A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell: Part II

A continuation of yesterday’s conversation with Daniel Woodrell and our celebration of the publication of THE BAYOU TRILOGY. Missed Part I? Start at the beginning.

Now for you, Daniel. How much of your work is calculation? When you sat down to write this morning, how much of what went down on the screen or the paper did you have formed in your head? How much of the book do you know before you start at it?

DANIEL: I never know before I start a novel where it’s going for a fact. Novels are an accretion, and a moment of insight or imagination on page 37 can redirect the novel to its true path, and any amount of predetermined plotting will need to be shit canned because this path feels right, now that I’ve found it. I start with a character, always, and in the early phases the character evolves or morphs, and sometimes my intuition and invention were emotionally close, but way off in detail—Ree Dolly [from Winter’s Bone] was originally in her thirties with a husband who drove trucks, Wanda Bone Bouvier from Muscle (one of my fave characters, ever) started out as a male ex-con, and the first attempt at Woe To Live On was centered around a widow with too many kids and no clear sense of which direction to flee in order to escape the Civil War (or, as some prefer, The War of Northern Aggression). I have to remain alert to shifts in the wind and smells and be open to these characters or storylines deviating from whatever I may have originally sensed, so I try to remain available for a better route or conception to come into the party late and shift the mood. If it feels righteous, I can’t resent the intrusion.

I always do the old Hemingway thing and stop when I know where to start in the morning. I usually have a notion about what’s ahead for maybe the next three to fifteen pages, but seldom am certain of much beyond that. Winter’s Bone looked like it was going to a finish that I would consider much darker, equally plausible, but with no hope at all, and somewhere about the three-quarter mark, I began to have qualms about that finish, which was yet vague but sort of an assumed if unacknowledged target. I had to wrestle with it, but finally accepted that the ending it now has was the true ending for me. I also read every day from the beginning (again, thanks for the tip, Hem) to wherever I am now, which keeps me in close contact with the writing and pictures in my head, and I revise daily as I read along. Man, many times it is the one hundred and twelfth reading before I note that a certain word choice or sentence has a nice music to it, but doesn’t actually mean what I intend it to mean. Close, maybe, but no … Chandler, I think, said metaphors and similes are only to be used if they are on the nose—close won’t work, so better to cut.

New question: Are there forms of fiction or books that you have imagined yourself doing that you haven’t? Do you still hope to? Poetry? An Homage to Wisconsin?

And once a writer begins to gain some recognition for whatever they’ve already done, a sort of fence can spring up around the writer’s own consciousness and keep him/her from going down that beckoning path that is so plainly different from the known—do you sense that? Or is it merely an issue of will and want?

Used Car Lot on Massachusetts AvenueREED: Johnny Temple (Akashic Books) and I had a conversation about this very subject. He asked me if I had two years to write whatever I wanted without the pressure of earning, what would I write? There’s a literary novel I want to write based on the worst year of my life. I’d been married for about two years. Both of my parents were suffering with cancer. I was struggling to write my first novel and I took a job selling cars back in Brooklyn. The showroom was across the street from my elementary school and old synagogue. My boss hated me so that he literally damaged the cars I had to deliver. It was an absolute nightmare, but I learned a lot of things about being human that year. And I desperately want to do an anthology of Holocaust stories. All noir pales in comparison. I started work on a long narrative poem that was heavily influenced by Don Winslow’s narrative style, but I can’t devote the necessary time to it. For many years, Peter Spiegelman and I have kicked around the idea of collaborating on a novel. And I’ve already done my homage to America’s Dairyland: my third novel is They Don’t Play Stickball In Milwaukee.

Funny, but I was going to ask you the second half of this question. I have achieved a certain amount of critical success, won a few awards, and hope I’ve earned the respect of my peers. But the cold truth is I haven’t achieved the kind of sales or financial success that would prevent me from following my heart to a place an editor or publisher might not want me to go. I had a brush with it on my second Moe book, Redemption Street. I have little doubt my editor was less than thrilled that I chose to write a novel about a radical anti-assimilationist Jewish group that wore yellow stars on their clothing and tattooed numbers on their forearms. I can’t honestly say that if I had that to do over again, I would follow the same path.

Now, who do you trust with your work? Whose advice do you take and why?

Pencils bwDANIEL: My wife and fellow novelist, Katie Estill, is always my first reader, or more accurately, listener, as I am a big believer in reading pages aloud in order to spot various impurities that can sneak past otherwise. I have a great agent, Ellen Levine, and she looks at everything prior to its going to my wonderful editor, Pat Strachan. With short stories I sometimes have friends give them a read and respond. They are encouraged to give any response they feel, though the glowing responses tend to feel more truthful to me somehow.

I do have a bad habit of spinning possible notions (they are not firm enough at this early stage to fairly be called ideas) past a buddy or two (plus, they all get spun past Katie first), just to see how good or ridiculous they sound when shared. This usually occurs during social hours and maybe a drop or two (If you ever want to bribe me, send a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, twelve years old) has been spilt between my lips and theirs. I have a good ol’ running mate here who finished high school only, but is double-smart and has been everywhere, can stumble along in half a dozen languages and get by okay, and lives out in the deep woods where he reads a great deal and has a very sharp literary mind. A few times we’ve wandered the ridges and hollers and maybe taken a dive into one of the blue springs while jawing about something I have written or am wrestling with, and I’ve come home ready to go.

But, ninety eight percent of everything is up to me to decide/fix/dream up, and that is as it needs to be.

New question: All of us now alive and writing have been influenced by film and television, the gazillion hours of viewing, the standard tropes from so many genres of storytelling that come to feel embedded in our psyches, expectations that can be worked with or against, narrative ju-jitsu. I know that books about the techniques of various directors have been a big help to me along the way in coming to understand their approaches to storytelling so I might understand/develop my own. Film making is a world I am more enchanted by in theory than I am upon close contact, but influential nonetheless.

The All-Seeing EyeSo many of our good writers get lured away by film, Reed, some come back, others don’t—is that something you’d like to take a run at? Would you adapt your own novel if asked, or do you think that would present problems to you?

REED: I think film is both a universal language and the universal siren song. When I talk to my writing students, I often speak to them in terms of films. People have more films in common than books. All of us, even the most successful authors I know, feel a certain kind of validation from getting an adaptation of their work green-lighted that they simply don’t derive from book sales. Last year the film rights to Tower, the book Ken Bruen and I wrote, were sold and that changed things. It somehow elevated my stature, if only in a minor way. I can’t imagine what you felt like when your books were turned into films. I confess to wanting to see a book of mine play out on the big screen, but I am not particularly enthralled by the thought of writing a screenplay. And if ever I would be tempted to try it, it wouldn’t be for an adaptation of my own work. For that, I just want to cash the check and go to the premier.

Last question: If I offered you a “do-over” about anything in your life, would you take it? Why not or what for?

DANIEL: If I had a “do-over,” I’d be more eager to dance. And I wouldn’t eat that thing that looked like something it wasn’t when I was eleven. I’d skip that. Otherwise, me and the past are cool.

Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, Reed Farrel Coleman is the former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He’s published thirteen novels including Tower, a stand-alone co-authored by Ken Bruen. He’s received the Shamus Award three times, plus the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards, and has been twice nominated for the Edgar© Award. His next novel, Hurt Machine, will be released by Tyrus Books in October 2011. His website is www.reedcoleman.com.

Daniel Woodrell was born in the Missouri Ozarks and resides there again, twenty-four miles north of the Arkansas line. The Outlaw Album, his ninth book of fiction and first collection of short stories, will be out in October.