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Chris Offutt Reveals A Family Secret In 'My Father, The Pornographer'
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Chris Offutt Reveals A Family Secret In 'My Father, The Pornographer'

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Chris Offutt Reveals A Family Secret In 'My Father, The Pornographer'

Chris Offutt Reveals A Family Secret In 'My Father, The Pornographer'
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Offutt's late father went from running a small insurance agency to writing more than 400 books, mostly pornography. The writer tells Fresh Air his dad believed he would be "extremely famous" for it.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I can't imagine what it would've been like if my father had been a pornographer. That is so far from my experience. So I read, with fascination, what it's like for writer Chris Offutt to be the son of a pornographer. Offutt is the author of forthcoming memoir, called "My Father, The Pornographer," which was excerpted in early February in The New York Times magazine. Chris Offutt is known for his fiction and literary memoirs. His father was known by his 17 pen names, under which he wrote nearly 375 porn books. He also wrote two science fiction and 24 fantasy novels. His first porn book was published in 1968, and in 1970, he shut down his small insurance agency, thinking porn would be more profitable. The timing was right, with the sexual revolution expanding the market. His readers probably wouldn't have guessed that he wrote from his home in Kentucky in, what Chris Offutt describes as, a hill-and-holler community, a ZIP Code with a creek. While Chris was growing up there, the source of his father's income was a family secret. In 2013, when Chris was 54, his father died and left Chris with the inheritance of thousands of letters and tens of thousands of novel pages. Chris moved back to his childhood home for several months to sort the papers and assemble a bibliography. By the way, this interview isn't explicit about porn. It's really about Chris's father.

Chris Offutt, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that your father considered himself the class operator in the field of pornography. What was he known for in the field?

CHRIS OFFUTT: Well, I'm not really sure. There hasn't been a great deal of scholarship on the field of pornography to separate out what one writer was known for with another. Dad believed that he had introduced various anatomical descriptions into pornography that had not been there before. He also believed that he had introduced the fact that a female could derive a great deal of pleasure. Then, that had not been seen in pornography before. At the same time, it's hard to know if that was true or not. The point, though, is that Dad believed it, and he thought he was a very good writer. And the other reason for that was that he believed that other porn writers were copying his style and some of these pioneering uses of anatomical language (laughter) regarding sexuality.

GROSS: So he wrote in so many subgenres of porn. Would you just name a few for us?

OFFUTT: Jeez, I don't think he left any out. There was ghosts, zombie porn, porn set in Atlantis, porn on alien planets with barbarian cultures, vampire porn in New York City. Another common subgenre was swingers, of course, and then multiple people at once. No telling how many numbers you could get up to, there - science fiction pornography, pirates and porns of the old West.

GROSS: Porn of the old West, wow (laughter). Who knew?

OFFUTT: Well, I found a manuscript - you know, in addition to the 400 books, there were 25 unpublished novels, and one of them was porn in the old West that opened in a barn and had a great character named Quiet Smith - one of my favorite names.

GROSS: So your father, initially, was selling insurance, and he quit his job to help raise money for things like your orthodontia - your braces. And he became a team with your mother, who typed the manuscripts. And I mean, like, what a huge shift in the family to go from this, like, very secure kind of job to writing pornography and having your mother type it. I mean, was she comfortable even reading what he was writing?

OFFUTT: Oh, yeah. She was part and parcel from the beginning. He was a successful businessman in sales but wasn't happy. He'd always written since he was a child and wanted to write, but at age 36, he had four kids and a mortgage. And I needed orthodontic care and all of my siblings and me were in school, so mom had suggested that she get a job outside of the home to pay for the dental care. And Dad didn't want to do that, so he - they just hatched this plan. And in a certain way, it's incredibly courageous for a 36-year-old person in this circumstance that he was in to just shut down a successful business and decide to be a writer.

GROSS: Why pornography? Like, why not Westerns or detective novels or any of the other popular genres?

