The acclaimed author on tragedy and poverty in Missouri, exploring America's class divide, and the rejections his novel Winter’s Bone received.
Image by Kate Estill
For a long time, Daniel Woodrell has been talked of as a “writers’ writer.” Of the eight novels
he’s published over the last three decades, five have been selected as New York Times Notable
Books of the Year, but it wasn’t until a hit movie adaptation of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone that his work seemed to reach the wider audience it deserved. The Maid’s Version is his first novel since Winter’s Bone, and, in the words of the Washington Post, it “affirms Daniel Woodrell’s unique niche in American literature.”
Woodrell’s work tends toward the black and grisly. He jokes, in the interview that follows, that he doesn’t know what would happen if he wrote a book “where no bodies drop.” But he also taps into deep reserves of joy. Not a sadistic or decadent joy, but a head-shaking, sleeve-rolling wonder at the ingenuity of life’s troubles. His characters live in dire circumstances, either material or spiritual or both, and push through a world teeming with crime, family, blood, and devastating pride. Faulkner and the King James are often mentioned in describing his style. Probably there’s something to that. It might also be that a certain dark wit—dedicated to dying men, vibrant language, tragedy, and entertainment—is so seldom practiced in contemporary fiction that it’s easily mistaken for religion.
The Maid’s Version is the story of a 1929 dancehall explosion that killed forty-two people
in West Table, Missouri. (The incident is based on a real event that occurred in Woodrell’s
hometown, West Plains.) It’s a jackknifing exploration of the crime. At the story’s center is
Alma DeGeer Dunahew, sister of a victim, maid to a man implicated, and the raging, atavistic
conscience of West Table. The Maid’s Version is a town story. The clans, strivers, adulterers
and outlaws familiar to Woodrell’s readers are still around, but his focus has shifted from their
estrangement to their convergence. These are townsfolk—not quite blood relations, but nonetheless bound.
I spoke with Woodrell by Skype on Labor Day, a few hours before he left home to begin weeks of touring. Despite the hectic day of travel ahead, he was gracious and unhurried in a tall-backed chair that filled my computer screen. We talked about how the dancehall tragedy consumed his town, his time in the Marines, his hitchhiking days, class conflict, and the challenges of writing about the place where you live.
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve made a career writing about a region where people often go for extreme, even aggressive privacy. Some of your neighbors in West Plains, Missouri, must bristle. The portrayal of people living in the Ozarks region in Winter’s Bone, for example. And now, in The Maid’s Version, an exploration of a local tragedy—the dancehall explosion that took place over eighty years ago.
Daniel Woodrell: I was pretty careful with this novel to avoid any of the known characters involved with the incident, other than the family members of the narrator. And I always go to trouble to explain that none of my books are based on any actual Ozarks family, including Winter’s Bone, though there are two or three families here who think I’m writing about them—I don’t know why you’d be eager to claim that, but there are.
With my earlier books, there were some people who were not happy with the presentation of the region. At one time, a newspaper was asked to write an editorial denouncing my vision of the Ozarks, allegedly by members of the Chamber of Commerce. And the newspaper said that if I ever wrote something that was a lie, they’d come after me, but that I haven’t done so yet. That was the end of that.
“I don’t know what ambition is. Some people think a novel needs to be four-hundred-and-fifty pages to be ambitious.”
Guernica: The early reviews and reactions to The Maid’s Version describe it as your most ambitious work. Do you feel like you’re doing something new or more ambitious here?
Daniel Woodrell: I don’t know what ambition is. Some people think a novel needs to be four-hundred-and-fifty pages to be ambitious. The Maid’s Version definitely deals with a wider section of humanity. Usually I’ve taken a tight focus on one zone. Until now, it’s been poverty-stricken characters, who don’t often see anyone from another class. But in this book, I was trying to give a picture of a community, rather than just four or five people intensely focused upon. It required me to go up and down economically and socially, because the whole town was involved with this event. That was a lot of fun for me. I was able to write about characters who’ve been exposed to more of the world and had other experiences. A reviewer in England called it “a communitarian novel,” which I’ve never heard of before but kind of liked.
Guernica: Have you felt that some of your earlier work was pigeonholed, as either crime fiction, noir, country noir, or some other genre category that wasn’t really warranted?
