Awful Things, Noble Reasons: A Conversation with Chris Offutt

July 20, 2021   •   By Daneet Steffens

CHRIS OFFUTT, who was born and grew up in rural Eastern Kentucky (“It’s all the same place I write about,” he says. “It’s always Haldeman and Morehead in Rowan County I just change the names sometimes”), is the author of short stories, memoirs, television scripts, essays, and novels. His debut short-story collection, Kentucky Straight, won awards and recognitions from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. More recently, he wrote My Father, the Pornographer, his 2016 memoir about his father’s life, and, in 2018, published the novel Country Dark.


His new novel, The Killing Hills, opens with an old man foraging in the hills, who comes across a body. It’s an elemental scene-setting: “He was eighty-one years old, the oldest man in the community, the only old man he knew…” Observing the nearby trees, the man knows that “two trees were enough to keep a family warm all winter” his is a way of life without waste. And upon seeing the body he “recognized her features well enough to know her family name.” And that’s all just within the first two electrifying pages.


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DANEET STEFFENS: Was this opening the first scene that came to you for the book?


CHRIS OFFUTT: Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed crime fiction and when I thought that I would write fiction as a young man I just assumed that’s what I would write: there’s law enforcement in my family, and I’ve known a lot of semi-outlaws and criminals. My last two novels, The Good Brother and Country Dark, in my mind, were crime novels but they weren’t regarded that way. And some of my short stories have dealt with either law-enforcement officials or people living on the edges of maybe not crime, but certainly on the edges of polite society. So with this one I thought, “Okay, if I start with a dead body in the opening scene, by golly they won’t have any choice but to say, ‘Okay, it’s a crime novel.’” So yes, it was very deliberate and pragmatic.


Two of the primary characters are Linda, the local sheriff, and her brother Mick Hardin, an Army CID agent, home on military leave because his wife is pregnant. When Linda corrals Mick into helping with her investigation, it’s clear that his insider-outsider role benefits him: he’s a local boy, but the fact that he’s been away makes a difference too, doesn’t it?


Well, he was trained as an investigator externally to that world. But anybody who lives in a tight community — whether it’s an isolated community of 400 to 500 people in in the hills of Appalachia, as it is here, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn, or a small town in Montana — if you grow up there, you know that world. A lot of people prefer to stay; then there are some who are eager to leave. My experience was similar to Mick’s: I was eager to leave because I didn’t quite fit in, and neither does he for different reasons than mine. But the minute Mick left, he realized, “Well, I fit in out here even less than I did at home,” though he did enjoy being stationed in Europe and pursuing investigations on military bases. And his insider-outsider status does make him more adept at investigating than his sister. She’s lived there all her life, knows everybody, has received formal training, but is now facing her first homicide as a sheriff. Part of being an elected law-enforcement official is keeping people happy and doing enough to make sure you get reelected as well as solving whatever crimes come down the pike. Sometimes, though, local political corruption can get in the way. That’s part of what Linda is up against.


Linda’s deputy, Johnny Boy, has a telling exchange with Linda during the investigation: “Everywhere else, folks live a little bit longer every year. Our lives are getting shorter on average. Ain’t nowhere else in the county that’s happening. Twenty years ago, the life span here was longer.” “The hills are killing us.”


Well, first of all it’s true. And Johnny Boy seemed like he would be aware of it: he likes to be informed, he’s active on the internet — Mick would not have that information. Once I learned it, I wanted to include it. It’s a terrible thing: in the past 20 years the lifespan of people in Appalachia has actually decreased. This may change given our current circumstances under COVID-19, but that was significant to me and also made for a good title. “The killing hills” sounds like one thing in a crime novel, and what it refers to here is actually much stronger and more interesting.


It’s doing what a good crime novel does, interleaving social and political issues as part of the story.


I think that’s an advantage of crime fiction: at its best, it contains a social commentary that is absent from a lot of other fiction. It gives you that option, and part of it is because any investigation engages with a number of characters from a variety of backgrounds. That was appealing to me, the societal element.


Speaking of the way good crime fiction addresses societal issues, I read in an earlier interview that you like Ian Rankin’s books.


