thoughtful speaker, doling out advice on hydration, relationships, the revision process, and how to not sound like an asshole when you write. He let us into his kitchen, his writing studio, and his hometown of Haldeman, Kentucky, a web of dirt roads that no longer exists. He also shared what he loves about Lexington, and New Limestone Review’s connection to one of the first words he learned as a child.

Before launching into the interview, he told me about his garden. He was watching it while we chatted. It was full of sunflowers that drew finches and butterflies and hummingbirds. For our botanical readers, Offutt’s favorite flower is a black-eyed susan.

In your biography, the first sentence is often “Chris Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky.” Why is your homeplace the first thing you want readers to know about you?

Part of it is: whenever I picked up a book I was always interested in where the writer was from, particularly if the book was set in that place or was about people from there. The second reason is that Haldeman is gone now. There is no Haldeman anymore. The zip code is taken away, the mailing address is different. There’s no school or post office. The bio is a reminder to the world that there was a town there and I grew up in it and it’s still important.

In No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home, you write about both the joy and the frustration you feel in coming home to Rowan County. As a writer speaking to other writers in Kentucky, what is your advice in finding a place to write from?

When you’re growing up you might take your home for granted or think it’s not that important. If I write about a place that I know really well that’s important to me, it’ll translate to better prose and it’ll get at a truth that people can relate to. One way of thinking about it is: to write from within a culture with an awareness that the readers won’t know it as well as you do. At the same time, you can’t spoon feed readers. It’s a balancing act, always.

Is it more that Kentucky is a place you’re inspired by, or do you feel a sense of purpose to write about a place many readers may not know about?

It’s a combination of things. When I started writing, I wrote stuff that I liked to read as a child and then as a young person–mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and adventure. When I got more serious about writing I realized that a lot of writers wrote about where they came from. After I left Haldeman, a town of 200 people on dirt roads, I realized it was an unusual environment to grow up in. I wanted to write about it so I sought other books about isolated, rural environments. And there just weren’t many. This was in the early 1980s and there was a limit to writers from the hills. Most writers from Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee were writing about the hills in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and not much beyond that. I read all those books and there are some good ones. But the world I grew up in was different. It was during Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and the building of the interstates. It was a completely different world than the books I could find. Part of my hope, maybe grandiose for a young writer, was to provide literature for future writers so that they would have something to read that more mirrored their own experience. Of course now it’s thirty years later so a young writer today is going to have a completely different experience. I hope they’re writing about that. Literature is a big river always moving forward. My goal was to be a tributary.

I don’t really believe in the idea of inspiration to write. If you believe in inspiration than you either chase it and never find it, or you wait for it and it never arrives. You just have to do the work. The land of eastern Kentucky and a way of thinking are in every part of me. I like that. I have dirt from Kentucky that I’ve carried for over thirty years in a little leather bag. The Kentucky flag is in my writing studio. So I maintain my connection to the state and the land. Plus I’ve read every book about the hills that I could find.

Do you still feel that need to go home? Or do you feel like you can write about Kentucky no matter where you are?

The beauty of writing is that it’s the cheapest and the most portable of all the arts. Paper and pencil is free. All you really need is a chair which is easy to come by. And some kind of surface to write on like a board which is equally free. It’s different from being an actor or a painter or a filmmaker where you really need to be in cities where these activities take place. I can write anywhere.

Going home is complicated because I don’t have any family in the hills anymore. My siblings left years ago for jobs. My mother moved to Oxford after Dad died. I’m still dealing with the fact that I don’t have the family need to go home and visit relatives. Which also means I don’t have anywhere to stay. It seems odd to go to my home county and stay in a motel by the interstate. But I go home in my mind, so to speak, by writing. I get homesick a lot and I believe it helps my writing. Of course, writing about the hills probably increases the homesickness, too.

In Harper’s you wrote “In the Hollow”, a pre-election article on the social backlash against poor, southern whites during Trump’s nomination. It was the first thing I read by you and I felt like you did a really excellent job talking about regionalism. I’m wondering why you decided to write that article and how you went about creating it.

Well, the editor asked me to. And I said no. I’m not a journalist. This was an email exchange over a couple weeks, and he said you can write it as an essay, you can do what you want, but it has to be about politics. And I said I’m not interested in that. Finally he gave me more money and said I could write whatever I wanted to. I had never written anything like that before — sort of an overt investigation into contemporary politics. It was a challenge and I thought I’d try it. The writing was really difficult. But once I get my teeth into something it’s really hard to step away. I don’t know if I’ll do anything like that again.

What felt challenging about writing that essay?

It required a real careful thought process about contemporary social, economic, and political realities. If you get something wrong it’s really glaring. It’s important that it makes sense to people unfamiliar with the area and it was very important to articulate my thoughts precisely. So much of political writing is terrible because it’s always completely for or completely against. There’s no subtlety or nuance. I didn’t want that. I guess it was hard to sound smart on the page.

