An interview with Chris Offutt

David Erlewine: As a graduate of the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop, you have first-hand experience in the MFA world. What are your opinions on the current state of MFA programs?

Chris Offutt: I have taught at several MFA programs, and been a short-term visiting writer at a lot of them. That said, I can’t really comment on the current state of MFA programs. I’ve never been a tenured professor, with the insight and understanding of a program.

I enjoy teaching very much, and believe in the vocation. MFA programs maintain literacy in America. They tend to be filled with young people, in their 20s, who love literature, love to read, and love to write. We need these people in the world. Some go on to write novels, stories, essays, screenplays and poetry. Others become teachers and editors and reviewers.

At its best, an MFA program offers a short-term opportunity for young writers to be around each other. For me, the MFA led me to a crucial moment – giving myself permission to write.

DE: With the release of No Heroes, did you expect the negative reaction from some of the faculty at Morehead State University?

CO: I had no idea there was a negative reaction. It’s news to me. That book was my attempt to reconcile the first 20 years of my life in Rowan County with the next 20 years of being away. I learned a great deal from writing it. For me the process of makign art is one of discovery. I try to use Eastern Kentucky as the means for psychological and emotional examination of myself.

The reason I use Eastern Kentucky is simple: writing is very, very difficult. Since I know Eastern Kentucky better than any other environment, it reduces the stress and pressure of writing. It never gets easier. Just slightly less difficult. Since Eastern Kentucky made me who I am, it is a very good medium for exploring my psyche.

DE: What are some documentaries and films depicting the south that writers could benefit from watching?

CO: I don’t watch many movies or documentaries. I prefer to read. I did like Hustle and Flow, written and directed by Craig Brewer and set in Memphis. And I liked George Washington, written and directed by David Gordon Green, set in North Carolina.

If I watch anything for entertainment, it’s usually BBC dramas I rent through Netflix. The overall standards for the BBC are very high – the acting and the writing both. Plus, the characters look like who they are portraying, as opposed to the Hollywood style of primarily casting beautiful, fit people.

DE: What projects are you currently working on?

CO: I have a book of stories I’m about 90% finished with. I also have a novel I’m working on, set in Kentucky, California, and Mexico. There’s a currently-abandoned novel set in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was born.

For the past few years I’ve been compelled, for financial reasons, to write for television. One son is in college, the other is on his way next year. That has slowed down my fiction writing. But my boys come first.

DE: In your “Indiebound” interview you said, “My idea of being postmodern is very small, I’m such a conservative writer.” Can you talk a little about your definition of “conservative”? After writing “No Heroes,” do you have more/less/same interest in writing postmodern?

CO: For me, the idea of being a “conservative writer” means that I write about people – what they do, what they think, how they feel, what they say. A lot of Post-Modern fiction is about ideas, or about the act of writing itself, or is a highly intellectualized response to post-WWII life. That has recently expanded to include post-911 life. I like the old-fashioned books about people, about human yearning.

At that same time, the novel I’m working on could easily fall under the umbrella label of post-modern.

DE: Your wikipedia page says you held more than 50 jobs while hitchhiking across the United States. Is that accurate? If so, can you talk about two of those jobs and discuss whether experiences from either/both worked themselves into your fiction.

CO: Yes, it’s accurate. A long time ago, my mother asked me how many jobs I’d had and I wrote down a list for her. Over the years I maintained a list.

I’d say that all the jobs worked themselves into my writing. Frankly, I’m not that interested in talking about jobs other than writing. For any writer, the necessity of a job is something that takes away from reading and writing. Of course, once you have a family, financial pressure begins in earnest.

Probably the best jobs I ever had were dishwasher at the Grand Canyon, tour guide in the Everglades, and family photographer in New England.

DE: Your book “No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home” recounts, in part, your year teaching creative writing at Morehead St. University about 20 years after graduating there. Have you read “Alma Mater” by PF Kluge of “Eddie and the Cruisers” fame? He taught a year at Kenyon years after graduating from Kenyon and then wrote “Alma Mater.” I thought about it a few times reading your book. They’re drastically different books, but both explore themes of displacement, among other things. Kluge had the great scene where he was sitting in a department meeting, pretending to pay attention while writing down names of pro baseball players with animal nicknames (I loved Moose Skowron).

CO: I have not read Alma Mater. And am unfamiliar with Eddie and the Cruisers. I don’t read many memoirs. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that anyone would read mine. Most nonfiction I read is research for my writing projects. The fields I read for pleasure are Quantum Physics, Zen thought, histories of the various clandestine intelligence services, and histories of stage magic.

DE: The strand of “No Heroes” involving the Holocaust and your in-laws (both survivors) was quite powerful. Have you seen “Shoah”? It’s classified as a documentary but the director considers it outside the genre and I can see why. It is basically nine hours of interviews with Holocaust survivors. My brother teaches religion and philosophy and has written extensively about the Holocaust. He has gotten on my case about trying to write stories about the Holocaust. He disliked “Life is Beautiful” and said (to summarize his position, probably poorly) that it trivialized the Holocaust and that only something like “Shoah” can even begin to “capture” such a thing to people who weren’t there. I’ve recommended your book to him. Do you think he’ll like it? In the interest of full disclosure, most of the fiction he reads these days (begrudgingly at that) is mine, so you have that working for you.

CO: I have not seen Shoah. I have not seen Life is Beautiful. In fact, I haven’t read any works about the Holocaust other than one book of short fiction: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski. I read that in 1992, ten years before undertaking No Heroes.

