The Least Governable Region of America
by Dustin Atkinson
Daniel Woodrell is the author of eight novels. His most recent, Winter’s Bone, published in 2006, was hailed by the Associated Press as “an instant classic” and its main character, Ree Dolly, “one of the most memorable female heroines in modern American fiction.” Tomato Red, his sixth novel, won the 1999 PEN USA award for Fiction, and his second novel, Woe To Live On, was adapted for the 1999 film Ride with the Devil, directed by Ang Lee.
Woodrell was born in Springfield, Missouri, and dropped out of high school at seventeen to join the Marines. He eventually earned a BA from the University of Kansas and an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was awarded a Michener Fellowship. He now lives in West Plains, Missouri, with his wife, novelist Katie Estill, where he “has quietly built a career that should be the envy of most American novelists today” (Eric Wills, Washington Times).
West Plains is a small town of around ten thousand people, located twenty miles north of the Arkansas-Missouri border, and is also the town of Woodrell’s family. He and his wife live in the same neighborhood in which his maternal grandmother lived. Recently, I had the opportunity to drive there, through the Ozarks, to meet Woodrell in a lively coffee shop located adjacent to the charming old town square.
Dustin Atkinson: When I read your comments about noir, I feel as though I only have a pop culture knowledge of the term. What exactly does the term mean to you?
Daniel Woodrell: To me, noir has got to have a tragic ending; that’s the number one thing. There are all kinds of ways you can structure it. It can be about any kind of subject matter, as long as it leads to a tragic ending. Noir really springs from the Greek conceptions of storytelling and tragedy. If it doesn’t have a tragic ending, it can be a great melodrama, or a roman gris, but it’s not a noir. This is why I largely avoid the term now, because even other noir specialists will define it differently. I just like the stricter set of rules about it. Just because, you know, a story’s set in a dark, dingy bar, and there’s a blonde at the bar who’s not wearing any underwear, it doesn’t mean it’s a noir yet.
DA: So you’d like to keep the definition of noir you have, and from there write books that aren’t necessarily labeled “noir?”
DW: Yeah. Call them whatever you want, because the term is so misleading that I think it does more harm than good with the reading public… Like with Winter’s Bone. I don’t really call that a noir, but a thousand reviewers did. One of my big struggles has been not to be categorized as a genre writer, and if you adapt to the structures of noir, then it just insists on a certain type of ending, whether the story goes there naturally or not. If it feels like it’s going there, then I’ll go there, but otherwise, you know, if I adapt to a formula I might as well be writing romances. The novel I’m writing right now actually feels like it’s going there, but with Winter’s Bone, I just looked at it and said, “Why be so arbitrary and force this ending on her [Ree Dolly]?” This kid surprised me—she’s got all this nerve and pluck. She can lose a few teeth and keep going, and why not? It [a typical noir ending] doesn’t have to happen. I live in one of these neighborhoods, you know. Some people get out.
DA: The idea of getting out seems important to your work. If you look at Tomato Red, Sammy is the narrator, but Jamalee (whose hair color gives the book its title) is, in my opinion, the most interesting character, and she wants to get out very badly. I was wondering if your interest in her character sort of paved the way for Ree Dolly to come about.
DW: Jamalee reminded me a little bit of a character I’d used in an earlier book who was only about ten years old. But it’s another kind of spirited young woman. I know that Jamalee probably made me think about those qualities. But Ree Dolly, when I started the book, she was thirtysomething. I wrote the first chunk with her that age, and those were her kids. But I didn’t like it, so I put it aside. Four or five weeks later, I came back to it and started over and realized she was not thirty-something. That kind of thing happens all the time.
DA: Are the younger characters important because they so often want out, yet feel stuck where they are?
DW: Well, it’s like Sammy; he doesn’t really expect to get out. He’s not even trying. I’ve said in interviews before that there are whole levels of American culture where they’d have to attend a class on how to apply for a job. I’m not trying to be mean; I’m just telling the truth. You’d actually have to tell them things like, “Now, don’t go in with liquor on your breath.” Shit like that. Well, they’re not necessarily aspiring to the middle-class dream. They’ll take it if it lands in their lap. So that’s kind of what I’ve always been writing about, one way or another, although I think it’s branching out more and more. I didn’t really realize that I had written about that so steadily. When I started out, I thought I’d do one or two about people from some backwater place. That does interest me. And you have writers like Larry Brown who also do it, but overall it’s not much written about, at least not in the way I’m after. I have my own family history to kind of motivate me. Not too long ago, actually, I tried to write a novel that was more light and romantic, and even my wife said… Geez. Not my thing.
