While most people would probably rather poke their eyes out with a knitting needle than take a long, in-depth look into the most intimate details of their parents' sexual desires, writer Chris Offutt not only did that, he did it voluntarily. In his most recent memoir, "My Father, the Pornographer," Offutt chronicles his two-year effort to catalog and make sense of the artistic output of his late father, Andrew, who, under 17 pseudonyms and writing from the family home in rural Kentucky, quietly had a career as one of the world's most prolific authors of pornographic novels before his death in April 2013.
After starting out as a writer of science fiction, Andrew Offutt published his first erotic novel in 1968. He would eventually quit his job selling insurance to write full time, going on to publish over 400 pornographic novels. All were written using a unique method of pre-fabricating descriptions and sections that could then be plugged in as he was writing, a system his son likens to Henry Ford's assembly line. His record was 91 pages in a single day.
With that kind of output and the topics his father was writing about, it's no surprise the Offutt home was, in many ways, a house of secrets when Chris was a boy, the household headed by a father who could be, by turns, both as distant as a stone totem and wildly imaginative. Tasked with cleaning out his dad's paper-drifted office when Andrew died, Offutt resisted his siblings' calls to pile up the family secret and set a match to it. He would eventually comb through and catalogue over 1,800 pounds of his father's manuscripts, books, drawings and correspondence before turning it into a memoir that's a minor triumph. Chris Offutt is the author of seven books. He currently teaches at the University of Mississippi.
Your father often comes across as a very distant figure in the book.
He was a distant figure. He was distant from his family, the world, I think he was distant from himself. But the flip side of that, particularly when you are a kid, is that any little breach in that distance is a gift. Those things would come along. They were rare. Dad was also charismatic and very funny, and made things fun. He had that ability. His imagination was always at the forefront, and especially when we were children, he could make whatever the situation was fun, even cutting weeds. If I had to cut a bunch of weeds coming up the hill to the yard, it was turned into a battle against a formidable foe. We were having swordfights and combat. Things like that, that was awesome, because there were plenty of other fathers around who'd say, "Go out there and cut those damn weeds, kid."
You turned out to be a writer, he was a writer, his father was a writer, I understand. Do you think without that role model putting seat of pants to seat of chair every day, you'd be a writer?
I don't know. I've thought about that a lot. It's hard to analyze it too much. Is there a genetic component? My dad was a writer, my grandfather had literary aspirations, but he gave it up during the Depression to really save the farm, and he did. Or, is it just because dad was a role model? But the fact is, I didn't really want to be a writer. I never wanted to be a writer, partly because of Dad. Dad just stayed at home. He didn't seem to really do much, and we lived out in the woods. I wanted a more adventurous life, of being a detective or a paratrooper or a racecar driver or a movie actor. That was what I aspired to be, but despite that, I always wrote. I started keeping a journal when I was 8, and I wrote short stories when I was little. So how I was responding to the world was through writing, even though what I wanted to be in the world was anything but. Even as a young guy in my 20s, I wanted to be a photographer, I wanted to be a painter, a stage actor. There was still this desire to be something else, while I was really putting a lot of time into writing. At a certain point, I realized, wow, this is what I'm doing. I think I was about 23, 24. I bought a camera, took up photography. I'd read Hemingway, and I realized that Hemingway wrote about hunting and fishing. These were, in a way, his hobbies. And I realized that I didn't have any hobbies. I thought I don't have any hobbies, so I'll try photography. I liked it. I loved it. I got a job in a camera store and I took a lot of pictures. I still like it. And then I started writing essays about photography. At one point, I wrote an essay about why photography was a better medium of expression than prose. I finished it, and then I thought, OK, look at what you're doing, Chris. You've used writing to successfully talk yourself out of writing. You're not out there taking pictures. That's when I thought, fuck it. I'm just going to embrace this a little more. I remember the moment. I was living in a rooming house, and I just had this big moment of clarity of, "Holy shit, I've used writing to successfully talk myself out of writing." [Laughs.] I was like, OK, you're a moron.
I grew up in the boondocks here in Arkansas with one fuzzy TV channel, and a lot of my early writing was just about boredom. I don't know how anybody becomes a writer these days with so many distractions coming at them all the time.
That's a good point. I think that part of the reason I started doing it was because I was bored. I wrote in school. From the fourth grade on, I spent a lot of my time in school reading books and writing and drawing, because I was bored, and because if I didn't do that, I would get in trouble. I'd talk too much, mess with somebody, and then they would beat me. I didn't want to get beat, so I thought, they leave me alone if I write and draw. [Laughs.]
One of the things that comes out of that book is this sense of growing up in a house full of secrets. So much about writing fiction is about exploring secrets in peoples' lives. How much of growing up in that situation was farmed into your writing later on?
I don't know. When you're growing up, you're not aware of circumstances. I think there's an assumption that every family is like every other family, and you see their good sides. I don't think growing up in a house full of secrets was good for me. It probably led to a lifelong interest in espionage and the clandestine services. That's my favorite genre to read. I wanted to be a CIA agent and a spy. I think that may have been motivated by that in a way. But at the same time, I'm 57 and this is my third memoir, which is kind of embarrassing, and memoir could not be more opposite than secrecy. The bad side of the whole thing had to do with communication. There was so much that didn't get talked about, and that still influences my relationship with my mother and my siblings. We're still trying to learn to talk openly with each other, and we can now. But we're still very much trained not to. It's still in us to keep stuff to ourselves.
If genre fiction is your favorite thing to read in your spare time, why are you more of a literary writer?
I don't know. I suppose it's early designation. I thought that I would be a crime writer. I knew plenty of criminals, and also law enforcement. Where I grew up, there weren't many options. You can be a criminal, you could be a cop, you could be a preacher, or you could get the hell out of there. There's law enforcement in my family and criminals. So I thought, this is what I'll do. I know this world and what I'm interested in. I know it well enough that I can write about it, so I thought I'd try it. You liked "Out of the Woods." That is a story about cops. There are at least two stories in there about police officers, and then there are criminals. These are all petty criminals. I didn't choose the designation. I think it possibly just had to do with publishing a book of short stories first. "Kentucky Straight" was set in a place that the world had not read too many books about. At the time I published it, most of the books I'd read were about the earlier times. None of them were post-war on Poverty Appalachia. I just think it was designated. I'd still love to write a spy novel, but I just don't know how to get into it. I think about it, though. One of these days.
Offutt and Harrison Scott Key will make their Arkansas Literary Festival appearance at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Main Library.