Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell, Part II

This week, we celebrate the release of The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell. Here, we have the continuation of the conversation with award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer Craig McDonald. Start with Part I if you missed yesterday’s post. Note: this interview was conducted in 2006.

I’ve never seen much put out there regarding your work habits, and perhaps that is purposeful on your part. I’m wondering if you’re a morning or an evening writer?

It’s evolved over the years. When we lived in California I didn’t start writing until two or three in the morning. Here, it’s the opposite. I get up and go early. At one time, it had to always be the afternoon. So it’s kind of flickered all over.

Do you write longhand or…?

I always have, but I have become comfortable now with the keyboard on the computer. I find I’m doing over half of it directly there, then more or less sketching things longhand. I still like being able to go off and sit somewhere with a note pad. But I’m no longer seeing the drawback to the keyboard.

Is there a typical proportion of the written to the kept?

Now, Winter’s Bone, there’s not much that got wasted there. When it’s happening right and feels right, I’m usually pretty close on the first draft, actually. And then I read everything from the beginning again, which is an old Hemingway trick that I learned early. I prune it as I read from the beginning. And, even when I get to a couple of hundred pages or something, I still will read almost every day from the beginning. So I’m really rewriting a little bit.

Kind of a constant state of revision that keeps everything of a piece?


Sell Alderman Some DrugsDo you have a sense any if your neighbors read your work?

Not most of them. I think a lot of people have learned what I do, for a living, but I don’t run into a lot of people who have read them, nor do I want them to feel required to give me their capsule reviews if they have read them.

It would be difficult if Katie wasn’t a writer, too. We can really have intense literary conversations and open that part of ourselves up and deal with it. If it wasn’t for that, it would probably be too difficult here.

Speaking of Hemingway, I always wondered if that was something that kind of messed him up, because the great work came in Paris and when he was moving among all those writers, and then he went to Cuba, and became his own island, so to speak…

Yeah, he may be someone who profited from that. I’ve lived at different times in situations where there were lots of writers around and I’m never sure which is more beneficial. Utter isolation, eventually, will get you. But other writers will get you, too. You feel like you have to be up on the new thing of the minute instead of hearing your own thing. It depends on who you are. I know plenty of writers who couldn’t stand the idea of isolation.

You’ll have a film crew tracking you in July. I see several newspaper critics have, as I have myself, written summer reading previews singling out your novel as a must-read. Do you have a sense that Winter’s Bone might be, that dreadful term, your “breakout book?”

Oh, I’m almost afraid to use it, being you know, highly superstitious. I know that I have not had so much attention in advance on a book before. It’s already coming out in England right now: I’ve never had that happen this way before, either.

It is a little strange — you’re such an American writer and voice — that Europeans are getting the book two months ahead of us in the states.

I do think Americans maybe think they already know all the regions of America or have heard all they need to hear sometimes, and are less intrigued. But it does seem that the UK is paying attention, especially this time.

It’s been five years since The Death of Sweet Mister, which was another well-received novel. I remember seeing a title floated somewhere, for a work called Paradise Moves. Were there starts on other novels since The Death of Sweet Mister, or has Ree Dolly’s story been the one you’ve been shaping these past few years?

I spent a little over two years on a Marine Corps novel that wasn’t mature. Something just wasn’t coming. Even though it looked like we could publish it, I decided “I don’t want to.” I’ll save it and hope it gels.

Winter’s Bone — that’s about two years of your writing time, then. Is that a story that’s been speaking to you for a while?

I had the opening paragraph, kind of. It was just one of those things: It came to you. I wrote it down. It was like a non sequitur. It didn’t have anything to do with what I was working on at the time and I put it up on the wall and kept looking at it. I started to write it once and she was an adult with several children and everything and that didn’t seem right. I put it away and about six months later I really started getting it the way it is now. This isn’t unusual for me to have to circle around on something like this.

It’s interesting that The Death of Sweet Mister and Winter’s Bone both are centered by young characters — flip sides of the coming-of-age tale, perhaps. I wondered if this was deliberate planning on your part, or—

No, no. I’d like to have deliberate moves.

You’ve been a while away from the third-person point of view. How’d you come to tell Ree’s tale from the outside-in, so to speak?