Are there writers from the region that you think are doing a good job writing about Appalachia?

I read all the fiction from the region when it comes along. There’s a writer named Elizabeth Catte and I like her stance on nonfiction. Most of my reading is fiction. I read non-fiction mainly for research. I like fiction better, in terms of reading.

Do you think the writing you did for “In the Hollow” and its political analysis was in any way related to your previous article in Oxford American, “Trash Food,” that also touches on class?

Yeah, I wrote Trash Food first. The editor at Harper’s read it and that’s why he asked me to write it [In the Hollow]. Trash Food got a lot of attention and was in anthologies and won a prize and all that kind of stuff. I was asked to expand it into a book, and I thought, you can’t take this thing I made in 15 pages and turn it into a book. So I said no. Both of those essays are the result of people asking me to do something. In fact, my whole writing career is based on that. I just stay at home and write. If someone asks me to write something I do it. That’s how I wound up writing screenplays. I never wanted to be a screenwriter, it’s wasn’t a goal. But producers asked me. And I said, yeah okay I’ll try it. One thing led to another and suddenly I was living in L.A. for a few years. I needed to put my sons through college. Hollywood paid for their education, then I quit.

When somebody gave me an opportunity I always said yes no matter what it was and then tried to put my best foot forward. I never worked for free. Even if it was a small amount, I insisted on getting paid. It’s amazing how people think writers will work for free! I never had any money. I didn’t have a car until I was twenty-eight; I didn’t have a phone until I was thirty. I never worked full time, I just lived in cheap rooms and spent most of time reading and writing. I got lucky though, too. I’ve been very lucky.

What kind of work did you do, or what part-time jobs did you have, before becoming a full-time writer?

I probably worked in fifteen or so restaurants. I was a landscaper, a truck driver, and a house painter. I worked in a warehouse and a carwash. I was a family photographer. A tour guide on a boat in Florida, ran a second-hand store in New York City, ran a touristy art gallery in Salem, Massachusetts. When I was a student at Morehead, I worked for the maintenance department painting dorm rooms. I was their specialist in curbs. I painted them yellow. I worked for a garbage truck for a week; that was about one of the worst. I just had labor jobs. I decided at a certain point that I’d never work full time and devote the rest of my time to a creative activity. I didn’t really want to be a writer but that’s what it wound up to be.

What did you want to be?

I wanted to be an actor. I studied theatre in college and wrote plays and then I wanted to be a playwright. I wanted to be an oil painter, then a photographer. But I wound up writing about these creative endeavors and at a certain point I realized, well, it’s not what I want to be in life that’s important, it’s what I actually do. I was filling my days by reading and writing. To me it’s all the same well and I had to drop down different buckets to see which one would really fill the bucket and then fill me. It turned out to be writing. Which was not what I wanted to do, partly because I didn’t want to be like my father. I wanted to do something else.

Did that influence you at all, the fact that your father was writing all the time?

Sure. I think everyone’s influenced by their parents. Whatever job they have influences you. I was the oldest and a boy so what my dad did was a bigger influence on me than on my siblings. He was a big influence, good and bad. Like most fathers, I guess.

When you write about your father in your new memoir, My Father, The Pornographer, you talk about his work ethic as similar to Henry Ford’s. What does your own writing process look like?

He wrote hundreds of sections longhand and organized them in notebooks with subheadings, and whenever he needed these little sections he would go to the notebooks and copy them. The Henry Ford metaphor was that he produced raw material and wrote like an assembly line by adding the parts where they belonged. My approach is more like a really messy woodworking shop. There’s just sawdust everywhere and scraps of wood and chips and that kind of thing. I work on more than one thing at a time. At a certain point the work seems to be going nowhere and that often means I push a little further on it and take a break to work on something else. When that goes bad I return to the first one. I can see it with more clarity and objectivity.

I guess I get bored easily. I always want my writing to be fresh. I know a lot of writers who like to write the same character in a series over time or a similar book over and over and I’ve always been afraid of that, of being lazy and taking shortcuts. So I change form and I change projects. The drawback is that work is not completed in a sequential way. In the past few years I finished five books. But it takes a while to get them in print. Publishers don’t like it if you publish a book with someone else. And it takes at least 18 months from signing a contract. At this point I’ve got completed manuscripts stacked up. It’s not a system I recommend!

A number of essays from My Father, The Pornographer were published in The New York Times, Men’s Health, and Slice before you published the book. How many ways do you think there are to tell a story? And what inspires you to keep chipping away at it?

Those are excerpts from the book. The one in Best American Essays was an excerpt from it. The book covers about 60 years of my father’s life and the overlap with mine. There are lots of stories in there.

