Interview with: DANIEL WOODRELL
Interview by: Matt Baker
Six hours into my drive I hit the Missouri Ozarks and Doyle Redmond's (narrator of Woodrell's novel Give Us a Kiss) description of the landscape flared up in my mind. "Our region, the Ozarks, was all carved by water. When the ice age shifted, the world was nothing but a flood. The runoff through the ages since had slashed valleys and ravines and dark hollows through the mountains.... These mountains are among the oldest on the planet, worn down now to nubby, stubborn knobs. Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of tower, and they are plenty rugged but without much of the majestic left in them."
Daniel Woodrell has written eight novels in the past twenty-five years, including Winter's Bone. His first collection of short fiction, The Outlaw Album, will be published this fall. And Mulholland Books recently re-issued his first three novels in The Bayou Trilogy.
Daniel warned me that his house would be difficult to find, but I brushed off this warning, feeling confident that my car's navigation system would deliver me to his front door. But about a mile from his house my friendly navigation voice informed me that "turn-by-turn navigation" was no longer possible. I cursed and immediately pulled over because I realized I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I had a general map of the area but I couldn't pinpoint how to get to his house. I called my wife back in Chicago, and she pulled up a map on her computer and guided me, via phone, to his door.
He was outside, waving me down when I pulled up the small hill. I don't know if it was because I'd arrived ten minutes later than I said I would or if he knew that my directional confidence would be tested, but he seemed to realize that he needed to be out front, that I would probably drive by a dozen times if he wasn't. I was in the Ozarks, a little known place that outsiders quickly stereotype and conveniently lob into the comedic punch lines, but a place, after all, that only natives can truly navigate.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: This area (West Plains, Missouri) reminds me a little bit of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
DANIEL WOODRELL: Yes, especially this part of town where I live. We used to live in Arkansas—in Fayetteville, Eureka Springs, and in Jonesboro, for two semesters.
THE OA: When you lived in Fayetteville did you run around with the University of Arkansas faculty and writers and such—Donald "Skip" Hays, Donald Harington, and others?
DW: Yes, and speaking of Donald Harington, sometimes you get reviewed by someone who understands you so well that it really creeps you out. He was the first person to use the word "expressionism" to describe what I was doing. He was in his hospital bed when he wrote about Winter's Bone. His wife sent it to me, a copy of his handwritten review. He went out of his way for someone he could've regarded as a threat. Some people choose to see other writers from similar parts of the world as a problem and some of them don't. He was able to so thoroughly grasp what I was doing and even articulate it to me a little bit. I hadn't spoken to Donald in at least a decade or longer. I knew Skip, and Dale Ray Phillips was around. And what I liked about Fayetteville is you could go down to Rogers Rec any afternoon and find at least one or two other writers hanging around, sometimes seven, eight, or ten of us. Skip would be there sometimes and he'd fill the table top with empty bottles, I do remember that.
THE OA: I've heard that early in your career, agents and publishers were trying to direct you toward a strict genre style.
DW: They were trying to. My first agent really felt that was the path for me. If you're writing, and not excited by it, and getting some kind of interior pleasure out of it—that's difficult to explain to people who haven't experienced it—you really shouldn't do it. In terms of a moneymaking profession, you can find faster ways of making money.
THE OA: Then you gravitated to writing about the great and mysterious Ozarks.
DW: This region is just not really well defined in most people's minds. People don't understand that you can go out in the woods and run into some stained-glass artist from Long Beach. Eureka Springs has got two or three classical artists who have chosen to live there for one reason or another. I mean, you don't know what you'll run into out here.
(Katie Estill, Daniel's wife, walks into the room, and Daniel introduces us.)
THE OA: You guys have been married how long?
KATIE ESTILL: A while.
DW: We've been married, uh....
KE: [Leaving the room.] Tell him in dog years.
