The Dickens of the Ozarks talks jazz, how his first book was published, and what he always carries with him. His latest novel, the first since 2006’s Winter’s Bone, is The Maid’s Version, about a deadly dance-hall fire in 1929 Missouri and the maid who thinks she knows what caused it.
Missouri, mostly, with 18 months between ages 15 and 17 spent a mile or three into Kansas. Born in the Ozarks, but dad had to go north to find a good job, so I went to school and all in St. Charles, a great old river town in which to be a rambunctious boy. My family has been resident in the Ozarks since well before the war (guess which war), about 1838 or so, but I am now the last member of my family living in Howell County.
Dropped out of high school at 16, not because I wasn’t a good student, just felt eager for some form of adventure, and high school didn’t provide any. I joined the Marines the week I turned 17, and that led to a few experiences that might qualify as adventure—eye of the beholder. Earned a bachelor’s at 27, then an M.F.A. that is still completely unused and in mint condition, never taken out of the box.
Most of the writers I interview are from Brooklyn, London, or Toronto. What do you like best about where you live?
I am well aware that the writers of New York, London, and Toronto are more readily noticed, though the shadowy and potent Ozarks Literary Cabal does what it can for me, then nightly joins me for dinner and calls me honey.
Describe your morning routine.
Get up at dawn or close to it, then do what needs to be done that day. Usually, it’s write fiction, but some days are all about research. I do feel that I have the world to myself at that hour.
You have a wonderful way of provoking in the reader a creeping dread, and I mean that as a compliment. From a writer’s perspective, is this something that you proactively seek to inject into your stories and novels, and if so is there a sort of recipe that you would recommend to other authors who admire the provocation of that sensation in your work?
Dread may be provoked because I don’t think about doing so, at all. I tell the story by feel, most of the time, and I am not much given to labyrinthian digressions, but seem to be naturally drawn to compression and pace, and the feelings come about on their own. Miles Davis once said (about ballads, I think) that starkness of presentation makes the romance all the more compelling. And there’s this from Thelonious Monk: “Just play the notes you really mean.”
The first page of The Maid’s Version has some haunting, incantatory prose. I was particularly struck with your use of some verbal repetitions: “She’s sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed.” This produces a sort of songlike, ghost-lit campfire storytelling effect. Is this a conscious authorial technique on your part, or do you just let it flow and see what appears?
That sound and rhythm are ingrained by now. I learned a lot from Hemingway, Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, the Bible, Dylan Thomas. All sorts of Irish writers: McGahern, O’Brien, O’Flaherty, Trevor, Bowen, Michael McLaverty, and a boatload more. And writers from the American South: Shirley Ann Grau, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, McCarthy, Barry Hannah, and have always had very strong feelings for anything James Agee wrote. Add A.J. Liebling, Raymond Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and the boys, Nelson Algren and William Kennedy. Rhythm, repetition, incantation—all good to me.
What was your initial reaction when you learned about Winter’s Bone being turned into a movie, and what were your thoughts on the film version?
I had had a movie made before then, directed by Ang Lee, and quite a few feckless options, so it was not my first whiff of the rodeo. I was fine with the film. The book was present, and I know the film was made under difficult circumstances—a very low budget and so on—and that it came out so well despite the hurdles seems a blessing.
What did having Winter’s Bone made into a film do for your career, and did it affect your writing?
I try not to let the movie biz as a business enter my mind when I’m writing fiction. I don’t write looking for movie deals, but of course the storytelling techniques of film do now and then suggest approaches that need to be considered. It would be unnatural if they didn’t come to mind. If somehow the hours could be counted, how many years have I by now spent watching movies? Probably not fully aware of just how deeply so much imagery has penetrated.
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