OVER THE last couple of years, Daniel Woodrell has found himself in some surreal situations. On a publicity trip to London, with a stay at the illustrious Dorchester Hotel, he saw “David Lynch stumbling around the lobby”.
In 2011, loaded up on painkillers for an injured shoulder, the writer found himself at the Oscars looking on as Winter’s Bone — based on one of his books — was nominated for several awards. It’s a long way from his early writing career when his first four books “disappeared without trace”. Instead of throwing in the literary towel, the American novelist (who studied creative writing) picked himself up and kept working.
“I always had at least one editor or publisher who believed in my work,” says Woodrell. “I’m also the kind of person that really needs to do something that I’m in love with, because I was never going to be a ‘good employee’ type. When I finally gave myself over to writing, I never quit.”
Born in Missouri, his soft-spoken voice has a touch of Southern burr, thanks to a region dominated by the Ozarks. The mountain range and the state’s landscape hugely influenced the books that followed those early novels. As it happens, Woodrell was living elsewhere when he decided that he wanted to write about his home-place.
“My wife and I moved to San Francisco because I was writing a book that was set there, but two months in, I started writing about Ozark, and it was like a whole mountainside opened up for me. I was ambitious, or desperate — whichever phrase you like (laughs) — to write about this area, but was aware that publishers wouldn’t necessarily care for what happens here.”
What happens there — in Woodrell’s work, anyway — is destitution, broken families and abuse. His themes are real world and deadly serious, but he manages to imbue them with humanity, and even — astonishingly — touches of humour. The writer in Give Us A Kiss is not afraid to laugh at himself, even though he gets involved in family troubles and drug deals. For all the grit in Winter’s Bone, the reader comes away remembering the resilience and strength of teenage character, Ree Dolly. The marginalised and downtrodden populate the pages of Woodrell’s books, unable to shake off their restlessness.
“Where I live in Missouri is one of those regions that people talk about leaving. Each year, the youth move away and you don’t see them again. I wouldn’t have wanted to live here when I was 25 or 30 because it closes at 7.30pm when you want to stay out all night.” Woodrell punctuates a lot of his sentences with laughs. He is a more engaging talker, and funnier than some of his books would suggest.
“Part of my inspiration is my own family history and the neighbourhood I grew up in. My grandmother was an illiterate maid and my grandfather was a sleep-in-the-street drunk. I can’t say that everything I write will always be in this vein, but I don’t see the end of it yet. The more I learn about the history of this place, the more ideas keep coming to me.”
I bring up John McGahern and the dominance of Leitrim in his novels. It prompts another chuckle. “Oh look, I was so under McGahern’s sway at one point in college that when I handed in a story, someone said to me: ‘did you just get back from Ireland?’ because it was full of these McGahern turns of phrase.” Woodrell name-checks several Irish writers — Edna O’Brien, Eugene McCabe — who he discovered at college. He took a literature course where the work of Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty and Daniel Corkery was strongly emphasised. “It was at a time that I was trying to be a writer,” admits Woodrell, “so their work impacted on me pretty deeply. I still keep an eye on new Irish writers — I really like Claire Keegan’s stories.”
Woodrell’s early novels were called everything from mystery to crime and he has struggled with pigeonholing his whole career. His later work is often classified as literary western or noir, but this labelling is unhelpful, not least because Woodrell is closer on the book spectrum to Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx than Philip Marlowe or Charles Portis.
“Labels are never of any real value to the writer,” says Woodrell, who is clearly used to having to justify what kind of writer he is, “and the true danger of them is that if you start accepting them, you might reign yourself in. There’s an old saying I like: ‘What other people think of me is none of my business’ and I’d like to leave it like that (laughs)”.
After eight novels, and a long way from his Frank O’Connor college reading, Woodrell has finally written his own short story collection. Published last year, The Outlaw Album has Woodrell’s distinctive sepia feel, while including characters that are utterly contemporary — like the weary Marine returned from a war where “the sand blows into everything”. In one narrative, a father laments his kidnapped, presumed-dead daughter, and in Uncle — perhaps in parallel revenge — another young girl cripples her rapist uncle. The women in Woodrell’s books are not to be messed with.
“When I started writing, a lot of women writers advised me to make my female characters as rounded as the women I know, and so I made them as gutsy as my own mother. Recently I was asked why there are so many women in my books and my answer was, ‘at what phase of your life were you at that there WEREN’T women in your life?’ I’m really interested in that standard story of the oldest daughter who has to take care of younger kids because the parents can’t. I researched cyclical poverty among women and 70% have that story, of dropping out of school.”
He trails off, having succinctly described Ree Dolly’s life in Winter’s Bone. Woodrell was pleased with the Oscar-nominated film version, and with Ride With The Devil, director Ang Lee’s take on Woe to Live On. Two other books are under option, including one to Irish companyOctagon films, with director Juanita Wilson attached to the project.
Woodrell spent time in Marines at the height of the Vietnam War and his experiences have filtered into his short stories. Given that he has drawn on so much of his own life and family history, is he tempted to pen a memoir? “My next book [about his grandmother and a local tragedy] sounds like memoir, but I don’t want to call it that because I’ve made up a lot of things. I’m not comfortable if I’m guessing or embellishing.”
In one sense, success has taken its time in visiting Woodrell, but he sounds grounded, content — and with a new novel draft completed — just as productive. Writing is, finally, a viable livelihood. “I’m at a stage where I live off what I earn from writing — which is very modest some years — but it’s what myself and my wife call ‘fuck you’ money.”
I ask him to explain. “It means that when I get asked to do something I don’t want to do, I make enough money to be able to say ‘fuck you!’”. He laughs his belly laugh, just one of the many surprising things about this Missouri writer of dark stories.
* Daniel Woodrell and Declan Burke discuss their work tomorrow at County Hall, Dún Laoghaire, at 4.30pm as part of the Mountains To Sea Festival. www.mountainstosea.ie