When it came to titling his latest memoir, Chris Offutt went with the main thrust: My Father, the Pornographer.
“It was just called ‘Dad Book’ for a long time, as its working title—I had tons of titles that were awful. I’m not the greatest title inventor,” says Offutt, whose debut story collection, Kentucky Straight, was named by his college roommate. (A canny editor titled his first memoir, The Same River Twice.)
“With a book, I work on it, I finish it, and then there’s this pressure to come up with a title that encapsulates years of work, hundreds of pages,” he says. “And this one, I mean—here’s an example of how bad my idea for a title was: ‘Opening Porndora’s Box’ ... yeah. It was also suggested that I use the title of one of dad’s books or a derivation of it, and one of those suggestions was ‘Escape from Pussy Island,’ but that had its drawbacks, you know, as a title.”
Offutt is an award-winning author and screenwriter (True Blood, Weeds, Treme) who lives near Oxford, Mississippi. His father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, was a writer, too: in the span of his 57-year career, he wrote 400 novels under 18 names, and the vast majority were pornographic. He and his wife, who served as his full-time typist, never discussed the prurient content of the work with their children. They thought of him as a science-fiction/fantasy author, which he was, when he wasn’t writing porn, which was 99 percent of the time.
“My father was a brilliant man, a true iconoclast, fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish, and eternally optimistic,” Offutt writes. “Dad had no hobbies, no distractive activities. He didn’t do household chores, wash the car, mow the grass, go shopping, or fix anything. He never changed a lightbulb. I never saw him hold a screwdriver, stand on a ladder, or consult a repair manual. His idea of cleaning was to spit on a tissue and wipe the object. He didn’t sleep much. He drank. He rarely left the house. Dad was an old-school pulp writer, a machine who never stopped. In his home office hung a handmade sign that said: ‘Writing Factory: Beware of Flying Participles.’ ”
Offutt spent the summer after his father’s death reckoning with his archive—1,800 pounds of paper—at the family home in eastern Kentucky. His intention was to write a comprehensive bibliography, not a memoir about their fraught father-son relationship.
“I didn’t intend to write this book, it was not my plan,” says Offutt. “I thought, I’ll assemble a bibliography and give it to a science fiction website and that’ll be that. Because there were some online bibliographies with incorrect pen names and incorrect titles—they were just wrong—and I thought that a writer, any writer, deserves a [correct] bibliography. As a result, I had no expectations [for the memoir]. I went into it from a very practical sense and was surprised by what I learned: that dad was both worse than I thought and better than I thought, and that’s probably the truth you’re going to learn if you delve into anybody’s life.”
Andy Offutt was ambitious, intelligent, and irascible. On the only vacations the family ever took together, to sci-fi conventions across the country, he all but disavowed the existence of his children in front of fans. (The kids were given their own hotel room, but not the number of their parents’ room.) An obsessive work ethic and alcohol abuse rendered him an absentee parent at certain critical times. It all influenced the man—and the writer—his son became.
“Despite lifelong difficulties with my father, I lived for his attention,” Offutt writes. “The only behavior that earned it was writing, which I began at age seven, eventually completing forty short stories before leaving home a decade later. I gave all the manuscripts to Dad, and he returned them with corrections. The lessons were mainly grammatical, but notes on structure and characterization were often embedded within his comments. Very occasionally I found lines to praise, which thrilled me for days. I transformed these slim kudos into proof that my father loved me as much as I loved him.”
“Everything I write is an attempt to understand myself and the world, and my relationship with the world, better,” Offutt says. “I think the act of writing [My Father, the Pornographer]has been relieving. I think it changed me, made me a better person and calmer. My feelings for dad didn’t change—I didn’t like him more and I didn’t love him less—but I may have gained an odd respect for certain things he was able to do, despite his limitations.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.