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?”
Yet another throaty laugh. “So long as you don’t get too long of a sentence, you’re alright.” After a period in the Marines, Woodrell moved from the Ozarks to San Francisco and settled in to learn his craft. “As a high-school drop-out, I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn’t overly confident that I was going to be writing anything serious. I was happy enough with the idea that I could be a penny-a-word guy and survive.”
At that point he wanted to write about anything – or any place – that wasn’t home. “Well, I was trying to survive as a writer and I knew that the nation in general doesn’t care about what happens in the Ozarks. I mean, I don’t want to be callous about it, but we all seemed to get over the Oklahoma bombing pretty quickly, and we’re never going to get over 9/11. Y’know? And so all of us out there are aware that you have to really be into writing about it, because there’s no advantage to it.”
He was living in San Francisco only a short time, however, before the Ozarks began to call him home. “When I left,” he says, “I realised how much it all mattered to me. Even now, we’re always threatening to leave, but there’s a centredness to me that I recognise and I don’t want to leave long enough that I lose that. Because I have absolute confidence in anything I do out of that ground now.”
The early years were tough, although it did help that his wife, Katie Estill, was also a struggling author. “My wife and I, when we got together, we had to make all this clear to each other – she’s got two books written, about to finish her third – and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m all-in on this. I’m not going to quit to go to law school.’ And she said, ‘I’m all-in too.’ So we’ve always just tried to enjoy being writers, even though there are obviously some upheavals and hurdles along the way.
“When Woe to Live On came out [in 1987], which I thought would do okay, it sold about 2,100 copies. So I had a little recovery time after that, when I sat down and thought, Hmmm, I was sure that one would sell at least 2,300 copies.”
GRADUALLY, however, Daniel Woodrell’s became a name circulated among fellow authors as a “writer’s writer”, and as one of the leading lights of the self-described “country noir” sub-genre.
“Yeah, ‘white-trash noir’, ‘trailer-trash noir’, I get them all,” he sighs. “That’s why I no longer use the term ‘country noir’, because the country part is fine with me but the noir bit confuses people. For me, noir has to have a tragic ending, which is not something I’m going to insist upon for every book. It was kind of one of those jokes you make, because I used it on the cover of Give Us a Kiss (1996), which is slightly facetious, a kind of a rollicking thing, and that taught me a lesson. Don’t make that joke, because it just might stick.”
Ultimately, labels are irrelevant. On one hand Woodrell is considered the heir to the Southern gothic of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and early Cormac McCarthy, while other readers simply enjoy the lurid thrills of his “pill-billy noir”. For Woodrell, it’s the craft that remains most important.
“I don’t teach but occasionally they ask me to speak,” he says, “and I always say, ‘Make sure you’re enjoying it. Because that might be all you get out of it.’ If you approach it that way I think you have a better chance of getting it good. If you try to be too cute or clever or calculated about it, that might work for a little while. But in the long run, you’ve gotta be coming out of something true.”
That “something true” also includes, for Woodrell, a very strong Irish influence. His conversation is littered with references to Irish short-story writers, in particular Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor and John McGahern. His latest publication, the short-story collection The Outlaw Album, is set in the Ozarks, but one of the most powerful stories, Black Step, indicates how deep Woodrell’s writing roots go. It concerns itself with a young soldier recently returned from a tour of duty, and the women who wonder if they might not be better off if he hadn’t come home.
“Back in the Vietnam era,” says Woodrell, “I believe the widow of a soldier got $10,000 (€7,731) and then you were out on your own. But I read an article about the kind of benefits that would accrue to the spouse of a guy who died in combat today, and I said, ‘Whoa – that’s a lot of money.’ In my region, the average income is $22,000 (€17,006) . . . and a dead soldier is worth, potentially, well over six figures. And I said, ‘Well, you’d get a lot of people praying for their husband to get one.’ I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.”
Irish readers might find the story has a familiar tone. “I was also riffing off an old John McGahern story, Korea, about a kid whose dad wants him to sign up to go fight in Korea,” Woodrell admits, “and the father’s thinking about how much he’d get if the kid gets killed.” He shrugs. “That felt right for this story.”
He feels at home now in the Ozarks, and the critically acclaimed Woodrell is considerably more comfortable these days, financially speaking, than the “penny-a-word guy” of two decades ago.
Yet even now the local boy made good remains deeply rooted in his sense of place, alert and sensitive to the slights and crimes of generations gone by.
“I meet people every day,” he says, “they’re like grandkids of people who my grandmother would’ve been a maid for. And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, my grandma used to be your family’s maid.’ My wife said to me once, ‘Why do you always tell them your grandmother was their maid?’ And I said, ‘I just wanna see if they’ll try to tell me to fold their f**king laundry. Because I ain’t going to.’”
Daniel Woodrell’s The Outlaw Album is published by Sceptre. Declan Burke’s latest novel is Slaughter’s Hound (Liberties Press). He is the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books to Die For (Hodder Stoughton)