Chris Offutt: Looking Back, Looking In
Interview by Gavin J. Grant
We talked to Chris Offutt on the phone from Atlanta after his first night on a three-week tour for his new book, the May/June Book Sense 76 pick, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.
BookSense.com: Let's start with the secondary strand of your new book, No Heroes, for which you interviewed , your in-laws Arthur and Irene who are both Holocaust survivors.
Chris Offutt: I had a little tape recorder and it was very difficult -- particularly for Arthur. Before he decided to speak to me he had never spoken to anyone in his life [about this] -- I assume he has spoken to Irene. Once it started, it was like turning on a faucet that could not be turned off.
They came over here after the war. Arthur was sick. They were over there for a while just getting on their feet, and I think he went to school in Europe for a little while. They live in Queens, they've never left New York. Whenever I would see him I'd talk to him and take notes. I had tapes and piles of notes. I was always talking to him on the phone.
As a result of knowing them, I then met a lot of people who were a part of their community of Holocaust survivors who came to New York and were all around the same age. I spoke to other people, too: every one of their stories were amazing. To have survived and lived through what they lived through produces an amazing story -- and each one brutally different.
Do you think you'll do anything else with these stories in the future?
No, I don't think so. I did what I could with this, but it just wore me out. I can't imagine what else I could do with them.
It adds a different weight to a book when you have something like this in it.
I guess so. It was a risk and I had no idea if it would work.
Have you received much reaction from Holocaust survivors or groups?
No. There hasn't been a big hue and cry against it, so I think that's a positive sign.
Maybe that's because the book wasn't pushed as a Holocaust story?
It's not the main thrust of the book. I wound up with this material that was just shocking to me. I'm not Jewish, I wasn't raised around Jews, I'm not familiar with Jewish culture, and my wife is not particularly active in either the community or the faith. However, the history is very important. I didn't want to write a book about the Holocaust because I just can't. It's not my story, but I can write a book about family members, and particularly Arthur, a man I love very much. If I dealt with the material in terms of how it related to my life and my children, then that was an avenue into writing about a person's experience in World War Two.
The response I've had from Jews has all been very positive. There has not really been anything from people who were either other survivors or part of the community, or people who were involved with the recording of the testimonies, like the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
People in Kentucky have been supportive of the book. Particularly people who left and have a similar feeling to me. I'm not giving away any secrets when I say that the education system in eastern Kentucky is troubled.
It sounds like you were lucky to have had some good teachers along the way.
I was very lucky: I had about four good teachers in grade school and high school. I quit going to school, I dropped out and tried to join the army -- but I failed the physical so then I was in a terrible situation. I was 17 years old and I wanted nothing more than out, away from my family, away from the hills, away from this tiny community. I just could not believe I was stuck there, and I wound up going to college there.
At the same time, when I look at it now I can't believe that somebody didn't say, "Chris, why don't you go to school somewhere else? You're a real smart kid." No one ever encouraged me to go to graduate school afterward.
Did other students in your high school class go to college?
Sure. There's a girl I grew up with all the way through grade school, high school, and college, who is now the principle of a grade school in Rowan County. There was a woman who was the postmaster, her kids went to college. I'm sure there are others, but I haven't kept track. We were by far the unusual ones.
That book just wore me out. I've never written a book like that. I lived it and I wrote it. It was very difficult to endure that year there -- especially when I went there with such naïve hopes. I mean, I'm 40 years old, and was practically thinking like I was a kid going off to war or something, "I'm going to go and save the world, I'm going to be a hero."
It must have been hard realizing that you were hurting your kids by staying there.
That was the worst. That was the biggest motivation for leaving. I didn't know what to do. There were no options: the only option was to leave. I have since talked to someone whose father was a doctor in town and his father had told him that they have a very difficult time keeping doctors with kids in Morehead -- there's a small regional hospital. The doctors come in for a year or two, then they'll get the hell out, because the schools are so bad.
The only alternative would be to send your children to boarding school.
There are a few Christian private elementary schools, but not everybody wants to spend the money on that, or wants a Christian upbringing. The ironic thing about that area is that some of the teachers do that. It's not a good sign.
