November 18, 2010
JR: Chris Offutt surprised me one day in the now closed Skyline Bookstore in Manhattan, (the best used first editions in the city were located there and Rob Warren, the owner, was an absolute prince). He was surfing the shelves for fiction, and I was coming down the same aisle. I don’t know how I got to talking to him, but I said I was a collector, and he asked if I collected novels by Chris Offutt, I said I’d heard of the writer, but didn’t have anything. So Chris, (I didn’t know who he was at all, shows what kind of collector I was, or wanna be), reached up and handed me Kentucky Straight, and said, “I’m Chris Offutt, it’s nice to meet you. Read this.” No writer I know would do that, or I don’t know, maybe they would. Chris has been a friend ever since, and he once sent me an inscribed copy of his most recent novel with a letter in it, offering me encouragement, for some personal and professional demons I was fighting at the time.
That was ten years ago, and recently Chris and I have been throwing around the idea of having him contribute to Three Guys One Book. He’s agreed, and the first thing we’ll present is his brilliant When We Fell in Love essay. I think what’s most important about his voice is what it brings to the blog, a fresh perspective from a man full of perspective. Recently we argued of the literary merit of James Frey, Chuck Palahniuk, John Updike, John Cheever, and as it turns out we both have wildly varying thoughts on all things literary. Chris is a hell of a writer, and a good friend. If you have a second, let us know what you think, and welcome him to the blog. Chris should have something every month, more or less, for you to read, so look for that.
Loving Harriet – Chris Offutt
I read a book a day as a kid. On weekends and during school vacations I read two books per day. By age twelve I’d read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs, dozens of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; the myriad legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood; Tales of the Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables, Grimm and Anderson fairy tales, the Iliad and theOdyssey. I also read Twain, Stevenson, Dafoe, Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Poe.
Strange fare for a boy in the hills of eastern Kentucky, stranger since my grade school lacked a library and the only book guaranteed to be found in my neighbor’s homes was the King James Bible. I suppose I was lucky. My father owned hundreds of books, many from his own childhood in a log cabin, raised by a former schoolteacher. Lucky insofar as my experience was the ideal breeding ground for a writer—a classic over-sensitive misfit, no good at sports, smartest kid in school—living in an isolated world of national forest, dirt roads, trickling creeks, and unemployed men with guns.
Reading wasn’t an attempt to educate myself. I simply wanted to escape into the imaginary world, a safe place where good and bad were clearly delineated, might equaled right, honor and chivalry were paramount, and justice was always meted out to a villain. My reading was a way of living safely. Within the pages of books, I was unafraid: of my father, of aggressive dogs, snakes and the bully across the creek; of older boys who drove cars near enough to make me jump in the ditch; of armed men parked near the bootlegger; of getting lost in the woods that surrounded me at all times. If there had been a movie theatre, I’d have found solace there. Or an art gallery. Or the availability of drugs, sex, and gambling. Or a cleric offering purpose to the young. As it was in the Appalachia of the late sixties and early seventies, I was stuck with literature.
Though my reading was voracious, I only fell in love with one book, and that relatively late, after consuming my father’s classics. I found it at the brand new library in town. My mother drove to town every Saturday for groceries. She dropped me at the library and picked me up after shopping. Initially I ran into a problem: due to limited holdings, the library had a four-book limit for each person. My solution was to acquire library cards in the names of my three siblings and the family dog, which allowed me twenty books per week. I packed these in a paper bag every Saturday and returned them the following week.
One day, quite by chance, I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I not only fell in love with the book, but also with Harriet M. Welch. The circumstances of her life could not be further removed from mine: Harriet lived in New York City with a nanny and a cook. But she was similar in some ways: largely ignored by her parents who liked to drink, a loner in possession of a single friend, Sport. Harriet wore jeans and sneakers. She carried a knife and flashlight. She wandered her neighborhood, interacting with people at a slight remove—exactly as I did. Harriet differed from me in two crucial aspects. She overtly considered herself a spy, and she carried with her at all times a notebook and spare pens.
I’d always identified with protagonists, fantasizing about being Tarzan, Tom Sawyer, Frank Hardy, Jim Hawkins, Tom Swift, Sherlock Holmes, or John Carter. They were magnificent people with intensely interesting lives. Affairs went their way precisely because they always did the right thing for the right reason. Their adventures, however, were invariably due to external circumstances. With Harriet M. Welsch, I found someone who created her own mini-adventures through spying on her neighbors and writing her observations. In short, she was real, her life grounded firmly in ways that were similar to mine. No one rescued her but herself. She was my first girlfriend.
I finished the book and read it again. That Saturday I rechecked the book out, walked to the drugstore and used my allowance to buy a notebook and pens, my first purchase of anything other than comic books and model cars. I resolved to carry pen and paper for the rest of my life. I resolved to write down my observations and keep my notebooks hidden. I decided to be a writer when I grew up. That was forty years ago. I still carry pen and paper everywhere.