Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Good Brother


I don't know what's up lately with Chris Offutt, but for much of today I was thinking of his 1997 novel The Good Brother. The novel has two parts. There's a murder, there's some hiding out, first in Kentucky, the second up around Deep Creek, Montana. It's a very 1990s novel, not the grunge and the boom part, but the part I remember more clearly, the AM radio part, with survivalists, militiamen paranoia, government-hate rising to the level of domestic terrorism, and that decade's great waves of disenfranchisement.

He had a great sci-fi short story in the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and I know he's been teaching a bit. The internet machine tells me he's written a few episodes of the upcoming HBO series True Blood. I know he'd done some acting early in his life and recently in The Slaughter Rule, which is a very Missoula'd-up movie. But goll darn it, I want more novels and short stories from him.

He also gave me the best writing advice I've ever heard: "Be more vulnerable." I'm tryin', man. I'm tryin'.

What started me thinking about it was some idle reading of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm teaching a summer class for teens, which entails a lot of sitting around while they write (by write I mean check their facebook) in the Idyllwild Arts library. So I'll read anything at this point, and the Tolkien was at the top of the stack. In a letter to W.H. Auden, an early champion of the Lord of the Rings business, Tolkien confesses that he didn't write with any grand plan, except for a few details, that there would be a spider, that Frodo would have trouble getting rid of the ring, for example, but beyond that, the unfolding of the story was a surprise to him. Guy walks into the woods, events ensue. It sounds so simple, doesn't it?

15 comments:

james said...

i really enjoyed 'out of the woods' by chris offutt. if you haven't read it ed, you should. it's been a while since i picked it up but i remember really being affected by the mood the stories set. they almost came off more as allegories or fables than contemporary short stories. the stories are short, i think the entire collection is only 100+ pages but i left more than satiated as a reader.

jrlennon said...

Chris is one of my favorite (underrated?) writers...I was in touch with him recently--he's doing well it seems, in spite of the writers' strike temporarily knackering his new screenwriting gig. I am hoping for a story collection soon, personally.

"Guy walks into the woods, events ensue" is pretty much the plot of my forthcoming book. Should I send a copy to Peter Jackson?

jrlennon said...

Oh geez and I didn't even comment on "The Good Brother." I really dig that book, esp. the way it's practically two completely different novels in one. Kind of an audacious approach.

rmellis said...

The most recent thing of his I read was in an anthology of essays about money (quite a good anthology, actually: Money Changes Everything). He wrote about his parents writing paperback pornography. It seemed to explain a lot, somehow.

jrlennon said...

By the way, that is a fine selection of post labels.

Pete said...

Offutt had a great quote in a Tin House interview several years ago (the whole excerpt is good for context, but the last line is the killer):

"Student writers are working in an artificial artistic environment. They've got to turn in a fifteen-page short story by Thursday. It becomes a deadline or an assignment. There is enormous pressure to produce something that's good in this minimum time. This is contrary to both learning and making art. Once you start writing something with the idea that it will be exposed to the world - the self-consciousness that you're writing it for other people to read - you lose the whole point of writing because you start protecting yourself, either from exposing yourself emotionally or from the possibility of comments that will make you feel bad. Once you start doing that, you're doomed. And that's something that's very difficult for student writers to understand, that you have to dispense with the artificiality of the workshop setting. You have to go to 'I-don't-give-a-f***-villle' in order to write."

bigscarygiraffe said...

JR--
If I remember correctly, you said something quite similar to me during one of my attempts at playing writer during workshop. I'm quickly and slowly realizing how very true that is, and how much of the train I've missed. I'm on the damn train now, though, and it's rambling at indeterminate speeds to f***ville.

In other words, don't stop teaching.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, anyone who has taken my classes knows that I agree completely with Chris Offutt here. Making art, especially in an academic context, is a tightrope act. You have to be able to switch your critical faculties off to write, and then switch them back on for class. If you can manage this, you're going to do well--but even at the best of times, even the best writers have trouble with it. You're always having to trick yourself into thinking it doesn't matter, and nobody cares.

I remember while writing Mailman, probably my least commercial book, the same mantra would go through my head all day long: this will never be published, this will never be published. It really helped.

Hey what's with the asterisks? This is the fuckin' internet!

jrlennon said...

And hey giraffe, thanks so much. I won't stop teaching, don't worry...

bigscarygiraffe said...

fuck yeah!

bookboy28 said...

What is up with Missoula, Montana? It seems that is the new place to be for a writer. I heard Santa Fe, New Mexico has the highest percentage of writers per capita in the U.S, but I would bet that Missoula is somewhere in the top ten.

bookboy28 said...

Fuck! I noticed that I was the only one who didn't drop the F-bomb, I mean FUCK, in my post, so I wanted to rectify the situation.

jrlennon said...

Ed, Rhian, and I all met in the MFA program at Montana, which is very low-key, and for us was a lot of fun. People used to compare Missoula to the Left Bank--when we were there, the cost of living was very cheap, the bars were great, and there wasn't much to do except drink, talk to people, go hiking, and make shit up in your head.

It's a bit more upscale now, and a lot more expensive, but it is still a wonderful town, and still packed with writers. We used to joke that Montana's offical nickname was "The Memoir State."

jrlennon said...

Good god, I just realized that was 15 years ago, almost.

Pete said...

Sorry about the fucking asterisks. I pasted it directly from my own blog, where I try to keep the content clean enough for my seven-year-old daughter to read. Not that she ever reads my blog anyway...