February 2016

Chris Offutt

Secret inheritance
Interview by
In the beautifully written memoir My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt tries to make sense of his father’s past as the “king of 20th century smut.”
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In the beautifully written memoir My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt tries to make sense of his father’s past as the “king of 20th century smut.” 

There were many surprises in store when you inherited your father’s desk and 1,800 pounds of his writing. Of the more than 400 novels he wrote, most were pulp porn. Were you aware of this as a child? What did you know about his writing career then?
Dad was a salesman who wrote at night and on weekends. He got a few stories in print, then, when I was 12, he published his first novel. My understanding was that he wrote only science fiction. He kept his porn activity very secret. This was mainly due to living in a very conservative area—the Bible Belt of Appalachia.

By the time I was 16, I realized he wrote some porn. But I believed it was supplemental income, a little bit here and there to make ends meet. It wasn’t until his death that I fully understood the scope of his output, and the primary focus on porn.

As the oldest child of four, you ended up taking care of your siblings while your mother defaulted to taking care of your father’s needs. Do your younger siblings view your father very differently from you?
I’m the oldest by a few years, and took care of them extensively. Dad was always in the house, so it wasn’t a case of a physically absent father. But he worked nonstop.

As a kid, I occupied both a parental role and a big brother role. Later, after we’d all left home, this influenced our relationships as adults. They gave me more authority than I wanted or deserved. Sometimes they wanted approval from me that they didn’t get from Dad. They could also be angry with me because it was safer than getting mad at Dad.

These days, we are all still trying to work through this—not Dad’s death so much, but who we are now. All I really want to be is the “big brother.” But that may not be possible, since I still have more responsibility—for my mother and for Dad’s literary estate.

Apparently your mother typed up your father’s manuscripts for him. Do you think she ever made any editorial changes while typing them?
Yes. She corrected any surface errors and deciphered his handwritten edits. Mom was a good typist, much better than Dad. He taught himself to type with three fingers and made many errors.

Due to the sheer volume and the pace that he worked, Mom worked on some books in a more collaborative role. They worked together very fast: Dad wrote a first draft in longhand, then began typing. He’d get 30 or so pages and pass it on to Mom for the final draft. As a result, she made some changes—for clarity, structure and details. Sometimes she did the final typing while he was still finishing the book!

Your father earned a decent living from writing pornography (at least enough to pay for orthodontia), and as you say in the book, “died in harness,” as a professional writer—he kept writing until his end. You yourself have found success both in literary fiction and as a screenwriter. What traits as a writer (if any) did you inherit from him?
It’s difficult to know what was inherited and what was modeled in terms of behavior. I certainly inherited his love of reading, which is crucial for a writer. I have his curiosity and energy. Perhaps most important, I learned the value of discipline—treating the act of writing like a job. Like Dad, I write every day. Unlike him, I revise very heavily. He was much more prolific.

His father, my grandfather, was a failed writer. So maybe there is some genetic component. I didn’t want to be a writer because it meant admitting I was like my father. But at a certain point in my early 20s, I really had no choice. I wrote all the time.

You were a passionate reader as a child, and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was a particular favorite. I’ve known many women writers to claim Harriet as a role model, but not male writers. What did you learn from Harriet?
Harriet’s gender didn’t matter as much as her circumstances and behavior. Her parents were busy and she was on her own most of the time. Harriet was a loner who walked around recording her observations in a notebook. She dressed like I did—jeans, long sleeves and sneakers. She often carried a flashlight and tools, as I did. Harriet had a strength and confidence that I admired. What I learned from the book was the value of recording thoughts on paper. I resolved always to carry paper and pen. I still do.

You speak of your deep affection for the land you grew up in—the wooded hills of Appalachia. Why do you think lonely, imaginative children attach so strongly to the natural world?
I can’t speak for other children, but in my case it was simple—the natural world was stunningly gorgeous and very safe. I never felt afraid or alone in the woods.

I believe that spending so much time alone in the woods sharpened my perceptions. You have to rely more on sound and smell, and careful observation, to not get lost or scared. Essentially, I learned to see in the woods—to see things as they are, not what I’d like them to be. The natural world doesn’t lie. There’s no hidden agenda or clever marketing. Nature is brutal and relentless and beautiful. Perhaps that’s why I don’t waste time on small talk.

My question is this: Why don’t more people form attachments to the natural world?

It’s hard to process the death of a difficult parent. You write of loving your father, but not liking him. Can you speak to the difference?
Babies are born with an impulse to love. They love whoever is around, especially their caretakers. It’s a natural drive that benefits humanity. Then kids grow and become adults. Some realize they don’t actually like their father or their mother or their siblings. But they still love them. Love doesn’t have an off-switch.

My father could be very funny and extremely charismatic. He was extremely likeable for short periods, but people had to interact with Dad on his terms or not at all. I loved him the way any boy loves his father. But Dad made himself very hard to like. He preferred not to be close with most people other than my mother. I believe it made him feel safe.

As with many people, he was easier to love at a distance than to like close up.

It was emotionally wrenching for you to organize and catalog your father’s literary output, so much so that your siblings suggested that you burn his papers instead. In the end, are you glad you completed the task?
Yes. I learned a lot about myself in the process of writing the book. I was also able to understand my father better. When I finished, I felt relieved. It was exhausting in every way—physically, mentally and emotionally. Two years went by, and my memory of that time is vague. I worked 12 hours a day. I read tens of thousands of pages of his work. I eventually cut 200 pages from the final manuscript. I’m not fully certain what is in the book and what is not. I don’t even know what it’s about. Dad, I guess.

Writing this book had short-term effects, some of which weren’t good. I’m very interested in learning the long-term effects a few years from now. What benefits will arise from having devoted myself to this book? At this point, I believe I’m a better person for having done so.


RELATED CONTENT:  Read our review of My Father, the Pornographer.

This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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