Interview: Daniel Woodrell Will Speak About Newest Novel, 'The Maid's Version,' Monday at County Library

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

More and more, Daniel Woodrell is being described as one of America’s greatest living writers. Growing up and living in West Plains, Missouri, he sets most of his stories in the Ozarks and has become so identified with the region that the designations “Missouri writer” or “Ozark-based” often precede his name. Woodrell’s characters—the societal outcasts who live by a bloody and brutal code of their own—include drug dealers, meth cookers, pot growers, thieves and others who have been culturally isolated. But Woodrell writes about them with a side of compassion and hope. He’ll discuss his newest novel and his 11th work of fiction, “The Maid’s Version,” Monday at the St. Louis County Library on Lindbergh at 7pm.

Author Daniel Woodrell

Author Daniel Woodrell (Photo by Mike Yoder)

An impeccable wordsmith, Woodrell’s sentences can be deceptively simple or elaborate things of beauty, either delivering a violent punch that leaves the reader breathless, or swell into a lyrical extravaganza. Whichever he employs, he tells whole stories in just a few words. In his breakout novel, “Winter’s Bone,” Woodrell refers to two children as “wailing cyclones of want and need,” and here he describes his beloved Ozarks: “Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of tower, plenty rugged but without much of the majestic left in them.”

His newest, “The Maid’s Version,” deals with the 1929 explosion of a small town factory killing more than 40 people; but what caused the explosion? The case was never solved. Now, an elderly domestic “with hair as long as her story,” who lost a sister in the tragedy, thinks she knows the answer. ALIVE caught up with Woodrell to talk about his sudden rocket to fame, his newest novel, and what Ma Barker’s gang has to do with his hometown.

ALIVE: At one time you dubbed your style as Country Noir – then social realism or simply crime fiction…

Woodrell: I really don’t use any of those terms. I just call it fiction. I used “Country Noir” one time in 1996, on one book, and it just stuck. I don’t pay any attention to it. I’ve been labeled all kinds of stuff over the years. No label is meant to do the writer any good.

ALIVE: There is a noir-ish quality to your work in that it also deals with the seamier side of a society or culture—so I’m wondering, when you were younger, or even today, did you have a particular interest in pulp fiction or writers like Chandler or Hammett?

Woodrell: I read all those guys a lot. I read stacks of whatever the paperback of the moment was. I read all those things in my teenage years—and Jim Thompson when I stumbled on him—and quite a few others. For a long time my other co-interest was depression era fiction; Tom Kromer, Edward Anderson, Nelson Algrin—that kind of thing—so they all kind of mixed together.

ALIVE: Whose writing today do you admire?

Woodrell: There are just so many of them. Tobias Wolf—I enjoy him. Jim Harrison, I’ll always read. All kinds of Irish writers; Kevin Barry, he’s got a new collection.

ALIVE: “Winter’s Bone” brought you from being a writer’s writer with a cult following to mainstream consciousness, which many critics predicted it would. How significantly did the success of Winter’s Bone change things for you?

Woodrell: In my daily life I’m not aware of it because there’s no literary world here. But when I started to get my following book out, I noticed there were a lot more people who knew who I was when I showed up at places. I hadn’t really been sure if that was gonna be true or not. I knew the movie got a lot of attention in the press and everything, but the box office wasn’t so massive. It did well, but it wasn’t one of these $40 million opening weekends. So I wasn’t sure if the writer of the book that the movie was based on would have penetrated. But it was substantial.

ALIVE: Is your writing process a disciplined one; do you sit down at the same time everyday and write no matter what?

Woodrell: I try to do that. Once I’m engaged with a book, I try to be pretty tight on just grinding away and sometimes you need to go take a walk or go fishing or take a trip. But in general, I try to do that everyday, especially once I’m fully engaged on something. In fact, I don’t like to be interrupted to do book tours or anything, which is why I haven’t started a new book yet, because I knew I was going to have this tour. I don’t like to get started and then put it away for a month. You can lose the thread.

