We see plenty of “real Southerners” in the “real world” on television these days. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty show us those grotesque versions of Southerners that many have come to expect and even celebrate as the cultural norm. The people of the South, whether dirt poor or nouveau riche, are perfect Hollywood fodder.
“I absolutely despise watching television,” said Kentucky author Chris Offutt in 1994, shortly after publishing the collection of short stories Kentucky Straight and the memoir The Same River Twice. “I would advise you all to shoot your TV...I don’t have one.” Eleven years later, after writing The Good Brother, Out of the Woods, and No Heroes, and being named one of the twenty best young American fiction writers by Granta magazine, Offutt turned his pen to screenplays. His television work—for shows like Treme, True Blood, and Weeds—doesn’t focus on Kentucky settings or characters in particular, as his books do, yet I feel immense relief that a Southern author of such talent and understanding (a man who rejects terms like “hillbilly,” “redneck,” and “cracker”) writes for television.
In 2011, Offutt left Hollywood “depressed” and eager to take a break from screenwriting. Now he writes pilots from Oxford, Mississippi, where he teaches at Ole Miss and mainly focuses on his true passion: literature. He’s working on a new novel and completing his third story collection, Luck, which has been more than twenty years in the making.
More than a decade after his last book, Offutt is still publishing writing with the same insight, humor, and skill that won him accolades in the past. "Bible Cake," the first installment of “Cooking with Chris,” is in the OA’s Summer 2013 issue.
I sent Chris questions via e-mail, and he responded from Kentucky via his “two-way wrist radio.”
JAMES MADISON REDD: Will you describe your move to Mississippi?
CHRIS OFFUTT: My wife and I left Iowa and drove through Missouri and stayed the night at a small motel in Arkansas. The next day we ate breakfast and drove to Oxford.
JMR: Larry Brown has said, “I believe Mr. Offutt knows the same world I do, and his talent for writing about it shines on every page.” Would you agree? Now that you live in Oxford, what do you see as the main difference between Brown’s Oxford, Mississippi, and your Haldeman, Kentucky?
CO: A) Yes, I agree. B) Hills.
JMR: You have always deeply cared about Haldeman. Why are physical communities important to artists like yourself?
CO: I can’t comment on other artists but would enjoy meeting one who is like me.
JMR: What value does an exploration of people from rural Kentucky have for readers in the technological age?
CO: The same value as it had during the pre-technological age, which is none.
JMR: Do you feel a kinship with Faulkner, who went to Hollywood to write screenplays but inevitably returned to Mississippi?
CO: No. But I’ve met some of his family members. They are nice folks.
JMR: Writer Tom Franklin feels you haven’t gotten the credit you deserve as a Southern or rural writer. Do you think that’s the case, and what would that acknowledgment mean to you?
CO: A) No writer gets the credit he or she deserves. B) Money, cars, women, moonshine. And a complete set of The Jetsons on DVD.
JMR: You’ve said that Flannery O’Connor, not Faulkner, has been your most important literary influence. How has O’Connor’s work affected your writing?
CO: I don’t know because I forgot what I stole from her.
JMR: Publisher’s Weekly claimed you were attempting to “break out of the regional writer mold” in Good Brother. Would you agree?
CO: No, but I’m glad they reviewed it.
JMR: Early in your career as a writer, you commented on your distaste for television. Now that you’ve spent some time studying television shows and writing them, have you developed some hope for the medium?
CO: Maybe a little.
JMR: You’ve often said that you “write for immortality,” yet your introduction to The Same River Twice calls books “fragile.” If achieving immortality through art is your goal, why weren’t you a rock sculptor instead of a writer of books?
CO: Rock sculptors need strong muscles.
JMR: What can we look forward to in your OA series, “Cooking with Chris?” Will there be any possums in the pot?
CO: Yes. That essay was very difficult to write because the possum is my totem animal.
JMR: What attracted you to writing about food?
CO: I crashed a Southern Foodways Conference for the free food and liquor. This resulted in some minor legal problems. The judge told me to write about food and maybe I’d get invited next year.
JMR: For pleasure reading you turn to books on “quantum physics, Zen thought, histories of the various clandestine intelligence services, and histories of stage magic.” What interests you about these topics, and how do they influence your writing?
CO: A) Intelligence and stage magic are about keeping secrets. B) Quantum physics and Zen thought reveal secrets.
JMR: What did you learn about country music while you were writing the screenplay for Tough Trade?
CO: Rhymes. Such as bail and jail, gun and run, wife and life, train and rain.
JMR: Your forthcoming story collection, Luck, is the third in a series focused on Kentucky. Will you tell us more about the collection’s main character, Lucy, who appears in every story?
CO: I love Lucy.
JMR: In the Iowa Review, you describe yourself as a “restless” writer who is always looking for “new challenges.” What challenges are you working on now?
CO: Answering interview questions.
JMR: Can fiction heal?
CO: In an emergency situation, you can use book pages to stanch serious bleeding.
JMR: “The Leaving One,” a story in Kentucky Straight, is full of ritual and superstition, such as when a mother repeats a prayer like a mantra while washing dishes. Some might call The Same River Twice a spiritual meditation. Why has spirituality and superstition pervaded your writing?
CO: I can’t answer because I think it would be bad luck. Sorry.
JMR: Are you willing to talk about your views on writing commercial fiction?
CO: I never tried writing commercial fiction. One day I will, and then I’ll have some views.
JMR: I want to know more about the novel you’re presently writing.
CO: Me, too.