Daniel Woodrell on The Maid’s Version, Small Town Tensions, and the Success of Winter’s Bone

In his new novel, The Maid’s Version, Daniel Woodrell again visits West Table, Missouri, the fictional Ozark town where many of his previous novels–Give Us a Kiss, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister, and Winter’s Bone–also take place.

But unlike the meth-infused, petty crime culture of Woodrell’s other novels, The Maid’s Version mostly takes place in a West Table of an earlier time, in the aftermath of a late 1920s town tragedy. Still, while the era and cultural backdrop may differ some from books set in the present day, the simmering small town tensions that Woodrell so artfully explores in all of his books are on full display in this taut, powerfully-told novel, Woodrell’s ninth.

The Maid’s Version was inspired by a real event, an explosion in a West Plains, Mo., dance hall in 1928 that killed dozens of the town’s most promising young citizens. The story of the explosion, and the unsolved mystery and whispers of how it happened, has always been a part of his own family story. As he explains in our Bibliostar.TV interview, Woodrell explains how his own grandmother is the inspiration for the maid at the center of the story. “She passed her suspicious along, and I eventually turned it into fiction and quit doing research and let my imagination fill in the blank spaces.”

Woodrell’s books are frequently short narratives, in the range of 200 pages or so, told in sparing, beautiful prose. The Maid’s Version, like earlier works, adheres to the compact style Woodrell fans have come to recognize. “I really like compressed prose and tight storytelling as a rule,” Woodrell said. “I love Jim Harrison’s novellas and other guys who do pure novellas, 80 or 90 pages. I really enjoy reading them. I don’t know how publishers feel about it, but I really love the tight, short-length novel, between 150-250 pages. I realize many of my favorite books end up being about that length. I’ve talked to a number of other writers, Ron Rash and others, we’ve had this conversation. I just like short, quick-hitting things.”

Woodrell’s writing frequently draws comparisons to Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and even Hemingway and Faulkner. While Woodrell himself would likely shy from such talk, this passage from The Maid’s Version, with Woodrell describing the horrifying moment of the dance hall explosion, provides a good reason for those lofty literary comparisons:

“Walls shook and shuddered for a mile around and the boom was heard faintly in the next county south and painfully by everyone inside the town limits. Citizens came out their doors, stunned, alarmed to stillness, then began to sprint, trot, stagger in flailing and confused strides toward this new jumping light that ate into the night.

A near portion of the sky founted an orange brilliance in a risen tower, heat bellowing as flames freshened in the breeze and grew, the tower of orange tilting, tossing about, and the sounds of dancers let loose began to reach distant ears as anonymous wails and torture those nearby with their clarity of expression.”

For years, reviews of Woodrell novels inevitably included terms such as “criminally underrated,” or “under the radar.” But now, with the critical and commercial success of Winter’s Bone (1996) and the subsequent Oscar-nominated film directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woodrell is finally gaining readers and national attention as one of America’s finest living novelists. As Woodrell explains though, even with the initial success of Winter’s Bone, he still wasn’t so sure: “After Winter’s Bone the book, before the movie came out, I was aware that things seemed to be going better but not really convinced of it, you know, so I didn’t really see the difference in my circumstances until the movie came out and then began to do well.”

Besides West Table, Woodrell has set some of his novels in New Orleans, a town which shares some of the hardscrabble characteristics of the Ozarks. A collection of Woodrell novellas from the late 1980s and 90s was re-released last year as a single volume, The Bayou Trilogy, featuring the uncompromising detective Rene Shade navigating the unscrupulous New Orleans underworld. Woodrell has also released a number of short stories, which eventually find their way to readers after an appropriate period of incubation.

“I keep a notebook,” Woodrell said. “I’ve been at this enough now that I sort of sense if something is ripe or not. I mean I’m not always on the money, but a lot of times I know this thing hasn’t germinated enough but I will open my notebook and add something else I’ve thought that might fit and then eventually I’ll realize that it’s kind of now or never. These things do have a season when they need to be written, too, in my experience. You need to do it then–the same thing with novels–you need to do it when it’s ready.”

Related Video

Winter’s Bone Trailer

Recorded at Book Expo America, New York, 2013.



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