Chris Offutt took a long break from writing books to write for Hollywood. With “Country Dark,” he returns to the novel — and delivers an impressive and gripping tale of a man trying to do right by his family, no matter the cost.
In this e-interview, Offutt reflects on his time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the shape of his career, and the notions of loyalty and honor that underpin “Country Dark” — notions he believes we would be well served to incorporate into our lives today.
Q: Tell me about the origin of this story. What led to the writing of “Country Dark?”
A: The 1960s were a time of great change in the hills of Appalachia, including the War on Poverty, the building of the interstate, a greater emphasis on medical care and education. I was a child then. The adults were inadvertently witnessing the end to their cultural and geographic isolation. I was interested in writing about them, the adults who were living in the same way people had 200 years before. They didn’t know that they were the last generation.
Q: It’s been awhile since you released a book of fiction — and before the 2016 publication of your third memoir, it had been quite some time since you’d had a book of any kind out. Why the long stretch between books?
A: I lived in Iowa City for the quality of education for my sons. I’d been getting by as an adjunct teacher at a number of schools — the UI Writers’ Workshop, Grinnell College, and Mercer University in Georgia. My sons wanted to go to college and I had about $7,000 to my name. To finance their education, I worked in Hollywood for 10 years. That work interfered with the sustained effort necessary to (write) a novel. During that period, I wrote about 40 short stories and essays. When my sons graduated from college, I quit Hollywood and returned to writing novels.
Q: Tucker lives by a nuanced code of honor. Would you say his code is representative of the people who live in the hills of Kentucky today — or in the period you write about? Or is Tucker more of a mythic figure in this regard?
A: His code of honor is based on that of the Kentucky hills. It’s also combined with my own sense of behavior toward people. You help people when you can. You defend your family. You remain loyal to those you love and care about. You keep your word.
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What’s odd to me is that living this way is considered old-fashioned. It seems very simple to me. The world of today could benefit from compassion, keeping one’s word, generosity and trust.
Q: One of the things that really struck me about “Country Dark” is how you were able to tell an expansive story so compactly. Is this a winnowed down version of a longer manuscript or was the compactness part of the project from the beginning? What technical challenges did the book offer?
A: I trimmed the manuscript in revision, but not drastically. Mainly I cut out characters and scenes that didn’t directly impact the protagonist or his narrative. I’ve read hundreds of novels that rely heavily on exposition, description, and psychological insight, most of which strikes me as boring and too long. As a reader, I tend to hurry through those parts. I wanted to write a book that was “unskimmable.” Where the description, insight, action, and character were part of each sentence. It’s a harder task. But worth it. I prefer reading books like that.
As far as technical challenges, the main one in all narratives is the handling of time. Temporal motion, so to speak. In my work, I strive for the simplest, most direct solution to any formal problem. In the case of “Country Dark,” that meant jumping forward to the dramatic parts of Tucker’s life.
Q: Tell me about your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a student and faculty member, and how it shaped your writing. You were a longtime Iowa City resident, and I’m interested in how the robust writing community contributed to your craft.
A: Although I’d spent a decade writing, I’d never shown my work to anyone. The prospect was terrifying. Due to my childhood in the hills and a young adulthood working as a laborer, I’d learned to conceal my intelligence and love of literature. At Iowa, for the first time in my life, I was allowed to be smart. I also met people smarter than me, which I loved. Iowa gave me permission to write for the world, not just myself. I will always be grateful.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve started another novel. It’s still in the early stages. I also have a completed book of short stories and a completed book of essays.