In “one of the most sensitive, nuanced examinations of father and son relationships” (The Boston Globe), award-winning writer Chris Offutt struggles to understand his recently deceased father, based on his reading of the 400-plus novels his father—a well-known writer of pornography in the 1970s and 80s—left him in his will.
Andrew Offutt was considered the “king of twentieth-century smut,” with a writing career that began as a strategy to pay for his son’s orthodontic needs and soon took on a life of its own, peaking during the 1970s when the commercial popularity of the erotic novel reached its height. With his dutiful wife serving as typist, Andrew wrote from their home in the Kentucky hills, locked away in an office no one dared intrude upon. In this fashion he wrote more than four hundred novels, including pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn. The more he wrote, the more intense his ambition became and the more difficult it was for his children to be part of his world.
Over the long summer of 2013, his son, Chris, returned to his hometown to help his now widowed mother move out of his childhood home. As he began to examine his father’s manuscripts and memorabilia, journals, and letters, he realized he finally had an opportunity to gain insight into the difficult, mercurial, sometimes cruel man he’d loved and feared in equal measure. Only in his father’s absence could he truly make sense of the man and his legacy.
In My Father, the Pornographer, Offutt takes us on the journey with him, reading his father’s prodigious literary output as both a critic and as a son seeking answers. He “enters the darkest and most mysterious of places—the cave of a monstrous enigma named Andrew J. Offutt—armed with nothing but his own restless curiosity. Spoiler alert: He makes it out alive, walking into the daylight to bring us a deeper, funnier, more tender and more heartbroken truth—and his masterpiece” (Michael Chabon).
My Father, the Pornographer Chapter One MY FATHER grew up in a log cabin near Taylorsville, Kentucky. The house had twelve-inch walls with gun ports to defend against attackers, first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At age twelve, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method—find it and land on it—using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. He eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books under eighteen different names. His novels included six science fiction, twenty-four fantasy, and one thriller. The rest was pornography.
When I was nine, Dad gave me his childhood copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The old hardback was tattered, the boards held by fraying strips of fabric, the pages pliant and soft. It is a coming-of-age narrative about thirteen-year-old Jim Hawkins, who discovers a secret map, leaves England, and returns with a large share of pirate treasure. I loved the fast-paced story and the bravery of young Jim.
On paper cut from a brown grocery sack, I carefully drew an island with a coastline, water, and palm trees. A dotted line led to a large red X. My mother suggested I show the map to my father. Dad wiped coffee on the paper and wadded it up several times, which made it seem older. He used matches to ignite the edges of the map, then quickly extinguished the flame. This produced a charred and ragged border that enhanced the map’s appearance, as if it had barely survived destruction. Because of the fire involved, we were alone outside, away from my younger siblings. Dad was selling insurance at the time, rarely home, his attention always focused elsewhere. I enjoyed the sense of closeness, a shared project.
Dad said that he drew maps for most of the books he wrote, and I resolved that if I ever published a book, I’d include a map. Twenty years later I did. In 1990 I called my father with the news that Vintage Contemporaries was publishing Kentucky Straight, my first book. A long silence ensued as Dad digested the information.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I didn’t know I’d given you a childhood terrible enough to make you a writer.”
His own father wrote short stories in the 1920s. During the Depression, my grandfather was forced to abandon his literary ambitions to save the family farm and pursue a more practical education in engineering. He died young, a year before my father published his first story. Dad never knew what it was like to have a proud father and didn’t know how to be one himself.
After the publication of Kentucky Straight, people began asking Dad what he thought of my success. Buried in the question was the implication that the son had outdone the father. My work was regarded as serious literature, whereas he wrote porn and science fiction. Twice I witnessed someone insinuate that Dad should be envious. Invariably my father had the same response. His favorite adventure novel was The Three Musketeers, in which young D’Artagnan wins respect through his magnificent swordplay, taught to him by his father. Every time someone asked Dad about my success as a writer, he said he was happy to be D’Artagnan’s sword master, voicing pride in my accomplishments but taking credit for them, as well. It was as close as he ever came to telling me how he felt about my work.