DA: Do you think poor people are more interesting than rich people?
DW: No. I think that what it is, for me, is that my class identification was formed so early, and so deeply, that it turned out that was the crucial defining factor for me. Probably explains why I didn’t get along with people in college or grad school or anywhere else. This sense of us and them, it’s just in there, you know. Oddly enough, now most of my friends seem to be upper class, and my writer friends went to Princeton and Stanford and shit, but that doesn’t change where my source comes from. It’s something I see more clearly now. It was just purely an emotional response early on. The first few books, hell—I come out of Iowa not convinced I’d survive as a writer, and I just decided to throw every punch I got. They’re just coming at you. They’re extremely aggressive books, the first few.
DA: So you definitely think your “us and them” mentality has affected how you get along with people at times?
DW: Absolutely. My wife tells me, “When you’re in those circumstances, you won’t let them not know.” For example, my grandma was a maid in this town and worked in the houses of a lot of these families. And my wife criticizes me because every time I meet someone from one of those families, I make it a point to let them know my grandma was their maid, as if saying, “Try to get me to fold your laundry.” But it’s just reflex now. I don’t have anything against them. They gave her work, didn’t they?
DA: Did Iowa prepare you well?
DW: Yeah. Probably did. It’s a rough racket, trying to be a writer. I have a nephew who kind of wants to be a writer, but he’s heard the stories about me and my wife after we got our MFAs. We lived way below the poverty level for most of our years together. It didn’t bother me. I’ve never really had money, so life was normal. And my nephew, who’s grown up very comfortably, has said, “I want to be a writer, but I don’t want to make those sacrifices.” Well, for many writers, being willing to make the sacrifices is the first requirement.
I often tell myself, “Look, you haven’t worked for anyone else for over twenty-five years. You haven’t held a job.” However you survive, you survive. Try to take pride in that instead of acting despondent. I haven’t worked for anybody since I was in my twenties.
DA: So when is your new book coming out?
DW: Ah, it’s got to be finished first. And even then, a lot of the publishers now have a fifteen-month or more lag, so it could be a little while.
DA: At our website, we’ve recently promoted a short story anthology, titled The Surreal South, which features a piece of your short fiction.
DW: Yeah, it’s a real short little thing, which I enjoyed writing a lot. Actually, after this novel, I might do a whole book of those. Little six-to-eight page, gruesome, backwoods spins. Neo-folk, expressionist spins. A lot of fun to write. For twenty years I’ve never had time to write short fiction because of novel deadlines and the need to pay the bills. Nobody gets excited when you say, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing a collection of short stories!” But I’ve done a few in the past year, and I said, “Gosh, that’s fun, after novels.” It’s like, you meet somebody at dinner, you’re in love by midnight, you have breakfast together, then you say ‘so long’ forever. It lasts just that length of time. It’s perfect.
Whereas, once you start page one of the novel, I’ve done enough to know that it’s like declaring war on Iraq. You’re in it for the duration, now, man. You don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. Sometimes it’s daunting. I’ve heard a lot of writers say that. Then you hit page seven, page ten, and your pride tells you to stay in it and win it. These are some of the practical things I think people need to discuss in graduate writing programs. I know I would’ve benefited a lot from more practical discussions as opposed to abstract [ones]. But I love doing it. I keep thinking I’ll stop writing about the Ozarks because it’s not a plus out there in the world of publishing. I’ve had enough encouragement that it’s worth doing, but it doesn’t enhance sales or anything. It’s not like all the Mississippi writers and all that. There’s like a machine there, almost.
DA: In Oxford?
DW: Yeah. And there’s a built-in interest in Mississippi and all that. The Ozarks is just far less well-defined in the national consciousness. But that’s what I do, you know.
DA: A lot of reviewers and readers seem to reflexively allude to Faulkner when discussing your work. Do you think this is because you’ve spun several of your novels together within the fictional universe of Venus Holler?