DW: It'll be officially twenty-seven years in about a week. Been together thirty. We met pretty quickly at Iowa and followed each other. There seems to be a sense that you shouldn't hook up with another writer, but I think you have to have that talk at the beginning of the relationship: If you win, it's a victory for us. If I win, it's a victory for us.
THE OA: You mentioned earlier that you think that the Ozarks are difficult to define, why do you think that is?
DW: One of the big problems for Ozark writers is the state line that separates it into Arkansas Ozarks and Missouri Ozarks. If we were all in one state I actually do think that would make some difference. And there might be one college or another—as in the case of University of Mississippi—that is basically devoted to keeping Mississippi writers near the public, and presented to the public, and their virtues are extolled by various symposia and whatnot. And, too, Faulkner being from Mississippi, having an impressive town square that stayed alive and vibrant, and Square Books showed up, and The Oxford American was out of there a long time, and Willie Morris and all of these people who have been there one time or another.
THE OA: And you think of Harington as representing the Arkansas version of the Ozarks.
DW: I mention him all of the time. I'm just astonished how few people know who I'm talking about. And I don't know why that is. He's got the work.
THE OA: I asked Jack Butler, who was good friends with Donald Harington, that same question—why he thought more people aren't familiar with him. And he said he thought it had something to do with his hearing impairment, which made it impossible for him to do phone interviews and other media requests—especially before email.
DW: Yes, and his books are ambitious and multi-layered. And the thing about a guy with that many books is you may pick up book eleven and it's not to your taste. I've given his books to a lot of people and most everybody ended up being very taken.
THE OA: You dropped out of high school, went into the Marines, and then came back to Kansas City. Then what?
DW: Yes, went back to KC and was only there a couple of months and went to Fort Hays State in Hays, Kansas, on the GI Bill, in-state tuition—
THE OA: Much like Doyle Redmond in your book Give Us a Kiss.
DW: Exactly. They had rodeos and all of that stuff. I'd never been in the cowboy world. Big ranches, and really big wheat operations, and big cattle operations, too. I'd never really lived anyplace like it—that flat—and I hated it at first, and then after six months I said,it's gorgeous out here. It just took me six months to realize it. I liked it very much, actually. I thought the people were great, very libertarian about everything. They didn't necessarily agree with my hippie ways, but they really just observed how you composed yourself and judged you on that.
THE OA: What do you think about the emergence of e-books and increasing necessity of self-promotion and marketing?
DW: What I like about e-books is that if a publisher doesn't think he can make a go of something, then I can just go ahead and put it out there and it's no big investment for anybody. If it comes to that, it wouldn't be the end of the world. I've been hearing more and more about it, and I know some have done very well, and some have not. But I don't want to spend six hours a day marketing and stuff, and I know other writers who do that. I'm not ever going to be that guy.
THE OA: Do you write every day or have a routine?
DW: Well, these past six or seven months have been tough with the Oscars and everything. When you feel like you've been ignored for twenty-five years it's hard to turn down requests for interviews and event invitations. Before all of this I banged out about thirty pages of a new book and I'm upbeat about it and now I just want to get back to it before I lose the thread. I'm not really a grinder, if I really feel dead to the material, I don't insist I sit there and chew on it. I'll go read or take a walk. Or even take two weeks off. Ideally, it'd be nice to get something every day, and for the first fifteen or twenty years I made myself do something just about every day. I don't outline. I go by feel, and sometimes you reach the end of what you imagined emotionally and you have to let it refill a little bit.
THE OA: Have you ever abandoned a book? Two weeks pass, two months pass, and you never get back to it?
DW: Yeah, I've had several of those. What it really is is I get to a certain point where I realize that I don't even think this means much. I don't think I like it that much. And sometimes I turn them into short stories. I'll realize that I've bulked it up. Sometimes opening it up is a mistake. I'm a really condensed-type writer, and sometimes when I open things up too widely, it's slack. And I can't stand slack. I'd rather have pulpy than slack. I really do think of the oral tradition. I think of bards and grandpa and everything else, and even grandpa, as soon as he gets too windy he loses you. So I don't expect readers to endlessly hang in there with me. I can't imagine opening a novel that starts with forty pages about the history of whales or something. And I'm probably influenced, more than I even realized, by the European-sized novel. I really like that length. It's like the old saying: "I would've written you a shorter letter but I didn't have time." There's a lot to that.
