This week, we celebrate the release of The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell.
Daniel Woodrell grew up in the Ozarks, far from any literary scene. The high school dropout lived a kind of gypsy existence for many years, drifting around the country and settling here and there for a year or two before moving on again.
At age 17, Woodrell (pronounced Wood-RELL) enlisted in the Marine Corps during the height of the Vietnam War. The Marines helped Daniel further his educational studies and put him on a path to an eventual college degree.
Fortunately, Woodrell was bounced out of the service before having to serve “in country,” and eventually found his way, like James Crumley before him, to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
He made the literary scene in 1986 with the publication of Under the Bright Lights, the first novel that he, to use his word, “completed.”
Under the Bright Lights introduced detective Rene Shade, an ex-boxer-turned-cop…a man “about sixty stitches past good-looking.” He polices in a town where “girls acquired insurmountable local reputations” and where mistake prone, working-class criminals fret, “I hope to god the FBI ain’t buggin’ this house, Emil. They’ll ridicule us in court.”
Muscle for the Wing (1988) followed loosely in its predecessor’s path — just enough there to assuage publishers pushing for a mystery series, but already showing the traits of Woodrell’s late-1990s-vintage standalones.
And in Wing, Woodrell’s inimitable narrative voice was already firming:
“Beaurain measured five foot seven standing on your neck.”
Or, as an elderly matriarch with ankle-length hair observes, “He’s been mean ever since pantyhose ruined finger fuckin’.”
The novel opens with a bang: “Wishing to avoid any hint of a snub at the Hushed Hill Country Club, the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barreled and loaded.”
In 1992, Woodrell rounded off the Shade cycle with The Ones You Do, a book focused on Rene’s pool-hustling old man, John X. Shade. The trilogy is now being published in one volume by Mulholland Books with the title The Bayou Trilogy.
Daniel Woodrell granted the following interview in mid-June 2006. It appears online here for the first time. In 2006, Woodrell was anticipating the arrival of a Sundance-awarded director who had optioned his latest novel, Winter’s Bone, and was coming to town to get a feel for the region that provides the novel’s setting. The subsequent, critically acclaimed film became a multiple Oscar contender.
Interviewer Craig McDonald, author of the internationally acclaimed Hector Lassiter series, is an award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer. His writing has earned him nominations for the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Gumshoe awards. His current novel is the literary thriller One True Sentence.
Your first three books came bang-bang-bang in ’86, ’87 and ’88. Was your output that fast at the time, or more an effect of stockpiling, so to speak?
The first one had been done for a couple of years before it sold. And I had assumed it wouldn’t sell, and I had assumed I wouldn’t be doing anymore of those, so I started writing Woe to Live On. I was about in the middle of that when I found out the first one had sold. But it was a two-book deal and so forth.
Under the Bright Lights was your first published novel. Was it also the first you wrote?
No — no completed ones before that. That was one of the reasons I was so glad to have tried that book. I did complete it and I thought it was good enough at the time and that was an important psychological thing.
Thirty-three is an evocative age at which to publish your first novel. Can you remember your reaction at the time?
Oh yeah: I was thrilled. I didn’t know writers or anything growing up. I’m not from a writerly milieu. So the idea that somebody from New York’s gonna pay you money and print it, hey, I had no second questions about that. At the time, I was just jumpin’.
Not to say you might be jaded, but is there a vast difference between your anticipation of a book’s release then and now?
There are certain experiences you’ve already had now. I remember once, a long time ago, Elmore Leonard saying he didn’t want just another book, he wanted a book that did what he wanted it to do, or something to that effect. That’s more of what I’m feeling now. I’m excited about publishing books that I think are going to give me the opportunity to publish more…more that maybe range more widely afield than this one. I’ll never be very far from dramatic criminal things, probably. But there are so many ways of getting at it, that’s what’s exciting about this world — call it crime writing or whatever you want to call it. I just call it dramatic writing now, because, who knows? I don’t ever seem to come up with an idea that doesn’t at some point have a crime in it.
Continue reading “Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell”