Sheldon Lee Compton: You move back through some of your formative years in your memoir My Father, the Pornographer. How much of that time was spent feeling out of place as a sensitive, creative young man in what can seriously be an extremely manly region? Or if you didn’t feel this, tell me: how did you pull that off?
Chris Offutt: As a young child I assumed everywhere else was just like it was in the hills. It didn’t occur to me that it was an unusual place, full of natural beauty and freedom. I believed that cities had more people and taller buildings.
The thing about sensitivity is this: I didn’t know it at the time. I had no idea that I was perceiving the world differently from most other kids. I didn’t necessarily fit in, but I could always “read” a situation, know the emotional dynamics, and negotiate them.
I went through eight grades of school with the same kids. I liked to draw, and beginning in 4th grade, I wrote stories. I also began keeping a journal at age nine, and made attempts at comic books. None of this set me apart. The kids in our class all loved and accepted each other. That my interests were different from theirs didn’t matter. I was a consistent discipline problem at school, which the other students probably appreciated. Insubordination mostly. I talked back.
I didn’t fit in at the county high school. The things I was interested in were unavailable. High school had no art classes and no theatre classes. Everything was geared toward football, basketball, and baseball. I liked sports but at 4’ 11”, I was way too short for anything. At 18 I believed that if I left, everything I sought would be readily available. That didn’t turn out to be the case. I missed the woods terribly.
I never thought of it as an “extremely manly” world at the time, though I recognize now that it was. I talked constantly and wasn’t threatening. I learned early to be funny, which helped. I was always genuinely interested in others and whatever task they were doing, willing to help. In this fashion, I learned a lot, especially from the adults.
SLC: That’s really interesting how you used your emotional sensitivity to make reads on people. A handy trait, no matter what region you’re from. So much of your work, especially the memoirs, have what I would call moments of literary absoluteness – a good example is the section from My Father, the Pornographer where you and your father piss on the barn the same way he and his father had done. Do you recognize these moments as literary material when they’re happening? Or, rather, does this event ripen into something literary as part of the process, only in reflection while writing?
CO: As a boy I wanted to be a spy or detective. I understood that the skills of observation, listening, and remembering were necessary to both occupations. I began trying to develop them. Unfortunately, those careers eluded me. But the habit had begun. It helped me later as a writer.
As a young man, I often engaged in activities that I thought would later bear literary fruit. Usually reckless and spontaneous, often pretty dumb. Afterwards, I wrote long journal entries, often two or three times per day. That practice helped me remember, and helped me learn what was worth paying attention to.
As far as the scene with Dad goes: it was the only time we were ever alone together for a prolonged time. He rarely left the house and never entered the woods. A trip to his old childhood log cabin was a big deal for me. He didn’t often talk about his childhood, and when he did it was usually bad—lonely and miserable. He was close to his mother. His father was a very manly man—a hunter, fisherman, and farmer who could fix anything. He didn’t like his son.
On this trip to the cabin, I was particularly attuned to Dad’s behavior. He’d told me about pissing on the barn with his father before; it was an example of how cold it was that winter. It was the only interaction with his father that wasn’t negative and he wanted to replicate it with me. That night I dutifully wrote all the details in my journal.
I think anything has the potential to, as you put it, “ripen into something literary.” The key is to pay attention to everything all the time. Next is to choose the most important events, those that will deepen character or, in the case of description, that will enable the reader to see more. I still listen and observe, like Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes. The other day I heard someone say “She let down her back hair.” I loved the precision and the old-fashionedness of the phrase. I wrote it down, transcribed it into my computer later, and already tucked it into the new novel.
SLC: Those memorable phrases are great. My grandmother always said, “I don’t understand all I know about it.” There’s that nice wordplay and the honesty that made it memorable for me, because I’m the worst at keeping a journal and having it be a useful tool. I usually lose them within the first week. But, like you mentioned, most writers have that filter that recognizes a lot and stores it one way or another.
CO: You can always save cool phrases on your cell phone and email them to yourself. I do that sometimes. I still carry pen and paper, but it’s not as discreet. Once a guy saw me writing on an index card and said: “What are you doing, writing a book?” I laughed and laughed.
SLC: We’ve talked often about the general state of Appalachian literature over the past several years. Catch me up on where your thoughts are now. And, on the off chance you can, how much will you share about this new novel? I always like to hear you’re working on a book.
CO: The new novel is set in the hills of Kentucky—surprise! I have a policy of not talking about fiction I’m working on. Too much gets away from me. It’s better to keep it in my head until it hits the page. Non-fiction is different because there’s no invention, nothing to lose verbally.
SLC: I absolutely get not talking out the story. I think some of the creative energy gets lost that way, for sure.
So what about the general state of Appalachian literature? I think we talked last year about an underappreciated novel by Perry County, Kentucky-native Jesse Lee Wooton called Into the Hills, the Garden. I’ve met Jesse a couple times in Hazard at readings and he’s definitely a talent, but I’ve not read the book yet. Where do you see things going with literature from our area? Who else out there should people be reading?
CO: First, every Appalachian novel is underappreciated.
