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An Interview with Chris Offutt
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JM:

What are you working on now?

CO:

A nonfiction book about my father and his career. Also a novel set in eastern Kentucky during the 50s and 60s. I continue to write personal essays, including one in Creative Nonfiction, and a column for Oxford American. I have short stories coming out this year in Playboy, the Kenyon Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

JM:

Will we ever see the stories about Lucy Moore?

CO:

Most of those stories have been published in magazines. I completed a manuscript of linked stories about Lucy, but wound up dissatisfied with it. The links, so to speak, felt forced. I took five of those stories and put them in a new collection that is now complete. It's a better book.

JM:

When talking about your first book, Kentucky Straight, you once said you were hiding aspects of yourself and "where you were from in fiction, while at the same time trying to write stories that evoked the area." Was this more of a writing technique or personal conundrum?

CO:

NO ANSWER. (I believe I said that, but I don't remember it. Also, I don't even know what I meant at the time!)

JM:

How would you characterize your experience writing for TV?

CO:

At age forty-eight I had two sons in high school who wanted to go to college. My savings topped about seven thousand dollars. I turned to Hollywood to finance my sons' education.

I thought it would be an easy move from prose to screenplays. Boy was I wrong! There is no relation at all. A screenplay is incredibly difficult. It's more like assemblage or a villanelle. Think of a jigsaw puzzle. You pull out all the edge pieces first. You put pieces together by color and image, based on looking at the image on the box. A screenplay is similar—except there is no picture to copy! And you have to make each jigsaw piece as you go.

A screenplay is not, by design, intended to be read in the same way someone reads a novel or story or essay. A screenplay is a document for production, and has to serve all aspects of production—actors, director, wardrobe, set, props, hair and makeup, locations, transportation, etc. It's like a blueprint for a building. It has to contain vast information while telling a story, and be written in succinct, precise language.

The rule of thumb for prose is "show, don't tell." For a screenplay, the writer's job is to tell what you want to show on screen.

To answer the question—my experience was a fast and very steep learning curve. TV scripts are highly structured and consist of many short scenes, which means constant beginnings and endings. My experience writing short stories helped in that regard.

In five years, I wrote ten scripts for TV. Ultimately I prefer to write at home than be part of a staff in L.A. The best way to do that is to write pilots, which are the hardest form in screen narrative. But I learned how and wrote three.

JM:

Has writing for TV and teaching screenwriting affected your fiction or nonfiction?

CO:

Probably, but it's too soon to tell. Both my fiction and nonfiction are dialogue-heavy, which helped screenwriting. I learned a few techniques for outlining a screenplay, but I've not put them to use in prose yet. I'd like to eventually. There's an essential pragmatism to the early stages of screenwriting that is appealing.

JM:

Did you try to write "Someone Else" before now? Did you ever try to tell this story as fiction or did it absolutely need to be told as nonfiction for literary or even personal reasons?

CO:

I wrote multiple versions over many years. Poetry. Short story. Experimental prose. Several attempts at essays. None were successful. Hopefully this one is, but there's no way for me to be objective.

JM:

Why do you think some stories seem to demand to be told as nonfiction, even when being written by a fiction writer of your considerable talents?

CO:

At times, the nonfiction account of events...



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