'Winter's Bone' Author Daniel Woodrell on His New Book and Jennifer Lawrence
Missouri author Daniel Woodrell was a relative unknown for much of his career--though he had a devoted following for his "country noir" crime novels set in the Ozarks, such as "Tomato Red" and "The Death of Sweet Mister"--until his eighth book, "Winter's Bone," was made into an Oscar-nominated film with a breakout role for Jennifer Lawrence as the tenacious Ree Dolly. Woodrell tells Bookish that his new book, "The Maid's Version"--his first novel since "Winter's Bone"--is "the closest to an autobiographical novel I've ever written." Woodrell spoke with Bookish about the inspirations for and challenges of his new book, and what it was like working with Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and director Debra Granik for "Winter's Bone" film adaptation.
Bookish: What are you most excited about regarding "The Maid's Version"?
Daniel Woodrell: This book was a change of pace for me: It had a wider swath of characters from more of a variety of backgrounds than some of my other books, and I very much enjoyed writing about a cast of characters who weren't all necessarily impoverished--some were and some weren't. I felt that I could give a truer picture of a community.
Bookish: Did you set out to write about people from a broader range of economic backgrounds, or did that evolve as you wrote?
DW: I realized that there was no way to tell [the story] without doing that. Originally, I was trying to do a deep thread with every walk of life and every chief character, and eventually I felt like it was losing its way. I put it away and came back and said, "No, it's the maid's version--just tell what the maid thinks." After that, it really took the shape it's in now.
Bookish: Which character was the most difficult to write?
DW: The maid herself, because she's deeply flawed--she has a couple of admirable qualities, but also some that are obsessive. I found that to be an interesting thing to deal with. And the father figure-- this is the closest to an autobiographical novel I've ever written. The maid and her son--the surviving son--are both deceased now, and good thing. [Laughs.] It's pretty close to my dad and my grandma.
Bookish: Describe the moment you knew that this would be your next novel.
DW: I actually thought I was working on something else. This happens to me all the time: I think I'm working on one thing, but this other thing, whether I want it to or not, keeps coming through. "Winter's Bone," same way--I did not set out to write that. I thought I was doing something very different, and it just began to grab my interest more deeply than what I was working on.
Bookish: What would have been different about "Winter's Bone," had you stuck to the original plan?
DW: Well, [it would be in] remainder bins, I think. [Laughs.] No, it was quite different. [The main character] was older, in her 30s, and her husband was a truck driver. It was only vaguely like the shape it ended up taking. And I knew I didn't like it. I got a certain number of pages [in and I could] tell the chemistry wasn't happening, and then I put it aside. It's usually six months later--one night I'll get up and have an idea how to get it rolling.
Bookish: "The Maid's Version" is a historical novel. What are the challenges and benefits of writing historical fiction?
DW: I like the fact that you can have a longer view in relatively few pages. Some of the characters you get to see from their childhood all the way through adulthood, and even old age. I really enjoyed doing that. I wrote a Civil War novel, also. I do enough research to feel like I can wear the clothes and be there, but I don't insist on knowing every single little thing--this is how they made butter, or whatever. I really wanted a sense of the people of the time, and sometimes that's the bigger challenge. In fact, I was reading newspaper front pages from the 1930s, and I was taken aback. I'm not naïve about American history, but I was a bit knocked off my feet by things that used to be on the front pages of newspapers.
Bookish: What were some of the stories?
DW: They would go into greater detail about love-nest murders and things like that, but they would also rather casually cover race crimes and stuff. I saw one the other day, and I told my wife, "This is 1935, and it says, 'Black man allegedly slapped a white woman. Five men went over in broad daylight and killed him. No charges filed.'"
Bookish: How involved were you in the making of the movie "Winter's Bone"?
DW: Very little. [The filmmakers] came down and hung out and I introduced them to a few people, and then they began to do their own regional kind of soaking up the atmosphere and seeing things. I was ill--it was a 24-day shoot, and it just happened to be I was sick, so I didn't get to see much of the actual shooting. I went over for the party the night before shooting began, and they showed me the script, so I knew more or less what they were up to. But I really tried to stay out of their way.
Bookish: Did any of the actors ask you about your book?
DW: A number of them had read it and mentioned that to me. John Hawkes knew the book pretty well and he knew his character pretty well from the book, and although I wasn't on the set, I heard that he brought up things from the book that he thought might fit [in the movie]. Jennifer Lawrence said that her mother read the book when it was new and told her, "If they make this into a movie, I want you to get this part."
Bookish: That's amazing--and look at her now!
DW: Yes. Boy, that didn't take long. She actually was 17 or something [at the time of filming].
Bookish: Is that the age of the character in the novel?
DW: She's almost 17. So it was age-appropriate. And I knew that's one of the things [director] Debra Granik wanted--she didn't want a 27-year-old.
Bookish: What book have you been recommending recently--and over the course of your life, what book have you recommended the most often?
DW: Pete Orner's got a new book, and I read that one and I thought he's really doing something in this one--I was really quite taken with it. [Denis Johnson's] "Train Dreams" isn't new, but I did finally read it, and I dug that. Probably, in the course of my life, there were a couple of old cult classics that got lost in the shuffle--one by James Ross called "They Don't Dance Much" and another one by a writer named Robert Roper--I've tried twice to get publishers to reissue this. It's called "Royo County," from the early 1970s. I love that book. I can't get anybody interested because it's not really straight and it's not really crime, and he's not famous--but it's a pretty neat little book.
Bookish: Maybe the third time will be the charm….
DW: [Laughs.] Yes. There are almost too many good books. There's a Russian guy named Andreï Makine, somebody told me to read him and I picked him up. Now I've got like five of [his books] sitting there, because they were right.
Daniel Woodrell was born in the Missouri Ozarks. Five of his novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. "Tomato Red" won the PEN West Award for the Novel in 1999, and "The Death of Sweet Mister" received the 2011 Clifton Fadiman Medal from the Center for Fiction. His first collection of stories, "The Outlaw Album," was published in 2011. Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill, and "The Maid's Version" is his ninth novel.