Everything gets compounded because when you get progressive educated people in there, they can't remain in because of their children.
The quote in Arthur's last section, "Home is where I hang my head," rings very true to me, and seems to encapsulate the book.
Yes. To me that's one of the places where the two stories dovetail. He's speaking about his experience as essentially a political exile and I feel it matches my own experience as a social exile.
But you keep attempting to go back.
I think Arthur was much smarter than me to realize that he couldn't go back and didn't want to go back. He also thought that if he went back he'd be disappointed. It took me five times -- and a book -- to realize that I'd be gravely disappointed.
Do you really think you're never going to go back to live in Kentucky again?
I don't know. My writing is essentially an act of self-exploration, and this book was exploring the final attempt to go back. I don't think I'm going to go back and I think this book is the result of it, and is how I got to the final liberating act of breaking me from Kentucky. I feel very good about that, even though it was painful. Going back was hard, writing was the most difficult book I've ever written, but ultimately the whole process has liberated me in amazing ways. I no longer feel compelled to identify myself as strictly as a Kentuckian, or a Kentucky writer, or as a son or a brother, or a Haldeman boy, or any of that stuff. I'm now able to shed that stuff. I took it all on myself, of course, but we're taught that we're supposed to take on these identities.
I don't know where I'm going to end up. I live in Iowa because of my job. My kids are well ensconced in school, but I'm not suddenly a Midwestern farmer. I would love to live in a big city. I like San Francisco, love New York, and I think Portland, Oregon is a kind of gritty, interesting town.
This book, No Heroes, is my attempt to be postmodern. Well, obviously a very small, perhaps concealed attempt, but in my way of thinking it's a postmodern book: the book addresses the writing of the book, and the character of Arthur, who is the subject of one of the narratives, interacts with me on the phone. My idea of being postmodern is very small, I'm such a conservative writer.
Including yourself and your thoughts on writing No Heroes as you're writing it -- was that a strange experience?
This book came out of the audiotapes and also my journals of going back to Kentucky. I keep pretty extensive journals -- I really wasn't able to write anything else but journals while I was there.
When I start writing a book, I keep a separate book journal and usually I just pack that up when it's all over. That one keeps me on track about what's happening, where my mind is, and what I want to accomplish. In this book I decided to include excerpts from that -- in the draft they were just called "Book Journal Excerpts," then I decided to title them. I had never done that before and it just seemed like it would work. It was one more way of trying to bring the two stories together. I set myself formal problems and technical challenges in this book, but the main challenge was how to bring these stories together; including excerpts from the book journal was one way.
How long have you been keeping journals?
I have one from 1968, so, since I was 10. And then they're pretty extensive as an adult. I still have them -- I'm going to use them for my next book. They're pretty boring journals, though, kind of similar to now. [Laughs]
When did you leave Morehead?
In 1999. I was there for the school year from fall '98 to spring '99. I went to Iowa in the new millennium -- when everyone was stockpiling water! Very silly.
Had you taught before going to Morehead?
I taught at the University of Montana, the University of New Mexico, and at Westland in Connecticut. I'm on the adjunct faculty for three different schools.
But the teaching itself wasn't enough to keep you in Kentucky.
Well, I enjoyed being in the classroom a great deal. I enjoyed working with writers from Kentucky, from where I was from.
The difficulties I had with living there were not really with teaching students -- I was not particularly welcomed by the university.
Why do you think that was, when they, after all, hired you?
I don't know. Perhaps it was because I was from there. Maybe that was a little threatening; most of the teachers are not from there. A great deal of the people do not recognize an M.F.A. as a good degree, they believe you have to have a Ph.D. to teach. The smaller the school, the more they believe in big degrees. That was a problem for another guy who was there with an M.F.A., and it was a stumbling block for me as a hire.
I have no idea what the problem was. One of them was the university stance on creative writing, they just did not respect it, they did not think it was that valid or worth being taught -- which is a doggone shame.
You're now back in Iowa City where you studied for your own M.F.A. How does it feel teaching besides your old teachers?
Well, I went from teaching at Morehead State, which is one of the few four-year colleges in a region where 30% of the people are illiterate, to Iowa City, which is the most educated city in the U.S. It was just amazing to go from one extreme to the other. I like teaching at Iowa a lot. The students are much more demanding than Morehead. If I were someone who just wanted to cruise and be lazy, I should have just stayed at Morehead.