THE OA: In your novels I always sense a true respect for the reader, like you know they're right there, looking over your shoulder.
DW: I'm always very well aware of the fact that I'm telling a story and I'm intending to keep you with me. The first time I ever had a story up at the Iowa workshop this girl says, "Don't you think it's sorta cheap to have an opening sentence that makes the reader want to keep reading?" That was my first class at Iowa and I'm thinking, Oh, shit, what have I wandered into here? I often think about bards, and I mention bards all of the time, because, by god, they had to tell a story that kept every class of person interested. There are probably a lot dead bards, too, who wandered, went into lengthy labyrinthian digressions.
THE OA: Yeah, they didn't make it.
DW: Even Faulkner, at his most esoteric, is actually pushing the narrative. He is not languid. Sometimes he makes you confused, but he's not just lolling around, sniffing the lotus blossoms.
THE OA: I don't think you get enough credit for your sense of humor. A book like Give Us a Kiss made me laugh out loud. And even The Death Sweet Mister, a very dark book, is filled with wonderful humor.
DW: I'm glad you say that because I think most of them have some of it in there. There are many people who say they don't see any of the humor. And some of the short stories that I've done are very macabre and dark. I remember Pinckney Benedict saying to me, after reading one of my short stories, "I don't know what you think of this, but I thought it was really funny." Hell yes, it was funny.
THE OA: I'm sure you get bombarded with questions about the Ozarks from people who've never been to this part of the country. Do their questions ever come across as being extremely naive or silly?
DW: They all want to know if the Ozarks I write about in my novels is what it's really like. No one has ever said that it's all like that. I mean, is everyone in New York a member of the gang in Goodfellas? I don't think so. People just want to believe that you're showing a total depiction, and also, it's almost like the idea of fiction is getting devalued. Everyone wants to know what's the truth of it. I'm getting a little bored with that question, because I never said I was anything other than a creative writer. I take everything I can imagine and make of it what I can. But the idea that I have to be at the point to the truth to it—it's kind of insulting, this constant reference to, "Did I actually do this."
THE OA: You incorporate many popular crime fiction themes into your novels and as a result you're considered a writer of crime fiction as opposed to a literary writer.
DW: What we call crime fiction now, whether it's Lehane, Pelecanos, or Laura Lippman, essentially is doing social realist novels. And I completely agree with that. When I came out of Iowa, I knew that I never wanted to stand in front of a group of academics again and see if they want to hire me. I'm never going to do that again. So I would like to have one [novel] that had something you could take to the public. You don't need those colleges or academics to say you're groovy. You can just run right around them and take it to an actual reading public. So I knew I wanted elements of popular fiction in there to give me a chance to survive and develop.
THE OA: Other than Winter's Bone, which novel do people most often cite as their favorite?
DW: Tomato Red. It got some nice reviews but actually got far more nasty reviews than all of my other books combined. And most of them were from the South, which I couldn't figure out. I thought, Is it the gay kid or what? I don't know what it was.
THE OA: Really? What did the negative reviews say? Why were they negative?
DW: Oh, a variety of reasons. Some were mildly dismissive. Some were really ugly—one actually, I felt, went way beyond literary reviewing, and I asked my wife, "I didn't get drunk and fuck his girlfriend did I?" She said, "I don't think you did."
THE OA: The Death of Sweet Mister is my favorite. I still remember the chilling sensation I experienced reading the final line of that book, "I'd say no dawns ever did break right over her and me again."