Daniel Woodrell: It’s fine with me if you call The Bayou Trilogy crime fiction. I intended it to fit into that category well enough to appeal to those readers. I love that kind of fiction, and I had a great time writing those books. But it did bother me when some people referred to Winter’s Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister as category fiction. That felt like just the reputation lingering. The term “country noir” isn’t even worth using any more. Noir has just been beaten to death lately, there are so many kinds of it out there now. I don’t want to be required to live up to my own definition, either. I’m getting interested in different things now.
Guernica: Just about all your stories have had significant tragedy at the heart—is that something that’s likely to continue?
Daniel Woodrell: I don’t know what’ll happen if I write a book where no bodies drop. I keep threatening to write softer, gentler fiction. Something set in Paris or Valencia, maybe, songs and romance, pretty dresses. I don’t want people to be at the point where they’re pretty sure of what they’re getting with one of my books. With The Maid’s Version, I know there are people who are expecting it to be just like Winter’s Bone and they might struggle with the storytelling. I didn’t set out to structure it the way it is, it’s just the only way that sounded right to me.
Guernica: The oral tradition seems to have a hand in shaping most of your work—as a reader, you feel like you’re sitting around the living room, captivated by a story. Is that something that you’ve always wanted in your style?
Daniel Woodrell: Way back I was reading a book by or interview with Frank O’Connor and he said something along the lines of, “So often what I don’t find in the books I’m opening now is the sound of a human voice speaking.” At the time I was really floored by Frank O’Connor and that stuck with me. Even with an omniscient point of view, I usually sound like a guy talking. And I think that from Frank O’Connor was validating that for me. It was a chance reading, but it ended up being central to what I do.
Guernica: You read aloud as you work, I take it?
Daniel Woodrell: My wife gets tortured by that almost paragraph by paragraph.
I don’t see any reason to be coy about wanting the reader to keep reading. The bardic tradition and others have influenced my thinking about that.
Guernica: That probably puts a bigger emphasis on entertainment than is typical in most literary fiction. Your opening sentences—of the books, chapters, passages—usually have some special vim.
Daniel Woodrell: I don’t see any reason to be coy about wanting the reader to keep reading. The bardic tradition and others have influenced my thinking about that. Hemingway, who was one of the first writers for me, usually has a grabby opening. For many years I was just in love with Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Horace McCoy—all the guys from the noir side. Those guys, especially Cain, are trying to grab you by the ears with that first sentence and you’re not going anywhere. Some of that stuck. If I can get you to read at all, I like to keep you reading.
Guernica: The narrator for The Maid’s Version seems particularly close to you. Did it feel like a natural voice you were using, or were you stepping into a character?
Daniel Woodrell: He felt pretty close. With something that seems like autobiography, I’m always worried that there will be this need to defend your character, to make him more interesting or funny. But here I was at ease because he’s not on stage all that much. The story didn’t rely on him being the most interesting character in the book. And he was a bit different from some of my earlier narrators, who often didn’t really know what was going on. Here, he doesn’t quibble or say “I’m not sure of this or that.” He’s willing to narrate as if he’s sure of what he’s saying.
Guernica: Which of the book’s characters first came alive for you?
Daniel Woodrell: Alma, the maid whose version of the story I’m telling, came first. My grandmother was a maid, and she was at one time a domestic in a family that one of the many rumors about the explosion leads to. The facts of her life are pretty damn close to the facts of Alma’s life in the book—the Dunahew family, her sons and so forth. I had a strong family knowledge to hang things off of. Dunahew is actually a name from my family tree, as is DeGeer.
Guernica: Is this a story that’s been with you for some time?
Daniel Woodrell: Both sides of my family were here in 1928 and I heard about it from both. They had quite different opinions about what really went on in that explosion, so I had the benefit of having one side of the family feeling strongly one way and the other side of the family feeling strongly the other way. And then I found out other families in town had two or three of their own versions. They had the eighty-fifth memorial of the explosion earlier this year. My family has a burial plot just about fifty feet from the memorial to the unidentified dead, so it comes up every time we go to put flowers over there. It’s come up all my life really. It’s just something that still lingers in the consciousness of the town.
Guernica: Class conflict is a prevalent issue in The Maid’s Version. That’s not something we see much of in contemporary fiction. Was it important to you to explore that tension?
Daniel Woodrell: It was. There are some writers in America addressing class, but it’s not dealt with too often that I see. I suspect I’ll do it again. I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone born into privilege should wear sack cloth and ashes. But it’s something I wrestle with. I know a lot of people who live below the poverty level and have for a long time and it makes them uneasy to think they’ll have to interact with people from different economic levels. Everyone has some sort of load put on them, whatever the circumstances they’re born into.
