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A Quick Chat with Daniel Woodrell
An author interview by Liz Rowlinson

Ride with the Devil
Daniel Woodrell
No Exit Press
London 1987 (as Woe to Live On)

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Daniel Woodrell comes from a family of Ozarkers that can trace its history back to the Civil War – and his Missourian-set Civil War novel Woe to Live On was first published in 1987. Now it’s been filmed by Ang Lee as Ride with the Devil, starring Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright and Jewel Kilcher, and already the film has already received huge critical acclaim. The Richmond Review caught up with Woodrell just before he flew to London for the movie’s world premiere.

So how did the film come about?
The film came about in a series of happy accidents. The book came and went, wrapped in lavish silence from reviewers and readers, but a woman named Ann Carey read it in 1987 while working for another producer and liked it. Years later she was working for the production company associated with Ang Lee. He said he’d like to make a film that wasn’t all domestic drama, she gave him the book, he read it in one night and they bought it. The book was scarcely known, so Ms Carey was the conduit of my good fortune.

What was it like seeing your book being made into a film?
I haven’t seen the finished film, but I was mesmerized when I saw the rough cut. So many of my scenes and words were employed that I was sort of shocked to stillness. To watch actors bring their good skills to scenes and words you’d imagined being performed was a great teaching experience. These people were very good to the novel, altogether good to it, so there were no flushes of indignation, only flushes of pleasure.

Woe to Live On is set in 1861, during the Civil War along the Kansas-Missouri border. It’s not an aspect of the history of the South that you’ll find in a school textbook. Rather, the savage history of this region, which was plagued with over twenty years of guerilla warfare, is seen through the eyes of a group of teenage bushwackers, and specifically the character of sixteen-year-old Jake Roedel, a murderer who recounts events and their effect on dynamics within the gang. It is a world ‘with no good guys’: heads on posts, workaday shooting sprees and casual hangings. It has the trademark mix of humanity, brotherhood and meanness, and the tough language has ‘more than a touch of poetry’.

In Woe to Live On – and in your other books – you explode the hokey myths of the good ole’ American heartland which people like to dwell on. Do you feel – grislyness and big battle scenes aside – that this will emerge as strongly in the film?
The war was up close and shatteringly brutal in this area. The Knights of the White Magnolia, belles in hoopskirts, chivalrous commanders of exquisite high breeding – all those sissies were in the east and have come to dominate the history books. Out here it was war to the knife and knife to the hilt and the killing often took place between small, barely commanded groups, and the grisly ferocity of it is mind-boggling, even to Americans who thought they knew the story. Mass executions of unarmed men, home burnings, decapitations and so on.

Fellow author James Lee Burke said that in Woe to Live On he ‘felt your ancestors were really talking to you’ and I know that your family history in the Ozarks goes back to the Civil War. Did you research your own family history when writing this book?
I did check into my family history, but we are the type of hill people who don’t leave clear tracks behind. I knew my family was in the war, suffered some depredations and at least three dead males – all Confederate – and I suppose that helped sustain my interest in this regional slice of the war.

You also stated in your Crime Time interview that Americans were ‘scared to death’ of Woe when it was published. Was this because they were afraid of its candid brutality?
Americans were, I think, uneasy about the novel because it is told from the southern point of view. By the eighties the south and southerners were widely considered to have been totally at fault for the war, and like the scape goat of old, all the evil and reprehensible acts were attached to the southern side. To have a southern point of view and never apologize gave people the very thickheaded and completely mistaken notion that I was, in the novel, trumpeting the cause of the south rather than the common humanity and inhumanity that shows up in this and all other such conflicts. This was sadly ironic for me. My own personal political pedigree had taken me through The Left, The Ultra Left, and my first published words were in The Young Socialist Alliance newspaper way back when. So, no, I was not doing what they feared. But just for the perverse fun of it I may do something like that someday.

How about the dialogue? Your ear for ‘the interesting phrase’ in daily life provides much of the raw material for your books. Was your approach to Woe any different?
My dialogue, I just don’t know where it comes from. My father, Robert Lee, was a good storyteller and my grandfather, Pedro Daily, was a great sly and vicious humorist, and I have always listened as others speak. For years as a kid when I couldn’t sleep I constructed dramatic scenes in my head, replete with derring-do and scads of dialogue, and perhaps that accounts for some of it. The dialogue for Devil was intentionally tinged with Shakespeare and Walter Scott and so on and most seem to very much like it.

