Daniel Woodrell: The Ozark daredevil

Daniel Woodrell's fans include Ang Lee and Annie Proulx, but he remains a cult figure in US fiction. He gives John Williams a tour of his hard-boiled world

Daniel Woodrell, from the town of West Plains deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, has long been one of the best-kept secrets in American literature. He has had a book filmed by Ang Lee and been lavishly praised by his peers, from Annie Proulx to Roddy Doyle. Yet, 20 years and eight books into a writing career, he remains a cult figure - a "writer's writer". All this might just be about to change with the publication of Winter's Bone (Sceptre, £12.99). It's set in a dirt-poor, time-forgotten fastness, somewhere amid the Ozarks, and it's as beautiful and harsh as an Appalachian folk song.

Woodrell lives and works in the Ozarks and avoids the publicity circuit. To interview him, I had to fly to St Louis and drive for four or five hours into the middle of nowhere. The Ozark region is, for the most part, surprisingly un-mountainous. I pass small towns whose every store seems to sell agricultural hardware, and finally land up in West Plains, where the family has lived for generations.

Woodrell lives with his wife, novelist Katie Estill, up the hill in a neighbourhood whose demographic tilts more towards the poor white crystal-meth consumer than leading American novelist. While it may be only struggling towards regeneration, their own house and garden is as charmingly rural-American as you could wish. Woodrell, a stocky, brown-haired fellow closing in on 50, is waiting to take me on a tour of his fictional world.

We start off by driving round his neighbourhood, where he points out the run-down little houses and the cemetery which have figured in recent books. This is a poor town, but it's well-ordered and sedate with few bars and plenty of churches. Next, we head down tiny country roads until we're motoring through a valley lined with down-at-heel houses. There's an air of the gypsy camp about this place: Collinsville, the inspiration for Winter's Bone.

These folks are the model for the Dolly clan in Winter's Bone. They're a lawless bunch - or rather, the laws they answer to are not those of the land. When the unforgettable heroine, 16-year-old Ree, starts asking questions about her father's disappearance around these parts, she finds herself coming up against a brutal, homegrown notion of justice.

Driving through, we're attracting our share of curious looks. Woodrell hits the gas, uneasy with the idea of showing people around the deprivation he describes. Further into the countryside, we stop off for a swim, then visit a roadside graveyard with a significant Woodrell population, before pulling up outside TJ's Hickory House for lunch. It's a standard roadhouse - check tablecloths, beer and burgers - but the waitress is friendly and the dark, cool interior welcome after the heat outside. It's a good place to talk about Dan's career to date.

"I was born in West Plains," he tells me, "and we lived here till I was one. Then my dad needed to get a job, so we moved to the St. Louis area. I lived in St Charles, on the Missouri River, till I was 15. It's been swallowed by the metropolis since then, but at the time it had its own distinctive character. Hundreds of bums lived in the thickets near there... There were quite a few fist-fights. I know my mother had trouble with it, compared to here."

When Woodrell was in his teens, his father got a new job in Kansas City. "I lived there for two years and I hated it. So much so that I left high school and joined the Marines the week I turned 17. I said I'll go to Vietnam before I spend another week in this fucking suburb."

The Marines, too, failed to quell his ornery spirit: "I liked my fellow marines. I didn't like pointless orders. After 18 months I got into some drug trouble and they discharged me. 'Pronounced antisocial tendencies.' I thought at the height of Vietnam to be labelled antisocial by the marine corps was kind of interesting."

It took Woodrell a while to settle down in civilian life. Eventually, he went back to college to study literature, and wrote some short stories: "I won a competition with the first one I ever wrote. Which gave me an unrealistic notion of how easy this was going to be." Woodrell applied to the Creative Writing School at Iowa, perhaps the most prestigious in the US, and was accepted. Today, he's not convinced it deserves its exalted reputation: "I really enjoyed my fellow students and I met my wife, Katie, there. But I didn't think most of the teachers amounted to much."

