An Active Pursuit: Mesha Maren interviews Daniel Woodrell on Writing, Story, and His Novel The Maid’s Version

May 3, 2014   •   By Mesha Maren

DANIEL WOODRELL'S LATEST NOVEL, The Maid’s Version, centers around Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a maid in a wealthy man’s household in small-town Missouri. When her sister is killed in a mysterious, tragic explosion at the town’s dance hall, Alma’s family, friends, and entire community are thrown into a frenzy of rumor and speculation. Narrated by her grandson, Alek, who recounts the tales of his grandmother, The Maid’s Version is able to tell a community’s history in stunning second-, third-, and even fourth-hand recollection.

— EH


MESHA MAREN: I am curious about some of your structural and mechanical choices in The Maid’s Version. The novel is written in a series of fairly short chapters (a few as brief as two pages) that shift all over the place in time, point of view, and sometimes even tense. Can you talk about these stylistic choices and how you see them working within the novel?

DANIEL WOODRELL: I like fiction that makes reading a less passive pursuit, that forces you to participate, to put things together as you read. I also admire brevity (Hemingway, Chekhov, Kawabata, Rhys, Babel, and on), and hard shards of tight prose and clean glimpses, doors that barely open, trails that just end. Many of life’s unforgettable instants originated in a mere glimpse, an overheard snatch of conversation, and life is full of trails that don’t go anywhere but were worth taking. Max Frisch said, “It’s precisely the disappointing stories, which have no proper ending and therefore no proper meaning, that sound true to life.”

The many angles of narration in The Maid’s Version are a rough approximation of the base principle of Cubism — one thing seen from several angles, and each view slightly changes our understanding of the object. The white spaces create energy.

I have admired propulsive, lyric, and pungent prose (Faulkner, Kennedy, Márquez, Toni Morrison, Agee) as much as I admire brevity (“I would’ve written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time”), so my ideal has been lyricism that doesn’t dawdle. Though, at this stage of my writing life, I am more and more drawn to an honest compression, perhaps severe compression, and austerity and stoicism in the presentation. Prose that coolly swims you out to the deep blue water before you even realize you’ve gotten wet.

Miles Davis said resistance to emotion enhances the romance, and Thelonious Monk said, “Just play the notes you really mean.” Both comments (and both musicians) are exactly to my taste.

I’m interested in your use of surnames in The Maid’s Version. I know from personal experience that specific names can carry a lot of weight, especially in small towns, and you bring this theme into the book pretty early on when you have the grandmother Alma instruct her grandson to “thrash” any kid he comes across who has the name Prater. Throughout the text, names continue to play important roles as markers of class distinctions and as ways to obliterate past identities. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the maid in The Maid’s Version actually has two names that come from your own family tree, and that you have attempted to avoid known characters in writing this novel. Can you talk a little about your choice and use of surnames?

There are surnames that when heard make me alert — often these are names associated with friction or scandal from two generations before I was born. A common question is, “Who are your people?” This often requires a narration that goes back to the Civil War, though some surnames explain everything at first mention so the question needn’t be asked at all. Both respected surnames and notorious ones are generally recognized and the ramifications understood straightaway.

I like to use names for characters that anchor my feelings. They don’t have to be names previously known to me, but they must somehow resonate. The Dunahews in this novel are quite close in most details to my own family on my father’s side and our history.

I gather that the main event in The Maid’s Version is based on a real historical occurrence in West Plains, Missouri, and the version the maid tells in the novel is actually the one your own grandmother told. How did these facts and rumors affect your writing of this fiction? Was it different than writing your other novels and stories?

There was a true event, but not the same year as the novel, and the dance hall didn’t have the same name. My grandma didn’t say everything on this subject, she gave me plenty to go on. Extra details were added by many relatives and other townspeople over the years, not to mention input from the imagination. I did not want the characters to closely resemble known figures from the time of the true blast, other than the Dunahews. This is fiction, and it’s told the way Alek absorbed it from his grandmother, though he plainly filled in the blanks where he felt that he could, often based on something she had guessed at and shared with him, too.