I’d started writing my father’s life many times before. I’d written essays, short stories, and poems about it. I tried to fictionalize it, and I tried an experimental book that was pretty much an abject failure. None of those attempts really worked. Dad’s death provided me objectivity and compassion.

He had a really interesting life.

You have a man in the hills of Kentucky in the middle of the Bible Belt using 14 pseudonyms to write 400 books of pornography. I couldn’t figure out a way to write something fictional that matched the sheer outrageousness and surprise of it. So it had be nonfiction.

Did you ever have concerns about telling your father’s story, and in effect, your family history?

No. The worst thing I think in literature is censorship, and the worst form is self-censorship. People do that all the time. You have to really guard against it. At one point I sought the advice of an older writer who had published a memoir about his family, and he said if they don’t like it they can write their own books. That made a lot of sense to me. I also tried to be even-handed in my memoir. My family read it. Nobody complained. They were glad because it was partly their story, too. My mother participated in promotional events!

It’s easy to write a book where you blame your family for your problems. Like, poor pitiful me, I had these incompetent parents or this awful thing happened and that’s why I’m a drug addict or an asshole. It’s easy and cheap to blame and makes for bad art. Or not art in the case of some books like Hillbilly Elegy. So poorly written.

Could you want to expand your thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy?

The guy had a terrible childhood in Ohio and decided to blame it on Eastern Kentucky culture, a place he didn’t know much about. That’s a ludicrous proposition. That’s it, that’s all I can say.

Your food essays are hilarious. They also seem to be a more recent endeavor. What can you tell us about them?

Oxford, MS is home of the SFA which is the Southern Foodways Alliance. I had never heard of it before and was unfamiliar with the food movement. I thought what the hell are these people up to? What is food writing? They had a big conference and the tickets cost a fortune. So I just crashed it for the free meals. Afterward I decided to write a food essay to get invited back so I didn’t have to crash it. I’d have a little ticket. That was the weird motivation at the beginning. When I was writing about my dad, it was a four year project, and I was really sad and those essays cheered me up. When I got really down, my wife would say, why don’t you go write a food essay.

Also, I wanted to try to write humor. I like to laugh and people think I’m funny but I’ve never really applied that to my work with deliberation. The gamble, the risk with trying to be funny on the page is this: if it’s not funny it’s terrible, it’s really terrible. And gosh that’s scary. The ones I thought were the silliest and most absurd, people responded to the most. I clearly have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know what people want. It turned into this food column for Oxford American out of Arkansas. The name of the column is “Cooking with Chris,” which is hilarious to me because I’m not much of a cook. I’m a good breakfast cook and that’s about it. I make a mean sandwich, too.

What about the platypus oil smoothies from your article in Extra Crispy, “The Time I Thought I Invented Smoothies”?

I’m not sure if cutting up fruit and putting it in a blender counts as cooking. I drink one every morning. Now, I mix it with a little yogurt and granola, and I use a spoon rather than drink it out of the cup. I’m trying to be healthy. You can drink those vegetable smoothies but they kinda taste like dirt. I also drink vinegar and honey every day. I probably drink [the vinegar] a little too much. I have it after lunch. That’s my afternoon pick me up. So far I haven’t noticed any change, but maybe if I quit I’ll just collapse or something. I hardly ever get sick. Okay, let’s get back to writing. My health tips are not very good really. I also eat ice cream and Pringles and Slim Jims and smoke cigarettes.

What are you working on right now?

I have a new novel coming out in the spring from Grove Press. It’s called Country Dark and is set in the hills. It’s in galley form now. It’s part of a two-book contract with Grove [Press] and the second book is set partly in Louisville and partly along the Tennessee/Kentucky border.

I don’t know if I’ll write any more memoirs. I hope not. I hope my life is boring enough not to merit any more. I really just want to write novels. Oh yeah, I also have a completed novel set in Lexington, and a book of short stories. It’s a third collection and I thought it’d be easy to get in print but it turns out it’s a little more difficult. I’m a not a new kid on the block with my stories about Kentucky people. In a way it’s easier for a new young writer to get a book of stories in print than a person in my situation. So that should be heartening to all the young writers. Not that it’s ever been easy to get anything in print.

If you’re writing about rural people who don’t have a lot of money, it’s even harder to get in print because the world doesn’t care about those people. I always knew I had to work really hard to make the quality of my prose strong to offset the bias against my subject matter, my people.

Do you have any advice for young writers, especially those based in Kentucky or the south?

Read every day, try to write every day. Those are crucial. I try to write a minute a day. It’s easy to procrastinate writing, just not do it, or not feel like it. But a minute a day is not hard. I’ve tried page count and word count and I usually circumvent that one way or another. If it’s a word count, just use a lot of small words and you’re done. Or if it’s a page count, write dialogue scenes because they take up a lot of space on the page. So every morning I write a minute. I know it sounds crazy but it works. It reduces the pressure. I always write much longer.

