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
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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

Biography

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.

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