DW: Yes, I’m spinning them together, which I didn’t think I’d do—Snopes, Snopes!—but who cares? Part of it is a partially shared heritage, and part of it is just an approach to storytelling, but Faulkner is in there so deep. We’re definitely drawing from the same well. My wife and some of my writer friends tell me to quit trying to deny it, be proud of the kindred qualities. Take a story like “Barn Burning”—it’s one of the great country noir-ish stories ever. Forget the noir part, but just a rough, country story, along with Sanctuary, and a lot of his other work.
DA: I was actually going to ask you about that novel, since you get credited for coining the term “country noir.” Was it a heavy influence on you?
DW: Certainly. I’ve read it a few times. In fact, there’s a character in one of my novels named Pumphrey, because Faulkner based his character, Popeye, on a real guy out of Memphis named Pumphrey. So that was sort of my homage to that. Only one person caught it.
There were actually a lot of great country noirs in the thirties: Thieves Like Us, They Don’t Dance Much, by James Ross, who only wrote one novel. Really, the first few books by James Cain were famous country noirs. The Postman Always Rings Twice is out in some shithole town; it’s not urban. But history itself it also a great influence.
DA: The outlaws of the thirties Crime Wave were all over the Ozarks, correct?
DW: Oh, sure. Pretty Boy Floyd used to stay in this town. They say he used to wear a dress when he hid here. And the Barker Gang killed the sheriff about a hundred yards from where we sit now, and had a big shootout just outside of town. So the criminal culture goes deep here. And those are just the famous ones. If you research further, you’ll find all kinds of things. In fact, the largest single-day killing of police officers in the country—before 9/11—was done by the Young brothers, not far from Springfield.
DA: And this history influences your work heavily?
DW: Absolutely. It influences the culture of this region greatly. I always come across historical figures like the Young brothers and think to myself that they’d fit right into one of my novels. People have even gone so far as to call the Ozarks “the least governable region of America,” and this is the sort of lineage from which my characters emerge.
DA: Whether you’re writing about bushwhackers fighting in Missouri during the Civil War or a girl whose entire family makes their income through the crystal meth trade, your characters don’t tend to the be the sort of people who pick up novels before they go to bed at night. How often do readers or audiences tend to pigeonhole your characters, your work, or even yourself?
DW: All the time. Reviewers especially. I appreciate getting reviewed in the big papers, but I can’t tell you how many say “Hillbilly” in the headline, not realizing that it’s one thing if someone who also considers themselves a hillbilly calls you that, but another thing entirely if it’s someone else. You know, it’s one of those words.
A lot of reviewers of the film, especially, jumped out and said, “This is racist crap, an apology for the South,” and so on. But now, a lot of people are going back and viewing the film more dispassionately and gaining a clearer appreciation. It’s one of those times when the work is actually penalized for knowing too much about American history. Reviewers of the film often panned the idea of a black man fighting with these Southern bushwhackers, but it’s a historical fact that some of them did. Of course that’s true; I wouldn’t just throw that in.
DA: I know Hollywood’s knocked on your door more than once. Will we see any of your other books on film soon?
DW: I don’t know. I’ve got three under option right now. In the last eight months, two of them looked like they were almost ready to go, and then something happened. So I no longer know. I was told those two were going, but something happened at the last minute, which is how the movie industry goes.
DA: Which novels?
DW: Death of Sweet Mister, Give Us A Kiss, and Winter’s Bone. Give Us A Kiss was just about ready to go, and some kind of shakeup happened in the studio. Angelica Huston wants to direct. With Winter’s Bone, we had the same experience. It was almost ready to go. I think they disagreed over the casting or something. I think—I’m not privy to all this, I’m just guessing.
DA: What have your experiences with the film industry been like?
DW: Well, almost all of them [novels] have had somebody, at one time or another, coming around about it. I enjoy most of the film people. You run into some real hustlers once in a while, who think you’re a lot stupider than you are. It’s kind of fun to listen to them.
DA: What kind of hustles do they try to run?
DW: Oh, no money down. Well, I don’t want to make fun of the guy, but the one that I get the most mileage out of said, “I have to have screenwriting credit too, so you and me can do the screenplay together, but I don’t do dialogue.” Unbelievable.
DA: We mentioned Faulkner earlier. I’d like to ask you about a quote from a previous interview in which you said, “I like lean books as it is the bloat of a novel, all the essayic fat, that rots and becomes misshapen over time.” All of your novels are very lean.