Yes, I’ve read the Rebus series. I also read about who had influenced Rankin, a writer named William McIlvanney who wrote a novel called Laidlaw. I really loved that book — I’ve read it three times in the past few years. If I find somebody I like, I try to find out who influenced that person and then read them as well.


Vernon and Freddie, a couple of hitmen, appear briefly but memorably: I particularly enjoyed the scene which covers what they discuss during their downtime fast food and movies, from space films to rom-coms. How much fun did you have conjuring up these characters? Or were they drawn from people you know?


They were more invented than drawn. All the local people in the book are much more based on people I knew. With these guys, I thought I could have a bit more fun. They’re fish out of water — they’re from Detroit and not at the top of their game. I thought, “What would these guys do when they’re stuck in a car for hours, in the woods, waiting for someone who they don’t even know what he looks like apart from a small photo? They have to talk about something.” I had a great time with them. And that guy they work for, Charley Flowers, that’s a character’s name from one of my very favorite crime novels, Dead City by Shane Stevens. So that was an homage to Stevens, this novelist who’s kind of lost and forgotten.


Who are you reading these days?


I reread the first five books by Walter Mosley in the past month because his work influenced me quite a bit even before I started writing this crime series. He was writing about an African American community in L.A., from within a community that was disparaged and that people didn’t know much about; he was really showing what I believe was the way of this community and how people would interact with each other. That was what I wanted to do with this series with Mick Hardin: show the hills the way they are and who these people are. And last night I started the new August Snow novel by Stephen Mack Jones. He’s a really good writer.


So The Killing Hills is the beginning of series?


Yeah. I loved writing this book so much that within six weeks of finishing it I wrote a second one. It felt as if, after 30 years of writing, I had finally been able to use my entire vocabulary, both humor and seriousness, and really depict the hills as they are. This book tracks Mick, and his central relationship is with his sister, right? But my approach was that neither of them are the protagonist, that the protagonist is actually the culture of Eastern Kentucky. That was something that I saw Mosley doing with his community, and that Jones does with Detroit to a certain extent. Massimo Carlotto, an Italian writer who is another favorite, he writes that way too, and Jean-Claude Izzo who wrote about Marseille. I’m actually working on third book in the series now, but I’ve just realized that I’m going to have to cut about 50 pages: I wrote myself into a pickle and all of my solutions so far have only increased the pickle-hood, so now I need to go back and pour out some of the brine.


Protagonists and hitmen aside, are there other characters in this book you’re particularly fond of?


I love all of them, frankly, even the bad guys. I love them because I understand them. I understand what it’s like to be a person who makes a terrible decision even though at the time it seems like a right decision. Tucker, in Country Dark, is really an exploration of that. He does some awful things, but they’re for very noble reasons and that makes for an interesting character. I even like the secondary characters in The Killing Hills, like the undertaker and the guy who works at the gas station — and that gas station is a real place, by the way: they sell gas, Bibles, and tires. Loving your characters means you can treat them with compassion.


And I think that’s necessary for me as writer and for this kind of a book about a world and a region and area and a culture that has not always been treated with compassion. If I love all my characters, that makes it easier to bring compassion to them, and that will then perhaps translate to a reader having a greater understanding of this essentially foreign world that’s geographically isolated, in which people are isolated from each other, a world that has been operating as more of a colony of the United States within the country’s own borders than anything else.


Across your career, you’ve written in many formats. Is there a particular format in which you find yourself the most comfortable?


That’s changed over time. When I first started, I wrote short stories because they seemed like they were a way to experiment formally within a short period of time, to learn about point of view, tense, place, structure. I was comfortable with that until I ran into the restriction of page numbers. I always wanted to write novels but it seemed as if I’d need chunks of time for that, prolonged chunks of time, and there were always things interfering with that. Those memoirs, every single one was accidental, believe it or not.


The first one was based on journals that I didn’t know what to do with — I’d tried writing them into short stories, but … The second one was intended to be a novel, a prequel to The Good Brother, but then the experience of going back home at 40, living in the place where I’d grown up, interacting with the people that I’d grown up with, that was far more interesting than anything I thought I could invent while I was living there. And the one about Dad was not only accidental but also necessary and exhausting. But all those things also interfered with my getting back to novels. Now it’s going to be nothing but novels.


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Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.