My Father the Pornographer: A Memoir by Chris Offutt (2016, Atria Books)
In the fall of 1976, I attended a lecture at Ohio State University. It was my first year as a student and, as part of our orientation, we were supposed to visit different events on the campus. I choose this lecture because it was sponsored by the Terrain League, a club for science fiction enthusiasts. I’d never heard of Andrew Offutt the science fiction writer before, but it was a way to get out of the dorms for the evening. And it was free.
As I sat down, an older woman sat next to me. I didn’t think she was a student, but paid her no mind as there were all kinds of people at this event, most my age, but many senior ones as well. One lady I remember in particular talked about the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a medieval recreationist organization. She was there because Offutt wrote sword and sorcery fiction for Zebra Books. I don’t remember the name of the lecture, but it had to do with the impact of science on the present day.
To put it mildly, the speaker was on fire. I didn’t know it at the time, but Offutt was the current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the first time he’d held that office. Combined with an invitation to speak in front of a group of students at a prestigious Midwestern university, he must have felt his time had come to be known as a serious genre writer. I recall him reading a passage from a book. When he reached a section talking about behaviorist B F Skinner, he flipped the audience off. Quickly he brought his hand down and explained, “I’ve been conditioned to do that”.
He rambled on for a good hour and took questions at the end. I had the impression he’d hated his former career as an insurance salesman as he talked with distaste about his weekly trip to the barber and the suit it forced him it wear. He talked about the way his own father would beat him and he’d vowed to get back. He complained about editors who didn’t understand scientific notation. He talked about how publishers expected you to sign over the rights to the solar system if you wanted to see your book in print (“You have to tell them, I want to keep the moon, Venus and Saturn because I’ve always had a thing about those rings.”). The only negative thing I recall was him snapping at a member of the audience who asked how much money he made. It finally dawned that the woman sitting next to me was his wife as she was laughing at all the jokes.
However, what lodged in my mind the most was a book he’d written with pride: The Castle Keeps (1972). He described it as a way of saying, “This is a wonderful country we have and it’s terrible what some people are doing to it.” He then sadly announced the book hadn’t sold well but terrified “both people who read it”. Several years later, I found it at a used bookstore and read the novel. It was creepy, if somewhat dated. It concerned two families, one living in the city and another in the countryside who do their best to survive in a dystopic scenario where food runs short and motorcycle gangs raid the hinterlands.
Flash forward to the early 1980’s. I’m at Marcon, the annual science fiction convention in Columbus, Ohio and I spot Offutt signing books. I strolled over to him and announced, “Hello Mr. Offutt, I’m the third person to have read The Castle Keeps.” He looked up at me, glared and asked what I meant by that statement. Startled, I mumbled something and shuffled away. I made a note to my future self: don’t make snide remarks about a writer’s cherished books.
I bring these memories up, as they are the reason I purchased Chris Offutt’s memorial, My Father the Pornographer when it became available in the EBook format. Chris Offutt is the oldest son of Andrew Offutt, who passed in 2012 at the age of 78. Chris Offutt is my age; he was born in 1958. He grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky where his parents lived for fifty years. When I learned of Offutt the Elder’s passing in 2012, I checked and couldn’t find much written by the him since 1985. Even his fantasy and SF writings were not that well known. I knew about his saucy SF series, Spaceway, for Playboy Press under the pseudonym “John Cleve”, but that there was preciously little out there. What had he been doing all these years?
It turns out, according to his son Chris, he wrote a ton of adult books for a market which paid nicely. In 1970, when his son Chris needed dental work, he closed his insurance business and proceeded to write full-time. You have to stand in admiration or disbelief at someone who has the tenacity to do that with a family to support. The mood changed at the big house, purchased by the Offutt’s to raise their children in 1964. Suddenly dad was home all the time typing and mom worked at the typewriter too to help him get his manuscripts in on schedule. According to the book, Offutt Senior wrote at a frantic speed on the old electrical and mechanical typewriters that made plenty of noise. His record was 94 pages in three days. Most of the time he was paid by the book and, like Orrie Hitt, needed to keep that typewriter humming away if bills were to be paid.
When his father passed, Chris Offutt came into a collection of his dad’s private library and notes. Chris Offutt, an accomplished writer himself, spent a long time cataloguing his dad’s vast accumulation of erotica and adult books.
The size of what he found is staggering, but he admonishes the reader of this memoir to remember his parents came up in the depression. They were taught not to throw away anything. He even discoverd an adult-themed comic book his dad created over a period of sixty years, which ran over 4000 pages in length. Violent and gruesome, his father never let anyone know of its existence.
The memoir is as much an autobiography about the son as it is about his father. Chris Offutt talks about coming of age in the backwoods of Kentucky, how he was tossed from an army career because of a bad physical, his trips to the local bootlegger to purchase his dad’s bourbon and more. I almost quit reading the book when he talked about his molestation by a man in town he refers to as “The fatman”. It’s admirable he can write about this incident forty years later, but I did feel the scars of this abuse still remain.
He even dedicates the book to each of his father’s pseudonyms. He lists a complete biography of everything Offutt Senior wrote, at least what he could find. His dad maintained a file of correspondences and it appears he wrote private novels for discrete clients toward the end of his life.
Some of the observations on his father and his writing habits are quite fascinating:
“My mother told me he quit writing science fiction due to the constraints of physical reality. In fantasy he had greater freedom. His imagination could roam farther without restriction. Fantasy novels are only as successful as the underlying cohesive structure, and Dad devoted a great deal of effort to creating his worlds.”
At times, the book is painful. For instance, the passage where he finds one of the Offutt Senior’s early science fiction stories and reads it after his father’s death:
“At the end I began to cry. Each time my sobs faded, the emotion forced its way out again. I finally subsided, gasping for breath, drained and clearheaded. I’d kept my grief tightly stowed for months and now felt relieved. I understood that I was mourning my father but not his death. I wept for the talent he had as a young man, the great writer he might have become.”
Chris Offutt’s relationship with his father was strained. Although you get the feeling he was loved by his father, Andrew Offutt was distant and seldom left the house after he began writing full time. He constantly barraged his family to be quiet when he wrote and demanded obedience from all of them. This memoir is an effort to come to terms with his father after he died.
I give this book a strong recommendation, but not if you are expecting a detailed analysis of the writing process. He does talk about how his father created and the methods he used to keep track of ideas in the days before MS Word. He discovered countless notebooks among his father’s papers. This is personal account, more in line with Brian Herbert’s account of his father in Dreamer of Dune (2003). It is a rare tribute to a professional writer who never graced the bestseller lists and still managed to support his family.