Second, the genre of Appalachian Literature seems to be expanding north, south, and west. I mainly read writers from eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, East Tennessee, and the hill part of North Carolina. Culturally, these areas are closer to my region. I’ve read all the fiction that’s come out of these places. The “canon” of Appalachia is relatively small, which makes it easy to cover.
Literature of the hills falls into two loose groups—my own designations, not scholarly distinctions. The first books written and published until around 1970. After that, life in the hills changed drastically due to the War on Poverty, the completion of the Interstate system, and the Vietnam War. Books written and published after 1970 are the second group. I believe in the future there will be a third group—Appalachian books after the Internet, cellphones, and cable TV.
My recommendations are to read them all. They will lead each individual reader to the books they like. Chris Holbrook is a good place to start.
Beyond that, my favorite writers are Jean Rhys, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, and Robert Stone. Not Appalachian, not southern, and only two are American. But my gosh, they are great, great writers. The quality of prose matters more to me than subject matter.
SLC: Yes indeed, Chris Holbrook’s short stories are solid. A reader couldn’t go wrong starting there. And it does seem there’s a lot of Appalachian literature floating around, in particular what’s known now as Appalachian Noir. I think anything written and set in Appalachian has to be noir by virtue of the region itself. It’s pretty much still like the Old West where I’m from. I was born and still live in Pikeville, by the way, the very town your dad once sold Procter & Gamble products.
CO: Appalachian Noir is a marketing term that has no firm definition. The term “Noir” was used by French critics to describe American B-movies from the 1940s and 1950s due to a lot of dark shadows. The French loved these movies. In their language, word noir means “black.”
Eventually Noir was used by pulp magazines and paperbacks for the men’s market. These days, Noir often describes books that rely on extreme violence instead of character or quality of prose. If it helps get readers, great. But most of what’s called “noir” is no more noirish than the books called “Southern Gothic” are gothic.
SLC: You’ve mentioned in your work that you once had thoughts of becoming an actor, even relocating to New York City. What would success at acting have looked like for you? What were your goals and plans?
CO: I was nineteen at the time I moved to New York City to be an actor. My idea of success was the standard boy’s fantasy: fast cars, beautiful girlfriends, tons of money, top shelf bourbon, and good dope. In other words—I had no goals or plans. I didn’t know the first thing about becoming an actor. No resume. No headshots. No training. Nothing. A good recipe for failure, which I did.
I eventually got a degree in Theatre at Morehead State University, where I acted in fifteen or so plays. What I liked about acting was the abandonment of the self. I could be someone else for a while and at the end of the show there was applause. I liked the attention. I needed it.
I later acted in a few short films and one feature called The Slaughter Rule, that is available online. Ryan Gosling was the star. I played a bus driver.
For ten years I wrote screenplays in Hollywood, living out there for months at a time. I learned how hard a job it is to be an actor. As a writer, the rejection used to be by mail, nowadays it’s often via email. It hurts, of course, and my work still gets rejected, but a manuscript is at a slight remove from me. They aren’t rejecting Chris, just the work. It’s much worse for an actor. The rejection is always personal—height, weight, face, voice, walk, etc. I don’t think I could have handled that, which really means I didn’t want to be an actor badly enough.
When an actor finally get a role in the movies, it’s very different from theatre. Often they don’t rehearse. An actor has to show up fully prepared with all the lines memorized, then play a scene, often with strangers. Each 2-person scene gets shot a minimum of ten times. Each time the actor has to get the lines right. If you take off a jacket and set it on a chair, you have to remember exactly how you did it, then do that action the same way every time. If it’s an emotional scene you have to cry on cue, or get angry, or scream, or express genuine love. Ten times in a row!
When the scene ends, nobody applauds. The crew prepares for the next scene. Actors change clothes, and drive home.
Nevertheless, sometimes I watch movies late at night and think—What if I’d stuck with it? But then, I think the same way about my failed attempts to join the Army, the CIA, and becoming a Forest Ranger. What if I had? What would my life be like now? I’d not have spent the last thirty years alone in a room. I probably wouldn’t have written books.
SLC: I finished rereading My Father, the Pornographer earlier this week and I imagined you with this mountain of books and papers, all your dad’s obsessions, both professional and personal, and I wondered what your daily schedule was like with all that research. Also, did you have a memoir in mind during the process, or were you carrying out your dad’s secret will to you with no other thought than fulfilling that obligation? I consider it to be your most courageous book to date, and I’m interested in when and how you stepped up to that challenge.
CO: My initial motivation was simple. Dad had never put together a bibliography and I thought every writer deserved one. I began by going through all 1800 pounds of his archive. In the living room, I shoved three big tables together to form a horseshoe shape and began making piles.
Dad had written more than I knew. He also changed the titles as well as his pseudonyms. There were hundreds of manuscripts. To keep track, I kept extensive notes on laptop computer. As I worked, I began remembering more things about Dad and from my own childhood. I added these memories to a separate file in the laptop. After three months, I emailed the document to myself so I could open them on my main computer, a big desktop job in my writing studio. When I opened them in that context—the room in which I wrote—it occurred to me that there could be a book.
