Appalachian History: A Conversation with ‘Country Dark’ Author Chris Offutt
Offutt talks about outdoor labor, the erasure of his hometown’s history, his new novel, and mourning Denis Johnson.
After reading and reviewing author Chris Offutt’s new novel, Country Dark, I was privileged to get to speak to him via email over the span of a few weeks. The interview below represents a selection of that conversation. We spoke about his new novel, working outdoors, the loss of his hometown to modernity, and more.
Eric Shonkwiler: Your latest novel, Country Dark, centers on Tucker, a young Korean War veteran and his family, beset with bad luck that only gets worse after Tucker commits a violent act of preservation. What was the inspiration behind this book?
Chris Offutt: Initially I wanted to write a grand saga of three generations in the hills. I had an ending in mind for the second and third generation. It made sense to start with the first one — the grandfather. But I became enthralled by Tucker and never made it past 1971! The more I wrote about him, the more I became interested in him. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t indulge in self-examination and isn’t overly self-conscious. At the same time, he’s very smart and resourceful. He takes quick action but is never reckless. As a result, you can throw anything at him and he’ll confront it head-on. It was fun to inhabit him for three years.
You mentioned in our conversation that you write books that “make you vulnerable to yourself.” What were you looking to find out about yourself, and Kentucky, in writing Country Dark?
The novel is set where I grew up — a community of 200 linked by dirt roads, creeks, and paths through the woods. Appalachia is an unusual place to grow up. I didn’t know that until I left. It took years to understand that my childhood had occurred during a time of dramatic change — construction of the Interstate, the War on Poverty, the arrival of cable TV. I was interested in writing about the adults who witnessed this massive cultural shift in the hills. These days the roads are paved and the houses have piped-in water from town instead of wells. My hometown is gone, my grade school is shut down, the railroad tracks are taken up, and the ZIP Code has been rescinded. I’m not convinced that water and blacktop are worth the sacrifice.
Can you talk a little about what was sacrificed? It’s there in the text and subtext of the novel, but I’d love to hear you expound on that. What did you lose — beyond the physical underpinnings?
The sense of community was sacrificed. And a sense of individual identity as being from a specific place on a map with its own ZIP Code. Losing community begins the erasure of history. I don’t think water and blacktop — the only signs of progress — are worth the sacrifice of identity and community to the people who live there.
Did writing Country Dark help you confront that loss?
Not really. The world of Country Dark is imagined. Writing about Haldeman, Kentucky, as nonfiction in My Father, the Pornographer, was a direct confrontation with that loss.
Country Dark is a richly imagined world, nonetheless. You manage a rare feat, I think, in creating a world that cleaves to its prose — that is, the expression and the thing seem to be one and the same. There are many books out there, good nonetheless, that fall short of that goal. How did you go about finding the narrative voice of Country Dark, unadorned yet expressive, and was it a process that’s similar to your other work?
I try to choose a narrative voice that suits the story, the protagonist, and the tone of the book. In this book it was a blend of occasional vernacular with a direct approach to language. Tucker is pragmatic and resourceful and self-reliant. I wanted the language to reflect him and his strong relationship with the land. For a long time I’ve tried to develop a way of using language that was rich and complex while using a relatively simple vocabulary. At best, a monosyllabic lyrical style.
Speaking of voice, there are some moments of real humor that I can’t let go unremarked on — I mean knee-slappingly funny to the point that I looked strange reading them in an airport — and they struck me as so true to country life. Can you talk a little bit about humor in your work? Is “You shit and fall back in it” a familiar expression to you?
For thirty years I’ve dutifully written down scraps of spoken dialogue I heard in life. They are organized in a document with categories and subheadings. The funnier lines came from that. The world of the hills is a talking culture. Books, poetry, and visual art do not abound. Music is the primary form of artistic expression, which includes lyrics, so we’re back to language. I believe the emphasis on verbal expressiveness in the hills has produced a unique way of describing the world, people, and emotions.
This is true of other places as well. Any group of people that are isolated by geography and ignored due to economics retain a non-homogenous way of communicating. They also tend to enjoy laughter. I’ve seen this in the hills as well as the Mississippi Delta, on Indian Reservations, and various barrios. Oppressed people lack power and resources. But one thing that can never be taken away is a sense of humor. Laughter is crucial to survival.
From your writing, it’s clear you spend quite a lot of time outdoors, and are familiar with that kind of labor and living. Tucker benefits from the same kind of intimacy with nature. What are you working on in the real world? Do you like that kind of labor, or is it old hat, a chore?
I live on 14 acres at the end of a dead-end gravel road. Pond, open field, and a creek, all bordered by a tree line. Yesterday I found the first morel of the season, or as we called them back home — a “dryland fish.” I enjoy outside labor immensely. There’s always some chore to get done. I use a battery-powered chainsaw because it’s lighter to handle than gas. Best of all, the battery runs down after a couple of hours, which forces me to quit!
