(This interview contains spoilers.)
Daniel Woodrell, the author of The Bayou Trilogy, Winter's Bone, and Tomato Red, among others, made a special trip to the store last night to sign books and to let us ask him questions. That was especially grand because he had been up since the wee hours of the morning to fly into Portland and appear at Portland's literary convention, Wordstock.
I didn't have a taping device going because it was an informal meeting, so his remarks are paraphrased for the most part. All his answers were considered, articulate, and courteous. (He hestitated to tell a mildly risqué joke, rephrasing it instead. When cajoled to tell the whole thing, he paused, looked at author Johnny Shaw, one of our guests, seemed to gain accord, and let it fly.)
Thanks to the movie version of Winter's Bone, released in 2010, he has become better known. Of course, he has been writing for 35 years, so commercial success has been a long time coming. He has always had critical success. Five of Woodrell's eight books have made the New York Times' best books of the year list.
I'm going to bypass an introduction to or summary of his works. I've reviewed the remarkable Winter's Bone elsewhere, and the Internet is full of reviews and comments about his works.
Reviewers often use the words bleak and dark to describe his books. What's up with that, he asks. He doesn't consider his works bleak. As a matter of fact, "Uncle," one of the short stories in his new book, The Outlaw Album, is downright hilarious, he says. But only to those who know Ozark folklore and humor, apparently. When he has read the story to audiences not familiar with that, he gets furrowed brows and grim faces. Woodrell was funny and good-humored last night, and it puts the lie to the thought that one is what one writes.
Eschewing genre classification of his works (noir, country noir, gothic, crime fiction, blah, blah), I asked him if he simply wrote about life and tragedy, with a focus on character. He has always said that character is his main consideration, and he reiterated it last night. On occasion, he has tried to write a different kind of book, lighter or more conventional in tone, for example, but in the end, he can't seem to do it. He has to be emotionally connected to his work, or the project bores him and remains unfinished.
What has made him the writer he is today? In his younger days, he read Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald. (Very impressive fact: John D. blurbed -- "Sly and powerful" -- Woodrell's first book!) "Chandler was too fancy when I was young," he said with a smile. He was a "library haunter" and rattled off a few of the books and authors he's liked over the years: Pissing in the Snow, by Vance Randolph;Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter; Charles Williams (Hell Hath No Fury); Swamp Sister, by Robert Edmund Alter.
He attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What did he learn there? It wasn't about learning technique. It was about gaining self-confidence in his ability to write and being around other writers. His choice of occupation has not always gone down well with the members of his family. His grandfather said it was too bad Daniel didn't have a "real" job. Nevertheless, Woodrell is happy doing exactly what he wants to do.
What does he do better now than he did earlier? He used to throw everything into his books, he said, getting it all out on the page. Now he edits better, he's more focused, and he is better able to keep his ego out of the picture.
Some of his books are heavy in patois. Does it matter that readers may not understand what he's saying? "I can't worry about that," he said. The story must be true to what the characters say and do. He loves folk words like "coggly" and "brassle," and will use them without explanation or a glossary. (If you're curious, coggly means uneven and brassle is the sound branches make rubbing against each other.) He surrounds his dialogue with poetic narrative that gives a "visual" rendering of the scene. Other writers, like David Milch ("Deadwood") and George Pelecanos, didn't hesitate to do something similar.
Woodrell talked briefly about the choices he made at an early age. Although he had the opportunity to get into trouble as a teenager and several less-than-legal scenarios may have "crossed my mind," he chose to go with book "pages instead of rap sheets." He carried the essence of his young experience into shaping his characters, giving them a "talk back quality" when up against authority figures. "Rude democracy," he has termed it.
Especially in Winter's Bone, most of his female characters are very strong. The story revolves around 16-year-old Ree Dolly and her distant relatives, Thump Milton's wife and her sisters. How has he managed to write female characters so well? He laughed and said he ran things past his wife, who "parses" his work for inauthentic portrayals. Besides, he added, his mother was a strong woman, his grandmother was a strong woman, and his other grandmother "was a REALLY strong woman." Ree, he said, could have been a 16-year-old boy just as easily.
The ending of Winter's Bone was almost even more tragic. True tragedy would have dictated that the family feud be continued by Ree and her brothers. He debated with himself but finally deleted the line, "We're with Teardrop now," as uttered by Ree.
Although Woodrell has received critical acclaim for his eight books, until Winter's Bone was made into a movie, he was a cult author with a small audience. Now at least he's a better known cult author. Although it has been a struggle to make ends meet at times, he has held true to his course. It is well-known that Woodrell lives in the Ozarks, in the area where he spent some of his childhood. After living in other places as an adult, he consciously chose to return home to the people and culture he loved, but it helped that houses were cheaper there. "I have a Ford Taurus, and I don't care who knows it," he declared.
His final thought: "If I weren't so lazy, I would have fourteen books, not eight."