DW: It’s just my natural aesthetic taste. So often you pick up a prize-winning novel of 1957 and you say, “There’s a good novel in here, somewhere,” but they’ve had to add every detail and all that stuff has gone out of focus. It’s not very interesting anymore. We all know this now. It must have seemed fresher at the time. But I’m not given to much essay in my fiction anyway. And it’s true, I seldom read a book that’s four or five hundred pages long.
DA: So you don’t often read sprawling novels such as War and Peace or Gravity’s Rainbow?
DW: I give them a shot. I used to like a lot of writers who specialized in those. Hell, James Jones, even some of his are a thousand pages. But now, I’m cutting in my head as I go along. I hear a lot of writers say this, that they’re cutting in their head as they read. It’s almost a different sensibility. I have a writer friend who tends to write longer works. They always call it being more ambitious, which I resent, because sometimes those writers aren’t making the difficult decisions of what needs to be there and what doesn’t. That’s what makes writing hard. Leaving everything, letting the readers decide what’s good, those are the choices I want the artist to make.
It’s about the presentation. My favorite filmmakers of recent note—I don’t recommend them to anybody, they are a special taste—do this. I just saw a film called Flanders, by Bruno Dumont. Most people would hate it, but I loved it, because it’s right to the bone, man, and yet it was very powerful to me. I feel the same about the Dardenne brothers, some of their stuff. I just happen to like that. It really works for me. In fiction, books like Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, that’s right down to the skeleton.
DA: A lot of your characters come from rough backgrounds, and they abuse or sell hard drugs. What kinds of research does your work call for?
DW: I’ve talked about this in interviews before. It’s a generational thing. A lot of the people of my generation did drugs at one time or another. When I enlisted in the Marines at seventeen, a lot of the guys around me were doing that sort of thing, needle drugs and all the rest, and I got into it. I got into it too much. It’s a part of our culture now, and I feel like it’s a normal thing for my characters. It would be a lot stranger if they weren’t doing different kinds of drugs.
DA: But I don’t imagine you did very much crystal meth in your Marine Corps days. How do you write about that world and pin down its characters so realistically? Has there ever been a time when you knocked on the door of a known meth house and said, “Hey, just wanted to see how y’all are living?”
DW: Oh no, nothing like that. I just take the observations that are given to me. The first meth house fire I ever saw was in Fayetteville, AR, just a couple blocks off of Dickson Street. Not a bad neighborhood by any means, but it was a known meth house. And here [in West Plains], I’ve seen other houses not that far from mine that are meth houses. A woman down the street from me got taken in for hooking once. I honestly live among some of the people I’ve written about. I remember one time I saw a pair of people in a car on one of the main roads in town, and they were trying to turn off the road at a place where there was nowhere to turn. They kept trying and backing up and trying again, but their car wouldn’t go over the curb. They did that until the cops came. They were on meth, you know. I thought to myself, “It’s unbelievable how debilitating it can be.” So I started watching more. All of my research, as far as that goes, just comes from the world around me. I see people who live that kind of life every day.
DA: A lot of your books share a similar tone—friendly yet sinister. One of my favorite moments, in particular, comes from Tomato Red, when Sammy—high on crank and breaking and entering into some rich person’s house—grabs a wheel of cheese from the fridge and takes a nap on their couch, explaining, “I can’t sleep unless I know I can eat when I wake up.” What is it about that sharp contrast, from comic to serious, that appeals to you?
DW: It’s a lot like life, isn’t it? I mean, Sammy can be the type of guy who’s funny and can make you laugh at any time. But also his desperate situation can make things serious very quickly. But with Sammy, it’s his choice. He’s basically given up trying to improve his life, and he’s just enjoying the ride down, you know. When you take someone like Ree Dolly, who didn’t choose to be in the predicament she’s in and sincerely wants to make things better, I think the comic element gives way to the serious more often than not.
DA: Picture all of the major characters from your novels—alive or dead—bunched together in one room. It’s the green room for The Jerry Springer Show. Everyone is preparing for their moment in the light. What’s the mood in the room like? Is it sinister, or is it friendly?
DW: Well, that’s interesting. I’m not really certain. I know Sammy Barlach would just be trying to make friends. Others would probably be friendly as well, for the most part, but the mood could always turn sinister, I suppose, which is likely why I stay interested.
JUNE 2010 Update: The movie version of Winter’s Bone opens Friday, June 18th, and was chosen as a New York Times Critics’ Pick. To read a review of the movie, click here.