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Writing About Life in Appalachia, Chris Offutt Felt He Was Always a Crime Novelist


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As a child growing up in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest I spent an inordinate amount of time alone. Most of those hours I wandered the woods. Half of what I know, I learned there alone. Most of the rest I learned from reading.

A bookmobile trundled up the dirt road of my home hill once a week. On those slanted shelves I discovered my love of crime fiction by falling in love with Nancy Drew. Next I read the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, and the Three Investigators. The nearest town established a public library where I made the big jump to Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe. There was a four-book limit per person. I circumvented that—an act of minor crime—by getting library cards in the name of my two pre-school siblings and the family dog. Sixteen books would last me a week and I read every book by Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane. By high school I’d outgrown their formulaic plots and two-dimensional characters.

A few years later I embarked upon reading the American crime canon, beginning with Hammett and Chandler. I found a few favorites, particularly in the 1950s paperback originals. Later I read James Sallis and Shane Stevens, two of my favorite writers. The era of crime novels set in rural areas had more or less ended after World War II. From then on, the narratives took place in cities and towns, neither of which bore much relation to my experience. I struggled to find novels that dealt with circumstances that were more familiar, characters I could relate to.    

I discovered African-American writers such as Chester Himes, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, and Clarence Cooper Jr. Their work appealed to me due to the portrayal of people and culture that were not part of the mainstream experience. Set deep within the black community, the action and dialogue was depicted without interpretation—a valuable lesson for me. These writers had battled tough odds to show their experience to a white readership that regarded black culture from the standpoint of ignorance and  bigotry. I understood that I faced a similar battle along class lines by writing about poor white hill people.

In 1990 I began writing seriously. That same year Walter Mosley published his first book, Devil in a Blue Dress. It was set in Los Angeles during the ‘40s and focused on the community in which the protagonist moved. Like life in the hills, most people were poor and few owned cars. If they worked, the jobs were menial labor. The dialogue was direct and the violence was abrupt—again similar to my life at home. 

Inspired by Mosley, I began writing short stories set in the hills featuring a variety of marginalized characters engaged in semi-lawful or outright illegal activities. These were friends and neighbors, people I knew well. They included bootleggers, marijuana growers, gamblers, ex-cons, and outlaws. I dutifully sent my stories to the mystery magazines in operation at the time: Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and Hardboiled. The editors rejected every one of them. I then turned to the literary quarterlies and had my first publication—a story about a man who gets out of prison for homicide, returns to the hills, and brutalizes his family.

I have always believed that I wrote crime fiction although the marketplace seems to disagree. My first novel, The Good Brother, was about a man who avenges his brother’s murder, flees out west, lives under an alias, and gets mixed up with anti-government people. My second novel, Country Dark, featured a man who drives for an illegal bootlegger. It included stolen money, a violent stint in prison, and three homicides. 

For twenty-five years I wanted to write a crime series. Various projects sidetracked me—screenwriting to fund my sons’ education, memoir to try and make sense of my youth, teaching college to pay bills.  During that time I read Sara Paretsky, Patricia Highsmith, Megan Abbott, Attica Locke and Sara Gran.  Women writers brought a fresh approach to a genre that too often relied on violence, sex, and whiskey.  These writers replaced these traits with psychology, interiority, and human insight, lessons I tried to absorb.

I began reading European writers and found inspiration in the work of William McIllvanney, Jean-Claude Izzo, and Friedrich Durrenmatt. Contemporary writers I enjoyed included Val McDermid, Denise Mina, and my favorite—Massimo Carlotto. These writers were clearly influenced by American crime fiction with a touch more existentialism. Like the African-American writers I admired, the European novelists focused on community life, personal relationships, and socio-political insights. Characters under pressure responded from deep within their culture and community. I appreciated the pragmatism and occasional absurd humor as well.

At its best, crime fiction is social commentary, which is often absent in mainstream novels. The Appalachian region is unique, mostly maligned in popular narratives. My hope was to portray the people as they really are—how they talk, think, and act—including their less savory traits. The book would not white-wash a tough and violent world. Nor would it perpetuate the cliches and stereotypes that many people associate with Appalachia.          

To ensure that The Killing Hills would be regarded as a crime novel, I followed the age-old trope of placing a dead body in the first chapter. The book follows Mick Hardin, an army police detective from eastern Kentucky who is on leave in the hills. Although Mick drives the narrative, my working strategy was to make the culture itself the protagonist. Hill people live in double-isolation: from the rest of the USA and from each other. The result is a retention of older ways of living such as family loyalty, ancient codes of vengeance, and forthright behavior coupled with out-moded courtesy. Within four square miles of mostly wooded hills, I found a freedom to write in the genre I’ve loved since I was a kid.

Currently Kentucky has more bookmobiles than any other state. Maybe some kid back home will find my book and get inspired to write a better one. I hope so. We need to hear more voices from the hills.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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