Out of the Woods: Author Chris Offutt Comes Home to the Hills

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Ace coverstory. Chris Offutt interview. November 25 1998

“We have been taught by Jefferson’s struggles with Hamilton, by Calhoun’s with Webster, and in the woods at Shiloh or along the ravines of Fort Donelson where the long hunter’s rifle spoke defiance to the more accelerated Springfields, that the triumph of industry, commerce [and] trade brings misfortune to those who live on the land.”
–Andrew Lytle, ‘The Hind Tit,’ in I’ll Take My Stand

Chris Offutt, Ace cover, photo by Peggy Blythe

Chris Offutt sees things others don’t. For example, he screeches off Rowan County’s Highway 32 in his faded-tomato-red 60s Chevy to point out a seemingly innocuous sign for “Hickory Pointe” — a suburban subdivision still under development (just past the golf course) which appears to be a reasonable facsimile of any suburban subdivision in any town (i.e., housing projects for people with more money than sense). He gestures to the sign and asks what the capital letters spell. When it’s not immediately apparent, he notes proudly, “HYPE.”

Having just passed a BP station, “British Petroleum,” he snorts in undisguised disgust. How many years did we spent trying to get away from those bastards, he quizzes rhetorically.

Even Offutt’s emails providing directions offer more than a hint of insight into his opinions, “Get off at the Morehead exit. Turn right off the exit. Unfortunately, you hit that godawful sprawl I despise so much — malls, fast food joints, chain restaurants, hotel, and gas stations. Somewhere there is the easiest place to meet, but just looking at it puts me in a horrible frame of mind. Appalachia is under assault.”

He settles on the Shoney’s parking lot as an acceptable meeting place, but only as a precursor to heading back to the woods near his home. Leaving Shoney’s, it’s necessary to cross 32 to gas up the Chevy at the Chevron, because he refuses to patronize the environmentally-unfriendly Exxon that’s just up the hill from the home of the Big Boy.

He laughs as he recounts an early bonding moment he and his wife Rita shared over their respective ethical unwillingness to drink Coors.

“Whatever it was, I knew I’d never be happy there. It’s one thing to have a life in a place, and to be happy in it is quite another.”

Larry Brown, “By the Pond,” (1995)

Over the past twenty years, Offutt has lived everywhere from New York to Massachusetts to Iowa to Montana and New Mexico. He has paid something of a financial and perhaps a cultural price (though the trade-offs of town versus country are obviously debatable) to return home — or close to it. His actual hometown of Haldeman, a clay-mining company town, no longer exists. He says Morehead “used to be mom and pop shops. But Haldeman’s gone. The tracks are gone. The zip code’s changed.”

He’s currently teaching at Morehead State University’s writing program. Or, it might be more accurate to say, he IS Morehead’s writing program.

Responding to a few preliminary questions emailed ahead, he writes politely, “I’d rather do the interview outside, weather permitting. So please wear boots and dress warm. This is my favorite time of year, and the hills are gorgeous. I missed the woods most, and fall the second most. Do you mind a short hike?”

He doesn’t offer any real conclusions about the process of coming and going as he has over the past 20 years — and one only has to look at the stories in his forthcoming collection, Out of the Woods, to see the conflict and tension he feels between the leaving and the return.

“As far as what it was like to come back,” he writes, “it’s way too soon to tell. I was gone 20 years and been back five months.”

He later says that the family “tried to live in Montana twice” and he speaks well of Iowa City as progressive, with an excellent public school system and high literacy rate.”

He adds later, “School’s out that day and I need to be around for the boys. They won’t bug us after the initial introductions,” and ends with the promise, “I’ll show you Joe Tiller’s possum,” (a reference to his novel, The Good Brother. The Chevy also boasts a ‘Boyd’ license plate — another reference. Offutt calls it the Boyd-mobile.)

***

His woods do not disappoint and are a welcome contras to the “godawful sprawl” (including the nearby “Pinecrest Plaza” — complete with Wal-Mart, Goody’s, and Food Lion) he accurately warned of.

