MFA Creative Writing & Environment, Iowa State University
Born in Springfield, Missouri, Mr. Daniel Woodrell passed through the Marines, the University of Kansas, the Writer’s Workshop, and a Michener Fellowship, ultimately settling with his wife, novelist Katie Estill, in West Plains, in the Ozarks, the setting for so much of his fiction, a place called the “least governable region in America.”
The Chicago Tribune’s review of Winter’s Bone described the prose as, “sentences that could be ancient carvings on a tree.” Not some petunia-ringed slab of granite on Park Avenue or even Latin scrawl on the Declaration of Independence’s backside. From his debut novel Under the Bright Lights, Mr. Woodrell rejected big city fiction and the stories of the landed class, a tradition he continues up to his most recent story collection, The Outlaw Album.
His writing is beautiful and sharp and lean with lines that snapped across my chest like the restraints on some demented log ride and then I was off, holding my breath at the sights, ready to take up arms with characters if called upon, lulled into contemplation by the moments just before the next swoop, eventually coming out on the other side knowing I was witness to something great. Literary fiction without being about people who read literary fiction.
There’s this immense importance in Mr. Woodrell’s work, because it forces the acknowledgement that the lives in his stories, while fiction, are very true. He gives these people, these Americans, a microphone and it’s our fortune to hear them, to see them struggle with getting it right.
What this all comes down to: The Dollys, the Shades, the addicts, and the Southern bushwackers—the outliers—can trust their stories are done justice when told by their bard.
Logan Adams: Starting out with themes in your work—I’ve read some interviews where you bristle at people describing your work as “dark.” Or maybe not bristle, but disagree with it. Where do you think that misunderstanding comes from?
Daniel Woodrell: Well, I think I know in my own heart what I think I’m trying to say, and I think of my writing as having little sun breaks in it and so forth, but you really can’t argue if readers don’t see it. I realize it and I’ve usually expressed that sentiment in a kind of baffled or bemused way more than an argumentative way. I recognize it, and my wife also calls me dark. [laughter] And my editor would as well, so I just don’t think my books are negative, I don’t think they’re defeatist. And I also think that one reason people think they’re dark is because they have negative endings. But not all of them do. You know, you have to make choices as you go through life and I think it’s just as useful a moral lesson to see what happens when you consistently make the wrong choices to show someone virtue triumphs. So to me it’s moral.
LA: You once called “dark” as like life, life is dark. That made a lot of sense to me.
DW: We can’t live in a cotton candy world where we’re not willing to recognize death—friends that have died, relatives are going to die, things are going to go wrong, jobs can be lost, houses are foreclosed. You may have to save yourself a few times along the course of your life and all these challenges are things I think you need to be prepared for spiritually, not thinking that you’re somehow going to be the one to avoid that all.
LA: Your family comes from the Ozarks and some are originally of French descent, and that’s where The Bayou Trilogy’s setting came from. You’ve been determined to give people who are now your neighbors in the Ozarks a voice. Why do you focus on the Ozarks and do you see your motivations for using a certain setting in other authors?
DW: I’m a huge fan of Faulkner of course, but also William Kennedy’s Albany books. Especially the first half dozen. Because in his own voice—and he probably had a lot of influence on my style—I was apeshit for Kennedy at one point. [laughter] Who had thought of the spiritual life of Albany before he started doing it? I’d never read a book set in Albany. I did not have this plan when I started. I wrote Give Us a Kiss and it was kind of rolicky and I thought, okay I got that out and had fun with it. I did not realize I would just continue down the path, and as I did I began to realize, this is your inheritance, this is your legacy. I think a lot about where the people who settled the Ozarks, where they came from before then, in the United States and from abroad and think, yeah there’s a story that needs to be told. Aimee [Nezhukumatathil] said, if I don’t say it, who’s going to say it? I’ve said that many times about the things I write about and the things I hope to write about. If I don’t tell it, who’s going to tell it? There’s a French director I like a lot and one of his sayings is, make visible that which without you might never be seen. I consider that a pretty good credo for approaching what I want to do.
LA: You just referenced Aimee on the panel and you both talked about the ethical obligations you both feel when writing about a place. What obligations do you have to the people you write about, if any?
DW: To tell an honest story and to give it all you got. I’ve had some complete books, I could’ve published them, but I didn’t. I just threw them away, because I said it’s a disservice to the overall thing you’re trying to carry—to have an effort that you yourself don’t feel measures up. I don’t think writers have to have that. I’ve heard writers, Barry Hannah and others say, you have no requirement to do that. If you want to do that it’s a good source of energy and drive to do your writing. I definitely started out as a lefty—I had no politics when I went in the military, shortly after that I had all kinds of politics. So I’ve always seen writing about poor people and stressful economic circumstances as having a vaguely political underpinning. Anytime you show impoverished people as full humans, even if they’re horribly flawed humans, there’s a political component. I’ve always felt this was a way for me to express myself about these people and to quietly have a political—not a Danny political platform—just a human thing. And it’s also quietly a Christian thing, you know? [laughter] Most people don’t think that, but it is.
