He came to widespread fame with Winter’s Bone, but Daniel Woodrell has been writing some of America’s best fiction for years. He talks to Allen Barra about his new book, why he lives in the Ozarks, and his failure to write a city novel.
Daniel Woodrell was born in 1953 in Springfield, Missouri. He left school at 17 to join the Marines, went back at 27 to earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas, and then graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Beginning with Under The Bright Lights (1986), a book that might loosely be categorized as crime fiction, he has, with the publication of The Outlaw Album in 2011, come to be regarded as one of the outstanding fiction and prose stylists in American letters. Critics have compared him to writers ranging from Faulkner and Hemingway to Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. But Woodrell’s style is all his own, much richer and more complex than the term he coined to describe his work, “country noir,” would suggest. With the publication of The Maid’s Version in September, Woodrell will have 11 volumes of fiction in print.
Woodrell and his wife, the novelist Katie Estill, live in the Ozarks, where we recently caught up with him.
President Obama and I thank you for The Bayou Trilogy. Under The Bright Lights, the first book in that trilogy, was your first novel. Was Frogtown, where the stories are set, a place you invented?
There was an area near St. Louis where I learned to swim in the Missouri River, where the casino is now. The old French lore was in the air. The town of St. Charles near St. Louis was founded by a trapper named Blanchette. There is a section that’s called Frenchtown on historical markers. But everybody I knew called it Frogtown back then ... I left before the gentrification and subsequent tourism boom began—it was a scruffy and fascinating old part of town then, with just enough vice to make it look like it could support some crime stories. It’s far less so now that it sparkles.
But the town of St. Bruno is made up, invented, and anything or place I ever saw or heard of or invented in my head that fit was used. That was the joy of those books for me—invention not restricted by any actual geography.
One of the reasons The Bayou Trilogy was so obscure and required rescue 20 years after the last was published was that those readers seeking the category conventions were disappointed, said the books were all about character and prose, and where was the thriller plot? I still get that comment pretty often, and I blame marketing for the confusion. My interests have never been in the category conventions. In the early books it was the bouncy characters and exuberant prose and swift, vivid chronicling that I enjoyed so. I'm always writing about character first. Plot, such as it is, comes from the characters.
I think many readers found an entry to your work with your Civil War–era novel Woe to Live On. The speech you invent for your characters in the novel is very different and distinct from what you have written for your characters in other novels. It seems to come out of the mouths of people who grew up on the English of the King James Bible and Shakespeare. The only other writer I can think of who created similar speech is Charles Portis in True Grit. He once said he had spent a lot of time as a reporter in rural Arkansas, talking to old women in the hills whose rhythm and vocabulary were much different than those of people in the cities. How did you come to create this dialogue?
There have been scholars in decades past who thought they detected remnants of Elizabethan English still being spoken in the hills. I have no dog in that fight, but will say my old ones spoke a much more colorful language than I hear around me these days, more rooted in observation and drawn from common facts of daily life and more bluntly to the point. I try to use a lot of the old words where I can, just one of my joneses. And I read many, many first-person accounts of the Civil War era, official reports and histories. The surprise was that the county histories compiled by dedicated amateurs in the generation or two after the war often provided the best details and sound and sense of the time. I also love Shakespeare, without claiming to be particularly knowledgeable, and Twain and all the rest. King James cadences have slipped in since the start and remain evident in much of my prose, probably more rather than less in recent works.
The language of WOE is what I heard in my head.
You’ve had two well-received films made from your novels: Ride With the Devil [Ang Lee’s film of Woe to Live On starring Tobey Maguire] and Winter’s Bone, which made a star of Jennifer Lawrence. Did you feel that the films were faithful to the written word?
Both films stayed faithful to the novel they were based on. I was happy with the end result in both cases.
For a long time I didn’t think I wanted to live in the Ozarks or write about the region. It seemed to be a sure recipe for obscurity, and to be obscure was not my conscious ambition.
I think it's interesting that you wrote four novels before writing a contemporary novel set in the Ozarks. Give Us a Kiss was published 10 years after Under the Bright Lights. Why did it take you so long to write about where you grew up?
For a long time I didn't think I wanted to live in the Ozarks or write about the region. It seemed to be a sure recipe for obscurity, and to be obscure was not my conscious ambition. We'd been living in the Arkansas Ozarks, then the Missouri Ozarks, because it is so inexpensive and does have natural wonders, but we shuffled things and moved to San Francisco, the corner of Dashiell Hammett and Pine. I intended to set a novel, in the city, something au courant about an obscure B-movie actress, with sleek folks and fancy eats and everybody has an apartment with a view of the bay and/or the Golden Gate Bridge and income is so certain and high that it's never mentioned as a concern—you know, the sort of book you think the world must want, since it didn't want what I was doing.
In about two months the Ozarks started coming into my novel, and the B-actress book went into a drawer, and that was that. I discovered the people and world I was meant to write about and felt it almost immediately.
Has your family been in the Ozarks as long as anyone can remember?
My people have been in the Ozarks since 1838 or so, and I was born here, went to school elsewhere, but this was the lore I grew up with. Summers, holidays, etc., away when I was growing up. Then I returned, thinking I'd be here briefly. We’ve been here live for 18 years now.
Have you used your book money and movie royalties to build the biggest house in the Ozarks?
We live in a one-bed, one-bath house in a very humble grit neighborhood where meth was prevalent until the last year or so, when it appears the last cooks in the neighborhood have moved out or been incarcerated. At one time or another neighbors on both sides of me were involved in cooking and/or dealing, and we got along OK with some and had constant threats and break-ins, etc., with others.
One of the things that caught the attention of readers and critics in Winter’s Bone was the character of Ree, a strong young female, which you don’t see enough of in American novels. I’d call her a spiritual of descendant of True Grit’s Mattie Ross. Your new novel, The Maid’s Version, is centered around a very strong relationship between two sisters. Did you draw on your family for such an intimate portrayal of a sibling relationship?
I am becoming reluctant to point to family members and ladies and buddies who might also have overlaps with my characters. But this is the closest I’ve come to drawing from my own family and its history. The novel is set in a time when brothers and in this case sisters had to rely on each other to survive. That’s what Ruby and Alma do.
There’s a horrendous event in The Maid’s Version, a deadly explosion at a dance hall. Is this based on something that actually happened?
My grandmother really was a maid, and she worked in the house of someone who was widely suspected to be behind a horrible event in her life—an explosion in a dance hall which killed several people. As near as I’ve been able to piece it together, the explosions occurred much as the one in the book does.
Did the older women in your family have a strong influence on you?
When you grow up in the Ozarks, grandmothers have a have a very big influence on your life. They not only pass along a lot of family lore, they make you realize that a lot of people before you have survived on things that you didn’t even know were food—being made to eat tripe and marrow helped make me what I am today.