OFFUTT: Well, he had wanted to be a science fiction writer and had begun publishing science fiction in 1954, and that was his - always been his goal and interest. At a certain point, the markets for science fiction vanished. There was just dozens of these magazines folded. And many of the science fiction writers moved into writing pornography because at the same time, that market was starting to really open up. And then there was also the part that he liked it and was interested in it. He had gotten hold of some porn through the mail, and - just out of curiosity - and read it and, according to my mother, decided that he could write it better because it was so horribly written. And Mom just suggested that he do it, so that's kind of what got started.

GROSS: The way pornography often works in families is that parents, if they read pornography, hide it from their children.

OFFUTT: Yeah.

GROSS: And the children who read pornography hide it from their parents. In your family, your parents were in the porn business. Did they hide it from you? How old were you when they told you about it?

OFFUTT: Oh, it was a secret, of course. It was a secret within the family, within the community. It just was not really talked about. How old was I? I mean, I was probably 12 or 13 when I came across porn in the house. That's not uncommon for many people to be a curious teenager. It took me a couple years to realize that it seemed like Dad was writing this, but I did not know that Mom was actually typing all of his final manuscripts for submission to the publishers. She could zip through it. I would come home from school - would walk through the woods along a little path into the house to the sound of two typewriters simultaneously clattering away. (Laughter) It was an unusual circumstance. But I knew Dad was a writer. I just assumed that it was science fiction.

GROSS: So how did the conversation in the family get opened? Did they tell you about the porn, or did you confront them with the fact that you suspected that this is what they were doing?

OFFUTT: Neither. There was no official formal conversation where, this is what we're doing, and you should know, or anything like that. It was a maintained secret as much as possible. Part of it was just living in a small community, in a conservative community in the hills of Kentucky. But it wasn't until I was out of the house and in my 20s that Dad became more forthcoming about his pornographic work.

My understanding prior to that had been that he was a functioning science fiction writer, and the pornography was generating supplemental income. It wasn't actually until after he - until I was in my 20s and 30s, I realized it was a much bigger enterprise on his part. And then after his death, I found out that it was lifelong and much larger than I had anticipated.

GROSS: Your father wrote a lot of the pornography under the pen name, John Cleve, and you write that he used to talk about John Cleve in the third person as if it was another person and that, you know, John Cleve had his own wardrobe, his own stationary, his own signature. And John Cleve had 16 pseudonyms. They weren't your father's pseudonyms. They were his pseudonym's pseudonyms (laughter). Did your father ever dress as John Cleve around you? Did you ever see that personality manifesting - that alter ego, and think, what's going on?

OFFUTT: Yes. I believe that he regarded John Cleve as an alter ego. The John Cleve as an alter ego gave him a great deal of freedom. And I've talked to other writers who use pseudonyms, and there is - even if the writer's still sitting in the same chair, the same typewriter, the same house, the idea that he or she is not writing as who they actually are, but under this literary mask, it offers a little bit of freedom. I think in that case, that was important to Dad.

Also, using pseudonyms was a way of protecting identity and, to a certain extent, protecting the family from any sort of scandal or bias towards the kids or, you know, nasty comments. The other pseudonyms that he used were - some of them were for specific genres. Others, he would use to conceal his prolificity. He would be publishing with one publisher and then get a contract with another publisher and use a pseudonym to avoid the first publisher knowing that he was working for the competition. Dad didn't really care. He just wanted to get food on the table.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Chris Offutt, and a memoir about his father, called "My Father, The Pornographer," is going to be published next year. The New York Times Magazine recently excerpted the book in a piece called "My Dad, The Pornographer." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Chris Offutt. And he has a memoir that will be published next year called "My Father, The Pornographer." It was recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine. And his father wrote over 400 pornography books in every imaginable subgenre. Chris Offutt, my guest, has also written books of fiction as well as two other memoirs.

