Daniel Woodrell's harrowing tales of Ozark life

Daniel Woodrell
Daniel Woodrell has created a career out of writing lean stories about the people he knows from living in the Ozarks. However it's only since his novel "Winter's Bone" became a movie that he has become well known to many readers.
Image courtesy Little Brown (photo:Bruce Carr

Fans of author Daniel Woodrell have snapped up his books for years. But it was when his novel "Winter's Bone" became an Oscar nominated movie that many people became aware of his work. He's one of the featured authors at this weekend's Twin Cities Book Festival.

Woodrell writes compellingly disturbing stories about people who live on the edge, deep in the Ozarks. "Winter's Bone" is a classic example: the story of Ree Dolly, a teenager whose drug-cooking father has disappeared, leaving her to care for her mentally ill mother and her much younger brother and sister.

A visiting sheriff then tells her that her father has put up their house and land as surety on a bail bond.

"If he doesn't show at trial, see, the way the deal works is, you all are going to lose this place," the sheriff said.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is Member supported public media. Show your support today, donate, and ensure access to local news and in-depth conversations for everyone.

"You got some place to go?" he asks.

"I'll find him," says Ree.

"Girl, I've been looking..." the officer responds.

"I said, I'll find him," Ree cuts him off.

"(Ree) is far and away probably the most admirable, overall admirable, characters that I have done in recent books anyway," Woodrell said. "She's not flawless, but she has a number of virtues that most people admire."

Woodrell lives in the Ozark Mountains and writes about the people around him. They are stories of hard-scrabble, often solitary lives, suspicions of outsiders, and an ever-present threat of violence. You can add moonshine and meth to the mix too. Woodrell said his stories are usually sparked by something he's seen, although rarely by specific people.

"However I think all the characters I write exist somewhere," he said.

There is a menace woven into Daniel Woodrell's work that is hard to escape. His family has lived in the Ozarks for generations. It's possible to avoid trouble as long, as Woodrell puts it, you aren't engaged in the things that lead to trouble.

"It does exist, and I am aware of it," he said. "And there is a certain feeling sometimes when you are far away from anyone else, and you encounter people on a trail or at some remote crossroads and it always crosses your mind that you are pretty exposed way out there. I have never had anything horrible happen to me, but it crosses your mind."

Woodrell's huge talent lies in the way he takes that menace — and those people — to create stories which are hard to put down. He's a wizard with words. Take this opening sentence from his short story "Twin Forks."

"Morrow wondered if he might soon die because of a beautiful girl from his teens he'd never had the nerve to approach."

Woodrell said he's learned that sentence strikes a chord for many people.

"I don't know if I have ever had this conversation with anyone who didn't find some memory that was close enough," he said.

"Twin Forks is in "The Outlaw Club," a collection of short stories he's bringing the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis on Saturday. It's about a Nebraskan man, Morrow, who moves to the Ozarks to run a campground and a store, and maybe escape his past. He soon discovers the locals are different from what he's used to.

"A few of these customers lingered to chat, but most said all they had to say with a slow nod 'hello' on the way in, and a jerk of the chin on the way out. There were some he did not want to linger, squint-faced men with cursive tattoos garbled in shades of blue, who cleaned his shelves of Sudafed and red matchsticks, then returned in a few days hoping to buy more of the same. Royce, who seemed slow in offering helpful advice to an outsider, finally said, "Mr. Morrow, them fellas is buyin' all that so they can drive over the hill there and hide somewhere to cook up drugs. The red part from the matches and grains from them pills both help make the recipe."

"There's so much I don't know."

"That's lesson one."

Woodrell prides himself on writing and editing his sentences until they are as lean as possible. In return, he asks readers to read carefully. He'll be doing that when he make his selections from "The Outlaw Club" this weekend.

"I'm going to probably not read the short story about killing the opinionated foreigner from Minnesota," he laughs.

Which is a shame, because it's the first story in the book and a good one.