Woodrell's first published novel was Under the Bright Lights. It remains the closest thing he has ever written to a conventional crime novel. "I just really like the verve and muscle of good crime fiction, the narrative punch of it. The underlying principle of good crime fiction is an insistence on a kind of root democracy. I've always responded to that notion."

He followed this up with a Cormac McCarthy-style civil war novel, Woe to Live On. Set in the Ozarks, and loosely based on the activities of Quantrill's Raiders, it was a shocking account of the random madness of war. It was also a major step forward but, at the time, it confused critics who were expecting another crime novel. So Woodrell changed tack, and wrote another two crime novels, Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do. Neither was commercially successful.

When they flopped, Woodrell was left in a bad place, both financially and mentally: "I kind of fell into a pit for a few years there. I didn't want to write. All my books had disappeared without a ripple. I just fell into a hole. We lived in Arkansas, then Cleveland, then here, then we went to San Francisco for a couple of years."

It was in San Francisco that things began to turn. Woodrell started Give Us a Kiss, and this time he began with what he knew. The hero, Doyle Redmond, is a failed novelist who heads back to the Ozarks and soon gets involved with blood feuds between local drug dealers. It's a bitter, oddly lyrical novel which brings the region and its people vividly to life. Annie Proulx gave it a rave of a blurb and his advance was large enough to buy a house back in West Plains.

Tomato Red was even better: a wonderfully funny and tragic tale of blighted white-trash dreams. There's none of the self-referential spot-the author stuff here, just a beautifully wrought tale of the ordinary disasters that befall people who start life on the wrong end of a raw deal. "There are people so alienated from the mainstream of American culture," says Woodrell, "that it's like a parallel universe. They don't expect anything but trouble from the square world. Every time they interact with that world they're given a ticket, sent to jail, drafted. It's never good. So they live by a separate value system.

"I've felt that way myself," he says. "When I got to graduate school in Iowa, I didn't get it. People would say things, and where I was from you'd smack them; where they're from, you're supposed to come back with a witty rejoinder."

Around this time, Woodrell's luck really began to turn. Woe to Live On was picked up by Ang Lee and turned into a film entitled Ride with the Devil. It's not the director's most highly regarded effort, being notably slow to get going, but Woodrell is understandably reluctant to badmouth it: "It was the payments from the film that allowed me to experiment, to take my work in the way I wanted it to go. Those movie people took the wolf away from the door for a good three years."

The first fruit of Woodrell's creative freedom was The Death of Sweet Mister, memorably narrated by a 12-year-old boy living in a caretaker's house in a cemetery with his overfond mother. "Kid narrators can be a little cutesy," he says. "Shug wasn't, though. I started getting a sense of him and his mother. The idea of being inside a personality, a culture or a family that's considered being transgressive is almost comfortable to me, I don't have to make a big leap."

Then came Winter's Bone, with its "extended criminal clan". Ree has two little brothers and a mentally ill mother. "She's got to save their house and then she can get out of there," he explains. "It's about her quest to save her father. But she's also got to deal with being a 16-year-old girl."

Winter's Bone is a short, dense work made up of sentence after sentence of remarkable richness - a book that bears the hallmarks of being crafted expertly over an extended period. If there's any justice, it will raise Woodrell up to where he belongs: in the forefront of American fiction.

John Williams's book about US crime fiction, 'Back to the Badlands', appears from Serpent's Tail in October


Daniel Woodrell was born in Springfield, Missouri, and spent his early years in the Ozark town of West Plains. In his teens, he enlisted in the Marines but was discharged for drug-taking before he could make it to Vietnam. Back in the US, he drifted before going back to college, where he started to write. He published his first novel, Under the Bright Lights, in 1986; followed by Woe to Live On (filmed by Ang Lee as Ride with the Devil), Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do. After a break, he returned with Give Us a Kiss, set in the Ozarks, like his subsequent novels Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister and Winter's Bone, which is published this week by Sceptre. He lives with his wife in West Plains.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power