You write that when you found - you know, that after your father died and you went through his books, you found that he had a cataloging system for writing pornography - that he had whole sections ready to go into, like, kind of cut-and-paste in the appropriate book. So it had pages with, like, 150 synonyms for pain. There were sections for descriptions of the mouth, for descriptions of the tongue, the face, the legs, for kisses, spanking, distress. So it sounds like he cataloged all of this and had it all ready to paste into the appropriate book, and then he'd kind of exit out of the catalog so he wouldn't use it a second time. I've never heard of somebody writing that way before.

OFFUTT: Me neither. It was a remarkable discovery. In addition to what you described, there were also pages and pages like that of descriptions for the science fiction and for the fantasy - pages of description of landscape or of a storm or of a night sky. And what he did is he would watch television at night with a big clipboard and write longhand, and we would all be sitting there watching television. Dad was writing. We were kids. And I realized later that this was what he was doing at that - during those hours. He wasn't writing a novel or a short story, but he was just inventing descriptions while watching television. He liked to watch TV and write.

I was quite taken by this approach. He was working at a great speed and under enormous pressure - not deadline pressure but just economic pressure. You know, there were rarely contracts for these books in advance, you know? But he had to support his family. And he wrote one book in three days. His personal record was 94 pages in a single day. And the system that he devised reminded me of a assembly line of a car factory where you just have all the raw material and drop it in place as it goes down the assembly line, and at the end, there's a car. I have never met another writer who worked with this technique, and it was extensive. There were a lot of these notebooks, Terry.

GROSS: To give us more of a sense of what your father wrote, can you name some of the titles of some of his books?

OFFUTT: Sure. I'd be happy to do that. I should also tell you that the book is dedicated to 17 people, all of - or 18 people, Dad and all of his pseudonyms.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's hysterical.

OFFUTT: Yeah, well, I - it seemed to make sense. OK. Well, the first one was called "Bondage Babes." In 1968, he published five - "Bondage Babes," "Swapper Town," "Sex Toy," "Gang Swap" and "The Seductress." "Bruise," which I believe to be his best porn novel - the one that dad thought was the best was called "Mongol!" with an exclamation point. I've never been - he had 12 or 14 books that had exclamation points in the title, so I'm not sure how to pronounce it - "Mongol!" maybe. "Mongol!." "Fruit Of The Loin," "The Devoured" is vampires in New York City - not a bad book. I could keep on going. I mean, there's a lot.

GROSS: So I don't know if any of the stories are radio-friendly that your father told in his fiction, but is there one that would give us a sense of the kind of story that he dreamed up?

OFFUTT: Radio-friendly? One that I enjoyed the most - these two couples crash-landed on a deserted island but come to find out the island wasn't deserted after all, it was just unexplored. The middle of the island had a volcano. On the other side of the volcano, lived a primitive culture that would drop virgins into the volcano to sacrifice to the gods for good weather and good luck, right? Now, the other side, where they crash-landed, was occupied and inhabited by all the virgins who'd managed to escape from the other side of the volcano. So you can imagine, then, what went on after the plane landed - crash-landed, and everybody survived. It was pretty interesting, like one of the guys goes native and one of the guys doesn't. And there's some morality in there and great concerns about impacting on this culture that had not been Westernized or anything.

GROSS: Do you think your father was obsessed with sex in real life or just in books?

OFFUTT: Well, I don't think there was much distinction between the two. I think that he was obsessed - he'd described himself as being hypersexual and had been ever since he could remember. And I think that it just found its way into his work and most of what he wrote.

GROSS: Did you ever get a chance to really talk with him about that?

OFFUTT: About what?

GROSS: How much - how obsessed he was with writing pornography?

OFFUTT: Well, talking with Dad was often a case of listening to Dad...

GROSS: (Laughter).

OFFUTT: ...Talk about what he wanted to talk about. But it was something that he did talk to me about. I think that he became more open about it with me once I started writing and publishing myself. He realized that we could have a relationship as a writer to writer because our father-son relationship was quite strained. It was important to him that someone have some idea of the extent of his output.

GROSS: And that someone was you?