My class identification was formed pretty early, when my Dad wasn’t making any money and was going to night school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I identified strongly with that attitude and circumstance. When my family started doing better and my parents encouraged my brothers and me to succeed beyond them, we started asking why our parents were telling us to strive so hard to live in these neighborhoods full of people they clearly resented—and feared too, I think. We were confused. I reckon that’s true for a lot of people. When I came out of the Marines, I was back to living that old way and glad about it. It felt more comfortable to me. I’ve had to struggle with this attitude, because it has its limitations, foments difficulties that could’ve been avoided. But I still live in a neighborhood that nobody calls genteel, and I feel at home here.
Guernica: You’ve got a background that’s pretty out of the ordinary for writers these days. How did you end up in the Marines?
Daniel Woodrell: My father finally graduated from night college and got promoted and we moved to a brand new suburb of Kansas City—raw dirt, no trees. I hated it there and needed some adventure. I went to join the Navy, but it was the middle of the Vietnam War and they were fully booked with all the dropouts they needed. The Marine recruiter was standing right there, and he told me, “I’ll have you there today.”
Guernica: It must have been more than just adventure you were after, joining up in the middle of Vietnam.
Daniel Woodrell: At that age, I had never questioned the fact that, if there was a war, I’d be expected to go to it. It just didn’t come up in my family background. At sixteen, with that World War Two generation around, it didn’t ever seem to me that I wouldn’t be going. It was only after I joined that I began to hear contrary notions. This was the most combustible part of my life. All these ideas were new to me. I’d never heard of pacifism. I didn’t know about the idea of defying your government. I knew you could do that if you wanted to be a criminal, but I didn’t know you could do it on moral grounds. I learned.
Guernica: After the Marines, it was a while before you ended up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Daniel Woodrell: I was hitching around the country and would enroll in colleges usually long enough to get my GI Bill payments. Eventually I moved back to Kansas City and got a job loading trucks while I attended junior college off and on, then later I went to the University of Kansas, where I did all right. It took me until I was twenty-seven to get a degree. Then I started doing a straight MA program, but my faculty advisor knew I didn’t want to be there, that I was all about writing fiction, and he told me that there was a place called Iowa. I applied on the last day you could and they let me in. It was really just chance.
For a long time, I thought you could remain isolated and survive, and I didn’t want to change that. But I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that I’m not really throwing anything away by being a bit more open about my books and life.
Guernica: Living in the Ozarks, do you feel removed from the literary community? Is that part of the charm?
Daniel Woodrell: I miss the literary community sometimes, but then I remember how often “literary community” means “guys you’re in an argument with.” I miss hanging out with other writers and enjoy getting to New York and other cities on tours, but for the most part, I don’t miss it all too much. The publicity side of it comes easier to me now. For a long time, I thought you could remain isolated and survive, and I didn’t want to change that. But over the last three or four books, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that I’m not really throwing anything away by being a bit more open about my books and life.
Guernica: I’ve read you saying that you think the use of meth might be on the wane in your area. Do you still feel that?
Daniel Woodrell: It is in my anecdotal experience, from what I see in my neighborhood. There was a time when it was so prevalent you didn’t even bother to mention it. There was a time when four out of the five houses around me were either cooking or dealing. There’s only one of them now that I’m a little suspicious of, but it’s none of my business if someone wants to have the curtains pulled all day and then leave the doors open once in a while to ventilate. It seems to me, though, that I’m just not hearing about it at near the same clip that I was eight or ten years ago. I am hearing more about heroin being available. I never used to hear about heroin here, but I am now.
Guernica: With Breaking Bad and Justified and a couple other programs, meth and country violence seem to have the attention of television audiences right now. Has anyone come knocking on your door for that kind of work?
Daniel Woodrell: I had one discussion but it just wasn’t going to work out logistically. I haven’t pursued television writing, but if people working in that vein called me, I would talk to them. Really, right now I’m just enjoying writing fiction.
Guernica: Do you think there’s something particularly cinematic about your writing? Between Winter’s Bone and Ang Lee’s adaptation of your novel Ride with the Devil, your work has been pretty successful with Hollywood.