You’ve talked about writing a sequel to Woe. Is this something you still want to do?
I don’t reckon I’ll ever do a direct sequel, though the postwar years were, especially for Missourians, rife with all sorts of dramatic aspects. Revenge raids went on for twenty years after the official end of the war. The county I live in and the next county over had to have martial law re-instated three years after the war ended. Folks were still murdering each other for revenge at such a rate the military was required to stop it.

According to the LA Times ‘Daniel Woodrell does for the Ozarks what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles’. For anyone who is not yet familiar with the type of local colour made famous by Woodrell, the Ozark mountains run down the centre of Missouri, and Woodrell’s writings form part of a particular genre of noir fiction set in rural and smalltown America, working against the stereotypes of folksy myth and exposing the brutality of life in the South. His books explore the lives of ‘gut-bucket poor’ characters who inhabit trailerparks; thugs and outsiders on the fringes of society. There’s a delicate balance between optimism and fatalism as his hillfolk heroes loathe their poverty yet seem unable to escape it. The author sees his books as social realism rather than straight crime fiction, and his books are a little too real for some. There’s careless violence, class conflict, frequently retribution, but also large helpings of humour and humanity. His trademark style of sparse, tough dialect with a highly original turn of phrase has led to comparisons with Raymond Chandler.

You’ve declared yourself a devotee of the ‘lean, racy and vivid’ style of Raymond Chandler. Are there any other contemporary writers you especially admire?
I like all kinds of writers: James Salter, Tom Drury, John Harvey, Jack O’Connell, Fred Barthelme, David Storey, Fuentes, Sillitoe, Gaylord Dold, Stuart Dybek, Harold Adams, James Sallis and on. Add Jim Crumley, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, John McGahern, Tom McGuane, Pelecanos.

You’ve said that you were attracted to crime writing because it is authored by people who ‘might have known something about it’ and are generally free from pretension. The Iowa Writers’ workshop didn’t exactly nurture this ambition?
Iowa Writer’s Workshop was not – and is probably still not – geared toward fiction from out of the main channel of the mainstream. Fabulists, sci-fi, even magical realist ambitions were not nurtured much either, and my main focus has never been only crime fiction.

So, do you view yourself as a crime writer – or an author who just happens to write about crime?
No, I don’t really consider myself a crime writer in the narrow sense. I care not a whit for genre conventions or who shot John? sort of things. I do often love the sort of people and situations novels that get called crime novels deal with. The whole label thing is tiresome and is not helpful. Most of the work I am going toward will be very much to the periphery of crime writing, and possibly out of its bounds.

It’s been said by some that there is a strong sense in your books that the destinies of your characters are determined by their ancestry and environment. Do you see yourself as following this tradition?
I guess the old Greek notions of destiny, fate and so forth have a certain grip on me, though I definitely believe in freewill and the possibility for, and need of, perpetual change – witness my novels over the last 13 years.

Tomato Red is Woodrell’s latest book, published in the UK by No Exit Press . Another well-crafted, economic novel with great one-liners and great characterisation, the subjects are again from the low-end of small-town Missouri life: amiable loser Sammy Barlach, a gone-to-seed but sassy prostitute – ‘a kept woman but only nobody keeps her more than overnight’ – and her tomato-red-haired daughter Jamalee who hopes her ‘country queer’-pretty hairdressing brother Jason will be her ticket out of the exquisitely named town of Venus Holler.

In the past you’ve had a couple of film offers for Give us a Kiss. Any firm interest in the other books?
Yes, there have been other film deals. Give Us a Kiss had a script written, but, thank God, the deal fell through. The script sucked. Tomato Red was just optioned last week by George Armitage (Miami Blues, Grosse Pointe Blank).

It’s been a long road from hillfolk to Hollywood. What’s it like to suddenly get all that attention?
The attentions I have received have not been of intimidating dimensions. A phrase once applied to young Hammett comes to mind: Unspoiled by early success.

Copyright © 1999 Liz Rowlinson


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