Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Literary Ruralism (Part IV): Daniel Woodrell on small-town crime, and how it plays out in his new novel

Ellah Allfrey offered a rhapsodic review of Daniel Woodrell's new book, The Maid's Version yesterday on NPR.  Allfrey writes:
Woodrell sets the story in his beloved Missouri Ozarks, and he writes with clear-eyed observation, introducing the reader to characters whose lives are shaped as much by their rural landscape as by the moral ambiguities — the collective lies, constraints and collusions — that form the necessary glue holding their community together.
If Woodrell's name sounds familiar, it's probably because you saw or heard a lot about the 2010 film Winter's Bone, which was based on Woodrell's 2006 novel by the same name.

A few days before NPR aired the review of the new book, Lynn Neary of NPR interviewed Woodrell.  It notes that Woodrell and his wife moved to West Plains, Missouri, where both sides of his family were from, about 20 years ago. Woodrell's father had moved away, but as a boy, Woodrell had often visited his grandparents in West Plains.  Neary reports that this book moves Woodrell
into more personal territory with the fictional retelling of a tragedy that hit the town hard back in 1928. An explosion and fire at a dance hall left a good portion of the town's young people dead or injured. There was an official investigation, but authorities never pinned down a cause. Rumors were rampant and echoed down the decades.
This excerpt from the Woodrell interview highlights, among other things, the lack of anonymity that marks rural communities and how that feature relates to the nature of crime in those places.  Woodrell explains:
One of the interesting things about the Ozarks is you just about don't have street crime.  It's strictly between people who know each other. It really isn't indiscriminate; it's kind of between themselves. 
Of the historical event that inspired the new book, Woodrell says:   
There were several gossipy possibilities of some kind of romance involved and a couple of things about people who were having business failures and these kinds of things.  There were rumors of seeing people running away. All these stories reached me.
Back to Neary:
Woodrell's grandmother and mother had their own firm ideas of what really happened the night of the fire, and some of those opinions made their way into the book. And because the disaster involved almost everyone in town, it gave Woodrell a way to write about the class boundaries that defined life in West Plains.
Of finding his voice in West Plains, Woodrell says:
I just thought, no, I don't see how this is going to work being a writer in the Ozarks, but once I got over that, I realized I felt more kind of confidence to the stories I would tell about this region — as well as interest in the stories than I really did anywhere else.
 Reviews of The Maid's Version are available in USA Today here and in the Chicago Tribune here.

A review of Woodrell's 2011 short story collection, The Outlaw Album, is here.

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