ALIVE: You’ve said that your new book, “The Maid’s Version,” is the closest you’ve come to writing something that was autobiographical. In what way?

Woodrell: Well, the Dunahew family is very close and echoes a lot of my family stuff. When I said that, I was specifically thinking of the grandmother and the boy and his father and so forth. My dad did grow up more or less like in the book and my grandmother was a domestic, and my dad did go to Wash U at night just like in the book. All of that was pretty accurate.

ALIVE: Did anything inspire the story of the novel? Is Arbor Dance Hall based on an actual event?

Woodrell: I set this in 1929, but in 1928 we had this dance hall called the Bond Dance Hall explode and it was a devastating thing to the town, because it wasn’t a very large town and the number of dead was 30 something, I think. It was never completely explained to the satisfaction of all or maybe even most, and that caused it to linger and have legs, when there’s no consensus.

It’s a pretty well-known event here, and they had a 85th memorial this April. I grew up hearing about it. At first I just heard that it had happened. Then I began to hear a little more and a little more as I got older. I go right by where it was pretty often—right across the street from the garage where the Ma Barker gang killed the sheriff. It’s a memorable corner to me when I’m out and about.

ALIVE: You use a 12-year old narrator for “The Maid’s Version,” relatively soon after the film “Winter’s Bone.” The last time you employed a 12 year-old narrator was in “The Death of Sweet Mister,” which immediately followed Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil,” which was based on your novel “Woe to Live On.” You’ve said that film gave you breathing room for three years.

Woodrell: Yeah, the next two books benefited from that movie. It didn’t get much attention but I did get paid. That really gave me the ability to relax and take a chance. “Tomato Red” and “The Death of Sweet Mister” resulted from that. I think 12 is just a really evocative time for a character. You’re right on the cusp of certain major changes and you’re still kind of a kid but you’re old enough to go out and do some things that little kids can’t do. You’re beginning to be aware of things and alert to the world around you in a way you hadn’t been when your were seven or something. When you’re 14 or 15 you act like you know it all already.

ALIVE: At its heart, what is the book really about for you?

Woodrell: It’s about resilience and interconnectedness and—I don’t know if forgiveness is the right word, but just that you have to absorb whatever you think happened and continue onward. One of the things about Alma that sounds initially like a good quality—but can be a terrifying quality—is she can’t let go of grudges. She just can’t let go of things. I’ve known people like that. You’re better off if you can just let it go.

I remember years ago Buddy Hackett was asked if he still bore grudges against people who had screwed him over in his career. He said no, because he eventually realized that all the time he was sitting at home nursing a grudge, they were out dancing. So that’s one of the things that community and everything else in the book had to come to grips with—going forward not knowing or even having strong suspicions.

ALIVE: Do you have the seeds of a new novel germinating now? What can you tell us about it?

Woodrell: I’ve got a couple or three ideas, and when this is over at the end of October, I’ll be settled, and that’s when I’ll really start to see which one is ready to come alive right now. It’s just frustrating to me to get going and then have to stop. I’m not a guy who can write in hotel rooms or airplanes. I know a lot of journalists can do that but I’m not that guy.

ALIVE: Certainly, “The Maid’s Version” is unmistakably Daniel Woodrell, but there is something unexpected about it—a freshness in the way you approach the story. It works well.

Woodrell: Ah, thank you, thank you. I know this book was a little different in structure and stuff from what people may have expected. I recognize that, but I’m glad that so many people have been willing to see what I’m trying to do with it and that it’s a little bit different. I’m appreciative of that.

Daniel Woodrell will discuss “The Maid’s Version,” answer questions and sign books. This event is free and open to the public. Books for signing are available from Left Bank Books in advance or at the event. For more information, call 314.367.6731 or visit the Left Bank Books website.

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