DW: I actually felt like that book broke through in another direction. That was a case where once I got in the tune of it, nothing was in the way. And frankly, if I get in tune like that, if I'm not pulled out of it, I pretty much shuffle around in a robe staying in there. And I don't come out. That one was that way, and Woe to Live On was that way, too. I don't know what it is. I'm just running hard to keep up with it.
THE OA: I see a lot of Cormac McCarthy references made regarding your work. I don't necessarily agree with that comparison. There are similarities, but not many. What do you think?
DW: A lot of people do ask me about Cormac McCarthy and I say, "I have not actually studied McCarthy's style front and backwards and all that." He's got a number of books I've never even attempted to read. I was blown away by his first four, though.
I reviewed Tom Franklin's first novel (Hell at the Breech) for the Washington Post and I said, "Let's just get the Cormac McCarthy crap out of the way right off the bat." Of course it's going to remind you a little bit of Cormac McCarthy, because you also grew up reading Faulkner and the Bible and Shakespeare and all this. So if you have a style that seems to reflect that at all, it doesn't mean that you're channeling McCarthy and you have this kind of lazy reviewer who wants to say that. It's like humor in writing, you're not channeling Barry Hannah just because you sound like Twain; you sound like Twain.
THE OA: Speaking of Barry Hannah, The OA just did an issue devoted to him.
DW: I saw that. Barry was at Iowa when I was there. I didn't take writing from him but I took a fiction form class from him. And he did get me to read one book, The Dwarf, by Pär Lagerkvist—oh, man, I might not have found that book on my own. It was an amazing book.
He was hilarious. He had a very sharp literary mind. If he liked something, it was great. He'd usually come in kind of looking around and say, "Well, who read the book? What'd you think of it?" It wasn't clear that he'd read it lately.
THE OA: That's probably a good strategy to jumpstart the discussion, and give him time to slowly remember and put his thoughts together.
DW: Yeah, I had an uncle who became a union plumber without having done any plumbing before. He passed the written test because he cribbed everything, but had never done any actual plumbing. So, for the first year he'd stand around and say, "Show me how you been doing it?" He really did.
THE OA: You wrote for quite a few years before garnering any recognition.
DW: I wrote for ten years for nothing. And I wrote almost every day. I kept going because I liked doing it. If you really don't like doing it, it'll show up pretty soon. I filled up boxes of stuff that didn't go anywhere. But I needed to do that. And I don't think of myself as an incredibly fast learner. I learned at the pace that I learned at. But I'm told that ten years is about right. I had to emotionally develop. It's an emotional thing as well as a technical thing. And I had technique before I had the other. The emotional honesty is what really takes you further and further. It's an evolving thing.
THE OA: Like Glenda's motto in The Death of Sweet Mister, "Live fast, learn slow."
DW: Yeah, right.
THE OA: You've always been a writer. You've never been employed in a regular job, not even as a teacher.
DW: I was not equipped for the conventional world of employment and I didn't want to be—which has a lot do with why I wasn't equipped. I just didn't want to do that. I would rather live under a fucking bridge and write on old grocery sacks if it comes to that. I remember once I was at a library and it was a place where all the homeless guys would come in and lay around all day and a guy from the university leaned over and said to me, "Dan, they all wanted to be writers once, too."
THE OA: People make a lot about how you write about hillbillies, but most of your characters are not hillbillies, per se.
DW: Nope, they're not. Most are just proletariat prone toward criminal activity. This house over here, nobody in that house has had a job in like three generations.
THE OA: Did it take you some time to find your writing voice? Did it evolve or was there a moment when you felt like you achieved it?
DW: At Iowa, a friend of mine and writer, Leigh Allison Wilson, was sitting around with Katie one day, laughing at a story I was telling them, and Leigh said, "How come you never do that in your fiction? Your fiction is cold and hard and stone-faced and chiseled. That isn't even who you are in your private life, you're so different from that." And Katie said, "You know what, that's true." That's a comment from a friend that ended up being very influential. I don't even think she knows how influential that ended up being.