On “My Father, The Pornographer”: An Interview with Chris Offutt

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It’s not everyday that a tedious archiving endeavor begets a memoir worthy of praise from The New York Times.

When a writer named Andrew Offut V passed away in 2013, his son—the then 55-year-old Mississippi writer Chris Offutt—was charged not just with legal affairs and the matter of relocating his widowed mother. Chris was to dismantle the contents of the home office in which his father had worked for more than fifty years.

Before he died, Andy Offutt had written a secret will dictating as much. “On you, Chris, I decided this task and onus must fall,” he wrote, “and this is oh-fficial.” A dutiful son, Chris spent the summer of 2013 in the Kentucky hills of his youth, excavating said office, and ultimately inheriting a writing desk, a rifle, and 1,800 pounds of his father’s original pornographic fiction.

While Chris and his three younger siblings knew that Andrew had peddled in porn—and even that his devoted wife (their mother) had served as his typist—they were not aware that Andrew was widely considered “the king of twentieth-century smut.” Indeed, Chris ultimately discovers the man published more than 370 works of pornography touching on a range of fetishes, quirks, and predilections—Andrew penned pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn. He wrote most of it under pseudonyms (while he favored “John Cleve,” Andrew employed a total of sixteen noms de plume). As it turns out, Andrew had also composed hundreds more manuscripts that never made it into print. Chris also uncovers his father’s personal passion: sadomasochism.

Andrew, who started in sci-fi and fantasy, got into pornography during the pre-VHS heyday of literary smut: the 1970s. A developer of impressive, assembly line-like techniques to meet the explosive market demand for porn, Andrew could write a book in three days. He created batches of raw material in advance—phrases, sentences, descriptions, and entire scenes organized into three-ring binders and dedicated to descriptions of the female body (think: “thrusty artillery shells” as a simile for breasts).

Not surprisingly, Andrew was a father as complex as they come—brilliant, megalomanical, insecure, isolated, frequently bourbon-logged, easily offended, and prone to epic lash-outs. The Offutts’ only family vacations involved frequent travels to sci-fi and porn “cons”—raucous bacchanals where Andrew was often invited to speak, and where both Chris’s parents were known to engage in on-the-side trysts. On multiple occasions, Andrew told his son Chris that, had he not written pornography, he fears he would’ve acted on his fantasies of violence against women and become a serial killer. After Andrew finally succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, Chris wrote that he and his family grieved “the man, but not the death.”

In organizing Andrew’s affairs, Chris gained tremendous insight into his father’s demons, as well as his genius. The result is an ultra-compelling, often hilarious, and remarkably un-titillating memoir about the psychic burdens one generation passes along to the next. It’s also a transporting book about coming of age in the Appalachian hills, the story of a backwoods boy who decides to become a writer—in part to impress his mercurial scribe of father.

My Father, The Pornographer (Atria Books, February 2016) is the third memoir from Chris Offutt, who has also published novels, stories, essays, and screenplays. Chris took my call from his own home office outside Oxford, Mississippi, where he teaches screenwriting and graduate fiction. His father’s writing desk is now in storage, but Chris keeps his old man’s 1952 high school writing trophy on his own desk, as well as his father’s Playboy Club key (spoiler: it doesn’t work anymore). Offutt spoke candidly about what went into this unusual book—intellectually and psychologically. Toward the end of our conversation, he also revealed a fun, coincidental fact about his first-ever published story.

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I read that you wrote something like thirty-three drafts of this book in two-and-a-half years. How did the original incarnation compare to the final product?

My early drafts are loose and floppy. I don’t think I’m a very good writer, but I’m a really good reviser—I always have to revise a lot. And in this process, I cut 150 pages. There were things in there that seemed important and interesting at the time I wrote them, because my writing philosophy is just, Follow the impulses along, and see where they go. I ultimately got rid of some big sections about my father’s parents’ lives, and another section about my mother’s family. I also had a lot about the history of pornography, going back to the invention of the printing press. But, I realized that kind of thing deserves its own book, and that a scholar is the person to write it—not me.

Tell me about the moment you realized you had to write a memoir about your father’s pornography career.

I made an attempt at it several years ago, and my parents were upset about it, which bothered me. It just seemed like, I’m a professional writer. I should be able to write what I want in the same way they did without regard to their family. So I wrote it anyway, but it didn’t turn out very well, because of lack of insight, and because of anger—and just being irritated by their opposition to it.

When I started what actually became this book, it was never with the intention to write a memoir. I was just going through my father’s stuff, and just wanted to assemble his professional bibliography. And this was for two reasons—there are websites about porn and websites about sci-fi, and many of them have wrong information about Dad and his career and his pseudonyms and what he wrote. I also thought, Every writer deserves a bibliography. So my plan was to just assemble the bibliography and send it off to a website and say, “Here it is—the real, valid one.”

So how did that evolve into this book?

Because there was just so much, and so much I didn’t know about—so many more books and pseudonyms than I was expecting. I started taking notes, and then the notes became more extensive—I was writing about what I was remembering from my life, and his life, as I went through the stuff. And sometimes I’d remember something—say, I’d find a manuscript, and remember Dad talking about it—so I’d jot down those memories. Basically, I was going through his stuff, writing down my own thoughts and perceptions, and so the book sort of just came out of those notes—lots of short sections and segments at first. Once I finished the bibliography [which appears at the end of the memoir], I was exhausted, and I had almost four hundred manuscript pages.

