Take me home, country noir
DANIEL WOODRELL’S reading was one of the most anticipated events at the recent Dún Laoghaire Mountains to Sea festival. The author of a new short-story collection, The Outlaw Album, and the critically acclaimed novels Woe To Live On (1987), Tomato Red (1998) and Winter’s Bone (2006), Woodrell charmed and chilled the audience in equal measure as his soft Southern accent detailed some hard-core criminal activities.
Born in 1953, Woodrell hails from the Ozarks in Missouri, a place depicted as a sub-zero level of Dante’s Inferno when Winter’s Bone was adapted for an Oscar-nominated film by Debra Granik in 2010. The kind of place where, as Woodrell says with a wicked smile, “If you haven’t ever done some time, you haven’t really lived.” If the clothes maketh the man, the place maketh the writer.
Woodrell writes about what he knows and who he is. “I was basically raised to look for chances to get even with several families for stuff that happened 30 or 40 years before I was born,” he says. “Sometimes 50 years. There was a killing involving a member of my family, and he got blamed for it – I’ve written about this, and Uncle Joe did it, we know, we paid it off. Then he ended up murdered, with no witnesses, so it was never solved. And what Uncle Joe did in the first place was pretty bad. I mean, if I was one them, I’d have said, ‘Uncle Joe needs killin’.’ ”
Woodrell erupts in husky laughter. “And then, in the 1970s, my older brother was dating a girl from the family that we think probably killed my Uncle Joe. Her family, when they found who her boyfriend was – Uncle Joe wasn’t a Woodrell, he was a Davidson – it all just went off. They didn’t want him in the house or anything. And this is in the 1970s, and the original killing happened in like 1900.”
It’s that quality claustrophobic intimacy that gives Woodrell’s fiction its edge. In Woodrell’s novels, people aren’t killed by random strangers. “That’s the environment, yeah, and that’s kind of what attracted me to it. I like the idea of everybody knowing each other, you know why you’re doing things. They’re related, these people. Not all of them closely, but, y’know, I’ve got cousins I wouldn’t miss.” Another throaty laugh. “But hey, who doesn’t?”
Woodrell grew up in a home where both parents were readers and books were always freely available. “Mickey Spillane was lying there,” he says, “my dad loved John D MacDonald, Michener, Bernard Malamud, Erskine Caldwell . . . So I kind of wandered through a lot of things.”
Despite announcing his ambition to be an author as early as the third grade, Woodrell turned his back on writing in his teens. “I dropped out of school when I was 16, when I gave up on the idea of being a writer, but I came back to it when I was 21,” he says. “I thought, No, I’m gonna sink or swim. I’m going all-in, see if I can do this or not. Which was good. I needed something severely challenging that I was willing to give myself to. I’d run a little wild around then. But that’s what those years are for, right?”