Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

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.

Two old Volvo duett´s at the old junk-yardLet’s jump ahead a little bit to Give Us A Kiss where you really take on that whole experience. You also take some dead-on and devastating swings at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop-style writing culture and those peopling it. Ever hear back from your Iowa confreres about that book?

There’s a famous translator who has ties to the region here and she passed word to me that she and her friends loved it. They particularly loved that part. And then I did have a review where a great guy, a great writer himself, said he didn’t care for that Iowa part much. But most of my friends who were there with me thought I wasn’t even unfair.

Give Us A Kiss is probably the single book in your body of work that almost invites the reader to confuse character and creator. A deliberate tactic on your part?

Well, I was kind of thinking of it as a fake memoir. I was a little premature on the fake memoir craze. When I started it, I was even toying with calling it a “Memoir in Fiction” or something. So I was deliberately blurring those lines. It seemed like fun to me to do it that way. I didn’t realize I’d be getting asked at readings for years if I had robbed gas stations to put myself through college.

Your picaresque life?


I’m going to guess you probably wouldn’t write about a writer again.

No, I don’t think so. I saw the pluses and the minuses there.

You have a thinly disguised Elmore Leonard type in “Elrod Chucky” and a Dominic Dunne sort in “Nickolai Noonan.”

I knew somebody would be gettin’ that. I’m not sure Elmore liked it.

I’m almost certain he probably wouldn’t have.

(Laughing) Well, I don’t care to be honest with you. I don’t care what Elmore thinks.

Doyle realizes his wife is composing a poem about him as she is casting him off. Being around so many writers, and being married to one, is that something you’ve experienced, or sensed others experiencing in your presence?

Yeah! That was like the standard joke at Iowa. Every time something painful would happen, somebody would say, “Hey, maybe I can use that!” Or if somebody did something extravagantly stupid we’d say, “There they go, building their personal legend.”

The career! The career!

Right, it was kind of in that nature. But yeah, I think if you’re involved with a writer, you have to know you’re runnin’ the risk of ending up between the pages.

That book was described as a “country noir.” Noir as a term has become almost valueless as it is so liberally applied by those who don’t have a good working definition. I’ve read you have a pretty strict definition of the term in your own mind, and it is focused on what noir requires for an ending. Could you illuminate that?

It has to end tragically, that’s all. It just has to end tragically to be actual noir. That’s why Winter’s Bone — the “country noir” term is still getting used here and there — it’s not actually a noir. It doesn’t really fit the requirements by my standards. Although some other people use noir in a way where I guess it would fit. But to me, I like the stricter definition because it thereby makes it discrete from all the other forms of dark fiction. I do see the term on books that would not be in the least noir by my standards.

Oncle Monday shown me how...You wrote three books that are often linked as a trilogy or identified as a kind of series, about Rene Shade, and the last is about his father. Were you following your own impulses, or were there pressures on you as a misidentified genre writer to produce a series?

I was under pressure to do it and at the time we were broke and I was not in a position to say “no” to it. Everything I’ve published, it was the best I could do at the time I published it. I tried hard at all of them, and I like all of them in their own way. But, I wouldn’t do it again. If I was asked by a young writer about that, I’d say, “If you’re okay with the brand it’ll put on you, then go ahead.” But if you have other ideas you’re better off to skip it. Because once it’s on you, it’s just there and it’s not coming off. I really had not been sophisticated enough to appreciate that.

The Ones You Do struck me, even though it is the third and closer of the Shade trilogy, as a transitional book. Was that deliberate on your part?

Yeah, I think so. And I was under some encouragement to write another one or two after that and I didn’t want to. That book: To me, yeah, okay, it has a number of the elements of crime fiction. But the core of it really isn’t. That’s my favorite of those books and I don’t know that it’s the public’s or critics’ favorite.

It’d be mine. It seems more of a piece with your later work in many ways.

Yeah. It’s not anything to do with opposition to crime fiction. I remember a long long time ago when I was reading Higgins the first time around. It was the quotidian details of these gangsters’ lives that opened up a new door for me. Eddie Coyle’s got to take out the garbage before he can go sell those hot pistols. There’s tuna in the fridge ’cause the wife’s working nightshift at the hospital, or whatever it was. It took a long time for that to bleed into my writing I suppose, but I remember reading that and thinking, “The human-scale of these criminals’ lives is what I’m attracted to.”

There’s a lot of pool in your works, and none more so than The Ones You Do. You play much yourself?

I used to shoot a lot, but I haven’t in recent years. This is the first place I’ve lived where

I didn’t have access to a table I liked. Iowa was kind of a hotbed of pool, and so was Lawrence.

Woe To Live On was retitled for release to capitalize on the film adaptation and took the movie’s title of Ride with the Devil. Titles are such hard-fought-for things at times…

Yes. They are

Were you bothered by the switch in title?

I had no say.

The book has kind of almost assumed the title of the film, now.

That’s the big thing. When they’re listing it inside, I always say, “No, go ahead and put my title.” Then they say, “Retitled Ride with the Devil” in parentheses. No, I didn’t have anything to do with that. And I knew when you sold the rights — I did by then know enough to know — you have to stand out of the way.

I think Ellroy’s line is “My book, your movie.”


Although in this case, they kind of came around and put a placard on your book.

Right. But that was a good experience and I knew they were going to have to do some things.

While we’re on the subject of film and Westerns, let’s touch on HBO’s Deadwood. It seems to me to be doing some of the things with language and dialogue and setting that you did first in Woe to Live On. Are you a viewer?

I haven’t seen every episode. I have seen a number. And I’ve been getting a lot of encouragement to start over from the beginning.

There have been intimations of something to come eventually from you at least in the vein of Woe to Live On. That still a prospect in your mind?

Yeah, something loosely related to it I hope to get to. It’s not ready yet, but it’s related to the Civil War in this area. I’ve been beating it around for a long time.

Tomato Red opens with this great long sentence/paragraph that reminds me of a similar, uncharacteristically long sentence penned by Ernest Hemingway in The Green Hills of Africa about the Gulf Stream.

Hah. Interesting.

You’ve remarked that “Hemingway probably laid the prose foundation for everything I try.”


Can you elaborate on that?

Well, when I was learnin’ to write, I just fell under the sway of Hemingway. And I wasn’t in my teens, either. I was probably like 22 or 23 before I really got involved with Hemingway. The myth of Hemingway and the priestliness of his dedication to being a writer, it was just the perfect hook to suck me in. I just love his sentences when he’s good. I love the look of his pages. I was talking to an interviewer once and I said, “Sometimes, I don’t read it: I just take those old Scribners out and just look at the type on the page and I get a pleasant sensation.” (Laughing) And the person knew exactly what I meant.

It’s funny: His name seldom comes up in reviews or anything, which I find interesting, whereas Faulkner does a lot. And I love Faulkner, but I’m more short-sentenced and direct, probably.

See, I would put you more with Hemingway. I suspect the Faulkner thing would be the regional aspect and the fact you have these kind of recurring characters and overlap.

Probably. I even read most of Hemingway’s posthumous stuff with some pleasure.

I’ve waded through a good deal of it myself.

I hate it when a dead guy out-publishes me!

I’m not sure it’s doing Hem a lot of favors in the long run, though.

No, it isn’t. There are big stretches of Islands in the Stream that can stand up and so forth, and so on. But if someone happens to grab one of these and it’s their introduction to Hemingway…

That’s the thing — they may never get to the stuff that was great.

They may never try book two.

Apart from these great titles of yours, I’ve also been struck by the range of sources for your chosen epigraphs: Joe Frazier, Minnesota Fats, Marilyn Monroe, Carl Perkins, Oil Can Boyd, Dutch Schultz, to name a few. Do you search for these to match or evoke a novel’s theme, or do you keep a book of favored quotes, as some authors do?

I scribble ’em down when I stumble across one. I remember reading Minnesota Fats’ autobiography and I’d see things pop up and I’d realize, “He said that better than plenty of professors.”

Stay tuned for Part II of this conversation tomorrow.