So your research and writing occurred simultaneously.

Yes. And in fact, it was hard to get information about my father’s work. A lot of the people involved were dead or dying. I was able to get some information from pornography collectors and a couple publishers, and I also read porn history books that would mention Dad and his pseudonyms. But at first, when I would call the publishers and book dealers and collectors, there would be a reluctance to talk about it. Once I told them who I was, and explained who my dad was and what I was doing, there was enormous cooperation and willingness to help.

I later found out from some of the collectors who were interested in vintage books and porn that when someone in that field dies, the family typically just throws everything out. Or, the pornographer doesn’t preserve it. So, it’s unusual to have everything. But with dad living fifty years in the same house and never throwing anything away, I didn’t have to do too much research other than going through tens of thousands of pages—four hundred manuscripts and drafts and letters.

Toward the end of the book, you reveal the toll this research process took on your psyche, as well as your libido. How do you feel now that it’s out in the world?

I’m glad I wrote it, relieved to have it done. It was overwhelming at every step. Once I’m done with the promotional aspect, I’ll be interested to see what effect it has on me, where I am in five years. Right now, I’m still relieved and slightly unburdened.

How do you think your father would have reacted to this book? Based on his character on the page, it seems like he would’ve enjoyed the attention, the nod to his brilliance.

I never could have written it if he were still alive. Once he died, I didn’t have to keep the pornography a secret anymore, and I knew he couldn’t hurt me anymore, so there was a fear that evaporated. And I don’t think my mother—a tremendously valuable source of information—would’ve been as open and forthcoming if Dad wasn’t dead.

How did she and your siblings react to the book?

They’re all appreciative and supportive; they have been all along. I believe we all had separate childhoods, and there were things in the book that they never knew. I very carefully tried to avoid writing about them too much, because I didn’t think that was fair—they had their own experiences and perceptions of our dad.

What if any impact do you think all that charged sexuality in your childhood home—not to mention its cloud of secrecy—had on you as a writer?

When I first started fiction, I avoided sex scenes because there aren’t that many ways to write about sex, and I did not want to write pornographically like my dad, so I just sort of skipped over those parts. I eventually realized, this is a part of life, and I just have to figure out a way to write about it, so I use metaphor more to describe sex.

Also, while it can be embarrassing to say, “I wrote my third memoir at age fifty-five,” it’s quite possible this could be related to all the secrecy—I mean, memoir is the exact opposite of pseudonymous writing.

You’ve written a lot of screenplays [including episodes of Tremé, True Blood, andWeeds]. Can we ever expect to see a film version of My Father, The Pornographer?

I’ve adapted my fiction before, but I have no idea how this would work. Movies are ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes long, so by their nature they have to be very truncated stories, and they rarely move through big chunks of time. At this point, I’d consider it if someone paid me, but it’d be hard. Last summer, a director approached me about it, but at that point I’d finished a draft I thought was final, and I thought, I can’t imagine continuing to occupy this world— and my father’s mind—any further, and I said, “Look, it’s too soon.”

My attitude toward Hollywood is like Dad’s attitude towards porn [Andrew originally got into the then lucrative field of pornography to pay for Chris’s adolescent orthodontia bills]—I had two boys going to college, and I had no money, so I thought, I’ll go to LA, get the money to pay for college and get out. There’s a lot of money and it’s really intense and interesting and cool, but I didn’t want to get stuck the way Dad had gotten stuck in porn—I wanted to be in Mississippi writing fiction.

So what’s next for you?

I set a novel to the side when Dad died. I thought, After I’m done with this estate business—there was a long period of clearing stuff out and dealing with legal stuff—I’ll get back to it. I’m also doing a lot of food essays [check out Oxford American‘s“Cooking With Chris” column], which is hilarious to me, so maybe that’ll be a book collection one day. Whenever I’m sad or down, my wife says, “Why don’t you go write a food essay?”, so as a result they’re funny and silly, and I enjoy writing them. So, I imagine I’ll just write some more food essays and focus on fiction.

Tell me about your process of writing fiction vs. nonfiction.

I’ve been going back and forth between the two since I was a kid, back when I didn’t know there was a difference. The only real difference with nonfiction is I typically know everything ahead of time, and that freedom really lets you focus on language and structure, so I enjoy that. But, my first love is fiction.

Speaking of which, I heard a rumor that an early story of yours graced the pages of Michigan Quarterly Review

Yep. In I think 1991, MQR published “Melungeons,” which eventually went into my first book of stories, Kentucky Straight. It was one of my … it might have been my second published story. Let me check.

So you maintain an author bibliography for yourself, too?

Yep. That was the biggest lesson I learned after dealing with Dad’s stuff. It got me to get my own stuff organized, so as to spare my own kids.

So let’s see [pauses]—“Melungeons” was accepted in September of 1990. Which means it was my very first acceptance [pauses]. Look at that. I had just graduated from grad school the spring prior. I was thirty-two, and I was so grateful for that first acceptance.

I’m so glad you were able to look that up. Congratulations, Chris–on that initial publication, and on your most recent one, this fantastic memoir.

Thank you. It’s good to be talking to you guys.

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 My Father, The Pornographer is available through Atria Books and Amazon.

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