LA: I was going to ask you what your role as a writer is, but it sounds like you hit on it right now. Is that what you see your role being?
DW: That’s the one I’ve chosen to adopt.
LA: How does your new collection, The Outlaw Album, fit into that role or that obligation toward the people of the Ozarks?
DW: Well the stories are very stark and dark, but I was thinking in terms of murder ballads, hill country ballads, British Isles ballads, and folklore. And there’s a Russian woman I like a lot—she didn’t really influence the writing of anything—but I’ve started reading her since I was done with this thing. Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. She writes little, short gnomic things that have a macabre air to them. A couple of them have been in the New Yorker, I think. And that informed this collection. And also certain kinds of things—the story I’m going to read tonight, at the end of the reading. For a long time I thought it was going to be a novel, then I actually realized it’s not going to be a novel, at least not now. And realized it could say most of what I wanted to say in a short story. So some of them came about that way.
LA: You spoke earlier about politics. You write a lot about class. There are great illustrations of Rene Shade being caught between classes in The Bayou Trilogy and you said Tomato Red was influenced by newspaper articles of lower class whites being killed and police not doing anything.
DW: A gay man was one of them, too. And still not solved.
LA: Has anyone been added to these outlier groups in the last five years? Maybe framing this around your family from the Ozarks as being an example of social mobility over time.
DW: That’s what my new novel’s really about. It looks like it’s about something else, but really it’s about how it took turmoil and heartbreak and tragedy to spring them forward, so to speak. And I’m very excited about going to that road and I’m probably going to do it for a couple books, I think.
LA: Focusing on the social mobility?
DW: Well, yes. One of the things I think about—I’m going to call it “working class,” although my grandmother who worked and everything, was probably more impoverished than certainly a plumber or something like that. And then with my father we could say we had a working class household and neighborhood, but he did wear a white shirt to work because he was a salesman. One of the things about moving up, my mother pushed us, she really pushed us to climb, and one brother did not, he did some time and some stuff and the other brother is an unusually successful businessman. But as you move up and out of the class you were born into, you were comfortable with, you do leave something behind. And Americans don’t like to acknowledge that that is part of the deal. And some of it’s good and some are the things you value that you also leave behind. There are a lot English writers who write about it very well—Allen Sillitoe and David Storey and those guys. It’s kind of the thing, especially if you were upper middle class to begin with that you wouldn’t recognize—why would anybody feel a kind of sadness or loss to move out of a 600 square foot box with six people in it. But you did. I felt a tremendous confusion when my dad finally graduated college and got promoted and suddenly we weren’t living in the old neighborhood anymore. We didn’t move up that far, but we did move out of there. I think part of that is why I write so much about what I write about in my books is to recapture some of those feelings, that sense of neighborhood that which, even though it had all kinds of things wrong with it, you belonged, you felt completely at home there. None of us were rich and few of us were incredibly poor—we were somewhere in that working range.
LA: The code that Rene [Shade] struggles with—the wonderful scenes in Tip’s bar where there are all these people sitting around thinking, oh, there’s the cop coming in. Yet he feels a connection to those people. He feels a part of Frogtown, but other people see him as the law and Tip has this ambivalent feeling toward him, especially in the beginning of The Bayou Trilogy, though it does evolve. We see a similar kind of code that comes from a lack of interaction or suspicion toward the outside world in Winter’s Bone, as well as in a lot of your other work, but particularly with the Dollys. It’s really their code that allows that novel to happen. What is the importance of these codes and how do you try to capture them and use them in your work?
DW: Those codes make a lot of practical sense for those people choosing to lead that way of life. The Scots and Irish were suspicious people when they first settled the Ozarks. They didn’t want any sheriffs or anything. They wanted no government. That’s part of why the Ozarks developed the way it did. It has been called the least governable section in America. And not too long ago. They didn’t want any of them and that’s why they left Kentucky and said let’s go where there is no civilization and we’ll just live there. We won’t have order imposed because their experience with that world had been where order was governed by who had the gold and they didn’t have the gold. They had religious principles, which I could have gotten into today a little bit, where your rightness with God was important, your material standing wasn’t. It wasn’t laziness or anything—they didn’t see to pursing to every stinking dollar that’s available and that’s not necessarily what their God, as they understand him, would want.