I'm not on the permanent faculty at Iowa. It was a two-year job and it ended. I'll teach again in January. I had a year-and-a-half to go broke in [laughs] -- well, it was to finish this book and to get started on another one. I'll start a new book in June when I get off this tour.
In one place I read that you were going to write a book about your childhood, and in another I saw something about you working on a collection of stories?
I always work on two books at once because one book is always falling apart. So when it goes all to hell I go to the other book and vice versa. I have a half a book of short stories written about Lucy Moore. The book will be arranged chronologically by age. In the first story she'll be eight years old, and in the last she'll be in her seventies. Each story is an account of her life at different stages. Two or three of the stories are from the point of view of men she gets involved with, and the stories are first and third person. I'm pretty excited about it. I like writing about a woman -- it's an act of liberty. It's very freeing to use my imagination more and not feel I have to represent my gender.
Does it make you look at your own life differently?
It's forced me to examine my attitudes toward and friendship with women over the years. At the same time, Lucy Moore is very much a part of me.
Is Lucy Moore a Kentucky woman?
Oh yes. Everything I've ever written is set in the same place. [No Heroes] is the first book where I call Haldeman, Haldeman, and Morehead, Morehead. Always before I'd referred to Morehead as Rocksalt, and Haldeman was various places. In this book I opened the doors on them, and the book about my childhood will really open another.
Do you think as you write more books you're stripping away all the stories you've told instead of your actual story, and now you're getting closer to your own story?
I think in my first book, Kentucky Straight, there was a part of me that was trying to hide aspects of myself and where I was from within fiction, while at the same time trying to write stories that evoked the area. As I get older I'm much more interested in revealing the world to myself and getting to know myself. I've gone through periods where I'm deeply involved in [asking], "Who the heck is Chris Offutt?" That's what this book is all about, and I think the next one will be that, too.
Where I'm from is such an odd place. Last night I met a guy that I hadn't seen for maybe 30 years. He lived in town and our parents had been friends until they had a falling-out. We had the same attitudes exactly about where we'd grown up. He'd left when he was 18, and now lives in Atlanta. It was interesting to talk to someone else and realize that there's a level of shame to be where you're from because it's such a strange place -- and struggle with wanting to go back and realizing that you can't. He told me that the next time people suggested he move back home, he would just give them No Heroes and say, "Read this book and you'll know why I'll never come back home."
I've already had email and letters from people around the country. I've never had such a quick response to a book. It seems to have touched a lot of different people.
In answer to the question about peeling back the layers, yes, I'm trying to peel back the layers on myself, and I use where I'm from as the canvas to paint various self-portraits in different areas. Hopefully I can strip away enough where I don't have to do it anymore, where I can be free to write something completely unrelated to where I'm from.
Like a series of mysteries set in Paris…
Yes, and the research, of course, would be a year in Paris. Like Alan Furst. He's a pretty good writer.
What are you reading? Anything you recommend?
I read all the time, but my education was so terrible I'm still playing catch-up with the canon. I don't read as much contemporary fiction as I should. I think Robert Stone's a great writer. I read Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Flannery O'Connor is one of my all-time favorite authors. I also like Dorothy Allison, I think she's a good writer. Ian Rankin, I've read all his books.
The next book I want to read is Atonement -- everybody says it's great. I used to hate to read books everybody said were great, and now I think, Well, I'm a big boy, I should be able to read a book and see. So I'm going to try to pick that up.
I read a lot of short stories. I like to read first books by young writers. They put a lot into a first book -- 30 or 40 years. Then, with their second book they put 18 months or something. Young writers have nothing to lose or live up to, so they tend to take risks.
There's some very interesting writing going on in short stories by young women right now. By young women, I mean women under 40, such as Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, Stacey Richter, and Julia Slavin. These people are doing amazing things with the short story. I think it's the freshest work going.
Chris Offutt's previous books include two collections of short stories, Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, a novel, The Good Brother, and a memoir, The Same River Twice.
Author photograph by Sandy L. Dyas.