He’s been called “the poet of the Ozarks” and “the most overlooked great novelist in America.” But Daniel Woodrell has found many more readers since his country-noir novel “Winter’s Bone” became a best picture-nominated film that turned its lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence, into a movie star.
He seems destined to be ranked alongside his own inspirations, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and William Kennedy, as a “crime writer” whose tales transcend genre labels. The economy of his prose, along with startling turns of phrase that seem like pure poetry, have made him a writer’s writer.
But there was a time when Woodrell felt he was aping his heroes too closely. “You have to imitate somebody and an awful lot of the basic architecture and bones and everything in my paragraphs I probably picked up from Hemingway,” he says. Kennedy, too, Woodrell says, “just ran away with me when I started reading him intensely. I had to get away from him to start finding my own sound.”
So for years, those books went untouched. But he has always kept them close at hand in his office: “Flannery (O’Connor) and Chekhov and Cain and Hammett and Chandler and Hemingway” — a reminder of how much he has loved literature and how he managed to stick to writing during 10 years when it was a vocation, not a profession.
“I’m not a competitive guy, especially with the dead, so I’m willing to be in the company of greater talents,” he says. “It all goes into the same river, that’s the way I think about it. And I do believe that the kind of thing you read will have a lot to do with the kind of thing you write. So it’s important to always push yourself to read the best you can find in any direction you feel like going.”
We spoke to Woodrell on an autumn afternoon when some of the leaves were still on the trees, and still green, outside his back-porch office in West Plains, Mo., near the Arkansas line. His family has lived in the same neighborhood for nearly a century, but he’s the last of that line still there. On his afternoon walks he likes to visit a cemetery where his ancestors lie. Some headstones evoke stories he knows by heart, some are known to him only by name.
His latest novel, “The Maid’s Version,” taps into those family stories, recounting both the prelude and the decades-long repercussions of a dance-hall explosion that killed some 42 people in a small Ozarks town. The Depression-era tragedy, with couples cut down in their prime and bodies burned beyond recognition, became as much a wound for the locals as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in years to come.
There really was such a dance hall fire in Woodrell’s town, and it never was satisfactorily explained as far as many residents were concerned. “It’s just lingered as unsolved tragedies do,” he says. “But I’ve heard a lot of the rumors and variations over the years, and some of them made it into the book.”
The eponymous Maid is the grandmother’s narrator, a woman still scarred by the loss of her sister in the fire and what she sees as the corruption and cover-up afterward. Her story and those of dozens of others — victims, families, descendants — come together like dots on a pointillist canvas until a portrait is revealed of a place and its people over a span of two generations.
“A reviewer in London called it a ‘communitarian novel,’ which is a new phrase to me, but I liked the idea of that,” says Woodrell. “What I was trying to do is end up with a picture of the town and also what human beings do to survive, psychically.”
Woodrell has carved out his niche in prose fiction, but he might well have ended up a playwright instead. In his early years, he was writing both plays and novels.
“I loved watching rehearsals,” he recounts. “I loved watching actors begin to construct their character, put it together over rehearsals. You would see them begin to dig into a character and find why, for certain scenes, why this is coming up that way or how would this sentence be inflected and so forth . . . makes you really alert to the idea of character and how complicated most characters are, really. And it just gradually informed my sense of how to make a character seem real.”
He might have even stuck with playwriting, he says, but for winning $600 in a short-story competition. “Whether it was a good break or a bad break, I don’t know. I thought, you know, (laughs) I’ve got my beer money. And then it was 10 years before I made another dollar.”
He has never written a screenplay, though he’s discussed the possibility with some producers who’ve optioned his stories. “It might have been ridiculous modesty or something, but I always had heard that you would benefit from someone else adapting your book.” But if the situation arises, he adds, “I’d probably go ahead and try.”
Woodrell spends his working days in his enclosed back porch, with a view of “a nice woody yard,” with no neighbors in sight.
“I like to be there by daybreak,” he explains. “I like the quiet and everything at that hour.” He’ll start with coffee, drinking from a mug he’s had since 1974, then work for a couple of hours before breakfast.
“I usually start by reading whatever I’ve written up until then, and that gets me rolling,” he says. He has tried tippling while writing, as some scribes love to do, but says “the prose got kind of lax and goofy on me,” so now he sticks to coffee.
He writes in longhand on a legal pad, switching to a computer only to clean things up. He works until he’s tired, then goes for a walk to that cemetery, except in deer season when hunters’ bullets could be flying.
“I have a lot of relatives in there and the memorial to the dance hall people, unidentified dead,” he says. “Then I go look for something else to do or see who’s hanging around. My wife (Katie Estill) is also a writer, so I wait until she’s done. She tends to write in longer sessions than I do.”
They used to end the day watching a movie, but he says that some months ago he got to the point where nothing in his Netflix queue looked very interesting, so they decided to swear off viewing for a year. “Then there will be a stockpile of things we want to see,” he laughs.
In the meantime, he has a Kennedy novel waiting for him, “Chango’s Beads,” and he can always revisit Papa Hemingway and Cain and the others.
“In the last few years, I’ve felt comfortable going back and reading them all again,” he says, adding in a deadpan: “They were as good as I thought.”