The explosion of fall colors is still evident. With a carpet of leaves below (nearly obscuring the trails) and many still on the trees, the effect is almost like walking into a painting. It’s easy to see precisely why a former art student would love the hills and the woods the most.

It also makes it viscerally clear why he’s spent 20 years coming back — why he’s compared his time away from Eastern Kentucky to the “phantom pain” an amputee feels when the limb is gone, but the ache of its absence is still there.

And all this is apparent from the first step into the woods.

After the (as promised) very short hike to the top of an incline, he thoughtfully unfolds a red canvas “guest’”  chair and then pokes around in the trees to find his own green writing chair, which is always stored nearby, so the actual interview can begin.

He unwraps his chair (folded like a small umbrella) and notes that he had shown up to write one day, only to discover that it had been “borrowed.” He posted a note to a nearby tree that he’d like it back and it was promptly returned.

Once seated at the top of the ridge, the view is spectacular — looking out over

Chris Offutt. Photo by Peggy Blythe for Ace. 1998.

hollers and gulleys and dips and rises. Asked about the potential danger of hunters (on noticing deer tracks), he seems nonplussed by the prospect, explaining, “This is where I write.”

He adds that Rowan County is 60 percent national forest.

It seems virtually undiscovered territory, but for the occasional Dr. Pepper can and what looks suspiciously like a discarded Evian bottle.

The day is just beyond comfortably brisk. It’s also breezy and misty at the top of the hill and he good-naturedly comments that we can hike ahead to the house anytime it gets too cold.

He breaks out a sandwich (offers to share), and talks briefly about his next project. He has already completed most of the editing on Out of the Woods (and has eliminated one story entirely).

He is now at work on a piece of narrative non-fiction about the process of coming home. (A preview of what might be expected from this work-in-progress is excerpted below from his recent essay in the October 25, 1998 New York Times Magazine).

He also plans another novel, which will pick up where The Good Brother left off.

He says, “If I have to do something to support my short story habit, it should be something I love.”

Some would argue it’s the conundrum faced by many writers, even the ones who’ve already “made it” (as many would argue he has) — how to support “the habit?”

Though it’s true, to some extent, that he’s better known outside this region than in it. The awards have certainly been more forthcoming from other areas. He’s been conspicuously absent, for example, from the annual New Stories from the South — though his work has been selected for the Best American Short Stories, and he’s made Granta‘s list of 20 Best Young American Fiction Writers.

In his own backyard, he’s been more or less limited to Oxford American (Mississippi), and Double Take (North Carolina), while virtually ignored by the old school such as the Southern Review or the Sewanee Review.

He talks about the “marketing” of authors and books, and the disturbing (if not exactly new) tendency among publishers to think of “consumers” more than they do “readers.”

Kathryn Harrison (The Kiss)? “Oh yeah, the woman who slept with her father.”

Jackie Lyden (Daughter of the Queen of Sheba)? “The woman from NPR.”

The books aren’t especially good, but the marketing hook is built in. For Offutt, the exact opposite seems to be true. The writing is exceptional, but the marketing looks tricky. Even he admits he doesn’t think readers pick up his work “for fun.”

It’s clear he has disdain for writers who are famous for being famous, and skirts close to dismissing William S. Burroughs as a good example of someone who’s made a living off being “a junkie and a murderer.” Asked if he wants that off the record, he shrugs.

As for how he’s handled success(see sidebar for the short list of awards), he says, “by ignoring it as much as possible,” adding only slightly self-deprecatingly, that he’s probably already exceeded most people’s expectations.

Most people thought “I was destined for prison or the grave.” Asked if that’s why that’s such a recurring theme in the new stories, he seems surprised.

He readily dismisses his own outlaw image in recounting a reader who’d approached him eagerly to ask if the scars on his face came from a knife fight. He only laughs when asked what he told the guy.

(Later, sitting at the dining room table, with a quick glance towards his family, he rejects that image entirely — noting that he’s “given up” most of the vices for which he thinks many writers are or were famous.)

