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Chris Offutt: Getting it Straight, Kentucky Straight

Ace November 9, 2000
Getting it Straight
by Chris Offutt

I began writing the stories in Kentucky Straight after my return to Rowan County as a thirty-year-old newlywed. Rita and I lived on my homehill, in a house that had been hand-built by the oldest man in my community. The rear of the house sat on sloped earth, while the front porch rested on columns of stacked creekrock. I could walk to my parents’ house in five minutes. Their surprise wedding present had been half the cost of a secondhand woodstove. My parents lived in the house I grew up in, overlooking the main road, while Rita and I lived on the back ridge surrounded by woods. My neighbors were boys and girls I’d grown up with, now transformed to adults.

After a decade away, coming home as a husband and homeowner was a dream come true. I imagined that my family would welcome me, my children would attend the grade school at the bottom of the hill, and the woods would offer me solace after roaming the world. I had lived in New York, Boston, Florida and France, and I was more than ready to come home. I missed the woods, the flowers, the birds, and the creeks.

The reality of an Appalachian existence soon settled in – we could not find jobs and our savings evaporated. The house was essentially a construction site that lacked

Chris Offutt, photo by Sandy Dyas, Ace 2000

insulation, a kitchen, or a bathroom. We slept on a couch-bed in the same room where we cooked on a hotplate. Winter came and walking to the outhouse was a different proposition when the ground was covered with snow. Our woodstove couldn’t keep a fire overnight. After six months we were broke and desperate, and our marriage was in trouble.

Rita convinced me that our best escape was for me to attend graduate school in creative writing. It sounded like a preposterous idea, but I agreed to try. I wrote three stories set on the hill and applied to several schools. (One story concerned a carpenter who hoped to trade wild hemp plants for enough money to install plumbing in his house.) With no understanding of the politics of MFA programs, I chose schools based on geography – the desert, the Rocky Mountains, the plains, the southeast, and finally Michigan. I’d read about a large population of urban Appalachians in Ann Arbor, and I wondered if I’d find a home among them. I had never felt comfortable in the cities, and now I no longer belonged in the hills.

The stories I used for my application were page-numbered by hand. My GRE scores were weak, and my math was particularly atrocious. My letters of recommendation came from former teachers at Morehead State University, where my B.A. was in theatre with a minor in Art. I had acted in over 25 productions, but my first love was visual art. Writing was a habit I engaged in constantly, but never seriously. I wrote in the same way that chefs had always cooked, musicians had always played guitar, and athletes had always played ball. Writing was part of my life, like breathing or sleeping.

Within a month I was astounded to be accepted at all the schools. I assumed it was because I’d stressed on the application that we were living “without benefit of conventional plumbing.” I thought maybe the schools had a special quota for Appalachian-Americans, or that the administrators felt sympathy for me. It never occurred to me that MFA programs were competitive or that my stories showed promise. In fact, I called the director of each school to make sure I was the right Chris Offutt in Haldeman, Kentucky. They patiently assured me there was no mistake.

Iowa offered financial aid in the form of teaching freshman Rhetoric, and a few months later Rita and I borrowed a thousand dollars from a bank and left for the Writers’ Workshop. We camped for a week while looking for an affordable place. We rented an apartment in a condemned building with holes in the wall, but we were happy – the new place had a shower and a kitchen. The salary of ten thousand dollars a year was the most money I’d ever made. I rode a single-speed bicycle to school.

My fellow students were better-educated than me, with many already possessing advanced degrees. I had never met anyone from the Ivy League, or who’d attended private liberal arts schools. I was extremely intimidated and spent every afternoon walking in small patches of midwestern woods. The rest of the time I wrote stories about Kentucky. I used a second-hand electric typewriter and free paper that I acquired at a copy shop. The back of each page contained graphs and charts from a Ph.D thesis that had not been picked up.