OFFUTT: Yeah, it was me more so than my siblings, and mom didn't know about a lot of it either. I mean, she knew about it, but he didn't tell her everything. He had one friend that he - named Eric Stanton, a renowned New York underground fetish artist. They collaborated for 25 years. Dad wrote and Eric drew. Dad referred to him as his best friend. They only met once. So this, to me, is an example of the degree of isolation that he had in his life and also regarding the work that he did.

GROSS: I'm wondering how your parents told you about the facts of life.

OFFUTT: (Laughter).

GROSS: I remember my mother giving me one of those books that are all about, like, the animals and the insects with like a quarter of a page about the humans (laughter). But I mean, considering that your father was so obsessed with sexuality and that he was writing the porn, your mother was typing the manuscripts, they had - how did they tell you? How did they break the news? Or maybe you already knew.

OFFUTT: I never had a conversation with my mother along these lines. There were two boys and two girls. Presumably, she spoke to my sisters and dad was in charge of my brother and me. I don't know what he told my brother. I do know how he dealt with it with me. He took me on a drive in a car, which was very rare for us to spend time privately together. He didn't leave the house much. He just worked 10, 12 hours a day for many years, so for him to leave the house and ask me to accompany him was a pretty big deal. Dad also liked to talk. I mean, he talked a lot when he was around people. And this car ride was notable for his silence. And then he would begin a few - to talk to me and just sort of sputter and stutter and trail off. And I didn't understand what was going on because this was so unlike dad, who really loved to talk. Then we finally got back home and he handed me a pamphlet on the reproduction of frogs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OFFUTT: And - yeah. So - which, you know, as - for a 12, 13-year-old boy, it was very confusing. You know, the tadpole stage was - I don't really know how this fits into anything. But, you know - and I recount this in the book. There's something, to me, poignant and plaintive and quite unusual about a career pornographer who then was uncomfortable discussing sexuality with his son undergoing puberty.

GROSS: Right. That must've been really confusing to you too. How did your parents hide the porn books from you?

OFFUTT: Well, dad had an office in the house that was - had been a bedroom on the second floor, and we were just forbidden to enter. All of us - nobody was allowed to enter it. The door was either closed or partially closed at all times. You had to knock to get admitted. You had to wait till dad would allow you to come in, and that extended to my mother if she was bringing him coffee. I mean, you know, the key was, don't disturb Dad when he's working. And so that's where it was. And now and again when I was a kid, I would, of course, go in there when mom and dad were out of town and look around. And - but even in his office - and this was - is still interesting to me - even within his office, he - it was concealed. And I didn't realize it until after he'd died there was a - you know, he had a wall of - two walls of built-in bookshelves that he'd had hired to put in there. And behind every row of books was another deeper and higher row of books that was pornography. So there was an element of it that was hiding it of either from the family or the world or possibly himself.

GROSS: My guest is Chris Offutt. He's writing a memoir about his father called "My Father, The Pornographer." Chris Offutt's father actually asked him to help write porn. We'll hear how Chris responded after a break. And we'll hear jazz critic Kevin Whitehead's review of the new album by organist Chris Foreman. Here's some music from the album. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS FOREMAN SONG)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Chris Offutt. His memoir, "My Father, The Pornographer," will be published next year. Chris is known for his fiction and literary memoirs. His father, Andrew Offutt, wrote nearly 375 porn books and 24 fantasy novels under various pseudonyms, which helped him keep his source of income secret from his children and his community in the Kentucky hills, an area Chris describes as the buckle of the Bible Belt. His father's first porn book was published in 1968, coinciding with the sexual revolution. Andrew Offutt died in 2013. Chris returned to his childhood home for several months to organize his father's papers and create a bibliography.

Do you think that you grew up with this sense of secrets, you know, and that maybe even that - even if you didn't know that the secrets pertained to sex and pornography, that you've somehow picked up on that anyways? I mean, I guess I'm wondering what impact it had on you to grow up with all this secrecy, and especially since the secrets had to do with writing about sex.

