A conversation with Daniel Woodrell
Shortly after moving back to his native Missouri Ozarks, novelist Daniel Woodrell realized he might need to give his wife, who hails from Cleveland, a few social pointers. “You are going to go into the store and try to write a check to pay for the groceries,” he recalls telling her. “And somebody is going to look at you and say, ‘Who are your people?’ I told her who to say—my grandparents—and her checks were always cleared.”
This part of the Ozarks are a mystery to many Americans, even some who live there. Tucked away in the southern tip of Missouri, it remains a world apart. Loggers and mining companies have had their fill, leaving behind a landscape devastated by exploitation yet determined not to die. Head deeper into the woods and you will encounter people as stubborn as the scrub which grows on its rocky hills.
Despite the kudos his name imparts at the grocery store, Woodrell, who moved back home in the early ’90s, doesn’t exactly qualify as local royalty. “My mother’s family is well-respected,” says the 53-year-old novelist, “but my father’s line is more … colorful.” He describes how soon after his homecoming, he ran up against these distinctions. The elderly proprietor of a local dry cleaner asked him, “Are you kin to Alfred Woodrell?” When Woodrell admitted he was, the man replied: “Boy, he was a bad man with a bottle, wasn’t he?”
This kind of reaction is something the heroine of Woodrell’s eighth novel, Winter’s Bone, hears quite a bit. As the book opens, 16-year-old Ree Dolly’s father has skipped bail and left town, with the family home as his collateral. If Ree doesn’t find him fast, she, her two siblings and their mentally ill mother will be homeless.
Overnight she becomes her father’s bail bondsman, fearlessly visiting his rock-jawed cousins and methamphetamine-dealing business associates. They threaten her with guns and sexual violence, judging her by her family line. But she won’t quit.
Thus, we arrive again in the underworld of the Missouri Ozarks, which has been Woodrell’s specialty for seven books now. From 1985’s Under the Bright Lights to 1987’s Civil War-set Woe to Live On (made into a movie called Ride the Devil by Ang Lee), he has given voice and depth to this region’s violent souls, drug dealers and hard-drinking, hard-loving layabouts, not to mention the women who put up with them only so long before giving back as hard as they get.
Woodrell does not look like the sort of man who would know about drug labs and gun-toting woodsmen. Dressed in a black shirt, sipping a cup of coffee, he is shy and polite, small-boned. When I ask him about the motivation behind his latest book, his first reaction isn’t to tell a story, or sit back and regale me with tall tales of backwoods ways, but to talk about the poetry he has been reading.
“I was actually under the sway of a bunch of British poets that I had never really dived into before—[like] W.S. Graham,” Woodrell says. “I came to see the kinship between the old Celtic culture in Northern England and Yorkshire and whatnot and the Ozarks. It’s roughly the same gene pool, and the topography is similar.”
For the first time in Woodrell’s oeuvre, he bears this out in his prose. As Ree stumbles, trips and crab-walks her way across the land, Winter’s Bone lingers elegantly and lushly on the woods around her. So much so that it gives us the impression it is these hills and valleys which have born Ree into the world, not her kin. Woodrell says this is not an accident.
“The language was really crucially important to me,” he says. Having recently read Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, he wanted to use a similar kind of heightened form of expression to describe the world around Ree, to depict how it shapes the people who come from this place.
“You have to work hard to get a farmable crop in," Woodrell reminds. "And it takes generations to clear the rocks out of the pasture, and that kind of thing. By and large, you are never too far ahead for most people.”
Not surprisingly, the severity of life there has led some people to crime. Missouri is constantly named the crank capital of the U.S. I ask Woodrell how this happened, and he explains that bikers came down to rent rural houses, where they could cook the stuff and not disturb neighbors with its recognizable odor.
And now selling, cooking, dealing and doing the drug is a way of life in his parts. “Seldom do a few days go by without an arrest or some sort of disaster about it in our little town paper,” Woodrell says. “I’ve had neighbors who were cooking it; I’ve had neighbors who were dealing it. Some of ’em were pretty nice guys, who need the money. Some of ’em are scum of the world.”
The fact that Woodrell’s novels usually revolve around a mystery has led to him being regarded in America as a crime writer. “But I’ve never written a crime novel,” Woodrell says, not annoyed, just baffled. “To clear things up I came up with this definition, ‘country noir,’ hoping that would help. But that seemed to only muddy the waters further. A guy wrote to me and asked what’s the difference between Southern Gothic and country noir. I didn't really know the answer to that question.”
William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were both huge influences on Woodrell growing up. When he went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, however, writers like Raymond Chandler suddenly “felt like a tall drink of water” to him. “I remember sitting in a workshop and this writer said to me, ‘I really like this, but the first paragraph actually makes me want to keep reading. Should it be that easy to read?”
That’s when Woodrell realized he might be in an in-between place, a literary writer who believes in the imperative of story above all else. Nowadays he is regarded by some of the finest writers in the United States as an essential voice—everyone from Annie Proulx to Ron Hansen have sung his praises—and yet he is virtually unknown, an unfamiliar name except to a handful of very enthusiastic critics.
Woodrell seems comfortable with this, as he is with the fact that readers in the U.K. respond to his fiction a bit more seriously than they do at home, or that Swedes seek him out and ask more intelligent questions about his work than many interviewers from the U.S. He just feels lucky to be able to write for a living.
“I was a disenchanted, alienated youth,” says Woodrell. “I soon discovered that the only one thing I want to do is write. Which was sort of ridiculous. I had never even met a writer. I didn’t know of any.”
Woodrell's father, a metal salesman, always supported his son’s notion of himself. Other family members, however, weren’t so keen on it, he recalls. “Even after I had published a couple of books, [my grandfather] said to me, ‘I just can’t respect a man who won’t work, and I guess that writin’ business beats working, don’t it?’
And yet, Woodrell has returned to his roots and plans to stay. The only problem remains that he often confronts material which is so rich in color, he cannot import into his fiction. For instance, his town has a bail bondsman who would have been perfect for Winter's Bone. “She wears a leather vest, has a good deal of cleavage showing, and is tougher than hell!” he laughs.
But for every character like this, there is another who inspires Woodrell somehow. For instance, 10 years ago Woodrell watched as a man tried to run over his next door neighbor, a young former prostitute, with his pick-up truck.
“She was about 98 pounds and all sass,” remembers Woodrell. “She claimed not to know the guy, but of course it turned out it was her boyfriend. Anyway, I go over to ask her if she’s OK and say I’ve called the cops, thinking maybe she will be grateful. And she just looks up at me and says, ‘Why don’t you take a picture? It will last longer!'”