He thinks, “the irony of a successful writer is to get a teaching gig — and no writers I know want to do that.” Searching for an appropriate analogy, he begins, “it’s like if you were a successful ball player and ended up…” then he trails off. “No, never mind…That’s not…Never mind.”

Although he teaches writing now, he finds the process “draining,” adding that it really should be if you’re concerned with doing it properly — as he obviously is.

After a brief discussion of academia, there’s a glimmer in his eye as he admonishes half-jokingly (and this is a paraphrase): Maybe you’ve confused universities with places that are interested in providing an education.

He adds that the paradox is “as soon as you develop your craft, there’s pressure to give up the time [devoted to] writing.”

He eventually decides it is getting too cold to sit, and it’s time to move down another trail and over to the house. Passing a gourd he’s staked to a tree, it’ll be fairly easy to mark the trail back out.

“No matter how you leave the hills — army, prison, marriage, job, college — when you move back after 20 years, the whole county is watching carefully. They want to see the changes the outside world  put on you…Put their mind at ease…Make sure and drive a rusty pickup that runs like a sewing machine. Hang dice from the mirror and put a gun rack in the back window. A rifle isn’t necessary, but something needs to be there: a pool cue, a carpenter’s level, an ax handle…Tell them it’s a big world out there…Don’t talk about the beautiful people in stylish clothes. Never mention museums, opera, theater, or ethnic restaurants…Be prepared at all times to say it’s better here. You spent 20 years trying to leave this land and 20 more trying to get back.”

Chris Offutt, New York Times Magazine, October 1998

In an end essay in the October 25 New York Times Magazine, entitled “Home to the Hills,” Offutt has already written about the process of coming home in a piece that’s both scathing and moving. It is in some ways a rebuttal to Wolfe’s assertion that you can’t go home again. At other times, it seems an affirmation that you can.

Introductions are made to his wife Rita, and their two sons, Sam and James. Before sitting back down at the dining room table, he dispatches the boys to an outdoor project: raking and giving the new electric leaf blower a workout. Which leaves ample time for prowling around and investigating the premises.

The house in the woods is comfortable, emerging from the woods in the back, and overlooking a pond in the front.

Though it retains its suburban split level vestiges (the Offutts didn’t build it), it is appropriately retrofitted for a family that has spent time in other worlds too — the western influence being the most evident.

He says their last four houses were “rented over the phone” and he seems content with the space and privacy this one offers.

The bookshelves are floor to ceiling in most rooms (one entire shelf is devoted to books by his father, a prolific science-fiction paperback writer). He responds to an arched eyebrow and a skeptical “Emily Dickinson?” with “Are you kidding? ‘Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me’?” and that settles the matter.

The CD collection is a testament to a comment he made in the NY essay, “Before you leave the city, don’t forget to borrow CDs from your friends and make 100 cassettes of music no radio station plays and no store sells.”

The shelves bulge with everyone from the latest Lucinda Williams to Mingus to Dylan and (in a seeming non-sequitur) Billy Idol?

Of the transition from living out west to Eastern Kentucky, he says, “There’s home and all that entails. [There's] a romance to it.” But he admits he gets periodically “starved” for good “bookstores and cafes and music.” Which is not to say that he has “gotten above his raising,” a line that he alludes to in the essay.

***

“I stand there with my beer belly and think that even though I live alone in a little dump, dirty and cramped, it’s still my damn place, and I’m willing to go down defending it. It’s all I’ve got and it’s not even really mine, just a rental, but I live here… There’s a part of me that wants to say, ‘Get a look son. See the empty beer cans…? See the beat-up furniture and the dirty sheets? Take a good look son. Take a picture because this is where you’ll wind up at, and you don’t want it. You do not want this.’ But I don’t say it. I never gave him anything before. And now I can’t even give him this.”

Chris Offutt, “Two-Eleven All Around”

Asked if any of his friends or family are troubled by the autobiographical nature of his work, he shrugs and says it’s “never been an issue,” adding, with an affable gleam in his eye, “Fuck em. Let ‘em write their own book.” Though he qualifies it by saying his work is not necessarily inside or outside his own family, though many of the characters are inspired by people he knows.