OFFUTT: Yes, there was an element of secrecy to it that I grew up with. I don't know what the impact would've been. I mean, Dad was - he was obsessed with sex, and he would talk about it, but obliquely, you know? He would often make jokes in sort of a naughty style of comments and all. But there was still a pall of secrecy that hung over the house that we all, you know, felt, or at least certainly I did. So as far as the impact, I'm not really sure, you know, other than it could have motivated me to write memoir, for example, which is the opposite of a pseudonymous, secret writing life.

GROSS: Oh, that's true. That's a really good point. And I wonder how you feel about this forthcoming memoir about your father because you will be exposing all of the secrets he kept throughout his life, all the pseudonyms that he wrote under, everything that he hid from his family and from his neighbor.

OFFUTT: How will I feel about it?

GROSS: Yeah, do you - does it worry you that maybe your father would be upset? Or do you think your father would be happy that finally it can be revealed what a genius he was, you know, 'cause I know he saw himself that way?

OFFUTT: Yeah, I - there was a part of me when I worked on it that - I mean, I worked on it pretty hard for a couple of years, and at times, I would be concerned that I was betraying the big family secret. And I would talk to my siblings about it, and I talked to my mother about it. And, you know, they all pointed out the obvious, which was, Dad's dead and you can't betray him. So I don't have any great concerns along those lines. As Mom said the other night, he would have loved the attention, and he liked attention. But there was some part of him that did not want to fully reveal the extent of this, of his output and his interest while he was alive. He started out as in sales for Procter & Gamble - traveling salesman to little country stores with Procter & Gamble products - then moved into selling health and life insurance. So sales relies on a great deal of self-belief, and I think that Dad incorporated that into his writing life. I don't know that I've met anyone else who believed in himself as much as Dad did. And Dad fervently and fervidly and absolutely believed that after he was dead, in the 21st century, he would be well-known and extremely famous for the pornographer that he wrote under the name John Cleve.

So to answer the question, how would he feel about it? Yes, you know, in a way, this book to a certain extent is fulfilling his own prophecy that he made about his legacy in the world. If it's true - I don't know if it'll wind up true or not - but he would really have enjoyed it, yes.

GROSS: Do you ever think that the fact that you became a writer is related to the fact that your father wrote?

OFFUTT: Do I think that? Yeah, I've thought that many times.

GROSS: So I read your memoirs but not your fiction. I'm wondering if you write sex scenes in any of your fiction and if you're any more comfortable or uncomfortable thinking about writing sex scenes because of your knowledge of your father's work.

OFFUTT: Well, I think when I first started writing I just avoided it in general because I didn't want to - I didn't want to write pornography. Dad tried to hire me when I was about 25 or 26 to write a novel under a series that he was - gotten behind in and he needed somebody to - he needed writers to write under the name John Cleve. He would take all the rights. He would edit it and give the writer some money. It was flattering that he would ask me to. I mean, as a young writer or wannabe writer, he recognized, you know, enough talent to do it. I refused. It was not how I wanted to start my career - writing porn under my father's pseudonym (laughter). It's unimaginable.

GROSS: I can understand that (laughter)

OFFUTT: Yeah, and it was a strain, too, actually because he took it personally and - as a personal rejection. So when I first started writing - you know, here's the other thing about writing about sexuality - there's really - it seems as if there's only two approaches. There is medical terminology. It's sort of formal, anatomical references or the language of porn. There's not much middle ground for it. And neither of them were interesting to me, so I didn't - I didn't - but at the same time, I didn't want to exclude sex and sexuality from my own work because I write about adults and what they're up to. So I would just kind of write around it, so to speak. Part of the - so to answer the question, part of the motivation was to not write that way because Dad did and avoid it, but also I wasn't certain how to go about it without descending to the pornographic language or the medical.

GROSS: So this is a question I've never asked anybody before. I've never had the occasion to.

OFFUTT: Well, let me get ready here. I'm just going to be a first for FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Ready? OK. So...

OFFUTT: All right.

GROSS: So when you read your father's pornography after he died - I mean, the purpose of pornography is to be arousing, but when the author is your father, is it possible to be aroused by it?