Do you mean an actual minute or a figurative minute?

Oh, you mean like the slang term, like I haven’t seen you in a minute? No the true, temporal measurement, one minute. That’s one piece of advice. Let’s see, other advice: don’t get caught up in the glamour of the occupation and think you have to drink a lot and just ruin yourself because that’s a pretty common misconception. You ruin yourself with drugs and alcohol, you ruin the work. Always use a condom, good advice in general. If you want to be a writer, bear in that it’s a lifelong commitment. I have stories that I worked on for many years before getting published, and I constantly get rejected as well.

It’s hard for young people, especially these days when there’s extra pressure to be successful because it’s constantly thrown in your face through social media. Stick to your guns and write what you want to write. Remember that about eighty percent of what you hear from editors or peers is not going to be helpful. But that twenty percent is important. The trick is to figure out what that twenty percent is. Do you want more advice?

Yes, please.

Try to travel. The more you know about the world outside of where you live, the greater your perspective is on the world you are writing about. I’ve spent a lifetime traveling and revising so my advice is to travel and revise. People should know it’s just an old guy saying “do what I did.” You should do what you want to do as long as you write a lot and make it better. Speaking of revision, another [piece of advice] is try not to revise until you have a full draft. It’s easy to get caught up in your first three pages and think, oh man these are great, I’m going to revise them and make them better before I have a full draft. Have you ever done that?

Yes.

Say you have a twenty page manuscript and the first three pages have the shit revised out of them and the last couple just haven’t been revised very much. The story is top heavy, weighted towards the front. I’ve done it many times. Whatever I revise I’m always predisposed towards that material later. I don’t want to cut the first three pages because I’ve spent a huge amount of time on them. I’m biased in favor of them even if cutting them will improve the short story immensely. You see what I mean? You have this built in loyalty because you put the work into it. So I try not to do that. Finish a draft before you revise.

Anything else?

Drink lots of water. That’s the key. Just try not to drink too much [alcohol]. And when you do drink, make sure you eat first. I mean I’m not a drinker but I’m talking from a former experience.

Whoever you’re involved with, that person really has to understand that for significant portions of the day you will not be in the house and engaging with that person. Writing is a job and it’s difficult. A lot of people don’t understand that. A lot of boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses have trouble with someone who’s in the house all day, who’s not producing something tangible or that makes money. That pressure increases with age. It’s much harder on women who have the social pressure of childbirth. Men don’t have that. Society’s not telling men to go out and give birth to children, they’re telling them to go out and make a lot of money to prove your manhood. It’s harder for women. Everything is. What else? Don’t get into debt for graduate school. Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost. See everything, listen to everything. Write stuff down when you think of it. If it’s a thought or scrap of dialogue or how the light as it falls on a flower, you have to write it down at that moment because you’ll forget it. I carried paper and pencil for decades. Now it’s easier because you have your phone and can pretend like you’re texting while you’re really writing. Live cheap. Not just within your means. Bottom level cheap.

I’ve heard that a previous story of yours was once published in our former incarnation, Limestone. Do you remember that story?

In 1997 Limestone published a story called “A Dog and His Boy.” That sums up a writer’s life right there. You publish a story and twenty years later the same magazine runs an interview. A commitment to the long run.

Well thanks for letting us.

You’re welcome. I like Lexington. I was born there at the hospital. My mother grew up there. She watches the Wildcats, she has special Wildcat clothes, everything. I watch them with her on her tv. Go Cats!

I also want to say that I’m really happy that UK [University of Kentucky] has a writing program now. It was not an option in Kentucky when I went to graduate school. I had to leave the state to study writing. Later, when I was on the job market for a teaching position, Kentucky still didn’t have an MFA program. So I had to take work out of state. An MFA program is great for young writers in Kentucky. It supports literature.

By the way, my dad worked on Limestone Street in Lexington in the 1950s. So I always knew the name as an address. It was one of the earliest words I knew. Being born in Lexington and spending half my life in Kentucky, it’s important to me to be in your magazine. Thank you.

 

by Sandra Dyas

Chris Offutt is the author of Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods, The Same River Twice, No Heroes, The Good Brother, and My Father the Pornographer. He also wrote screenplays for “True Blood,”; “Treme,”; and “Weeds.” His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Harpers, Esquire, GQ, Playboy, Tin House, and The Oxford American. His work is in many anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize. His work received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the NEA, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The international magazine Granta included him in its list of the “Top 20 Young American Writers.” He grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, and currently lives in rural Lafayette County near Oxford, Mississippi. Reach him at offuttchris1@gmail.com

 

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