A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell
Is it cliché to say that Daniel Woodrell is “criminally” underrated as a novelist? Most likely it is, but it, in fact, describes the iconic Arkansas novelist best. Over the last thirty-five years Woodrell has slowly but surely carved out his niche in the landscape of American literature by chronicling the travails of the new American working class and the hard bitten men and women of the Ozarks.
Woodrell’s work as a novelist has ranged from hardboiled detective fiction (The Bayou Trilogy) to far more darkly meditative works such as The Death of Sweet Mister and Winter’s Bone.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Woodrell over breakfast on the third day of the World Mystery Convention—Bouchercon— in St. Louis, Missouri to speak with him about his current book, the short story collection, The Outlaw Album; his forthcoming ninth novel; his thoughts on the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone; and the recent explosion in the popularity of the rural fiction.
I hope you enjoy.
Keith Rawson: Let’s start off with the new book, The Outlaw Album. Why release the collection as opposed to a new novel?
Daniel Woodrell: Well. I don’t have the new one done yet. I’m in the middle of one, I’ve already sold it, but it’s not fully written yet. If it wasn’t for this book tour, I’d be done with it by Christmas or January, but now I’m hoping for May or June.
KR: With doing book tours, do you have a reluctance to doing them?
DW: Well, tours at one point were almost de rigueur. It used to be a publishers only response to publicizing a book. That seems to have changed a bit over the years, now they’re a lot more selective about when they’ll tour you and when they won’t.
The tours I went on early in my career weren’t encouraging to me. It was hard for me to go on tour when I never had an ad or something to publicize the tours or the books. I mean, those early books only originally sold over a few thousand copies. And when I toured it was like just any other stranger coming to town, so I didn’t know how touring was beneficial under those circumstances. And then for awhile, I said I won’t tour, I just don’t want to do it. After those first two long tours I came home and said, ‘Shit, I was too fucking lonely and that’s exactly what I never wanted to be.
KR: So you’ve been able to get out of touring and the publicity end and just write and not have to worry about the disruption?
DW: Well, yeah, I haven’t had to worry about doing it, but I’ve had to worry about explaining why I don’t want to do it.
KR: Let’s talk about the Bayou Trilogy (Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, The Ones You Do) and the transition to the Ozark novels. (Give Us A Kiss, The Death of Sweet Mister, Tomato Red, Winter’s Bone) How did that transition come about?
DW: Well I hadn’t intended to write three Shade novels. The first one looked like it wasn’t going to sell, so I’d already moved on to the Civil War book (Woe To Live On/Ride with the Devil) and half way through that book, the first one sold and the publisher wanted a two book deal and at that point I wasn’t going to turn down any deal after trying to write for ten years. So I said if they wanted another one, I’d do it. Fortunately I ended up liking them. But after three, I knew I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of them and I was encouraged to continue for another book or two to see if I could catch on like (James Lee) Burke, but I really thought I wanted to change horses.
I was convinced that I needed a change of setting, so we moved to California. I’d always loved San Francisco. I’d spent some time out there hitchhiking around when I was a kid and I was stationed at Treasure Island when I was in the Marines and I absolutely didn’t think I wanted to write about Arkansas. But when we finally ended up moving to San Francisco, suddenly the Ozarks came into focus and I abandoned the book I was writing about a forgotten B movie actress living in San Francisco and started working on Give Us A Kiss. A year or so after that I moved back to the Ozarks and that’s what I’ve been writing ever since.
KR: I know at one point you were writing a novel about your time in the Marine Corp. Have you thought about returning to that project?
DW: Yeah, three sections of that have been published on Narrative Magazine online. I do want to finish it. I don’t think it’s too different from what I write now...but it is different and the style is purposefully different. I definitely want to finish it and I might end up putting it out on Kindle. I’m sure my editor would take it if I told him that was where my heart is right now, but if it wasn’t a popular idea as I would hope…Vietnam isn’t always a hot topic. I know Dennis Johnson has broken through with an actual combat novel—but this is a Vietnam era novel about a misfit in the Marines and not everyone else in it is all that sympathetic…
KR: You would consider self-publishing on Kindle?
DW: If it came to that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would be a change for me and I would prefer publishing the old way as long as possible. But if it’s a book I'm in love with and my publisher can’t find a way to make a profit on it…Don’t get me wrong, I love publishing with Little, Brown and I want my relationship with them to continue as long as possible, but I just want people to have a chance to read the book. So if it had to go straight to Kindle it wouldn’t destroy me.