The first year was very difficult. I had never had a writing course, never been exposed to criticism. My work was not popular with students, who had a way of discussing written work that was beyond me. Half the first class was devoted to talking about the story’s epiphany – did it have one? was it effective? did the character earn it? did it feel inevitable? I sat quietly. I had never heard the word “epiphany” before and had no idea what was being discussed. I was embarassed to expose my ignorance by asking what the word meant during class. I rushed home and opened my dictionary. “Epiphany” was defined as a visitation from Christ. I was stunned because I had completely missed the Christian implications of the story. Later, a sympathetic student explained to me that in literature, an epiphany meant a sudden change that a character undergoes. My first lesson had occurred.

I worked hard but my writing didn’t seem to improve, and I often thought of quitting, an old pattern since I had quit high school and college. I stayed at Iowa because I loved teaching, and was exhilirated by the contact with other writers, particularly the poets. The staunch support of my teachers – Frank Conroy, James Alan McPherson, and James Salter – gave me the confidence to write. Without them, I would never have lasted.

In spring an editor from Random House named Becky Saletan gave an hour-long talk, then had brief conferences with students. Like everyone, I had sent her a couple of stories weeks in advance. She told me my writing was good, but the stories were bleak. This made me angry and I told her the stories were intended to be hopeful, that certain realites in Appalachia were bleaker than she could imagine. She said to mail more work in the future.

Throughout the following year I sent her each story I wrote, but she didn’t like any of them. Also during that year my first son was born, and my first story was published in the Coe Review, a small quarterly in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The story was embarrassingly bad and the editor spelled my name wrong, but I was very proud. At the age of 32 I finally became a father and an author.

A few months later I received my MFA degree. No other magazine had taken a story, and a literary agent had declined to represent me. Broke and desperate once more, I found a job putting up rural mailboxes. Rita had worked until her due-date, but had not returned to her job as a social worker for the homeless. We had no idea how we’d get through the next month, let alone the year. Going to Iowa had bailed us out of Kentucky, but now we were deeper in debt and with a baby. My friends were leaving town and I had nowhere to go. For the first time, I was the one left behind.

On the morning of May 31st, 1990, Becky Saletan called. She liked four stories and wanted to make an offer on a collection. I began to cry. Becky asked if she should call back later. I awakened Rita and told her the news. We lay in bed for a long time with our four-month-old baby between us. Those few hours were among the happiest of my life.

Over the next two years I wrote ten more stories, and in Spring 1992, I turned in a final draft of an untitled collection. I wrote five of the stories while in the Writers’ Workshop – “The Leaving One,” “House Raising,” “Aunt Granny Lith,” “Old of the Moon,” and “Sawdust;” and three more after I completed the program – “Smokehouse,” “Blue Lick,” and “Nineball.” Only “Horseweed” was written in Kentucky, but it had gone through a workshop at Iowa, and a series of revisions.

I have the habit of meticulous organization, which allows me quick access to any aspect of my work. The drafts of each story are chronologically arranged in an extensive filing system. I revised the stories in Kentucky Straight an average of 20 times apiece over a four year period. The first drafts were extremely long, and I generally cut a third during revision. My rule of thumb was to cut the beginning and end to learn what the story was about, instead of trying to force the narrative into my agenda. During the last few months before publication, I revised three or four stories a day, hoping to lend coherence to the book.

Someone once told me that Kentucky Straight has a dark, claustrophobic feel, and wondered if that was intended to reflect the Appalachian world. The answer is practical rather than literary. I wrote most of these stories in a tornado cellar built in 1880. I added a plywood floor and two walls, and ran an extension cord across the dirt foundation for power. The room was very cold and I used an electric heater that never quite warmed the space. There were no windows. The only light was a clamp-lamp fastened to the overhead joist. Each morning I went outside and lifted a heavy door hinged to the floor of the porch, and descended into the dark bowels of the earth. One morning I stepped on the power cord of the heater and nearly fell as it seemed to writhe beneath my foot. I turned on the light and found myself standing on a snake that was undoubtedly as shocked as I was. I got rid of the snake, but afterwards I carried a flashlight on my daily descents. My writing from that period reflects a dark, enclosed work environment, not the hills of Kentucky.

People have often asked me if the stories are a representation of life in Appalachia. At age thirty, my goal was to provide a book for the people at home, a book about “us” instead of “them,” a book in which mountain readers could at last recognize their culture on paper, in language they could understand, without condescension. I wanted to write a book that acknowledged the harshness of life in the hills, but refused to continue the popular lies. My task was similar to that of other writers who are not part of mainstream American life, and whose culture is misrepresented in the popular media. I am talking about Black writers, Latino writers, Asian writers, Native American writers, and Gay writers. I read their works voraciously, seeking to learn how they used narrative to deal with oppression, prejudice, and limited opportunity.

I had lived in eastern Kentucky most of my life and had never met anyone resembling the characters in Lil Abner, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Beverly Hillbillies, or Deliverance. Nor had I ever met the flipside of these stereotypes – the simple but noble mountaineer, or the long-suffering provincial who lived a pure life, or the person living in bliss due to ignorance. Appalachia has many problems specific to the region which I didn’t want to ignore. At the same time, I hoped to depict life in the hills as similar to life anywhere – people striving to do well for themselves and their families. My goals were lofty and extensive, and I don’t think I was fully successful.

My adherence to the process of writing transformed the subject of this book into my own neuroses and obsessions, sorrow and joy. Eastern Kentucky is a land of steep hills and deep hollows, filled with equal parts of darkness and light. Perhaps my book is similar. It does not so much illuminate life in the hills, as it casts a shadow of the culture. Kentucky Straight says more about me than the region.

The field of Appalachian Literature is quite vast, dating back to the 1750s, with the majority being poetry and nonfiction. Two publishing enterprises have made significant contributions – Jonathan Greene’s Gnomon Press has a strong commitment to new voices, while the University Press of Kentucky has reissued many books long out of print. The finest book of nonfiction is Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry Caudill. It is both a history of the region as well as an impassioned plea to end the destruction of land in the name of out-of-state profiteering. The only writer to follow his lead is Denise Giardina, a novelist who is currently running for governor of West Virginia.

The relative scarcity of mountain fiction has allowed me to read most of the work, some of which had a very strong impact on my writing. The greatest Appalachian writer is James Still, whose novel River of Earth is a masterpiece of prose. The lesson of his carefully structured short stories is the use of syntax and idiom to imply dialect. Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, set in the Appalachians of the late 1950s, showed me people I knew, talking in a language I’d grown up hearing. I read that book many times, and took it with me to Iowa. Mildred Haun published a collection of linked stories, The Hawk’s Done Gone, that rendered mountain superstition in the oral cadence of the hills. Her book still contains the shock of recognition for me. The work of Lee Smith, particularly Black Mountain Breakdown, also guided me into the literature of contemporary Appalachia.

Writers from the past whose work informed mine are Robert Penn Warren, Harriet Arnow, Jesse Stuart, and Wilma Dykeman. In the era ahead of me, the writers include Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Jayne Anne Philips and Richard Currey. Within my own generation are Pinckney Benedict, Chris Holbrook, Lisa Koger, Robert Morgan, Linda Scott DeRosier, and Karen Salyer McElmurray.

The strongest influence were the stories of Breece Pancake. He grew up in West Virginia, sixty miles from my hill, and lived in the same world I did – the post-Vietnam era of Vista, the War on Poverty, and the building of the interstates. Pancake placed his characters deep inside the culture and let them behave without apology or explanation. They were people living in circumstances I recognized. They were formed by the same situations as me, and I understood their ambitions, their frustrations, and their desires. His book more than any other gave me permission to write about my world, the way I saw it.

Today there is a younger generation of Appalachian writers coming up, living in a world of fast-food and malls, the internet, video stores, and MTV. These younger writers need to tell their stories, and the world should hear them. I fervently hope that my work has broken some brush for their various paths. Writing is a lot like walking into a briar patch and realizing there is no easy way out.

Gurney Norman and Wendell Berry attended Stanford University as Stegner fellows in creative writing. James Still, Jesse Stuart, Mildren Haun, Robert Penn Warren and Jim Wayne Miller studied writing at Vanderbilt. Chris Holbrook and Lisa Koger went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There is a sadness that all these writers were forced to leave the state to find a writing community. Kentucky could help its young writers if a university offered an MFA degree in Creative Writing. Such a program would benefit not only our native writers, but remind the rest of the country of our proud literary history.