For two and a half years I worked twelve hours a day. During revision, I cut a third from the manuscript, about 150 pages. I have no idea what’s in the book now. I never read it after the final revision and doubt I ever will. In my mind everything’s still in there, everything I cut, everything I remembered, every thought I had. Sometimes I wish I’d chosen a different title. It turned out to be about my childhood as much as about my father.
Courage? People have said that about the book, and I accept that it’s perceived that way. During the writing, I often wished I’d never begun the project. That doesn’t feel courageous to me. It’s possible that I finished the book because I was too cowardly to quit. I wrote it out of despair, sorrow and love. I wanted to understand my father. I couldn’t have done it while he was alive. Dad’s death meant he could no longer hurt me. That in turn provided compassion.
SLC: I’ve read in a couple places articles that made a pretty big deal that Country Dark was your first work of fiction in almost two decades. I get the sense you don’t keep track of that sort of thing.
CO: The gap between books of fiction appealed to the publicity people. Plus, it’s true. However, during that time I completed several other books. An experimental book about my childhood that was a complete mess. Two other novels didn’t turn out very well, one set in Lexington and one set in Louisville. Lesson learned—set my work in the hills! I wasn’t playing to my strengths with those books. They weren’t bad, but mediocre isn’t good enough.
During that 18-year gap, I continued to write and publish short fiction, enough for a collection. It is now a completed manuscript. In addition, I have two books of essays—one serious, one humorous. I trust the process of writing, make the prose as good as I can, and operate on hope. I’ve been lucky.
SLC: I can say that Country Dark moved about as smoothly and quickly as anything I’ve read in the last few years. That smooth flow is a quality in your writing that’s always there, so it never mattered to me if I was reading one of your collections, a novel, or a memoir. Those small moments like Tucker using the bleached out turtle shell as a bowl are good examples of that smoothness.
We spoke earlier about your occasional hunts for turtle shells and bird nests and some projects you’re working with those things. I always think it’s interesting when non-writing projects find a way into our narratives. Tell me a little bit about your nest and shell collection. Are there creative links between these activities and your writing?
CO: A long time ago I figured out that anything I did would wind up in my writing. It then made sense to limit my activities to the kinds of things I wanted to influence my work. I spend a lot of time alone, often wandering around the woods. I also enjoy outdoors labor—as long as it’s on my own land. I’d had enough of labor for other people.
Couple that with this: I’ve had the “collecting bug” since I was a child. There’s an urge to gather, arrange, display, etc. Unfortunately, I never had any extra money for that sort of thing. I wound up collecting what was free. That meant rocks, feathers, animal skulls, bird nests, snake skins, and turtle shells. Oddly enough, the key to finding these artifacts of the woods was NOT to look for them. Once I start seeking, I never found anything. It’s similar to writing. I write to see what I find.
Anyone can find an old white turtle shell, but I prefer one with the scales still attached. They will eventually peel off. I spend a lot of time gluing them back together. I then spray them with polyurethane.
Bird nests are another favorite. I spray them multiple times, letting them dry between sprays. Then I trim off the stray twigs. I spend days on these projects. My wife calls it “busy work with intense focus.” She says I need it.
SLC: In your new novel Country Dark, there’s this great moment when the state worker Hattie remarks on her boss Marvin’s unease as they pass from the blacktop to dirt road implied marker of west to east Kentucky. In those early scenes you make so many great points about the difference between city folk and country folk in Kentucky. Only an eastern Kentuckian could understand those differences enough to write about them so accurately and with such insight. I know you moved back to Morehead earlier in your life (partly the subject of your fantastic memoir No Heroes). Was that the last move home, you think? If so, do you anticipate the area featuring more heavily in your work or fading out and replaced by others as the years pass?
CO: There is a popular myth that elephants go to a special place to die. I used to think that way in terms of Kentucky. I concocted a complicated fantasy of arranging to travel there, limping off into the woods and lying down. Realistically, it’d be impossible if I were an old man, nearly dead.
I no longer have any family in the hills. To visit home means staying in a cheap motel on the Interstate. A few old buddies live there, but many are dead or in prison. I moved back home four times. The last two I bought a house, believing it was permanent. I didn’t last a year either time. Perhaps it’d been different if I’d moved to Lexington, but when I think of home, I think of Haldeman, Kentucky—four square miles. But Haldeman is gone now. The ZIP Code has been changed, my grade school torn down, and the general store closed. It’s not even on maps any more.
The hills are in me, deeply imprinted. There is a directness to hill culture, a no-nonsense approach—even when being playful. I miss that style of communication. You never have to interpret what people say or worry that you’re missing something, because people are very direct with each other. Since leaving, I’ve encountered a great deal of social problems due to my directness. People often think I’m mad when I’m not. It puzzles most folks that I have absolutely no tolerance for small talk. Life’s too short to waste on chit-chat.
I get homesick every day. Writing is a way of going home. I can envision my beloved land. I can talk to all the people. I can smell the trees and hear the birds. I can climb the hills and feel the strain in my legs—all this without leaving my room. I will write about the hills of Kentucky to my dying day.