Take me home, country noir
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.