OFFUTT: Not exactly. The fact that I was reading my father's work was always present in it. And the book actually deals with - one chapter really examines very carefully the effect on me of the total immersion in pornography for 18 months. When I say...

GROSS: While you were writing the book?

OFFUTT: Writing the book, going through it, cataloging 1800 pounds of archival material, looking at it and just dealing with it. You know, it was - it was a little overwhelming, to say the least.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say overwhelming?

OFFUTT: Well, you know, say you love chocolate and you wind up with a job in the chocolate factory, maybe you lose your taste for chocolate.

GROSS: Got it.

OFFUTT: The book talks about it pretty honestly - about just the effects of it. And, you know, they weren't all great.

GROSS: Right.

OFFUTT: The thing about Dad's work though is there's an innocence to it, if that makes any sense. There's a quaintness to it, in contrast to what is available on the Internet, for example, now.

GROSS: Right.

OFFUTT: So this golden age of porn is also - it was taboo; it was underground; there was tongue-in-cheek. A lot of Dad's stuff was funny, was satirical. And you just don't see anything like that today in terms of - I'm not sure what - if there is a mainstream porn. It seems like it's moved to the Internet, but there's not a lot of humor or tongue-in-cheek or satire with it.

GROSS: One more thing about your father, the pornographer. Your mother is still alive. She's in her early 80s now. Your father died in 2013. Can you talk to her openly about the collaboration they had, where your father wrote the porn books and your mother typed the manuscripts? Is she comfortable talking about that?

OFFUTT: She's very comfortable and open talking about it. I think for a couple of reasons. First of all, she's 80, and, you know, this was stuff that happened at least - that wound down 30 years ago in her life. She also moved to Mississippi - where I live - and, perhaps surprising to many people, Oxford, Miss., is slightly more - is more progressive than the town where she lived before where she had a greater concerns about this. She always referred to them with me as your father's sex books. That was how she saw them. And the last time we spoke, she expressed a little bit of surprise at their popularity 'cause, as she said, they were all the same; the same things happened, it's just different names and different venues. So the answer is yes, she is quite open to talking about it, and it's charmingly so. And, you know, she is this 80-year-old Southern lady who lived all of her life in two counties in Kentucky, and now can sort of reveal her own past, which there's a part of her that thinks it's kind of cool.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Chris Offutt. And his memoir about his father, which will be called "My Father, The Pornographer," will be published next year. It was recently excerpted in The New York Times magazine. Chris, let's take a short break here...

OFFUTT: OK.

GROSS: ...And then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Chris Offutt. He has a memoir coming out next year about his father who it turns out wrote about 400 books of pornography and science-fiction. And the memoir will be called "My Father, The Pornographer." It was recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine. Chris Offutt also writes books of fiction and has written two memoirs. In one of your memoirs, "No Heroes," part of the book is about your wife's parents who were Holocaust survivors.

OFFUTT: Right.

GROSS: And you write, (reading) growing up in Kentucky, there were no Jews where I grew up. As a kid, I thought Jews were the same as Christians, only they went to church on Saturday. I married the first Jew I met.

What was the impact on you of hearing your wife's parents' Holocaust stories?

OFFUTT: It was devastating. I really didn't know much about it. I knew that World War II had been bad - that a lot of people had died - that 6 million Jews had died. But I didn't really have a context for it. And this was - became a very personal context because, you know, I had married into this family. And they didn't talk about it. And my wife at the time, Rita, had grown up with her mother telling her sort of bedtime stories about her experiences in the concentration camp that put a positive spin on it. So she didn't quite know the extent of it. And then my father-in-law, Arthur Gross, spoke to me. And as near as I can understand, it was the first time he had ever spoken to anyone other than a fellow survivor. There was a community of survivors who had lived in New York City. And I'm sure they communicated. So it was just a - it was unbelievable to me to sort of hear these stories and realize these horrible events had occurred to people I loved.

GROSS: And it sounds like when your wife read your manuscript before it was published, she learned so many stories about what her parents went through during the Holocaust - stories that they had withheld from telling her.