Daniel Woodrell: The Maid’s Version seems to be confusing the cinema world. They’re not sure how they would tell it. But there have been a lot of options over the years, thank goodness. Normally I do tell tightly focused stories with a visual element because that’s my instinct as a writer, and people find a way to adapt that. There’s a movie project right now involving some good people. They were getting excited about it a couple months ago, and it might go. But I don’t go to the bank on “might” anymore.
Guernica: I imagine life has changed since the success of the Winter’s Bone movie. I read that Little, Brown was the only publisher that put an offer on that book.
Daniel Woodrell: Winter’s Bone had already been rejected by ten or twelve houses by that time. You see ten or twelve rejections and you start to see a symmetry there. We were thinking about moving to small presses, but Pat Strachan at Little, Brown read it and didn’t take long to express her interest. She’s a great editor and very scrupulous about not pushing ideas one way or another. I’m more or less allowed to find what turns me on, and I’ll show her something after I’ve begun to wrestle with it.
Guernica: Were you happy with the Winter’s Bone adaptation? Did the reception surprise you?
Daniel Woodrell: I was very happy with it. I came to New York and saw it for the first time in some screening room in the Village. When I walked out, my agent and I said “Wow, that was pretty good.” On the airplane home I started wondering what happened to this or that scene, but I didn’t feel that way when I first saw it, so I said, “Let that be your guide.” Later, I was at Sundance in a big, packed auditorium where it was going over very well. But I remember being surprised when there was a collective gasp at the scene where they skin the squirrel. I thought, “Wait a minute, we’re in the Rocky Mountains—skinning a squirrel is freaking you out?”
Guernica: There must not be too much overlap between the festival and the squirrel-skinning crowd.
Daniel Woodrell: Surely they’ve cleaned a fish or something.
Guernica: Do you worry about your writing changing now that you’ve had some popular success on a bigger scale?
Daniel Woodrell: I try to not let it blunt what has always driven me to write. I don’t want to go soft. Because I could go a while without publishing another book and nothing would happen. But I was at a point once, with my fourth book, where we were down to forty bucks, no jobs, and I had to get into a phone booth to pitch the book to New York. I wasn’t in a great negotiating position. We don’t have that problem any more. Maybe it’ll expose me to new elements of the world and they’ll be just as powerful a drive as the things I’ve experienced until now.
Guernica: Last year you put out your first short story collection, The Outlaw Album. Is that a form you might be working in more often now?
Daniel Woodrell: The short stories were a way of getting used to writing again. I’d tried some other novels after Winter’s Bone that weren’t working. The Maid’s Version had started down a different road and was too baggy, with too many sideways elements. Later, after I worked on those stories, I realized how I really wanted to write this novel, and it turned out that it wasn’t so different from the short fiction I’d been doing, in terms of the compression and my sense of where to come in and where to get out of a moment. I really loved writing those stories and I won’t be surprised, if I can’t come to a firm commitment to another novel soon, if I write a few short stories. It might help me focus on one project or another. It’s not unusual for me to have three or four books that I’m deciding between, and then I choose one and it becomes a mono-focus.
Guernica: So you have a few different potential novels in the works now?
Daniel Woodrell: I’m getting interested in people who have found a way to more opportunity in life. In the past, I’ve focused on people who felt trapped. But I look at my own father among others and think that if he found a way out, there are ways for others. My father was basically supporting his family as a little kid, like John Paul in The Maid’s Version. His older brother ran off to the Navy and his younger brother was dying in the living room. He really did have to hustle for the money while his mother stayed home with his sick brother. I’m not sure how to write that story yet. It won’t be the Disney version.
I’ve also been thinking about the influx of counterculture folks we had in the Ozarks in the seventies. Land was ridiculously cheap at that time. There were twelve or fourteen communes operating within thirty miles of where I’m sitting right now. There are only two left that I know of, but a lot of those people stayed. There are all these other kinds of lives being led in the hills. You’ll be on the river and see a beautiful house and find it belongs to a painter or a retired professor. Most people I hang around with socially right now come from that milieu. I was at a big party with about forty or fifty people the other day. There were only two of us born in Missouri and three who were born in Africa. It’s a lot different from the part of the Ozarks I’ve portrayed up until now. It’s a whole hidden side that I’m drawn to [Woodrell pauses and laughs]—I’m just not sure how I’m gonna drop any bodies in it yet.
Guernica: It’s best to drop a couple bodies before you get too excited about any one project.
Daniel Woodrell: I don’t always need to, but it’s kind of reflexive at this stage. I have to remind myself sometimes: “Don’t murder reflexively.”
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