Last year I tore down a large dog kennel that someone had built in the past: posts set in concrete, a 2x4 frame taller than my head, covered with hog wire. I did it myself with one tool — a long crowbar. The whole time I worked, I thought about writing and how the physical labor was similar to revision. First, I had to figure out how the kennel was assembled, then the best approach to dismantling it. It was all very methodical. At the end was a pile of scrap that was much smaller than the structure had been — just like the pages I cut from a manuscript. It had a poured cement pad that I can use as a foundation to build something else, a shed or a writing studio. It reminded me of taking the bare bones of a failed story and starting again.
Yes, I like that work, a lot. But only because it’s mine, I suppose. Not something I’d want to do for someone else — either the demolition or the editing.
I’ve noticed that you speak like a teacher quite often — there’s always some guidance, even if only a nudge, in most of your interviews and in the conversation we’ve had thus far. How long have you been at it?
I’m the oldest of four kids and began taking care of my siblings when I was twelve. I’m also a father to two sons. My impulse is to help, to try and ease the burdens of others. I try to be a good neighbor and give a hand to strangers. What sounds to you like a teacher might also be the result of feeling responsible toward others. It’s a very minor attempt at making the world a smidgeon better.
I started teaching in 1996 at the U. of New Mexico as a visiting writer. Over the years, I had short-term teaching positions at the U. of Montana, U. of Iowa, Grinnell College, Mercer College, and my alma mater of Morehead State in Kentucky. I now teach at the University of Mississippi.
What are some of the hardest lessons to teach, and were they as hard to learn, yourself?
Courage is nearly impossible to teach, but is crucial. The courage to write what is important to you. It also takes a certain courage to be objective in the revision process. It’s hard to cut what you wrote. There’s always the fear that you will make it worse.
One thing that’s difficult to teach is the difference between polishing and revising. It’s very rare that a first draft is good enough to merely require the polishing of each sentence and paragraph. It’s hard to dismantle a narrative and rebuild it — but that’s the nature of revision. Writing is revising.
Does teaching fuel your writing the same way working with your hands seems to inform it, or is it too closely related?
No, teaching does not fuel my writing any more than any job ever has. I was happiest as a dishwasher, but teaching pays better. Working outside is the opposite of the imaginary life of the mind. Physical reality is concrete, bound by fierce laws. Art is free. I need the hard reality of nature to offset the absurdity of occupying invented narratives. Both require intense focus and each is draining in very different ways.
What are you reading and enjoying right now?
I just finished Whiskey, a novel by Bruce Holbert. It’s his third book. I like all his books but really like this one, especially the dialogue. He wrote for 30 years and started publishing at age 50. His work reflects that time — he’s developed his own prose style that is astonishing. I’m looking forward to Sara Gran’s new book The Infinite Blacktop. Great title! I have a copy of Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson. But I can’t read it yet. I’m still mourning his death. Denis was a close friend, the best man at my wedding. I’ll read it after the grief has lifted.
I’m a very principled reader with high standards. My sole interest is the quality of the prose, believability of dialogue, freshness of language, depth of insight, and clear imagery in description. When I encounter books where it’s obvious that the writer does not care about the precision of language, I quit and start reading another book. A writer who doesn’t care about language is like a woodworker who doesn’t care about tools. The result will be sloppy and weak.
I’d love to know your thoughts on the point-of-view shifts in Country Dark, where new chapters greet the reader with a new character’s POV, sometimes almost surprising in their distance from the previous chapter.
I thought I’d try the point-of-view shifts and see if I could pull it off. I liked the idea of introducing new characters that the protagonist will meet later. When those shifts worked, I kept them in the narrative. At times they didn’t, so I cut them out of the manuscript.
I’d like to hear about your decision to end with a short, summarizing epilogue of the characters we’ve come to know in the novel. I’ve never encountered that sort of epilogue before, and I really enjoyed it. What made you choose to close that authorial distance, to make the reader aware of the narrative in front of them, in those moments?
If I like reading a book, the characters become alive for me and I often wonder what became of them after the book ended. I felt the same at the end of this book. Writing the epilogue was a way of providing me with the rest of their lives after the primary narrative ended. Plus, they were fun.
Will you speak a little about what you’re writing now?
I just finished a novel I’ve worked on for a long time called Monkey Blue. It’s set in contemporary Lexington, Kentucky. My editor has it, so I’ll learn its fate soon. I’m working on another novel set in the hills.
CHRIS OFFUTT is the author of the short-story collections Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, the novels The Good Brother and Country Dark, and three memoirs: The Same River Twice, No Heroes, and My Father, the Pornographer. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays, among many other places. He has written screenplays for Weeds, True Blood, and Treme, and has received fellowships from the Lannan and Guggenheim foundations. Find him at chrisoffutt.com.
ERIC SHONKWILER is the author of Above All Men, 8th Street Power & Light, and Moon Up, Past Full. He is the winner of the Coil Book Award, Luminaire Award for Best Prose, and a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. He was a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at the University of California Riverside and a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence in West Virginia.