Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Chris Offutt

Chris Offutt is the author of the short-story collections Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, the novel The Good Brother, and three memoirs: The Same River Twice, No Heroes, and My Father, the Pornographer. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays, among many other places. He has written screenplays for Weeds, True Blood, and Treme, and has received fellowships from the Lannan and Guggenheim foundations.

Offutt's new novel is The Killing Hills.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

It’s hard to speculate on the effect a short phrase will have on a stranger. People often ignore “No Trespassing” or “Emergency Parking Only” signs. Many poems are composed of short phrases but they have a cumulative impact. Titles are difficult in general—after the work to make a book, a writer is then expected to distill its essence down to a few words. Frankly, I’m terrible at titles. In this case, my wife suggested the title because it refers to a conversation in the book and it has a slight rhyme.

What's in a name?

For a protagonist, I tend to go with a one syllable first name because it’s quick and easy to type. The last name “Hardin” was my favorite teacher in elementary school. I also like it because, in the speech pattern of eastern Kentucky, it sounds like someone saying “hard one.” That in turn is an oblique—at least to me—reference to the term “hard man,” British slang for a tough guy. The name “Fuckin’ Barney” is an homage to a friend of mine who took his own life during the time I wrote the book.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Probably surprised that I was still alive, but disappointed that I wasn’t a famous movie actor, race car driver, or comic book artist—my teenage ambitions. Mainly my younger self would be shocked that I could carry out an interview on a hand-held gizmo that I carried in my pocket along with an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a calculator, and a method to talk to people.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Neither is harder than the other. The beginning is usually done with great joy and freedom—anything can happen! As a result, I change the beginning the most. I often cut the openings completely or move the pertinent information elsewhere. Any narrative goes its own direction. Then I go back and give it a better start. The key to an ending is not to rush it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

As Flaubert said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” All my characters are roughly one-third me, one-third modeled after someone I know, and one-third their own person as a result of writing. The inner emotional life of protagonists typically mirrors my own at the time of writing. I never try to imagine what my character would feel, but include my own feelings of the moment. As far as their speech and actions, I try to get out of their way and transcribe how they respond to the world.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Photography, visual art, travel, and spending time alone with nature. A few movies and TV shows, but not many. Music would be The Clash and ‘50s jazz. The earliest influence is probably MAD Magazine, the first periodical I subscribed to. Then Marvel comics. Also talking to strangers and observing human behavior. I listen carefully and am big on clandestine eavesdropping, which is much easier since people talk so loudly into their cell phones.
Visit Chris Offutt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue