Chris Offutt is the author of two collections of stories–Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, two memoirs–The Same River Twice and No Heroes, and one novel–The Good Brother. His new book, A Desk, A Rifle, and Eighteen Hundred Pounds of Porn, is forthcoming in 2015. He has published more than 80 short stories and essays, including appearances in The New York Times, Playboy, Esquire, GQ, Tin House, McSweeneys, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has been included in many textbooks and anthologies, including Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, The Vintage Book of American Short Stories, and New Stories from the South. For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked Chris what inspired his writing, how he found an agent, as well as a host of other questions. Here's what he said:
WHAT INSPIRES AND INFLUENCES YOUR WRITING THE MOST?
I’m inspired by my experiences and perceptions of the world–looking, listening and thinking. Reading books by writers who worked very hard. Seeing their effort in precise language, clear and fresh imagery, unpredictable events and depth of character. These skills are being eroded in the glut of material from our current electronic era. Having a shrill opinion takes precedence over careful thought and elegant language. A kind of shorthand has emerged based on popular culture and our shared access to social media. More people actually write than ever before–texting, blogging, social media posting–but the speed it demands reduces quality of thought and language. At the same time, it's never been easier to get published. But harder to find good books to read! I'm primarily inspired by the work of writers who take their time to ensure that every word is crucial and serves the narrative.
DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU FIND HIM/HER?
Yes. I've had five. (I do not recommend multiple agents; in my case it was partly bad luck as well as poor decisions on my part.) I found them by writing them letters. When I had the money I went to NY to meet with them. Getting an agent is not difficult–they are always looking for new clients because that's how agents make their money. The hard part is writing something good enough to warrant representation or publication.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE PUBLISHING PROCESS?
The Marketing department of publishing companies has more influence over choosing a book than the editorial staff. This is terrible. Sort of like how the pharmaceutical companies decide what medicines a doctor can prescribe. Marketing decisions are influenced by the market of the moment, not art or the future or Literature.
DO YOU MARKET YOURSELF? WHAT (SPECIFICALLY) DO YOU DO TO BUILD/MAINTAIN YOUR READERSHIP?
I have done very little to market myself. My way has been simply to say yes to every request to writer, or for an interview, and put my best foot forward. I don’t have a webpage. I use Facebook to communicate with my son overseas. I tried twitter to see what the fuss was about and then forget about it for weeks. I understand that self-promotion is expected these days. That's unfortunate. It's a product of economics: the publishing companies maintained a flawed system for a very long time. Their current way of cutting corners hurts writers. The first to go was publicity, which is odd. Sort of like how budget cuts in education attack creative writing and art classes and special ed. first. I know that writers, especially those with a new book, are expected to be active on Facebook and Twitter. But nobody knows to what extent that truly helps a book. It's not measurable. If the publishers get writers to do their work for them, then the publishers don't have to take responsibility for sales. They can blame the writer for not doing enough self-promotion! Writers aren't trained in self-promotion. Often their efforts come off desperate and ham-handed. I'd rather read a book at home than stumble around promoting my books in a haphazard, hopeful manner, especially since I don't have the least idea how to do it. On top of that–writers don't have the money for promotion. All we have is time. Personally I'd rather put the time into my own writing and reading rather than flail away at something that is embarrassing. I have several friends who self-promote and have improved those skills. They are on twitter and FB a few times a day. They also have not published much. I fear that the time devoted to self-promotion interferes with the work. Lastly–if writers embrace self-promotion, they risk believing their own publicity, their own legend. Then they try to live up to it. Such thought and behavior dooms the artist.
BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER WRITERS?
Writing is not really an industry. It begins as a pastime, develops into daily obsession, and if you work very hard for a long time, it becomes your occupation. Try to write every day. Never stop reading. Read widely, in all genres, daily. Pressure your language and yourself. Revise without mercy. Experiment boldly. Learn from the experiments. Write when you don't feel like it. Write when nobody cares. Write instead of partying or watching TV or playing video games. Most importantly–never take a full-time job, and only become emotionally involved with someone who fully understands and accepts your aspirations.