“The Raymond Chandler of the Ozarks” is how host Scott Simon referred to author Daniel Woodrell during an interview this morning on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition.” Those are large shoes to fill, indeed, but Simon seemed as enamored of Woodrell’s work as have past interviewers from Britain’s Independent newspaper and The Richmond Review. Which makes you wonder again how this 53-year-old Missouri resident, multiple award winner, and author of eight books--several of which have appeared on The New York Times’ Notable Books of the Year lists, manages to remain so unknown. The Independent refers to him as “a cult figure--a ‘writer’s writer.’”
But Woodrell’s residency out beyond the literary limelight might (and I repeat, might) be coming to an end, thanks to the fact that his latest novel, Winter’s Bone (Little, Brown), is receiving so much publicity on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a short (208 pages), solidly packed yarn about a dysfunctional Ozarks criminal clan, the only halfway-responsible member of which seems to be 16-year-old Ree Dolly, who’s been caring for her younger brothers and mentally ill mother, and now must find her bail-jumping father before their family home is repossessed. In its review of Winter’s Bone, the London Observer cheered the work’s overall plot, as well as the author’s ability to make his backwoods characters speak in an American English that “seem[s] aeons old.” “Everything about Ree’s quest is utterly compelling; everything evoked about the landscape and its people convinces completely,” wrote critic Niall Griffiths. Like several of this novelist’s previous books, Winter’s Bone can’t be classified as a conventional crime story, but it incorporates crime and larcenous losers in a way that satisfies the expectations of this genre. (Under the Bright Lights, Woodrell’s 1986 book, more obviously fits the “crime fiction” label.)
Woodrell, who grew up reading both Mark Twain and Nelson Algren (“because his paperbacks had sexy covers”), and who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to prove to himself, if no one else, that he knew what he was doing as an author, seemed remarkably modest in his conversation with NPR’s Simon. He read sections from Winter’s Bone, talked about the difficulty of being a “full-tilt freelancer,” and spoke of his debt to Taiwanese film director Ang Lee, who turned Woodrell’s 1987 novel, Woe to Live On, into the 1999 feature film Ride with the Devil, starring Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, and singer Jewel Kilcher. “It helped me a lot,” Woodrell said of the movie. “Part of it was just simply the respect that Ang Lee and [screenwriter] James Schamus and the other people associated with that film showed to the book, and to me. I mean, that increased my sense of myself, actually. And then there was the financial angle, [which] really took the wolves away from the door for a few years, which helped a lot.”
To listen to the full Woodrell interview and read an excerpt from Winter’s Bone, just click here.
READ MORE: “Novelist Emerges from Cult Status Writing About Underbelly of Ozarks,” by Jane Henderson (St. Louis Post-Dispatch); “Ozarks Inspire a Native Son,” by John Freeman (Dallas Morning News).