Well, one is, as you say, I’d done a number of first-person things and I really sort of consciously didn’t want to do another first-person thing unless it absolutely had to be first-person and was better in first-person. And this one, it didn’t seem to me, was either of those things. It seemed like it was meant to be written this way. And it had been a while and I thought, “Well, I’ll see if I can even get it goin’ that way.”

In terms of third-person POV, it’s been since 1992 and The Ones You Do

That was a little different too, because in those books (the Shade novels) I didn’t just follow one person — I dipped all over. So I wasn’t sure it would start rolling this way. Once it did, I was hooked all the way and in fact I’m probably going to go fifty-fifty from now on, I guess.

in woodYou’ve always salted your novels with formidable, or at times even elemental women…particularly mothers, which Ree, in most respects, is to her younger brothers. And she is mother to her own ailing mother. As her creator, how does Ree stack up against some of these other women you’ve written? I assume there are certain characters you have more affection for than others.

She is definitely one of my all-time…well, when I was done with it, I remember telling either my agent, or my editor, that it’s kind of hard to move on. Because, she’s also got more qualities that are admired by wider elements of the world than many of the people I write about. And I found myself responding to some of those — pluck and drive and whatnot, just like anybody else would.

Someone who wrote one of those previews of Winter’s Bone decided, at least in their own head, that there is an inevitable sequel. Is Ree a character you might return to?

No. There isn’t going to be a sequel. There will be other works about members of the extended family, but I would doubt that Ree would even be mentioned.

Ree is 16 and charting a military career as a means of escape from her home. You enlisted at 17 and I’ve noticed almost all, if not all, of your jacket blurbs mention your military service.

Yeah, they do. I guess they think that’s defining, or something.

I’ve seen indications that for you, the military was also a tactic of escape…just a way to get the hell away from where you were at the time.

Basically. I didn’t like where we’d ended up living. In fact, there’s a bit in Give Us A Kiss where (Doyle Redmond) talks about why he joined the Marines. He’d read this Jack London book and Jack was already living as an oyster pirate with a prostitute when he was 15. (Doyle) was 16 and he says, “Hey, life just passed me right by.” There was some of that, too. It suddenly dawned on me I was old enough to leave and here was a way to go. I was trying to join the Navy, but they had a long waiting list in the middle of the (Vietnam) war like that. I stepped outside and the Marine guy was standing there. He said, “What’d they tell ya?” I said, “They told me they’ve got a long waiting list for high school drop-outs, especially.” He said, “Well, we don’t. I’ll have you there today.”

Let me ask you about that: You dropped out of high school and you got a college degree I think in your late twenties…27? How’d you go from one to the other? Most colleges, that can be a real hurdle — getting in without the high school diploma.

Well, I got a GED when I was on Guam. Me and two sergeants. I went to a ju-co for awhile, then I went to another college in Western Kansas. When I got the junior college degree, KU — the University of Kansas — I think they had to let you in, at least as a trial, and I did okay. Although it took me a while — I didn’t go consecutively.

Does military enlistment remain the chief escape hatch from poverty in your region?

Yeah, I think so.

Has the current war affected that in ways you detect?


We’ve had a few from the general area get hurt. Where I do my outdoor exercise is a track and I see ’em over there. I guess you have to do a certain speed for a mile or something to get in. I see ’em over there with fresh ones, all the time.

Family has been a central theme in all of your novels. We’ve had the Shades, the Redmonds, the Dollys. Do you presently live in a setting that boasts a lot of kin?

There once were many, but now it’s down to me…my mom, and me. My mom’s remarried. I’m the last Woodrell left here, or the last I know of. There may be some hidden around. Both my parents’ families are from around here. Fifty or sixty years ago, there’d have been a ton. It’s hard to make a living here and my dad got a taste of the world in World War II, as did his brother, and neither of them ever wanted to live here again until they were retired. Because you can’t make a living here.

What brought you back?

I was tired of kicking around and feeling like I didn’t really belong any of the places I was living. They were interesting. I liked ’em. I liked Lawrence, Kansas. I liked Iowa. I liked a lot of places. I liked San Francisco, but I felt like I was never going to get any roots there.

I’m from Ohio: I noticed you omitted your time spent in Cleveland.

We liked Cleveland, too. My wife is from Cleveland and we lived there for two years. Well, I say, Cleveland: she’s from right outside of Cleveland. That’s were I learned the East Side-West Side dichotomy.

Here: This was always the center of home even if I didn’t grow up here day-by-day. All the family lore and legends, it all came back to here. We lived in the Arkansas Ozarks for a while. I thought, “That’s nice, but it’s not the same.” I live two blocks from a cemetery that’s just full of dead relatives. It ended up, much to my surprise, meaning something to me after we came here and settled. We only intended to be here a year or so, and we’re still here.

rural labyrinthThe Dolly clan hovers on the fringes of your earlier work (Give Us A Kiss), but they’ve finally come front and center with Winter’s Bone. You once spoke of a Dolly short story cycle. Still the plan?

Sort of. That’s kind of what I’m fiddlin’ with now. It could end up being a pure novel, but it also could end up…well, I can’t tell yet. It’s in that neighborhood, though.

Woe to Live On was a short story first and then you expanded it into a novel. Does that happen to you often with other books?

After one more novel, I promised my wife I’m going to take, like, two years or three years and just write short stories. I really like it when I do find an occasion to do one. But I respect the form enough to realize to really get any good at it you’re going to have to focus on it consistently for a little while. I’ve written a couple for anthologies lately, like a Jason Starr one that’s coming out. Murdaland, this new magazine coming out, they asked for something. And I really had fun doin’ it. But Woe to Live On is the only novel that started as a short story.

So there is not enough back there yet for a collection?

No. In fact, really in the last twenty or thirty years, I’ve only written three or four stories. [Editor’s Note: Little, Brown will publish a collection of short stories by Daniel Woodrell in October 2011 titled THE OUTLAW ALBUM.]

The Jason Starr anthology is conceived around horse racing. Is that something you find you can do: someone can throw a theme at you and you can write a story to that theme?

That time it happened I could. Murdaland just wanted somethin’ dark. I actually sort of liked the notion, “All it has to do is have somethin’ to do with horse racing.” Okay. Well, that was sort of fun for me.” Part of it is I don’t put the same level of expectation on myself with short stories so I relax and they might could be just as good. But I’m not pressuring myself. Whereas with novels, I really feel required…I’m one of these types, I’d hate to publish one that I thought wasn’t in the league with the one before, that’s all.

That’s a perfect segue to my next question: There are tremendous pressures placed on authors to whip out a book a year. Winter’s Bone makes eight books in 20 years. How have you resisted this pressure?

I tried at one point to do it, and I didn’t like the stuff. I wrote a complete novel for Holt at one point. They said it’s publishable, but I kept saying, “It’s not as good.” It was me trying to make sure I had one done on time. So I said, “I’m not going to do that anymore.” If it’s five years, it’s five years. If it’s two years, it’s two years.

Anything you’d like to get out there?

It’s funny: I saw you interviewed Alistair MacLeod, you know. One of the things I think about here all the time, and actually getting it from his sensibility there, with his background, was this linkage of the people here with Celts and other British Isle citizens and how closely related it is.

I was interviewed by the Glasgow Herald not long ago, and I was saying I was reading all this George McKay Brown, WS Graham… You realize the kind of blood connection between different parts of the world. I was feeling that in this one (Winter’s Bone) pretty strongly, and I don’t know if I used to feel that, or not.

Have you read much MacLeod? I mean, there’s not a lot out there to read — he’s got the big story collection and the novel…

I’ve read just about all I reckon. I love the short stories especially. Very strong. And you know, he’s a guy who grew in the dark, kind of.

He’s an interesting guy in that he really didn’t have to cow-tow to any of the rules, in a way. He’s never even had an agent. But he’s had the advantage of writing from a teaching position, and that sort of subsidized the writing for a long time.

Yeah, I often wonder if that is a plus or minus. In his case it was because he didn’t have to have any commercial concerns, but I always wonder about that one, too.

Craig McDonald is the 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.

Five of Daniel Woodrell’s eight novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. A recipient of the PEN West Award, Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.