KR: Could you see yourself putting your harder to find novels out, such as The Woe To Live On, (Ride With The Devil) on Kindle?
DW: Little, Brown is reissuing it next year. They’re reissuing all of my novels. So by this time next year everything I’ve written will be back in print. Little, Brown is showing a real level of commitment and I just saw the covers and I’m really happy with what they’re doing.
KR: Originally you were working with the late David Thompson of Busted Flush Press to rerelease your back catalog?
DW: David had Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red. Death of Sweet Mister hadn’t come out yet when he died and then Little, Brown came in and aquired the rights from McKenna Thompson (Murder By The Book/Busted Flush Press) I really don’t know the ins and outs of the deal…. I think Little, Brown is going to be putting out The Death of Sweet Mister real quick. At one point they told me they were going to rush it because of the Fadiman Medal Dennis Lehane put me up for in June, but there were no copies of the book to promote the award with, which was unfortunate, because you can’t even calculate how many sales were lost because it wasn’t in print.
KR: Did you see a big boost in sales after the theatrical release of Winter’s Bone?
DW: Winter’s Bone before the movie, the hardback had done better than any of my other books had done before. It wasn’t nothing for the record books, but for me it was real good. I haven’t had any of my books sell more than 5000 copies in my entire career and the hardback of Winter’s Bone sold almost three times that, which was a big step forward for me and it only took 35 years. (laughs) Then when the movie came out, the paperback ended up selling in the six figure range. And of course the books that were still in print started selling a lot more.
KR: What was your reaction to the adaptation of Winter’s Bone?
DW: I was totally fine with it. I was completely good with it and I understood the circumstances under which they were working. I liked Debra (Granik) and I wanted her to direct it because of her first film (Down to the Bone). It was this grim little movie that was wonderfully done and made all of about forty thousand dollars worldwide. But what I liked was that in each point of the movie, artistically she made the right decisions and that’s what I wanted for Winter’s Bone, even though there were some people who were willing to pay more for the novel. But they told me upfront that they were going to make some shifts in the story, and they didn’t spell it out, but I was pretty sure they wanted to maybe do a sequel with her becoming a bounty hunter.
And I said that was maybe a neat idea, and who wouldn’t like a pile of money? But I knew Granik would do it right. So I took a much more modest deal to work with her and she had the opportunity to make a whole bunch of money by taking on a pretty well known actress for the lead role. Granik wasn’t really interested and she didn’t think the actress was really all that interested in the part either. And that wasn’t what she (Granik) wanted. She wanted someone who would fully commit and lose themselves in the role. So she let the deal walk away and she went back to ground zero and then ended up hustling the money herself.
So I don’t have any beef with Debra as an artist or how the movie turned out. She did it the right way and I think having a modest budget helped because it stopped the film from having any kind of extravagant mistakes like a lot of bigger budget movies make.
KR: You’ve probably been asked this at least a dozen times: But do you consider yourself a crime novelist or working class novelist or do you just consider yourself a writer that doesn’t adhere to genre?
DW: It’s kind of like the Marine Corp novel—if something like that comes to me, I don’t get bogged down by labels. Like when the Civil War Novel (A Woe To Live On/Ride with the Devil) came out after Under the Bright Lights, one of the reviews that irritated me had the headline: “Mystery novelist writes a cowboy book” and ever since, my thinking has been I don’t know how these labels allegedly help sell books.
KR: It’s something I’ve never understood either….
DW: Yeah, I’ve always had an opposition to labeling and I’ve never wanted to come off as a snotty opposition to crime fiction or even mystery. But my mom—who’s a classic mystery fan—will tell you my books are about as far from mystery as you can get. But crime writer, I don’t have a big beef with being called a crime writer. I’ve never written a book where the crime was more important to me than the characters.
But if the writer part came first, it would be a more accurate description of my books. Because with crime writer, the term suggests that the big whoop in the book is going to be the crime and with all my books, the crimes aren’t central. They’re about human beings fucking up.
KR: Character or plot, what’s more important to you?
DW: By a longshot, character. I mean, I like plot, I like a beat to dance to, but it’s the character that drives everything I do. Even the early books, the plot’s really not that hard charging. The narration is hard charging but the plot isn’t all that devilishly complicated.
