Why do you write memoir?
At age 25 I was perplexed by what my life had become and how it gotten that way. I’d left Kentucky three times, lived in Arizona, Florida, New York City, Paris, and Boston. I’d held over thirty jobs. I had a degree in Theatre but had lost interest in acting. For a year I was a family photographer in the malls of New England, and wound up managing a nonprofit thrift store in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of NYC. None of this was planned. I’d simply wanted to offset my isolated childhood by seeing the world.
In 1985 I began combing through my journals, seeking a cause-and-effect, any hint of deliberation on my part. None came to light. Each decision seemed the best at the time. This self-examination led to The Same River Twice.
In 1999 I returned to Kentucky yet again. My plan was to write a prequel to my novel The Good Brother. My in-laws, Arthur and Irene Gross, were concentration camp survivors from Poland. They had never talked about their experiences but for some reason they decided to talk to me when they visited Kentucky.
Later I realized that the reality of my return home was more interesting than the novel I had planned to write. Arthur and Irene had no home to go back to. I did, but the act of leaving had rendered me unfit for the hills. No Heroes was the unintended result.
In 2013 my father died of cirrhosis. I spent the summer in my childhood home where my parents had lived for over fifty years. Dad’s legacy to me was 1800 pounds of pornography, a desk, and a rifle. My siblings preferred to destroy the porn, but I believed that Dad deserved a bibliography, a task which necessitated careful examination of his archive. That resulted in my third memoir.
My sincere hope is that my future will prove uneventful enough not to warrant futher memoir.
Why Food Writing?
In 2011 I moved to Oxford, Mississippi to teach screenwriting and fiction writing at the university. That autumn the Southern Foodways Alliance held its annual symposium in town. People told me that the food and drinks were fantastic, but tickets were very expensive. I snuck into the events and had a great time. I decided to write a food essay--just one--in the hopes that I’d receive a free ticket in the future.
That first essay, “Bible Cake” (https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/218-bible-cake) was based on a recipe in a community cookbook from my home of Haldeman, KY. That essay led to a regular column called “Cooking with Chris.” I hasten to add that I’m a lousy cook and my so-called food writing often has little do with food.
How did you get started in TV?
In 1995, a producer optioned a short story. He offered a low amount because he’d have to hire a professional screenwriter. I suggested that he hire me to write it and pay half what he would pay the screenwriter. The producer agreed and I wrote one of the world’s worst screenplays. The movie was never made.
Five year later another independent producer called and asked if I’d write a TV pilot. At the time my two sons were in high school and bound for college. Unfortunately I had about $7,000 saved up. I resolved to use Hollywood to pay for their educations.
I wrote the pilot, then rewrote it more than thirty times—first for the producers, then Lionsgate, HBO, TNT, and EPIX. Eventually I wrote the first four episodes. We shot the pilot but EPIX discontinued its interest in serialized TV. The script served as a calling card for staff jobs on True Blood, Weeds, and Treme.
Later I learned that networks paid more for pilots than staff jobs, and I could write them at home instead of Los Angeles. I wrote two pilots, for CBS and Lifetime. By then my sons had graduated college and I retired from Hollywood.
What is your process?
Each morning I rise, make a strong cup of espresso, and write in my journal. Then I sit down to write. My mind is freshest then, well-rested.
I work on more than one project simultaneously. The reason is pragmatic: when one starts falling apart, I switch to another one until it runs into difficulty. Then I return to the first one. The only time I deviate from this practice is in the rare case of a deadline, which I try to avoid.
I prefer to work in silence and solitude, facing a blank wall. Nevertheless, I have worked in many situations: a garage, a cellar, an attic, several basements, and a garden shed. I tried writing in coffeeshops but found them too distracting.
I take notes on a daily basis, written on scraps of paper and on my phone. Once a week I compile the notes into various documents. The most important part of my process is this: I never revise until I have a full draft.
The great poolplayer, Minnesota Fats, was once asked his technique for breaking the balls. He said, “Hit ‘em hard and hope.” I try to follow his advice each time I sit down to write.
Do you have hobbies or interests other than writing?
Over the years I have painted in oil and watercolor. That led to an interest in color photography, which I’ve followed diligently for over thirty years.
I also love Legos. Lately I’ve been making objects such as an espresso pot and a typewriter. With no background in engineering, architecture, or geometry, I am a very slow builder. Most of the time I’m taking something apart to rebuild it better. In that way, playing with Legos is similar to writing.
My personal reading interests are varied. At different times I’ve studied Theoretical Physics, Zen thought, histories of the various international clandestine services, stage magic, and 20th Century visual art. I also like comic books, particularly those that are written and drawn by one person.
Since childhood I’ve had the collecting bug. Lacking money, I collected objects that were free: feathers, abandoned bird nests, animal skulls, turtle shells, antlers, rocks with holes in them, fossils, and cool looking sticks. At some point people began giving me taxidermy, which has resulted in a small collection.