He does talk at some length about “Two-Eleven All Around,” one of the collection’s strongest stories, which is fairly clearly based on someone he and Rita have known. A brief exchange passes between him and his wife (not much more than a glance really) as to what’s fair game for the record and what isn’t.

The story begins, “When she locked me out I didn’t mind that much because things were drifty from the start. She didn’t like my drinking and I did not go for her Prozac and police scanner. Her kid was a pain in the ass too. As much as I tried to get along with him, he was already what he would always be — a sullen little punk who liked the couch.” The title is police code: “two-eleven all around, which meant the subject was clean, with no warrants against him in the city or county. The lucky guy was free to go.”

Again, the story is filled with dark, almost incidental, humor. Of his scanner-head, depressed girlfriend, the narrator says, “…when she was on safari, you better keep bail money handy. I could tell what she’d been up to the night before by the dents on the car. One thing, though, she didn’t wake up with the regrets. She never called around to see if she did anything she should apologize for. To me, that made her a full-blown alcoholic while I was just a drunk.”

The friend who inspired the story landed — of all things — a rehab placement in a mailroom somewhere and actually read the story as it was coming in on a fax machine. He called Offutt to offer praise and tell him the story made him homesick — apparently without ever recognizing himself in any way. He was simply proud to tell his coworkers that he knew the guy who’d written it.

At that point, Offutt interrupts his story briefly to supervise the boys’ yard work, pausing to tell Rita, “he’s raking leaves out of the tree.” He calls out, “There’s plenty of leaves on the ground James.”

There’s a pause, and then another round of instructions, “Away. Get away from him, Sam. Apparently Sam is raking his brother at that point.

He returns to the dining room table and stretches out his hands to show off the most recent vice he’s given up: he has recently stopped biting his nails. Though he adds that he’s most proud of giving up smoking.

Of alcohol, he says there are two kinds of writers, “Those who drink and those who’ve given it up.” And a brief exchange, with conflicting information, follows about which contemporary southern writers are on the wagon and which ones aren’t.

He later pauses again to give the boys a break and allow them to assist in the grand tour of the house. (There’s still the matter of Joe Tiller’s possum.)

On the way down the stairs, an unsuspecting guest might be startled by the mounted jackalope, and at the foot of the stairs is an elaborate cardboard castle that Offutt and the boys have constructed, complete with Tower of Life, a working drawbridge, and an escape route. They have not yet figured out how to install a moat. Offutt’s art minor has obviously paid off.

The boys can’t wait to show off the authentic (stuffed) “Kentucky wildcat.”

His office is a relic hunter’s dream — all “found” objects, he points out; he didn’t kill any of them. Skulls and bones and stuffed (literally) animals of every possible variety (from bears to wildcats) line surfaces that are already weighted down by books. There’s a box of ponytails (his own).

Exhibiting closer curiosity of one object leads James to cheerfully thrust a mummified bullfrog upward with the suggestion, “HERE. Smell this.” (It smells kind of like vanilla.)

And of course, this is where Joe Tiller’s possum resides also.

It’s obvious he’s never thrown anything away. There are albums labeled “Rita and Chris 86-88″ and others that simply list a location, “NYC” or “KY.” An entire shelf is devoted to notebooks filled with Offutt’s childhood writing. He offers one selection from “The Pirates.” He reads aloud, laughing, it begins with “It was at night…”

The computer looks to be top of the line, with matching laptop, though he says he never takes it to the woods with him, as he’s “too rough” on things.

A stack of correspondence sits on the desk, waiting to be mailed, and it’s hard (impossible actually) to resist asking what it is he’s writing to Ashley Judd? She’s a fan of his work — as it turns out — and had been his escort when he received the Whiting Award. Then he produces a picture of the two of them. Asked what he thinks of her “hockey poster girl” status, he doesn’t know (or care) anything about it, and only characterizes her as “smart.”

He says he has every story he’s ever written, along with a handful of plays, three incipient novels, and one “unbelievably bad novella.”

