SCOTT SIMON, host:
Daniel Woodrell has been called the Raymond Chandler of the Ozarks. He writes novels that he himself describes as Country Noir, crimes stories that are avocations of places, people, and moments distilled into hard pure prose that's a pleasure to read and quote.
Daniel Woodrell's latest novel is called Winter's Bone. It tells the story of a 16-year-old, Ree Dolly, who wants to leave her home in the Ozarks and join the Army, but then her father skips bail. A home she shares with her little brothers hangs in the balance, and Ree Dolly has to undertake a journey to the underside of her own family to save those who are closest to her.
Daniel Woodrell joins us from the studios of KSMU in Springfield, Missouri.
Thank you so much for being with us.
Mr. DANIEL WOODRELL (Author): Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And I want to give some idea about the prose that everybody raves about. Could you read us a section in which you just describe Ree Dolly swinging an ax?
Mr. WOODRELL: I'd be glad to.
The snow fell first in hard little bits, frosty white bits blown sideways to pelt Ree's face as she raised the ax, swung down, raised it again, splitting wood while being stung by cold flung from the sky. Bits worked inside her neckline and melted against her chest. Ree's hair was shoulder length and full with ungovernable loose curls from temples to neck, and snow bits gathered in the tangle.
Her overcoat was an implacable black and had been Mamaw's, grim old wool battered by decades of howling winter and summer moths. The buttonless coat fell past her knees, below her dress, but draped open and did not hamper her chopping strokes. Her swings were practiced and powerful, short potent whacks. Splinters flew, wood split, the pile grew.
Ree's nose ran and the blood came up in her face and (unintelligible) pink on her cheeks. She pinched two fingers high on her nose, snorted a splat to the ground, dragged a sleeve across her face, swung the ax again.
SIMON: For Ree to locate her father, she has to go through family members and history that you really do get the impression that, you know, there's some things that you would like to just let stay under the rocks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOODRELL: Mm-hmm.
SIMON: But sometimes that's just not possible. What makes Ree decide that she has to do this?
Mr. WOODRELL: Someone once described her to me as an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. So once she's decided to fend for her little brothers, particularly, gives her a focus, a reason. She doesn't hate it as much as she sometimes sounds like she does.
SIMON: She's got the wonderful line. What is it she says? I'd get lost without the weight of you two on my back.
Mr. WOODRELL: That's right. She comes to realize she actually feels that way, yes.
SIMON: Can we talk a bit about your life before we get back into the book?
Mr. WOODRELL: Sure.
SIMON: May I ask how old are you?
Mr. WOODRELL: Fifty-three.
SIMON: You dropped out of high school, joined the Marines...
Mr. WOODRELL: Mm-hmm, yes.
SIMON: ...as I understand it, and then went to the University of Kansas. Looking back on it, how does a 17, 18-year-old kid in the Marines decide that what he really wants to do is be a writer?
Mr. WOODRELL: I knew my dream would be to be a writer before then, but it did not seem reasonable. When I got around 23, I started to really force myself to read out of the range I'd been reading before, and started experiencing other kinds of world literature, and so forth, that I hadn't been exposed to. And that's when I really just fell in love with the idea of being a writer.
SIMON: Hmm. What did you grow up reading?
Mr. WOODRELL: Twain and so forth would have been the literary figures I was introduced to. And by my own, I stumbled across Nelson Algren, because his paperbacks had sexy covers and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOODRELL: ...I thought they looked like exciting crime yarn. So...
SIMON: They did have a kind of...
Mr. WOODRELL: ...it was by accident.
SIMON: ...pulp fiction covers, didn't they?
Mr. WOODRELL: They did.
Mr. WOODRELL: Some of them, yes.
Mr. WOODRELL: And it worked. I mean it got me to try them.
SIMON: Hmm. What put this character of this dauntless 16-year-old girl, Ree, in your mind?
Mr. WOODRELL: So often I go to the store and there'll be a woman that, frankly, looks too young to be out on her own yet. And she's already got a couple of kids. And I wonder how they get by and so forth. And I just began to think about what would it take for someone to actually be able to handle that and continue to try to push forward with whatever means she could come up with.
SIMON: Her father skipped bail on the charge of cooking crystal meth. There's just a wonderful short history of her father that I'd like to get you to read, if we could, where she begins by exclaiming.
Mr. WOODRELL: Dad could be anywhere! Dad might think he had reasons to be most anywhere or do most anything, even if the reason seems ridiculous in the morning.
One night, when Ree was still a bantling, dad had gotten crossways with Buster Leroy Dolly and been shot in the chest, clear out by Twin Forks River. He was electric on crank, thrilled to have been shot, and instead of driving to a doctor, he drove 30 miles to Westable(ph) and the Tiny Spot Tavern to show his assembled buddies the glamorous bullet hole and the blood bubbling. He collapsed grinning and the drunks carried him to the town hospital and nobody thought he'd live to seen noon, until he did.
Dad was tough enough but not much on planning. At 18, he left the Ozarks planning to work for big dough on the oilrigs of Louisiana, but ended up boxing Mexicans for peanuts in Texas. He slugged them. They slugged him. Everybody bled, nobody got rich. Three years later, he came back to the valley with nothing to show for his adventure but new scars ragged around both eyes and a few stories men chuckled at for a while. Dad could be anywhere with anybody.
SIMON: You - this is your eight novel, as we noted, and you've been having increasing success between Pen fiction awards and crime fiction awards. One of your books, Woe to Live On, was made into a movie by Ang Lee, the movie called Ride With the Devil. Does that give you the wherewithal to keep writing novels?
Mr. WOODRELL: It helped me a lot. Part of it was just simply the respect that Ang Lee and James Shamus, and 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 that really took the wolves away from the door for a few years, which helped a lot.
SIMON: I didn't notice that you're teaching.
Mr. WOODRELL: I've never taught. Full tilt freelancer, no apologies, no regrets. So...
SIMON: And may I ask what's that like if you're not John Grisham or Scott Turow?
Mr. WOODRELL: You have to be willing to live with whatever economic level you can get by with at the time. For many, many years it was really, really lean, but I thought that might be what would give me a chance, was I would be willing to live in a manner that most people I know wouldn't.
SIMON: You've served time - let me put that way - at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
Mr. WOODRELL: Yeah. It was very important to me to go there. Psychologically hugely important to me to be there to find out if, in fact, you were capable of keeping up. And I found out I could and that was important to know.
SIMON: Did you stand out because of the kind of practical experience in life that you had?
Mr. WOODRELL: I felt like I did. I felt like there were two or three of us that sort of knew the same side of the world. For some reason, writing about poor people or desperate people, I just felt - and still feel - that that's what I'm meant to do.
SIMON: Mr. Woodrell, nice talking to you.
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, thank you.
SIMON: Daniel Woodrell speaking with us from Springfield, Missouri. His new novel is Winter's Bone. And you can read an excerpt of Daniel Woodrell's fine book on our website, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.