Take me home, country noir
“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)