Interview: My Reading Life (with Chris Offutt)

What are six books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney.
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion.
The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
The Stories of Breece by D’J Pancake.

Pancake was the first writer to emerge from the Appalachian culture I knew. Post War on Poverty. Post-Vietnam. Post completion of the Interstate system. I’d read thousands of books before his but never about people I knew.  

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

No idea. If I don’t like a book, I quit reading. Then I forget the book. I don’t see the value in trying to remember what I don’t like. Too much effort to keep track.  

What is a funny/interesting/unique anecdote about you as a reader?

I never use bookmarks.

 What book or books are you planning to read soon?

My to-read shelf has about 40 books. What I read next will depend upon frame of mind when I finish the book I’m reading now. Currently I am writing the first draft of a novel. When working, I try to avoid books with an overt style that I will unconsciously absorb. Also, because the current project is in third person, I am not reading any first-person books until I finish a draft.

What book do you always recommend?

I recommend books based on what someone tells me they are interested in. Subject matter. Setting. Story. Genre. No one book for every person.

What book/books changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

Possibly the works of James Baldwin and Albert Camus.

What was your favorite childhood book?

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

Nope. I just read and hope to learn. Any case of “thinking differently” about the form is gradual for me. More a case of accretion. No eureka moments yet.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

More a case of under-appreciated writers than any single novel.
Tom Drury. Jean Rhys. Robert Olmstead. Mary Hood. James Sallis. James Alan Mcpherson. Jean Thompson. Don Carpenter. Charles Portis.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I’ve never had that experience. If I dislike a book, I don’t finish it and tend not to remember those books. Sometimes, a few years later, I’ll read another book by the writer, usually because I forgot I didn’t like the first one.

What book have you read that has most influenced your life?

I can’t think of any single book that had that much effect. The influences on my life have been travel, solitude, family, friends, and being outside.  

Who are your favorite writers?

Novels:  Jean Rhys, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Graham Greene.
Short stories: Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Tobias Wolff.
Crime:  Massimo Carlotto, William McIlvanney, Val McDermid.
Espionage:  John Le Carre, Charles McCarry, Daniel Silva.
My reading in Horror, SF, Western, and Romance is limited.

What do you read on holiday?

I took one vacation in my life. My wife and I wound up going to the childhood homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Samuel Clemens. Mainly we read maps.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

I have no idea. I don’t really follow trends in popularity of writers. It’s not a way of thinking for me.

What is your favorite book published in the past twelve months?

The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee. (He’s a friend.)

Did your parents read to you when you were young?


Which book have you given most frequently as a gift to others?

I’ve given hundreds of books away. I haven’t kept track of them all. In my house, books are constantly arriving and departing. It’s like a train station of literature.

Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

I try to avoid alcohol. Especially with imaginary friends.

Where do you buy your books?

Square Books in Oxford, MS.  
Greatest Hits, Music and Books in Tupelo, MS. Used bookstores when I travel.

What impact can a book have on the reader?

Impact is directly related to how much force was used to strike the reader. To calculate the force of impact, divide kinetic energy by distance.  F = (0.5 * m * v^2) ÷ d

End of interview 

Chris Offutt is the author of Country Dark, Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods, The Same River Twice, No Heroes, The Good Brother, and My Father the Pornographer. His new novel, The Killing Hills, is forthcoming in March 2021 from Grove Atlantic. His writing has received a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Award, an NEA, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “prose that takes risks.” His work has also been included in many anthologies and textbooks, including Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Food Writing, and Modern American Memoirs.  
To finance his sons’ college education, he worked in Hollywood for seven years, writing screenplays for True Blood, Weeds, Treme, and four pilots commissioned by various studios.
He grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in rural Lafayette County near Oxford, Mississippi. He lives on an acreage at the end of a dirt road where he raises chickens and vegetables. He might get goats next. He drives a pickup.


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