“I’m always re-investigating the past. I expect that will become more central rather than less from here on” – An interview with Daniel Woodrell, author of The Maid’s Version

Woodrell author photo by KatieEstillWe’ve been following Daniel Woodrell since The Death of Sweet Mister about a decade ago and from book to book he has only gone from strength to strength – with  his latest The Maid’s Version being a truly worthy addition to the canon. We spoke to Daniel about the writing of the new book, Faulkner, repackaging his older books, the importance of place, movies and a whole bunch of other things…

Peter Wild (PW): I read your latest novel, The Maid’s Version, twice through over the course of the last week. It feels like a palpable ‘something different’ from you, even as it’s recognisably a Daniel Woodrell novel. When you first started to work on the book, did you have that in mind – to do something more complex and challenging?

Daniel Woodrell (DW): Well, I’m never going to write Winter’s Bonier or anything, so I’m open to something different. But the story forced some of this change onto the page. There just wasn’t any other way to put it together that felt right to me.  The language is my language, but gauged to the wider variety of characters from a wider variety of economic circumstances involved.  This book sounds more like me as I am now, and is likely the first move in a direction that will call to me for two or three more.

PW: For as long as I’ve been reading you, which is a good few years now, critics have been comparing you with Faulkner – and The Maid’s Version feels to me like the most Faulkneresque of your novels. Is he an influence or is the mention of his name one of those things that has you slapping your head with your hand and bemoaning lazy critics?

DW: Hey, I revere Faulkner. He’s sitting on the steeple, but there are a lot of figures sitting there beside him.  Any smalltown American setting will bring forth “Sherwood Anderson” or “like Faulkner’s postage stamp” and so on.  I can’t kick about the name coming up, as he is in there pretty deeply, but so are Hemingway and Jack London and Flannery O’Connor, as well as several hundred more who had their impact on me along the way.  But if I have to be labelled (and basically the world insists that a writer must be categorized, then sub-categorized) Faulkneresque actually leaves a lot of latitude, cause the man tried a lot of things.

PW: The plot of The Maid’s Version, it strikes me, is neither quite linear or quite non-linear – at the beginning of the novel, the narrator tells us of his childhood and his adult life and the memories drift like smoke between the two poles, much as they do in life when you think back on stuff that has happened. I wondered, when you were crafting the book, did the style of telling determine the material or vice versa?

DW: I knew what I was feeling, and it was only after banging out a bushel of pages for the waste basket that I realized I needed a different structure to make this work.  I did want it to work, in some part, the way memory works, but also the way oral storytelling works—the good barroom bards often seem to be wandering, interesting wandering, but… then their tale shifts back into focus and you see what connects the tendrils to the stalk.

I do think the way you tell a story is as important as what you tell.

PW: I was going to ask what inspired you to write your first historical novel since Woe to Live On and then I realised there was a historical short story or two in The Outlaw Album (and actually ‘The Horse in our History’ reminds me a lot of The Maid’s Version) – and then I got to thinking about the recently reissued Bayou Trilogy (in which Rene Shade, for example, is frequently given to musing on his past – his relationship with his brother and his father, his relationship with Shuggie) and it struck me that you have quite a complicated relationship with history. Would you say that the implications of the past on the present were one of your recurring themes?

DW: Like anyone, I’m always re-investigating the past. I expect that will become more central rather than less from here on.

And, “Horse” was written several years ago, but it was indeed an attempt to tell a story in a way that became useful when writing this—I wasn’t sure I’d ever write Maid’s Version at the time, but I was turned on by the method of blending yesterday and today through structure. I had been reading a book of non-fiction by Jack Finney called Forgotten News, and I stayed up til dawn, then wondered how he’d told the tale of an actual event in New York during the 1850s and so completely swept me away. And it’s much harder to sweep me away by now, but he did.  He told history with a human voice, even an occasional intrusion upon the narrative, and it worked.

PW: I re-read the three books that comprise the The Bayou Trilogy before speaking to you (I don’t have the trilogy, I have three differently sized paperbacks with stiff spines and yellowing pages). Can I ask how the reissue came about? Although the books are related, were they always The Bayou Trilogy in your mind or was that a device that was created to repackage and reissue?

DW: I did not expect those books to be published again. The last came out in 1992, and it seemed they’d remain lost in the deep. I’d gone as far as I wanted to go with them, though I was offered encouragement to write a few more.  So, no, I never thought of them as a trilogy, but when the notion of republishing them came up, I recalled the many times I’d bought reissues in trio packages (Elmore Leonard, Daniel Fuchs, Simenon, Chandler, Durrenmatt, Shelby Foote’s novels) and my editor liked the idea.

PW: Whilst we are talking about reissues, do you know if there are any plans to reissue Give Us a Kiss (it’s the only book of yours I don’t have and haven’t read and it’s really hard to get hold of here in the UK)?

DW: It was reissued here [in the US] about two years ago.  I don’t believe the UK folks have any intention of reissuing the backlist.

PW: I first came to you via The Death of Sweet Mister, the Dennis Lehane / George Pelecanos quotes piquing my interest. It was one of those novels you get from time to time (although nowhere near frequently enough) that blow you away and have you forcing it on strangers in the street. I was all ‘You’ve got to read this!’ to family, friends… strangers. When I went back and caught up on you, I wondered how The Death of Sweet Mister fits in your life. It feels to me like a book written by an author who has just realised he can do this for a living, a writer who has finally relaxed into his vocation. Was that the case?