LA: How do you set up your protagonists to navigate through this world? Like Ree [Dolly]? How important is the internal struggle of your characters? Is this where your stories begin? Is this what you’re trying to capture?
DW: I think it’s something more interior than that that’s not completely articulate to me. But just as your speaking I realize that with Ree and Rene they have that same thing in common. She’s part of a world she’s fairly ambivalent about and he’s a part of a world and he’s ambivalent in both directions. What I wanted and one thing I think people like about Winter’s Bone is that it’s a story about a family with a code. Might not be your code, but it’s a code. A conservative writer who wrote a review about the book, he said, look, these people have a set of beliefs. They’re not without beliefs. It’s not your beliefs. It’s not what you want to encourage, but they do have them. It is a culture. It is a community. I think that’s one of the things people secretly respond to is that there’s this idea of being in a family where we understand a code and we have this bond with each other and that won’t be broken easily.
LA: I want to loop back to something you said on the panel that I haven’t read about you saying before. You said you have a triple or quadruple vision of the Ozarks, so like in Winter’s Bone, I wonder how much of this is why you pick up this “dark” label. Particularly when these places are haunted. Maybe that’s coming through in this triple or quadruple vision. Like those contemplative moments where Ree’s reflecting on the stone fences and the ghosts of pioneers.
DW: When I occasionally get the feeling like I need to be somewhere else, I’ll tell my wife, look, I know my family’s stories, there’s a lot to feel good about, there’s a lot not to feel good about. There was a lot of pain and poverty and uncles dying because they couldn’t buy medicine and all kinds of Grapes of Wrath kind of thing. Those all happen there, too, and I said, I walked through this and it ain’t all hearts and flowers, I’m aware of that, too. That’s all hanging there, too. So that’s part of the legacy, also, this long struggle and not always triumphant. Both sides of my family are from there and my mother’s family did substantially better than my father’s family—not hugely, but notably. Their history’s full of murders and stabbings and one of them was a lawyer and one was a doctor and don’t get crossways with those guys. [laughter] And I said, I always find that kind of strange. My father’s family was always in hard times, but there’s no known violence associated with them. My mother’s family—her great-grandfather, I guess—was sheriff and his sons were raised comfortably on 1,500 acres and they lost it eventually, but one of them—and I use this in the book, it’s from family legacy—killed a guy in public and had to pay everybody. But they’re full of violence. Just full of violence. It’s as if they had plenty and they just wanted more. So, my dad I don’t think you could get him to shoot you—maybe if you attacked him. [laughter] Whereas these guys who had plenty—and that’s one of these oddities of life, I guess.
LA: You’ve talked about spirituality as being this next outlier category you’re thinking about and I’ve heard you talk about some of the groups who have organized in the Ozarks because of this lack of nosiness, I suppose.
DW: Many of these counties are sparsely populated. My county’s probably the most populous, but some of them are under 6,000 residents.
LA: So where do you think this is taking you?
DW: It’s going to take some development, because I’m not completely conversant with that approach to life. The deeply spiritual, whether it’s a strange spirituality or not or devotion to a set of afterlife beliefs and everything else. But I think that’s going to be a slow development. I realized since just before I wrote Winter’s Bone that I was getting interested in this idea, because I’m aware of how the Catholic church co-opted a lot of pagan rites and adapted them. I find that fascinating in and of itself. That’s how some things got there because the pagans weren’t going to give them up. [laughter] And as I was saying earlier, I started getting into some of these unusual sects that exist throughout the Ozarks and I wonder how long they’ve existed. They may go back to that revival in the early 1800s, I don’t know. I’d sure be curious to find out. It won’t be easy to. I’m not great about talking to that crowd. First off you almost have to declare yourself devoted to them to get a conversation, but I’m ready to poke around and ask some questions to see what I can find out, because I find it very, very interesting. Even the crazy Phelps group we were talking about from Topeka—hateful, hateful people—they are rock solid. They have a hard set of rules. I saw a documentary about them and they excommunicate people for practically nothing.
LA: Was that the one with the British journalist?
DW: Yeah. Doesn’t take much to get them to kick you out. [laughter]
LA: Have a strict code, I suppose. [laughter]
DW: Yeah, and you’re dead to them—son, daughter—once you’re out. That’s a strange thing. I found myself in a long conversation about the founding of Mormonism last week. They had a guy that killed enemies of the church and there’s been books written about him. And then I thought, well I don’t know, but then I thought, who are you kidding, what do you think the Knight Templar were? [laughter] At some remove the Presbyterians probably had one and the leftists. [laughter] It maybe have been some centuries ago. [laughter] And as Oral Hershiser said when he was criticized—he was the Tim Tebow of his day—Christian doesn’t mean wimp, people. [laughter]
LA: Well thank you very much.
DW: No problem, thank you.