No Heroes was never designed to be about the Holocaust, per se. It was about my family, my in-laws, the grandparents of my sons. I was interested in it because Arthur, my father-in-law and a Holocaust survivor, had absolutely no interest in returning to Poland where he grew up. And he didn’t really understand my own obsessive interest in Rowan County.

The biggest attraction I had to the story of Arthur and Irene was that it was a phenomenal love story. They met and fell in love as teenagers, lost all their family, and assumed the other was dead in the Camps. Irene had saved a boy’s life and after the war, he asked how he could return the favor. Irene told him to go find her husband. And that boy did just that.

Arthur is 91 and Irene is 86. They are still together.

DE: You have commented that you are now more interested “in revealing the world” to yourself and getting to know yourself.” You said, in fact, “Who the heck is Chris Offutt?” Can you tell us?

CO: Father. Writer. Husband. Kentuckian. Recluse.

DE: You wrote Episode 7 (Season 1) of “True Blood.” What’s surreal is that I was asked to send some interview questions for you a few hours after I finished Disc 3 of Season 1 (which ends with Ep 7). You apparently wrote into a forum and said the following: “Hey man. I wrote Episode 7 of True Blood. Then quit the weird world of Hollywood. A cool learning experience, but not the place for me. I suppose going out there is another thing we Kentuckians do when we leave the hills.”

Hmm, in your “Indiebound” interview you said: “I no longer feel compelled to identify myself as strictly as a Kentuckian . . . I’m now able to shed that stuff.” In light of your forum post about being a Kentuckian, do you think you can shed that identification tag in your mind or will you fall back into it as a sort of “shorthand” when dealing with people who don’t really know you?

CO: No, I can never ever shed my identity as a Kentuckian. What I was trying to get across in that interview was this: for many, many years, I saw myself exclusively as a Kentuckian. Wherever I went I introduced myself by saying: “I’m Chris Offutt, I’m from Kentucky.”

The travel, the experiences I had, the people I met – all that was a deep influence over me. Over time, that influence begat a kind of newer, more expansive sense of identity. I no longer had to limit myself by geography and childhood.

Still, I’m a Kentuckian through-and-through. But you must recognize that even that label is vague. The great Commonwealth of Kentucky has several distinct regions. I am a proud Eastern Kentuckian.

DE: In that Episode 7, I thought the “AIDS” burger scene was classic. Up until that point, Lafayette felt a bit hollow to me as a character but that scene really opened him up and revealed some great layers. When those three assholes asked for someone other than him to make their hamburgers (so they wouldn’t get AIDS), he comes out blasting, so to speak. Can you talk a bit about that scene?

CO: If I remember correctly, Alan Ball wrote that for an earlier episode. The scene is both a comment on racial discrimination as well as sexual discrimination. What Lafayette says about gay people being involved in the lives of Americans is the same kind of thing that is often said about African-Americans. Gay, black, Kentuckian, Jewish – we are all people with families, personal struggles, secret wishes, sorrow, loss and love.

It’s possible that in editing, the AIDS burger scene got cut into Episode 7. But I didn’t write it.

Mainly what’s important to me in Episode 7 is a scene where my teenage son has a brief appearance, being menaced by a female vampire. And of course burning down the house at the end of the episode. Really cool.

DE: I understand you also wrote Episode 10 of “True Blood” (haven’t watched it yet, thanks Netlflix for taking your time). Any plans to write more episodes for the show or is Hollywood too weird? Have you watched “Justified”, the new F/X show set in Eastern Kentucky? I saw the first episode and was quite impressed. I’m a huge fan of Walton Goggins (“Shane” from “The Shield”) and Timothy Olyphant (Bullock from “Deadwood”).

CO: I left True Blood after Season 1. I was offered a job on Weeds, Season 5, and wrote and produced for them. Recently we just completed shooting a pilot I wrote called Tough Trade. It’s set in Nashville. We’re editing now, doing color-correction, sound effects, and music. I’m writing more episodes for it.

And yes, Hollywood continues to be weird. I do like the ocean, all the old, cool cars that are still around, and eating cheap, good ethnic food.

DE: I know you’re a huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. Any favorite short story of hers in particular? Mine remains “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” God, that ending.

CO: No favorite story. She’s the greatest writer of short stories set in the South. She’s a huge influence on my own writing.

DE: You’ve said you like writing about a woman because then you don’t feel like you have to represent your gender. I always think of George and Jerry trying to write how Elaine talked on the “Seinfeld” show within a show … they just couldn’t imagine what she’d say. I often feel that way about my women characters – they are simplistic, bordering on one-dimensional. Your comment makes me think I should try writing some stories from a woman’s pov. While you don’t have to represent your gender when writing about women, do you feel like women may challenge your representations of them? Do you have to push aside those concerns?

CO: You can probably guess my response – I never saw Seinfeld. Where I grew up we only got one channel, WSAZ from Huntington, West Virginia. It was an NBC affiliate. We had a tiny black and white set with an antennae clamped to a post outside. The reception was usually bad. If it rained, we got no reception.

By 1974, I was utterly bored by television, so I quit watching it. I didn’t return until 2005, when I was offered work in Hollywood. Television had changed quite a bit.

When I write about women characters, I just figure I’m a woman and what would I do. Same way I write about children, elderly people, or people from cities. All the characters are some variation of me, just in disguise.


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