Chris Offutt is an award-winning author and screenwriter. He worked on the HBO drama True Blood and the Showtime series Weeds. His books include Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice, The Good Brother, Out of the Woods, and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Short Stories, and many other anthologies. He lives near Oxford, Mississippi.
“A generous reminiscence . . . ruminative and melancholy . . . Offutt somehow manages to summon compassion for his father. That, ultimately, is what makes this memoir so unexpectedly moving.”
– The New York Times
“A literary detective story interwoven with memories of a youth riddled with sexual confusion and inarticulate yearning. . . . There is a touching universality to his tale and its mix of longing and despair . . . . In the end, the value of this haunting account lies in Offutt’s refusal to find a pat moral in his journey.”
– The Washington Post
"One of the most sensitive, nuanced examinations of father and son relationships I’ve read."
– Boston Globe
"A heartbreaking coming-of-age story . . . Many scenes rival the stories of Jeannette Walls or Mary Karr . . . . Awe-inspiring, tender, gut-wrenching, forgiving."
– Atlanta Journal Constitution
– New York Post
“Fascinating . . . funny, engaging.”
– St. Louis Post Dispatch
“[A] thoughtful, elegant memoir . . . While the beating heart of the book is its depiction of a complicated father-son relationship, it also [. . .] preserves a slice of forgotten literary life within its keenly felt, lyrical portrayal of a son wrestling with his father’s inheritance.”
“My Father, the Pornographer is contemporary memoir at its best. It achieves the rare miracle of re-creating the human heart on the page.”
– The Rumpus
“The least titillating book you’ll ever read about porn, and possibly the most interesting, Offutt’s memoir. . . [is] a loving if unsparing tribute to a very complicated father.”
– New York Magazine
"This is a frank, clear-eyed, but subtle memoir that works through raw emotion to arrive at an empathetic understanding of what fractures and binds families."
– Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"A heartbreaking tale about identity, overcoming fear, and forgiving someone more committed to his craft than his family."
“Everything Chris Offutt writes is beautiful and brilliant, but My Father, the Pornographer is an astonishing house of mysteries, and his most moving book yet. It's about family and secrets and a literal ton of pornography, but also, fascinatingly, what it means to make a writing life, whether high art or pulp.”
– Elizabeth McCracken
“Chris Offutt owns one of the finest, surest prose styles around, ready and able to convey the hardest truth without flinching. Now Offutt enters the darkest and most mysterious of places—the cave of a monstrous enigma named Andrew J. Offutt—armed with nothing but his own restless curiosity. Spoiler alert: He makes it out alive, walking into the daylight to bring us a deeper, funnier, more tender and more heartbroken truth—and his masterpiece.”
– Michael Chabon
“Chris Offutt has written the finest book of his distinguished career, a memoir that delivers an understanding of the complicated negotiations we must make between our obsessions and those mysterious others whom we call family. Direct, forceful, and completely unsentimental, this book goes on the short shelf of our best literature about fathers and sons.”
– Ann Packer, author of The Children's Crusade
"My Father the Pornographer is a brave, engaging, dangerous piece of work. An uncompromising examination of a writer's life, it raises questions both complex and haunting. Offutt is truly naked on the page, revealing his father's secret obsessions, and his own. I am lost in admiration for what he has done.”
– Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina
"With My Father, the Pornographer, Chris imparts many rich and hard-won lessons to his lucky readers. This is a memoir that's not only insightful but also funny, harrowing, and searingly honest."
– Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times Bestselling Author
“The death of Chris Offutt's father left him with what amounted to a secret estate that redefined his family—and Chris himself. Only a writer of Offutt's caliber could transform that experience into this heartbreaking triumph. This is a must-read, an unforgettable and entirely original story.”
– Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night
"With gripping precision, Chris Offutt tracks the hidden life of his brilliant, cruel and narcissistic father. My Father, the Pornographer is a son’s reckoning not only with a parent’s dark, often shocking secrets but with their human cost. This is an utterly absorbing and heartbreaking book."
– Honor Moore, author of The Bishop's Daughter
"Though his relationship with his father was distant, melancholic, and precarious, Offutt quite movingly weaves his personal history into a fascinating tapestry of a compulsive writer with a knack for the naughty."