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Chest Deep in Southern Literature: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

by Brendan Dowling on May 20, 2013

Acclaimed author Daniel Woodrell has enjoyed a critical resurgence of late. Esquire magazine dubbed him the “most overlooked great novelist in America” and the success of the film adaptation of his novel Winter’s Bone introduced him to a larger audience. Woodrell has written eight novels, won the PEN USA Award for Fiction, and been nominated for an Edgar Award. His latest book, an anthology of short stories titled The Outlaw Album, will be published in mid-October. He spoke to Public Libraries via telephone on September 12th, 2011.

Public Libraries: In past interviews you’ve described some of your novels as “country noir.” Can you talk about what sets country noir apart from regular noir?

Daniel Woodrell: Well, I used that term some time ago. I largely don’t use it now mostly because of the noir part – the country part doesn’t bother me. But to me, noir has such a specific set of requirements. For instance, Winter’s Bone, to me, is not noir.

The concept of country noir really was just to place it in a rural – instead of urban – setting and bring some of the things attached to that kind of story to bear, just as a change of pace really. My understanding of noir has such a strict definition, and other people use it so much more elastically, that I eventually just quit using it

PL: So you were using the term to introduce people to a community they weren’t familiar with?

DW: Yeah, and a context they weren’t familiar with. I used the term on the cover of a book in ’96 and it still gets used a lot. And there are people who define noir in away that would include just about every book and I’d say, “Yeah, we have a term for that. It’s called ‘book.'” (laughs)

PL: And where Winter’s Bone didn’t have a tragic ending, it couldn’t be labeled as noir?

DW: Right. To me, that’s the key defining quality that has to be present. I’d also say that I don’t see that it’s useful for the writer to announce up front that the style of music you’re going to play will have to go to this ending. Because of my own strict definition of it, you know if I use the term [noir], the book’s going to end up tragically. It’s not always to the benefit of the story to have it so preordained. It takes a couple of cards away from you.

PL: Is there another term you’d prefer to use?

DW: I’m sure someone will have one. I’d really be pleased just to be a writer.And if people want to use the term country noir I don’t throw my hat at them. But it’s not really precise. More and more I’ve been madeaware that I’m at least chest deep in Southern Literature in my origins so that’s just as applicable as country noir.

PL: I could imagine that a reader who would really love your books might have a negative connotation with theterm noir or the mystery genre.

DW: I think so too. I had an experience once when I was [promoting] one of the books. A man was very hesitant and it eventually became clear that he didn’t know for sure how to pronounce “noir.” And I thought, Oh, I hadn’t really thought about that. But that’s something that would bother people if they’re not sure how to pronounce the term on the front cover.

PL: Right. “Here’s my book, now feel badly that you don’t understand a word on the book jacket.”

DW: And if they say “noor” I don’t want be the one to have to to correct them. On the other hand I don’t want to let them walk through life saying that.

PL: So many of your books center on insular communities, where everyone knows each other’s family history, and they’re separated from the outside world. What attracts you to these types of characters and lives?

DW: One, as many artists have pointed out in the past, [these characters] just have the cushioning removed from their lives. The big jolts hit harder and the drama is readily at hand. And I’m also very familiar with many of these types of lives – not from having lived them necessarily, but from just being around them. 

As I get older, I think I’m getting a little more autobiographical. I just find myself drawn to the drama and the power of these kinds of circumstances. I live in a neighborhood now that my family’s lived in since before World War I. The town’s only thirty years older than that. So I have this sense of knowing a lot of the family histories around here even if the family’s moved away and there’s no more of them left. I know a lot of these things and they factor in how I view the world and my books.

PL: With living among the people you write about, are they aware of your books? Does that ever get problematic?

DW: There are at least three people who think they’re the model for the girl in Winter’s Bone, I know that. And I have heard of people who felt that one or two of my books mentioned a relative or something, but they didn’t seem upset. And I’ll freely admit it, If I’ve heard a juicy piece of gossip from 1935 I’ll use it. (laughs) I’ll change the names. But if you’re related to the guilty, you might recognize ’em. But I haven’t really had any big problems with that aspect of living in this neighborhood.