KR: So you’ll always write a character piece?
DW: I always start with character, I never start with plot. I like to muse on a character and see where they go in my imagination and then follow them and begin to see what they’re up to. Which is a slower way of doing things, but it’s the only way it’s fun for me. And if this racket isn’t fun, there are a lot of things where you can make a lot more money. So it’s got to be fun or I’m not doing it.
KR: Is it still fun for you after 35 years?
DW: It’s completely fun. Like the short story collection, I didn’t intend to do it, but after writing one or two of them, I said, man, I haven’t done these in years where I can just completely give myself over to them and I began to really get off on them, so that was fun.
And with the new novel I’m writing, it’s not completely different from the other Ozark stories, because it’s more of an upstairs/downstairs story where not everybody is dirt poor. It covers a wider range of economic conditions. It’s somewhat autobiographical, but I’m not going to claim it’s a memoir. I just love writing it. I started fiddling around with it a few years ago and I even threw it away once because I didn’t like where it was going…and then I made one tiny adjustment and then it clicked. So often your just one click away from where you were to where you wanted to be. It’s amazing even after all these years of experience, it still takes me a long time to see what that one move is going to be to bring it all together.
KR: How long does it take you to write a novel? One year? Two years?
DW: A year. Once I’m going on it, if I’m not interrupted by life requirements—I was sick for a few years which knocked the hell out of my production schedule.
KR: Do you outline?
KR: Why not?
DW: Well, I’ve been at it long enough that I l know I’m not going to fall down right anyway. I have a predetermined root that I’ll try to stick with, but like with a novel like The Ones You Do, I was convinced chapter 3 or 4 was the opening of the book, and I had a hard, hard time getting rolling because I was closed down to the possibility of opening it any other way. Then I sat down and realized I couldn’t get it to go anywhere , so I backed it up and made the opening into the third or fourth chapter and the book came together and took off from there.
KR: If you don’t mind me saying, that’s my favorite of the Bayou trilogy.
DW: Mine, too, and right now that’s the book that has the best chance of becoming another movie.
DW: Yeah, there’s a script written and some serious people have optioned it and they’re hoping to start shooting next year.
KR: Regarding writing the short story and the novel, do you approach the two forms differently?
DW: With stories, a few of them just erupted out of me. They were ideas that were hanging around in the back of my mind for awhile. But for most of them…I guess that’s why I don’t write short stories for a living because some of them end up taking a lot longer than you think they should and others come out whole—sometimes—all at once. For me a short story is about capturing a moment that reveals other moments. Where the novel is more about the evolution of a character or event, and that’s the difference for me. Short stories are so close to poetry…I’ve said it a few times, if I had any real balls I’d be a flat out poet, but I’ve had enough poverty already. (laughs)
KR: Do you write poetry?
DW: I don’t write traditional poetry, I write prose poetry. I haven’t tried to publish any of it, but I get asked by poetry journals to submit…I did submit it once and the journal wanted to run with it, but I said, you know, I might want to use that in my next novel and ended up taking it back.
KR: It doesn’t surprise me you write poetry, your style is so starkly poetic…
DW: Well, there are some readers and reviewers who’d prefer it not be that way. Mostly I get complimented on my style and people who read me expect that. But, you know, I don’t really give a shit if people like it or not….I’ve said this since the beginning, for me, writing is a kind of singing and if I don’t get to sing, what the hell’s the point?
I’m not a business man, I think my life proves that and I’m writing to get some joy out of it and if you don’t like what I’m writing, go read someone else, there’s plenty of other good writers out there.
In fact, the one thing I’m sick of hearing people talk about is the death of fiction. There’s never been more good writers walking around than there are now. And with accessibility to Kindle and online markets, the writers who are often thought to be too challenging to be recognized right away are finding other avenues to publish. I was in the (Bouchercon) bookroom yesterday and there had to be five hundred books in there that I wanted, that is if I could get them all home. So I just don’t get the whole attitude…
KR: I have to ask about the new novel, is it going to be along the same lines as the Ozark novels? Are we going to see the Dolly’s in it?
DW: No. With this novel, there’s a kernel of fact in it. There was a huge explosion of undetermined origin in 1928 in the little town I grew up in and that my family lived in long before this explosion. So I grew up hearing about it. My grandmother was a maid, semi-literate at best, and she worked for the family who it was rumored that a member of caused the explosion, although it was never officially determined or solved.