Kentucky Straight is autobiographical in very private ways. I essentially took emotional dynamics from my family and draped them like quilts over other people. Many of the stories have classical and biblical sources. “The Leaving One” is loosely based on the story of Elisha and Elijah from the Old Testament. “House Raising” is rooted in the story of Abraham and Isaac with the notion of land itself being the vengeful god of the Old Testament. “Old of the Moon” is an attempt to depict the conflicting philosophy between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

“Aunt Granny Lith” is a hybrid of the book of Ruth, an eastern European folk story, and the Eleusinian Mysteries from ancient Greece. Two of the female names – Lil and Lith – form the name of Adam’s first wife who was banished to a cave for the crime of consorting with demons. Nomey is named for Naomi, the mother of Ruth. She gives her son-in-law molyroot, which is what Odysseus carried to counteract the spells of the sorceress Circe.

As publication approached I decided to include a map because my hometown of Haldeman, population 200, is not on many maps. I drew the map and sent it to the publisher and was dismayed at the art department’s rendition – they transformed it into a child’s idea of a crudely-drawn treasure map with a border of small icons that clearly represented an urban concept of rural life. I politely suggested that this map was the only map of my hometown, and that they should honor it. They did. Since that time, my hometown has vanished. There is no store, gradeschool, or railroad. The zipcode was rescinded and the mailing address is of a nearby town. Though the map is deliberately inaccurate, it is the only guide to my home – which no longer exists.

Choosing the book’s title seemed an insurmountable problem because no single phrase could possibly incorporate everything in the book. I made a list of 200 possible titles for the collection. I showed the list to friends. I consulted with my wife, my editor, and my former teachers. Everyone agreed that they were terrible. The list narrowed to 100 bad titles, which seemed like an improvement.

During this time, my college roommate called. Bill Harrison and I were theatre majors. He was from a town two counties away and had served a hitch in the Navy. It was the late 1970s and we were hillbilly outlaws. Bill and I were a good match – nobody liked him, and I didn’t like anybody. We lived like brothers. When Bill got married I was his best man. After reminiscing over the phone, I told him about my book. He asked what the title was, and I was embarassed not to have one. Bill said, “You should call it ‘Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky’ because we sure drank enough of it.” We hung up, and that was that. Ironically, I no longer drink alcohol of any kind, but the title remains.

The book was published in November 1992. I received twenty copies in the mail, which I stacked on my desk and photographed. I carried a copy everywhere and at night I slept with the book under my pillow. I was proud but uncomfortable, as if I were secretly an imposter. Somehow it would come to light that I hadn’t really written the book, or that it didn’t really deserve publication. I had a difficult time believing that I had accomplished a long term goal. Much of my life had been spent trying and failing. I had no idea how to be a person who had achieved something. The hills hold few role models for success, and anyone who does well is immediately suspected of getting above their raisings.

The first time I returned to Kentucky after publication, I visited my neighbor, one of several brothers I’d grown up with, a man who’d lived all his life within a mile of home. He was among the few people in the community who’d read the book. The story “House Raising” was based on a disastrous attempt to lodge his trailer onto a muddy ridge during a storm, and I was nervous about his reaction.

“It’s a good book,” he said. “It seemed like us only thirty or forty years ago.”

I nodded. His praise meant more than a good review in The New York Times.

“You know that story about the trailer?” he said.

I nodded, suddenly terrified.

“The same thing happened to me once.”

I continued to nod, like one of those fake dogs people use to put in their car’s back window. We never discussed the book again. No one in his family mentioned it, but their respective spouses told me how the brothers fought over the book as they passed it through the family. When we grew up there were are no bookstores in eastern Kentucky. A third of the population continues to be illiterate. That my book became community property is more gratifying than high sales.

On a purely personal level, Kentucky Straight was born of despair and hope, the twining elements of my life. These stories embody the wild dreams of a child in the woods, the yearnings of a boy who left, and the ambition of a young man struggling to understand life. I have never read this book. I doubt I ever will.

Chris Offutt is currently completing a visiting position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of two books of short stories, one novel, and a memoir. This essay will be included as an introduction to a new edition of Kentucky Straight published in 2001 by Bella Luna Books.