PL: I think it’d be a huge compliment to think you’re the basis for Ree Dolly.

DW: I think that’s why there are so many fighting to be that one.

PL: In past interviews, you’ve been respectful of your time at Iowa, but it doesn’t seem like you particularly enjoyed the program. Where have you learned the most about writing?

DW: Well I got very lucky when I was an undergraduate that I had a teacher at the University of Kansas named Alan Lichter. Really ninety percent of what I actually was taught by a teacher was from him. He just happened to be a guy who was really good with young writers, if he thought you had talent anyway, and I just learned a lot from him.

Iowa was necessary for me, absolutely. I definitely grew in a hurry there, no matter what the overall circumstances were. The passionate devotion to writing and being in a milieu where being a writer was a plus, instead of a sign that you were going to be a bum someday, was really exciting to be around. You could get into long passionate discussions about all kinds of writers and writing and there just are not that many places like that. So it was really to my benefit to have been there, even if there were aspects that drove me crazy.

PL: I was struck by a quote from one of your earlier interviews, where you said, “When I got to graduate school in Iowa, I didn’t get it. People would say things, and where I was from you’d smack them; where they’re from, you’re supposed to come back with a witty rejoinder.

DW: A little hyperbolic there. That was actually supposed to be off the record there, with that guy. I had to learn my lesson on that. (laughs) But yes, I did feel that way a little bit. And I did feel, in terms of class, like a fish out of water. Not that everyone there was from an elite background, but an awful lot were. And no reason for them to wear sack cloth and ashes but I had to figure out how to swim in those waters better than I knew when I got there.

PL: But what strikes me about that quote is that even though a lot of your characters are comfortable handling their problems with physical violence, they’re also really articulate. Even someone as young as Ree Dolly is able to come up with a clever retort. It seems like their words are every bit as dangerous as their fists

DW: I came from a family of three brothers and I’m the weakling. And hardly anybody thinks of me as aweakling. So I had the benefit of growing up with two brothers both of whom could break my neck. I was not prompt to resort to physical violence at any point in my life. I have always taken far more pride in my ability to talk my way out of it. So perhaps my characters are a little snappier with a rejoinder than you would find in the general population, but I’ve always thought of that as a necesary quality to survive. Even if you were a tremendously tough guy you still can’t go around doing that full time. There’s one on every block

PL: I’m halfway through Under the Bright Lights and I’m envious of how even the junkies are so quick with their words.

DW: Well, when I started out with that book I wasn’t to going to save any bullets, let’s put it that way. If I had something to put in, I put it in.

PL: You’ve talked before about how you wrote aggressively early in your career.

DW: I felt like the first four books were pretty aggressive. They were really pushing the narrative hard at you all the way. I like that – I still like that. But I’m capable now of seeing the benefit of some other paces.

PL: Is that something you’ve been exploring more recently?

DW: I think it’s just that my confidence grew so that I could slow down without everyone having to jump off the train. So I learned then there’s a lot to be gained from shifting speeds and everything. Probably ever since Give us a Kiss.  I started more consciously thinking about that.

PL: You seem to have more familiarity with violence in your everyday life than most authors. I’m thinking particularly of your story about seeing a woman bite another woman’s finger off in a Raddison parking lot. Has that had any affect on your writing?

DW: Well, I’m going to ruin my tough guy thing, but I really don’t like violence. I had the benefit as quite a young guy, twelve or so, seeing some grown men get into it more than once. And the level of carnage they reaped upon each other made me ill. I mean, open to the bone and stuff. So I never looked at physical violence as some larkish thing. And then I was in the Marine Corps and there was quite a bit of violence there. It’s just usually a big ugly thing and nothing that attracted me very much. But it seemed to always be a fact of life. It was always there.

The neighborhood I live in now, we’ve been having a beef for years with a meth house right next door. They’ve finally been condemned and moved out just in the past five or six weeks. But that required me to keep a club by the door to interact with these fine people. So I’m not shook up by these things when they happen, but certainly no one who knows me would think I’m eager for it. Strangers might think so. In fact, sometimes I want ’em to think so. (laughs)

PL: The depiction of violence seems so authentic in all your books. It’s never gratuitous, but it’s ugly and up close and physical.

