A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell and I met about four or five years ago at the LA Times Festival of Books and I proceeded to act like a total gushing fanboy. My only consolation was that I got to witness several other writers, some quite prominent, do their own fanboy or fangirl meltdowns. That the man didn’t run screaming back to Missouri is testament to his gentlemanly manner. In the years since LA, Daniel and I have exchanged emails, but it wasn’t until Bouchercon San Francisco that we got to spend any time together.

Getting to know one’s heroes can be an iffy proposition at best. I needn’t have worried. Daniel turned out to be as fascinating and complex as his work. He’s incredibly well read, thoughtful, honest to a fault, and enjoys a drop of good bourbon. The man speaks nearly as lyrically as he writes, but I don’t suppose any of that really surprised me. The things that caught me off guard were his sly sense of humor and the lurking mischief in his eyes.

I considered doing some high-minded discussion of Daniel’s work in advance of the release of The Bayou Trilogy, but foundered when trying to hit upon the proper approach. What could I say about Daniel Woodrell’s writing that hasn’t already been said? Instead, I thought, an actual conversation—via email—between the two of us would provide a little insight into the man behind Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, and The Death of Sweet Mister. Daniel was gracious enough to agree.


REED: Your work requires the reader to pay careful attention. Is that a conscious decision on your part or is that just how your style developed? Can you ever imagine yourself writing in some other way than you do to, let’s say, to be more “commercial”?

labyrinthianDANIEL: I did a couple of times try to write more like somebody else, thinking that might change my fortunes, but all those efforts were tossed. I have to hear it to write it. I work hard on my sentences and I want them all read, but my bargain with the reader is that I won’t go into any “labyrinthian digressions” that lead to an urge to skim, either. If I knew what commercial was it might cross my mind, but I clearly don’t, so … I often think about the old bards and their approach. I admire the thought of them and the challenges of their chosen task. Bards were great artists, but they also had to hold their audience: can’t have oafs snoozing in the front row or chieftains wandering away in the back, so the storytelling had to be swift, vivid and powerful, and what the bards thought was a good enough approach sits fine by me. I never have felt that there was some great gulf between literary fiction and storytelling.

And a question for you: Given that the east coast is the most written about, filmed, sung about and televised region of our nation, were you encouraged or intimidated by the thought of setting your fiction there? Or was there no real choice, it’s your homeland and that’s that?

REED: I studied poetry in college and had never really attempted any fiction. So when I decided, quite insanely, to quit my job to write crime novels, I figured the one element of fiction I was apt to have any command of at all was setting. I knew where I was from. More than that, I understood where I was from. From your work, I know that’s a distinction you get and play with. My first two novels sort of sound like a guy doing an impression of Raymond Chandler, but with a Brooklyn accent. What’s cool about writing about NYC is that it’s a place everyone thinks they know, but it’s really a thousand different places that almost no one knows. The Brooklyn I write about—the Coney Island/Brighton Beach/Sheepshead Bay area—for instance, is a different place than the Brooklyn Gabriel Cohen or Peter Blauner write about. The Manhattan Larry Block writes about is nothing like the Chinatown that SJ Rozan writes about or the Wall Street that Peter Spiegelman writes about. I really enjoy opening up people’s eyes to the truth of that and playing with the bizarre universal romance people have for Brooklyn.

Now, back to you. Early on in Under The Bright Lights, the character Suze says something that struck me very differently than the first time I read the novel because I’ve since seen Winter’s Bone and video of the Ozarks. Suze says, “You shouldn’t make fun of me. Everybody makes fun of me.” UTBLs isn’t set in the Ozarks, but Bayou folks get painted with the same brush as people from the Ozarks and the Appalachians. Was Suze speaking for them or am I reading way too much into it? Even if I am, do you understand why I’m asking?

Concrete Horse, Buffalo Bayou, at Hidalgo Park, Houston, Texas 0320111527DANIEL: I am not put too much out of sorts by slanders to the region. I write about a slice of life here that does exist but is not dominant by any means. As a writer I recognize that my juice runs best when I am engaged on a certain level, and up to now that has meant rough stories in rough settings with rough folks. In public I always try to work into my talk that I am very well aware of the fact that my books present a narrow slice of our world and could be “used against us.” Too bad if that is so, but it won’t slow me down, either. I follow my tune wherever it goes.

But any portion of our nation that lies between the fabled glamour coasts is liable to feel slighted and condescended to by the grand poobahs and pontificators who reside on those coasts, and not without reason, but so what? Rub a fucking brick on it. Plenty of folks here despise both coasts without ever having visited either. I’ve heard people from Queens crab about perceptions of them in Manhattan! Remember when Breslin and Mailer ran for mayor on the slogan that, If elected, we’ll go to Queens?

New question: The detective form has a long, long, train of baggage that accompanies it in the world of books, and was this long train a stimulating feature of an enterprise into said territory or discouraging fact—look at all that stuff I have to be aware of, but not imitate, be linked to, but not vanquished by?

Also, I remember when I was starting, I felt like the crime side of publishing was more likely to give one at least a chance. Did you also feel more likely to be given a shot if crime featured in your novel? Or was it the preferred mode and you wanted to go there regardless?

REED: Let me take the last part first, as is my contrary nature. I just sort of fell into crime fiction the way I always fell into almost every job I ever had. I was working as the manager of an air export company in the cargo area of Kennedy Airport—See Goodfellas—and it was a very good job, but still a job. One night a week I had to commute from work into Manhattan from Queens and there was always time to kill in the interim. So I looked into taking a class back at Brooklyn College to fill up the down time. The only class that fit my schedule was a class in Hard-boiled American Fiction. Within the first two weeks I knew that writing crime fiction was what I was meant to do with the rest of my life. I fell seriously in love with Hammett and Chandler and my training in poetry let me see through the pulp mask of their work to understand the beauty and skill of it. To me, Chandler is sort of TS Eliot to Hammett’s William Carlos Williams. As to getting a chance, I do think it’s true even now that the crime side of the aisle affords you a better chance of getting a look-see from publishers. First off, a lot more crime/mystery/thriller work is published than other genres. And the bottom line is the bottom line. Crime editors don’t care about the pedigree of the dog if it can hunt.

Now that I’d made the decision to write a detective novel, it dawned on me that no matter how good I thought I was or could be, I wasn’t apt to do it as well as the people who’d come down the road before me. That sense that I’d jumped in the deep end without my flotation device got worse as I read more and more detective fiction. But if I let stuff stop me, I wouldn’t have ever gotten published. By the time I came to write the first Moe Prager novel, Walking The Perfect Square—my fourth novel—I decided not to reject the conceits of the detective genre, but to hold them up to a warped mirror. Moe is sort of the negative image of the classic wounded-white-Christian, gun-and-fist-happy-alcoholic loner living from case to case and working out of a crummy office in the cheap part of town. Moe is a Jewish, mostly happily married family man with a house, a mortgage, and a successful business that he hates. He drinks, but he’s not a drunk. He’s tough, but not a tough guy. He’s wounded, but not by bullets. He’s nobody’s hero and I like him that way.

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?

To find out the answer to this question, come back tomorrow.

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.