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How I Wrote It, with Daniel Woodrell— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

Daniel Woodrell by Kate EstillIn 1928, an explosion ripped through a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, sending bodies into the night air. Others were trapped inside as the building burned to the ground. Dozens were killed.

Daniel Woodrell remembers hearing that story a lot growing up – that and the possibility that one of his relatives worked for someone who may have been mysteriously involved. There were whispers and rumors, but the truth was "never satisfactorily explained," he said. All he knew for sure was: "No accident. It was no accident."

Woodrell tried for years to write about the incident and, in doing so, to write a sprawling story about the community and the families affected by the fire. But the story always felt flabby and unfocused. It wasn’t until he decided to tell it from the point of view of the maid (a very fictionalized version of his grandmother), that he was finally able to find his story. The other key was to stop trying to find the truth and to let the fiction take over.

Though he's never been comfortable with autobiographical fiction, this is nonetheless Woodrell's most personal book, based closely on real people and real events, the writing of which was "tricky."

The Maid’s Version will be available September 3, 2013.


WoodrellAfter years of collecting tidbits of the story, he eventually quit trying to research the precise details – what was the price of beans that year? – and decided to "run with it."

"After a while I quit asking questions and just let myself develop it and let my imagination take over," he said. And once he started writing, "I didn't want to know too much. I knew enough to take it and run with it ... I wanted to be free to invent. I wanted to make my own characters. It's not a roman a clef."


Woodrell works in an enclosed back porch, surrounded by built-in bookshelves and way too many books: "Lots and lots of books." There's a window in front of him, but he keeps it covered up; the trees outside are too tempting and distracting. While writing The Maid’s Version, he kept a copy of an old newspaper article about the dance hall explosion nearby at all times.


He used to write his novels (this is his ninth) in longhand on a legal pad. Now he'll start sketching out his narrative on paper, but the real writing occurs on the computer. I asked him about his computer and whether he uses any specific software to write, but no… "whatever my wife puts in for me."


Though he's got a ken for Irish writers - he mentioned Kevin Barry’s great forthcoming collection, Dark Lies the Island, Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting, and Claire Keegan – when he needs to prime the pump his hand usually reaches for Faulkner, his go-to source of words that “gets me thinking in terms of words and fiction." He can also read a few pages of Hemingway or James Agee to "get my ear pitched to words."


Coffee in the morning, and a requisite exercise session after he’s done writing for the day. (A walk, some weights and stretching.) Like the best writers, he starts at dawn and writes until he can't.


None. Not while writing, anyway. If he's just sketching ideas and "doodling," he can listen to some jazz or classical. But never anything with words - "lyrics seem to drag me into their thing instead of my thing." Similarly, he can’t linger on Faulkner or James Salter or Cormac McCarthy, or else he'll end up sounding too much like them. (He once described trees an "indominable" and his wife – the novelist Katie Estill, his first reader – told him, "Indominable? You gotta lay off the Faulkner for a while.")


Though the book took about a year to write, there was at least a year before that during which Woodrell headed down "wrong paths" and ended up discarding many thousands of words. "Not much from those early versions survived. Maybe ten pages." he said. "I mourn the fact that I've been doing it this long and can still get down the wrong path and be too stubborn to concede it early."

Then again, he knows... "It's not really wasted. It taught you what you had to do to find the right way."

Looking back...

Woodrell said he feels relieved that after years of considering this story he found a way to explore and portray a family and a community not unlike his own. Along the way, he realized that people are shaped as much by unresolved events (like the dance hall explosion) as by events that are easier to explain and understand. "Some things," he said, "just need to stay unresolved."


This book opened him up to some new ideas. For now, he'll be exploring those ideas in short stories.

Learn more about The Maid’s Version and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

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