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Author ready to leave his TV success behind

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Chris Offutt doesn’t have HBO, so he’s going to head over to a neighbor’s house Sunday night to watch “Treme.” It just might be his last chance to see his name in a television show credit roll and, to be honest, he’s OK with that.

He’s felt the lure of Hollywood, heard the Sirens in the distance. And the 54-year-old Kentucky native has experienced enough success as a screenwriter and story editor on TV’s brainiest shows it felt real. But he’s ready to leave all that behind.

“When I was working on ‘Weeds,’ I got depressed, and then I realized I wanted a big house in the Hollywood Hills, and I wanted a Jaguar,” Offutt said. “I mean I really wanted these things. And I thought, ‘OK, this isn’t me. I gotta get out of here, because A, it’s obtainable, and B, it don’t mean a goddamn thing.’ So I left and I moved to Mississippi.”

Offutt’s about 195 pages into his next novel, a welcome return to fiction for an author who’s published far too little of it in the two decades since his first short story collection, “Kentucky Straight.” He’d always been able to make ends meet by teaching, which allowed him to write for his own pleasure. Over the years, he produced another story collection, a novel and two memoirs, showing off his versatility and originality. But as his sons approached college age, he made the decision to explore his options.

“I’m 48 years old,” he said. “I’d managed to save $7,000. And that’s not going to pay for them to go to college, so I looked into ... television because TV is a business, so it pays.”

His versatility paid off again as he studied, then mastered the art of the TV script. He’s written pilots, spent time as an executive story editor on “True Blood,” a co-producer on “Weeds” and was recruited to write this weekend’s “Careless Love” episode featuring Fats Domino for “Treme” by crime writer George Pelecanos, an executive producer on the show about New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

He has earned a Writers Guild of America nomination for best writing on “True Blood,” so it’s not that TV hasn’t been fun. And like all opportunists, Offutt says he’d try it again if he can stay in Oxford, where he teaches screenwriting at the University of Mississippi.

In many ways, his published prose forms an influential cornerstone in 21st-century Southern and rural literature, which has been an active area full of young, talented authors over the last decade, along with writers like Daniel Woodrell and the late Larry Brown.

Yet Tom Franklin, a fellow author and professor at Ole Miss, doesn’t think Offutt gets the credit he deserves for pushing the work of others toward more authentic characters and points of view.

“Here’s the thing: He somehow hasn’t ever been embraced by the Southern institution for some reason,” Franklin said. “He’s been in Iowa and the Midwest and L.A. I sort of feel like the Southern world is embracing him now in the way it hasn’t before.”

And at a pace of about six to eight pages a day, something that makes Offutt feel like he’s making the right decision.

“I’d rather sit alone in my room and feel lonely at times and know that I’m making something that is mine and is worthwhile and will live after I die,” Offutt said. “If I die tomorrow, my books will be read. The television shows eventually won’t be watched very much. With DVDs they’ll be on people’s shelves, but it’s not the same as a book. There’s nothing more important to me than literature.”

Pelecanos thought he’d fit the show’s sensibilities after reading Offutt’s prose.

“Chris’ voice definitely comes through, and you’ll see it in some of the darker aspects of the episode that are also funny,” Pelecanos said. “This guy Sonny goes on a real dark journey in this episode. He falls off the wagon and basically it’s three or four days of him messing up in every way that you can. ... I knew that he would really master it and he did. And that’s all him. There’s little turns of phrase in there, too, that nobody else could’ve come up with.”

Offutt’s earned something of a reputation for his dark humor. He is, after all, the guy who wrote the season five finale of “Weeds” in which a vengeful Andy Milder slams Kevin Nealon’s, ahem, private parts, in a drawer in a negotiated settlement for ill deeds.

“Yeah, everybody remembers that,” Offutt said. “That was my episode.”

On “True Blood,” he wrote a nutria into an exorcism in the script, only to have the production department question the creature’s existence. So he switched it to a possum. When he arrived on the set he found an animal handler holding two of the creatures by the tail: “I love possums. So I went up to her and asked, ‘Why’d you bring two?’ She said, ‘Sometimes the first one’s not cooperative.’ So they had a stand-in possum.”

“Trueblood” producers also asked him to write a scene in which the locals harass a group of vampires by lobbing Molotov cocktails into a house. Offutt couldn’t resist burning down the house. He showed up on location in Shreveport, La., to find a condemned house rigged to burn.

“I tell you what, that was the happiest day I ever had in television,” Offutt said. “I knew they were going to cut it, but I always wanted to burn down a house, so, by golly, I did it. I was hopping around and screaming I was so happy.”

He earned a Writers Guild of America nomination for best writing on that show, so it’s not that TV hasn’t been fun. And like all opportunists, Offutt says he’d try it again if he can stay in Oxford, where he teaches screenwriting at the University of Mississippi.

“That world is so intoxicating and so attractive, and produces such a euphoria, I found myself wanting it,” he said. “It’s like a drug or something. Now I’ve gone through withdrawal or something. OK, thank God, I live in the country in Mississippi, you know, in an old house and I sit in a little room and write what I want to write.”

And when he’s doing that, it usually turns out special.

He’s a graduate and former professor at the University of Iowa’s famed writing program, received awards and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation and the Lanning Foundation.

In many ways, his published prose forms an influential cornerstone in 21st-century Southern and rural literature, which has been an active area full of young, talented authors over the last decade, along with writers like Daniel Woodrell and the late Larry Brown.

Yet Tom Franklin, a fellow author and professor at Ole Miss, doesn’t think Offutt gets the credit he deserves for helping push the work of others toward more authentic characters and points of view.

“Here’s the thing: He somehow hasn’t ever been embraced by the Southern institution for some reason,” Franklin said. “He’s been in Iowa and the Midwest and L.A. I sort of feel like the Southern world is embracing him now in the way it hasn’t before, and I do think that is a really good thing because I just think he’s doing something interesting. I love the stories, love the novel and the memoirs. He’s doing so many different things and all of them well.”

And at a pace of about six to eight pages a day, something that makes Offutt feel like he’s making the right decision.

“I’d rather sit alone in my room and feel lonely at times and know that I’m making something that is mine and is worthwhile and will live after I die,” Offutt said. “If I die tomorrow, my books will be read. The television shows eventually won’t be watched very much. With DVDs they’ll be on people’s shelves, but it’s not the same as a book. There’s nothing more important to me than literature.”

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