The Dickens of the Ozarks talks jazz, how his first book was published, and what he always carries with him. His latest novel, the first since 2006’s Winter’s Bone, is The Maid’s Version, about a deadly dance-hall fire in 1929 Missouri and the maid who thinks she knows what caused it.
NC: Where did you grow up?
DW: Missouri, mostly, with 18 months between ages 15 and 17 spent a mile or three into Kansas. Born in the Ozarks, but dad had to go north to find a good job, so I went to school and all in St. Charles, a great old river town in which to be a rambunctious boy. My family has been resident in the Ozarks since well before the war (guess which war), about 1838 or so, but I am now the last member of my family living in Howell County.
Where and what did you study?
Dropped out of high school at 16, not because I wasn’t a good student, just felt eager for some form of adventure, and high school didn’t provide any. I joined the Marines the week I turned 17, and that led to a few experiences that might qualify as adventure—eye of the beholder. Earned a bachelor’s at 27, then an M.F.A. that is still completely unused and in mint condition, never taken out of the box.
Most of the writers I interview are from Brooklyn, London, or Toronto. What do you like best about where you live?
I am well aware that the writers of New York, London, and Toronto are more readily noticed, though the shadowy and potent Ozarks Literary Cabal does what it can for me, then nightly joins me for dinner and calls me honey.
Describe your morning routine.
Get up at dawn or close to it, then do what needs to be done that day. Usually, it’s write fiction, but some days are all about research. I do feel that I have the world to myself at that hour.
You have a wonderful way of provoking in the reader a creeping dread, and I mean that as a compliment. From a writer’s perspective, is this something that you proactively seek to inject into your stories and novels, and if so is there a sort of recipe that you would recommend to other authors who admire the provocation of that sensation in your work?
Dread may be provoked because I don’t think about doing so, at all. I tell the story by feel, most of the time, and I am not much given to labyrinthian digressions, but seem to be naturally drawn to compression and pace, and the feelings come about on their own. Miles Davis once said (about ballads, I think) that starkness of presentation makes the romance all the more compelling. And there’s this from Thelonious Monk: “Just play the notes you really mean.”
The first page of The Maid’s Version has some haunting, incantatory prose. I was particularly struck with your use of some verbal repetitions: “She’s sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed.” This produces a sort of songlike, ghost-lit campfire storytelling effect. Is this a conscious authorial technique on your part, or do you just let it flow and see what appears?
That sound and rhythm are ingrained by now. I learned a lot from Hemingway, Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, the Bible, Dylan Thomas. All sorts of Irish writers: McGahern, O’Brien, O’Flaherty, Trevor, Bowen, Michael McLaverty, and a boatload more. And writers from the American South: Shirley Ann Grau, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, McCarthy, Barry Hannah, and have always had very strong feelings for anything James Agee wrote. Add A.J. Liebling, Raymond Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and the boys, Nelson Algren and William Kennedy. Rhythm, repetition, incantation—all good to me.
What was your initial reaction when you learned about Winter’s Bone being turned into a movie, and what were your thoughts on the film version?
I had had a movie made before then, directed by Ang Lee, and quite a few feckless options, so it was not my first whiff of the rodeo. I was fine with the film. The book was present, and I know the film was made under difficult circumstances—a very low budget and so on—and that it came out so well despite the hurdles seems a blessing.
What did having Winter’s Bone made into a film do for your career, and did it affect your writing?
I try not to let the movie biz as a business enter my mind when I’m writing fiction. I don’t write looking for movie deals, but of course the storytelling techniques of film do now and then suggest approaches that need to be considered. It would be unnatural if they didn’t come to mind. If somehow the hours could be counted, how many years have I by now spent watching movies? Probably not fully aware of just how deeply so much imagery has penetrated.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
My wife, Katie Estill, is the only writer I discuss writing with in depth. I was never protégé material as a young writer, so no relationships like that ever existed, and I am used to wandering my own path in the world. Other books provide encouragement and even excitement—whenever I become interested in a writer, dead or living, who I had previously ignored or been unaware of, I get a nice friendly jolt. Bolaño’s short stories being a recent example. I just hadn’t gotten around to him before. Eugene McCabe is a rock. I’d sidestepped William Goyen for many years and shouldn’t have.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time or just let it flow?
I have tried to outline, but all that seems to guarantee is that the book will not much resemble the outline, so I long ago stopped. I never really know where a book is going, and each new book has it’s own voice—and I have to be available to hear it. That’s what can be frustrating between novels—the way I wrote any previous book won’t work with this one. I’ll make notes, do little sketches of characters or places, but every new book has to be discovered, and maps to the older books won’t help much.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
An opening that features something kinetic seems to work pretty often.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
Longhand, then keyboard, and I’ve used the same coffee cup since 1974.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite workspace?
My office was the back porch, but a preacher who lived here before us enclosed it, and though the cold comes up under the floor in winter, it is a room I like. For a dinky space it holds a lot of books. The preacher (presently doing time for child molestation) lined the walls with bookshelves he made himself, and at the upper ends he placed rather austere and wide crosses. I keep an ashtray with a rainbow trout leaping from the bowl on my desk, though the bowl is used now for a couple of old pocketknives, French coins, a pair of dice, and a menacing-looking medallion I found washed up on Ocean Beach in San Francisco and liked enough to keep.
Do you have any superstitions?
I used to knock wood a lot, but it seemed to backfire, so I don’t anymore.
What is something you always carry with you?
Testicles. You never know when you’ll need them.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
My grandpa Pedro Daily. Where’d you bury the fucking money?
What is your favorite snack?
Goober peas, unshelled.
What phrase do you overuse?
“Really.” Got to stop with the use of “really.”
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
Katie’s dad had a little condo in Ft. Myers Beach, Florida, and nobody in her family wanted to go down there during the summer, so it would be empty in the heat. And we said, we’ll go. I decided to write a novel down there, drinking Fisher’s Ale ($1.90 a six-pack at Winn-Dixie!) and Cruzan rum, and wrote it with no expectation of publishing. I knew I needed the experience. A short story published in a quarterly that fall attracted a letter from an agent, so I sent him the book. We were dodging bill collectors (mostly student loans, and they absolutely did make sinister threats), hopping from town to town without leaving forwarding addresses, and we lost the agent! We’d rolled to a stop in the Arkansas Delta, and a telegram finally found me, saying, if this is you, good news, call New York.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
If I can concentrate, deeply concentrate for two or three hours, then I feel justified for the day. Word count means less to me than knowing that I made contact.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Make sure you actually like the writing part of being a writer. Then write whatever you think is worth writing, even if it seems out of step with the tastes of the moment. Anybody with any sap running will probably be out of step with the general parade, at least early on.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“To be continued.”
What is your next project?
I am increasingly interested in stories about men and masculinity and the immense struggle to hold on to decency as the years roll by, and the endurance and consequent scar tissue a full life requires. Sounds candy-assed in the abstract, maybe, but not the way I’ll sing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.