Chris Offutt Reveals A Family Secret In 'My Father, The Pornographer'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I can't imagine what it would be like if my father had been a pornographer, 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 a forthcoming memoir called "My Father, The Pornographer," which was excerpted in early February in The New York Times magazine. We're going to hear the interview I recorded with him in March as we continue our end of summer series featuring some of our favorite interviews.
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 is not explicit about porn. It's really about the 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 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 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: 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: (Laughter) Radio-friendly? One that I enjoyed the most - these two couples crash-landed on a - (laughter) 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: The way pornography often works in families is that parents, if they read pornography, hide it from their children.
GROSS: And the children who read pornography hide it from their parents. 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 and a conservative community in the hills of Kentucky. But it wasn't till 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 he was a functioning science fiction writer, and the pornography was generating supplemental income.
GROSS: You write that when you found - that after your father died and you went through his books, you found that he had a cataloging system for writing pornography that had whole sections ready to go and do a 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 X it out of the catalog so he wouldn't use it a second time. I - 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 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 an 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 - there were a lot of these notebooks, Terry.
GROSS: My guest is writer Chris Offutt. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is writer Chris Offutt. He's writing a memoir about his father, who wrote hundreds of porn novels under pseudonyms, including the name John Cleve.
I'm wondering how your parents told you about the facts of life?
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.
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 either from the family or the world or possibly himself.
GROSS: 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 neighbors.
OFFUTT: How do 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 for - 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 pornography 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 the - 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: So this is a question I've never asked anybody before.
GROSS: 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: (Laughter) 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 total, I mean...
GROSS: While you were writing the book.
OFFUTT: Writing the book, going through it, cataloging 1,800 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.
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.
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 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 - just different names and different venues. So the answer is yes, she is quite open to talking about it and is 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: Chris Offutt, thank you so much for talking with us.
OFFUTT: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Chris Offutt is writing a memoir called "My Father, The Pornographer." We spoke last March. Coming up, an interview with Larry David. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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