OFFUTT: Right.

GROSS: And your wife went through a period of profound depression after reading that. Did, like - did it completely change her understanding of who her parents were?

OFFUTT: I don't know. I can't - I'm not comfortable speaking for her in that regard. I cut out a chapter from the book about her response to it because it just seemed too personal and more about her and - rather than her parents and me. I'm not sure - I think that some of the information in that book was new to her and to her sister. And if anything, it would probably supply just a greater kind of understanding for her - for their parents and sympathy and compassion. And Arthur is 95, I think, and still - you know, still alive. He's - and healthy. He's - you know, is surviving still and will - quite possibly could be the last of the survivors - the surviving survivor, as it were.

GROSS: I'm just thinking, you know, since you've written about your father who wrote hundreds of books of pornography and you've about your in-laws who were Holocaust survivors, you've written about two such extremely different experiences.

OFFUTT: Yeah.

GROSS: I'm not even sure what my question is but to have such extremely different experiences represented - like, your children's grandparents experienced, like, such profoundly different lives.

OFFUTT: That's right. And, I mean, I don't think I would've taken on these writing projects if they weren't so personal. They were part - these people are part of my family. It wasn't like I thought, wow, this is a - you know, this here's an interesting subject. I think I'll just jump on this. It was more - it meant something to me. And my approach to writing is only to write about what is important and meaningful to me on every level intellectually, emotionally and personally. So it just happened to be this way. Yes, my kids' grandparents are pornographers and Holocaust survivors from Kentucky and Poland.

GROSS: Right. Wow. (Laughter).

OFFUTT: Yeah. I'm eager to see what books they write one day. (Laughter). We'll continue the tradition.

GROSS: You've written for TV in addition to writing books. You've written for "True Blood," for "Treme..."

OFFUTT: "Treme" and "Weeds" and a few pilots, yes.

GROSS: But it sounds like you intentionally left that life after a while. How did you enter it in the first place, and why did you leave?

OFFUTT: Well, very pragmatic. I was in my mid-40s, and my sons were in high school and had this notion of going to college. I had about - I didn't have very much money. In fact, I had very little money, and I'd always heard that Hollywood was where the money was. So I started looking into that and, you know, I got lucky. I worked really hard to learn the skill of writing a screenplay and particularly of a pilot. And, you know, one thing led to another, and I sort of found myself working and living in Hollywood afraid to drive in the freeways there, walking around - the only person ever walking to work - and then, again by happenstance, having to work on shows that became popular. And "Treme" was certainly critically acclaimed as well.

So - but the goal was just to get the money to pay for their college. And I knew - and unfortunately they went to, you know, out-of-state, private schools so it was like - it was even more of a burden, so to speak. But that was my goal. I got the money and - to pay for their college, and I thought, OK, I think I'm going to - I need to get out.

What happened - it's an alluring world. There's an intensity to what's going on. It's very dramatic. Everyone works very hard. People are creative. They're smart. They're diligent. And there's a - it's kind of cool in a lot of ways. And Los Angeles has, you know, good weather, great restaurants and very cool old cars. And I was drawn to it. I found myself being, you know - falling prey to its enticement. And there's a certain point where I thought, well, you know, I want a Jaguar, and I want a big house in the Hollywood Hills. Well, that's not who I am. And when I found myself sort of having that - harboring that desire, I thought, it's time for me to get out.

So I quit - you know, more or less I quit living out there and taking staff jobs and then just began writing pilots from home. And that was better for me, and then I could work on my other projects as well. But it was really - you know, my attitude towards Hollywood was very similar to Dad's with pornography. It was like, there's money there. I'm going to get it. I'm going to get out. Difference was Dad didn't get out.

GROSS: Chris Offutt, thank you so much for talking with us.

OFFUTT: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: Chris Offutt's memoir, "My Father, The Pornographer," will be published next year. His other books include the memoirs "No Heroes" and "The Same River Twice." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by Chris Foreman, an organist that Kevin describes as one of Chicago's jazz heroes. This is FRESH AIR.

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