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Follow the Character: Author Daniel Woodrell, April 15 at Augustana College - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 08 April 2010 08:59

Demystifying Writers

Woodrell knew at an early age that he wanted to be a writer, and he also escaped from Missouri as soon as he could, joining the Marines and serving in 1970 and 1971.

"I went in the week I turned 17," he said. "I was a bored kid losing focus on school. It's a fairly common thing historically in my family to run away to the military as soon as you can. ... I think I was just looking for some adventure." (His adventure included Guam but not Vietnam.)

Ree aspires to join the Army, and both the protagonist and the intruder of the story "Night Stand" are veterans. Woodrell's next book -- which he said he expects to finish this year -- will draw heavily from his experience in the Marines, although it's not about war. "Those years were pretty important to me, and they echo a lot," he said. "And I see elements of those days in our present days."

Woodrell said that when he joined the Marines, he still wanted to be a writer, although he didn't see a path in front of him. "I didn't know any writers to speak to until I was in the second half of my 20s," he said. "It didn't really seem plausible, but still the dream was alive. And ... I did think that the Marines would be a good place to get an accelerated experience. ... I thought I'd just learn a lot about life in a hurry."

In his late 20s, he was working toward a master's degree in English when a faculty member pushed him to pursue his interest in writing fiction, suggesting the famed Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. It was the only program to which he applied, and he was accepted.

The obvious value of the program was being forced to write a lot, but Woodrell said another was reading the work of authors he wouldn't have otherwise encountered until later in life, if at all.

And it gave him access to a faculty that included Barry Hannah, Paule Marshall, James Alan McPherson, Bharati Mukherjee, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz. "It demystified writers to me a lot," Woodrell said. "Because I hadn't been around many, I had perhaps a bit of a hero-worship thing going. It made these figures just human to you, and you then began to then have more confidence that perhaps you could do a lot of what they had done."

(The University of Iowa also gave Woodrell his first exposure to roots musicians Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey; he's still a fan of both.)

Woodrell said he never intended to write about the Ozarks -- he moved to California aiming to write a "sophisticated novel" -- but his last four books have been set in the country of his birth.

He said that series -- which began with 1996's Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir, published the year after Woodrell moved back to Missouri -- has come to an end. "I ... felt like Winter's Bone kind of emptied the bucket," he said. "I just didn't see anything I could do that would improve upon what it had to say."

Although Winter's Bone is certainly dark, Woodrell is uncomfortable with the "country noir" label that he stuck on himself with Give Us a Kiss. "I used it kind of half-facetiously ... ," he said. "It's one of those 'Don't make that joke; it might stick' [things]. ...

"I don't consider myself one [a genre writer], but I get tired of arguing about it. 'Who else is in it [the genre] with me?' is what I always ask."

The genre tag fosters laziness in readers, writers, and critics, he said. "People think they know what you would have to say without looking to see what you've said," he said. "If I were a part of a genre, it would be a relief, because then you'd know what you're supposed to do with every book."

And Winter's Bone, he said, doesn't obey the rules of noir, particularly in the ending. Woodrell said he toyed with a downbeat closing, but he finally decided that Ree deserved better. "I really felt Ree Dolly was a character who had shown so many good personal characteristics, as well as drive and stamina and everything else, that it would be a false imposition to put some horribly dark finish on it," he said. "It didn't feel real to me. ... I'm not bashful about going into the dark spots; it just didn't feel right. This one felt more honest. ... That kind of thing in life often does earn you at least a brief respite."

Daniel Woodrell will read from his work -- primarily Winter's Bone -- at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, as part of the River Readings at Augustana. The event will be held in Wallenberg Hall in the Denkmann Memorial Hall (3520 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island).

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