DW: Well, I did this for a living even before it was actually a living. I have survived as a full-tilt freelance writer and nothing else since the early 1980s (for many years my idea of “a living” did not rise to that description in the eyes of most folks I knew). But, with Tomato Red, then Sweet Mister, I felt I had turned some sort of corner. The pure tragedy of Sweet Mister resonated with me, and I don’t think Winter’s Bone would’ve happened had I not written Sweet Mister first. One piece of writing paves the way to another, even if the first piece didn’t get published, went into the trash bucket—it still taught you what you needed to know to later creates some other book, or notable portion of one.

PW: After The Death of Sweet Mister came Winter’s Bone (a novel that found all of those people I’d recommended Sweet Mister to coming back to me going ‘wow! So glad you turned me on to this guy!’). Did the success of Winter’s Bone change things for you? Did that success make The Maid’s Version possible?

DW: I’ve never had an actual hit book, so, no, I don’t think my attitude has changed much.  Winter’s Bone did better than the others, but none of the others did anything much when originally published.  Life sometimes instructs—after Winter’s Bone life events occurred, and I realized that I needed to go down a fresh road (fresh to me, at least), and I still feel that I am in that cycle. Looking over the ten books, I can see that about every third or fourth it’s time to move, chase down some other path.  Change is mandatory, you gotta allow for that, so take a chance, break through, or breakdown and start over.  If I was on novel eighteen in a series and had to get started on nineteen and make sure it was as much like eighteen as eighteen was seventeen, I’d jump out my fucking window, and since my fucking window is only eight feet above the ground, it would amount to a Sisyphean suicide attempt, I guess, requiring many, many jumps, but if the writing racket doesn’t stay jazzy for me, I’ll do something else.

PW: I read an interview with Paul Auster a few years back and he was talking about how he had finally written all of the novels he’d had in his head – and that from here on in, everything he created would be ‘new’ (as it were). That was in my head as I read The Maid’s Version. Has this novel been in your head for a while?

DW: The Maid’s Version has been in my head for decades. There was an event that was similar in many ways, and it happened here—both sides of my family lived hereabouts when it happened. I heard about it from them all. But the way to write and structure the book didn’t come to me until I had been writing away for a year. Toss, start over.  I don’t think I would’ve been fair or generous in spirit toward all classes involved in the tragedy, had I written this twenty years ago, and that approach would ‘ve stunk on ice.

But I agree with Mr Auster—most of what’s ahead will quite possibly come from another source.

PW: I’ve always felt that more of your books should be adapted for the screen (could see great movies of Tomato Red and Death of Sweet Mister, in particular). The Bayou Trilogy would make a great three season series on HBO – or even a series in the vein of Justified, with characters from your books being taken in different directions. How do you feel about the adaptations of your books to date? Ride with the Devil and Winter’s Bone both did amazingly well. Do you consider yourself Oscar bait?

DW: Both the movies were good to their books. My books were present in the movies, and I feel fortunate for that.  I found that I enjoy engaging with the actual world of movies and movie-making a whole hell of a lot less than I’d always expected.

Tomato Red currently is in play, an Irish director, Irish producer, and I am hopeful they will get it made—I know it will be done well if they get a chance to make it.

PW: Cormac McCarthy is another writer who you are regularly compared with. Obviously he is now writing directly for the cinema with the screenplay of The Counsellor which Ridley Scott is making right now. Have you ever been tempted to write directly for the screen?

 DW: If a director I admired asked me, I might very well give it a go, but I am not otherwise drawn to the bright lights in the mirror.

PW: How important is a sense of place to what you write? How much does the place you live inform what inspires you?

DW: At a time when I was searching, this place, the Ozarks, began to speak strongly to me, and that has been consistently the case for six books now. I’ve known other places well and may want to use that knowledge, but I’ll never feel I’ve known any other place for generations, the way I do here.  I plan to be in Wales next April, though, and may well have an epiphany or two while squatting in a Druid circle or puking outside a pub.

PW: Who would you consider your contemporaries to be? Who would you include among your influences?

DW: The living and the dead.

PW: Do you still see yourself as a crime writer – did you ever?

DW: I never did see myself as a crime writer, just a writer. I loved Hammett, Chandler, Cain, McCoy, Thompson and a passel more, but I knew I wanted to explore on my own and find whatever comes. I always cared more about the characters than crime, or devilishly clever plots—it’s all about people.  This fetish about labels does grate and limit—Chekhov, “All labels are a form of prejudice.”

Raymond Chandler is as stylish and witty and evocative as anybody would want to be. Jim Thompson conducted wild, crazy experiments in narrative structure because nobody seemed to be looking. I try to pay attention wherever I go, and I’ve learned as much from that neighbourhood as I have from any other.

PW: Last but not least, can you give us a glimpse into what we can expect to see from you next?

DW: It’s gonna be about werewolves who attend a fancy prep school that is on a space ship that lands inside a black-and-white television down in our basement when I was seven—my tenderest and most autobiographical novel. Or it could be something else, I never know this far out.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell is published by Sceptre in the UK and is out now.


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