DW: If I ever caught myself writing something that I thought was celebratory of the mayhem I would be upset with me.

PL: You mentioned in an interview how the film “Ride With the Devil” gave you three years to experiment, what has the success of the film version of “Winter’s Bone” given you?

DW: “Winter’s Bone” – even though it was a vastly smaller budget – it hit the right nerve at the right time and it just got twenty-five times the publicity of “Ride with the Devil.” So in that sense it’s opened up a lot of avenues for me. A lot of people see it and decide to read the book; an amazing number don’t.

And I was very happy with the film as it turned out, so that’s always a positive – I was happy with “Ride with the Devil” too but that was a whole studio mishmash there. So it’s made me feel like what I think is a good story idea is probably a good story. So more and more confidence that what I’m after will be worth going after.

PL: I know The Outlaw Album hasn’t even been released yet, but can you talk about what you’re working on next?

DW: I’m in the middle of a novel right now. it’s definitely got more touchstones to my own family history than anything else I’ve done. It’s not a memoir – it’s fiction – but I’m aware of how many of the building blocks of this story come from family stories. I’m really enjoying it too which is the key thing. This one, I suspect, will be called Southern more than anything else because it’s very lyrical and non-chronological.

PL: In terms of drawing from your family history, didn’t your father think he was the basis for the father in The Ones You Do?

DW: He did! Yes, he did. I had two brothers and there’s three brothers there. My dad was a charming blue-eyed man who’d take a drink if you didn’t tackle him – a good man, he always worked and everything. But it would be pretty hard to say that [that family] didn’t resemble my own in the broad strokes.

PL: What interested you in the short story form after publishing so many novels?

DW: Well, like most writers I started out trying short stories trying to find my way that way. I’ve always loved the short story form. I just become an abashed fan of certain kinds of writers and usually they’re short story writers. I really admire the form and I’ve always read a lot of it.  I decided to do a couple for a variety of reasons and then I realized how much fun I was having doing it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if I do more of it in the future. I really enjoy the form – I like the compression it requires. I like the fact that an image can turn the whole thing. I just had a lot of fun writing them.

PL: The aspect of compression seems to be a hallmark of your writing: everything is so carefully constructed and edited.

DW: To me, that’s what being a writer is.  The editing of your own work – that’s the most significant part of it. You have to lay it down originally butto me, the style is the soul of the piece. If it doesn’t have soul, I don’t want to read it.

PL: Can you think of a specific instance where you decided to cut a key chunk out of one of your books?

DW: I cut quite a bit out of Woe to Live On, my Civil War book. I decided [the pieces that were cut] were sideways to everything and it was just a confusion that didn’t add more richness. I’ve probably had elements of that in most of my books at one point or another. But I’ve learned to be a lot more ruthless in terms of killing my darlings, as it were.

With The Ones You Do, I had an idee fixe that it had to start with a certain line and a certain moment. I worked for months on it and couldn’t get any traction.  And I realized if you start there it’s hard to get it to go anywhere else after that. So after some study I realized that [that moment] really needed to be the third or fourth chapter, and once I changed that it really took off. But I was just stubbornly committed to that being the opening because that idea had come to me as I was composing it originally and I kept insisting it had to be that way. I wasted a lot of time – well, I learned my lesson.

PL: And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

DW: Huge. All my life I’ve been a library hound. I was one of those kids who read everything. My mom eventually took me over to the St. Charles Public Library and told them, “He’s done with the kids stuff; he wants adult.” I think I was eleven. As I recall she had to give them a note saying she approved me taking out adult fiction. Without the public library being within walking distance I don’t know what I would have been reading or doing, but it made a huge difference. It always has.

PL: Can you remember what the first book you got out of the adult section?

DW: Oh I remember one of them and that was probably a mistake, mom. (laughs) I think it was Harold Robbins or something.