He reads from some of the notes of the day, and confesses, “I can’t read this…” then finds a passage he can, “Which of the commandments shall we keep…” He reads some more, then unexpectedly picks up a nearby bear’s skull, and in an improbably light-to-the-point-of-silly moments, snaps its teeth up and down and says, in a high voice (for a bear, one would assume), “Hi Rhonda!”

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”

–Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

The introductory pages to Out of the Woods includes this quotation from Flannery O’Connor’s seminal novel. He helpfully notes that the version in the advance uncorrected proof is, in fact, incorrect (on closer inspection, the line in the proof is missing a “to” and inverts never was, but the sense is the same).

In the novel, Haze Motes’ homily concludes with the question, “Where is there a place for you to be?” The answer, according to the sermon is “no place.” He adds, “nothing outside you can give you any place,” and that’s a phenomenon Offutt seems to wrestle with the way most artists do.

The themes of the novel are clearly ones with which Offutt is well acquainted.

Early on, Motes responds to a quizzical busybody on the train with, “You might as well go one place as another…That’s all I know.” And of course he’s wrong.

As the novel winds down, Mrs. Flood, the landlady, urges the preacher, “You needn’t return to a place you don’t value Mr. Motes. The door won’t be open to you.” She then mutters to herself, “He’ll be back. Let the wind cut into him a little.”

And of course, she’s wrong too, at least in a sense.

Motes’ last words are, “I want to go on where I’m going.”

***

Place is critical to Offutt and to his work, as is evident in Out of the Woods. (Not to mention the fact that the woods is literally where he does most of his writing.) In the eponymous story, Gerald, a newcomer to a family, is dispatched to Wahoo, Nebraska to fetch a brother-in-law, Ory, who’s been shot. His wife Kay says of her brother, “Him leaving never made sense…He hadn’t done nothing and nobody was after him.” As if, in a very matter-of-fact way, the only legitimate reasons for leaving home would come under duress.

Leaving the mountains, Gerald observes Indiana’s flat terrain, “There was nowhere to hide, no safety at all. Even the sun was too bright. He didn’t understand how Ory could stand such open ground.”

Later in Wahoo, after discovering Ory’s fate, he steps outside and “underwent a sudden sense of vertigo, and for a moment, he didn’t know where he was, only that he was two days away from anything familiar.

The story is filled with black humor, most of which would give away the plot, but as Gerald returns home, he is struck by a paradox that has almost assuredly afflicted Offutt in all his coming and going over the years. “He knew how the light would fall, where the shadows would go. The smell of the woods was familiar. It would be this way forever. Abruptly, as if doused by water, he knew why Ory had left.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Offutt was born August 24, 1958, and grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, a clay-mining town which no longer officially exists.

He graduated from Morehead State University, with a degree in theater and minor in art — later attending Iowa’s famous writing program, where he was awarded the Michener fellowship — which provided him the resources to write his first two critically-lauded books.

His debut collection of stories, Kentucky Straight (1992) won him awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Whiting Foundation. He also made the list of Granta’s 20 Best Young American Fiction Writers.

He followed up with The Same River Twice (a memoir, the title taken from the quotation by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus).

In 1997, Simon and Schuster published his first novel, The Good Brother.

His next collection of stories, Out of the Woods, is scheduled to be published in January 1999. One of the selections, “Melungeons,” was included in Best American Short Stories (1994).

Having lived in New York, Massachusetts, Iowa, Montana, and New Mexico, Offutt and his wife Rita now live in the Rowan County woods with their two sons.

WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING

Advance critical praise for Chris Offutt’s Out of the Woods is uniform in lading it as a successful followup to Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice, and The Good Brother.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes the thematic resonance as, “Violence, dislocation, the contradictory yearning for sustaining roots and for the rootless freedom of the road, as well as the difficult negotiations between men and women — all figure in this strong and startling collection,” concluding “There’s little good news in these tales, but there is in compensation ferocious portrait of an otherwise almost invisible culture, rendered in a salty, spare prose.”

Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review in its November 2, 1998 issue, saying “all [the stories] deal with the magnetic pull of the Kentucky hills on those born there.”

 

 



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