And I’m not going to claim that my grandmother was right or not, but she developed this suspicion and these suspicions eventually reached me and I became fasinated by it. Now that I’m a full time resident in this town, I started asking questions about it and quite a few of the old families knew what I was talking about even before I finished my sentence. And most would say, ‘Yeah, yeah we know about that story and we’re not saying its not true either.
But there was no proof. There ended up being 28 dead from this explosion out of a town of a few thousand and a whole bunch of other folks maimed. A lot of the dead couldn’t be identified…It was a huge, horrible thing that made news around the world. So this ia a semi-autobiographical account that starts off with a character who resembles myself spending the summer with his grandmother and she spends all their time together telling him these things she knows about the explosion.
I’m really eager to get back to it. It’s very lyrical and not completely chronological, because it’s the story of a family and the after effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge and it drives a wedge between the other family members because they just want to get away from the tragedy of the moment.
The name of the novel is The Maid’s Version and I’m not trying to give an overall view of the event, it’s just saying what the maid said.
KR: I’m excited about this, it seems like a radical departure to what you’ve been writing.
DW: Everybody’s who’s seen it so far has made an offer to buy it. Little, Brown already owns it in the states and the Brits read a partial manuscript and bought it outright and that almost never happens. What I love most about the book is that there’s a far more spectacular crime involved in it compared to something like Winter’s Bone. And if it clicks, I could see going on with not so much a sequel, but a continuation of the story…
KR: I hope you do continue on with it…Let me ask about your early life, you seemed to have gotten into a little trouble early on.
DW: I knew guys who’d done time before they’d gotten out of grade school—I mean Booneville, the reformatory school—and they were always beckoning and it seems like you’re always trying to prove yourself when you’re a kid. It was all a lot of stuff I wouldn’t want to go into because it was so damn embarrassing. A lot of dumb thieving and stuff that you almost felt required to do…there’s certain types of criminals like pot growers that I don’t really have a beef with as long as they’re not shooting and killing people. But I’ve got a real problem with thieves because I just don’t admire it. I mean, if you’re trying to steal the crown jewels of England, I’ve got to give you some kind of props for that. But if you’re just beating up some Korean grocer and robbing him…I might write about crime, but it’s not from an admiring point of view.
KR: We’re seeing a pretty big explosion of rural novelists such as Donald Ray Pollock, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Frank Bill. Why is it do you think we’re seeing so many rural novelist at this point in literary history?
DW: Well, one, we’re seeing so many of these writers because they’re work is finally making its way into the hands of the major publishers where they wouldn’t have before. Trust me, when I first started and Give Us A Kiss first came out, it was no big plus to have it set in the Ozarks. Someday I’ll go through all of my reviews and count up how many of them have headlines with hick, hillbilly, white trash, trailer trash…I’ve seen articles written about me that they claim, “Woodrell is a self described chronicler of trailer trash.” And I think to myself, no, I have never, ever described myself that way, but a lot of reviewers made that choice for me.
I think what catches most people off guard about these rural areas is the viciousness of the poverty and how it’s staring right at you. Like where I live, you have very little economic zoning, so you may have a very nice home, but you may be on the same block with what are basically shacks, so you’re in no way segregated out and you’re all very aware of each other. I think for a lot of readers that seems a little exotic. And we’ll see if this taste lasts long. But I don’t think it’s going anywhere any time soon. I know Pollock’s novel (The Devil All The Time) has been getting some real notice, he even had that write up in the New York Times, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection (American Salvage) got a National book Award nomination.
But I can’t really tell you why for sure—maybe some type of critical mass was breached, and I do think authors like Larry Brown, William Gay, myself, and a few others got some editors interested in this kind of rural subject matter. I mean, I don’t think it made them start buying it, but at least they started taking a look at it. But then again, I couldn’t find a publisher for Winter’s Bone. Little, Brown was the only offer I got. Pollock’s editor, Jerry Howard, was interested in taking it, but marketing wouldn’t let him make an offer. Well, since then, I think they’ve changed their tune a little bit (laughs)
KR: I bet they have. Dan, I think that’s all I’ve got for you today. Thanks for giving me your time.
DW: My pleasure.
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