I intended the book to have the qualities of a hybrid in many ways, to have some of the tones of nonfiction while remaining fiction. One of my favorite books sort of does that — Forgotten News, by Jack Finney. I always take it for granted that the great A. J. Liebling added ingredients where necessary to make his pieces memorable. St. Clair McKelway and Joseph Mitchell might not have completely passed polygraph tests regarding the details and quotes they used. I am increasingly attracted to that blurring place.

The explosion was such that almost every family had some connection to it, through friendship or kinship. Hundreds ran to the fire to try to save those trapped in the flames, and they had memories and often injuries to carry for the rest of their lives. It was a tragedy shared town-wide, and I wanted that to be at the core. Sarah Hall, in The Guardian, called it a “communitarian” novel, and though that is a new phrase to me, it’s on the money.

You use objects and images to depict class distinctions in incredibly interesting ways throughout The Maid’s Version. The novel opens with Alma, the former maid, brushing her hair, which reaches to the floor and which necessitates an “extravagance of time” to comb and braid. Later in the book we learn that while working in the kitchen Alma was forced to keep her hair short, and that, after the death of her husband and sister, she refused to cut her hair. Similarly, the narrator notes that his father always wears dress shirts even though he is a working-class man in addition to being a university student. He seems to wear the shirts as a way of distinguishing himself from his background much as his mother refuses to cut her hair. Can you talk about your choice to have your characters don their life changes in this way?

Well, class is a fascinating subject to me. Dagoberto Gilb is very good on the topic, as are Dorothy Allison, David Storey, and Alan Sillitoe. I have strong feelings about it all but try to keep them in the shade, keep them to myself as far as direct public comments go. But I completely understand Alma and John Paul and the need to proclaim something about yourself beyond that which is expected from your class origins.

We all have some load to carry no matter what street we started from. I often turn to Chekhov, who said of the aristocrats Tolstoy and Turgenev, something like, I had to burn up my youth to get to where they started. Yet he admired both men greatly.

Many of the characters in The Maid’s Version have very close, personal relationships to the land. Several of the characters describe literally moving soil to improve their plots, stealing better, richer dirt, and the Dunahew family is said to have split up because they had “no ground to plant and share.” In what ways, both literal and figurative, does land play a role in your life and the lives of the people in your fiction?

The land represents a shared enterprise, the whole family pitching in to do what needs doing, pulling in a common direction, putting in those crops that will sustain their lives and doing the harvest together. I realize that for many folks the constraints of that way of life were unbearable, disagreeable and chafing, but the idea exerts huge appeal in retrospect to me and so many others; families seldom even live in the same states now, divided by hundreds of miles, sometimes by oceans. The hardships of the old days are known but glossed over by the thought of such closeness and communion, even if it’s mostly baloney, though I don’t know in my soul that it is.

I’m interested in the ways that gender plays out in The Maid’s Version. In an interview with The Daily Beast, you said that you are “increasingly interested in stories about men and masculinity and the immense struggle to hold on to decency as the years roll by.” I’m curious how this relates to the fact that many of the female characters in The Maid’s Version are, at least at first glance, much more likable and relatable than the men. Alma, Mrs. Glencross, and Alma and Ruby’s mother are all portrayed very sympathetically, and even wild Ruby chooses to stay with her dying brother-in-law while her lover flees. Meanwhile, the men are often cruel and drunk.

I said that about “men and masculinity” in regards to where I am intending to go next. Most of my adult life has been spent in the company of folks from the sticks who dream of becoming artists of one sort or the other, and survive somehow in East Lawrence, Kansas, or Eureka Springs, Arkansas, or Howell County, Missouri, and places similarly distant from the mainstream. I’d like to examine that.

I guess I am kind of easy on rascals, but I like Arthur Glencross and feel similarly about the drunken Buster. (I know drunks; I have since the crib. They vary in their flaws and virtues, and I don’t know anybody who isn’t upon close inspection revealed to be fucked-up somehow.) And I feel John Paul Dunahew is a very fine man indeed.

I guess the women seem to come off better. I often get asked if I consider myself a feminist and don’t know how to answer. To steal part of a lick from Barry Hannah, it’s all just arms and legs to me.

Memory and rumor play important roles in The Maid’s Version, quite a few of the chapters in the novel are retellings of the events surrounding the Arbor Dance Hall explosion. In a very Rashomon like way, these tales often conflict and overlap in odd ways. Nearly everyone in town seems to need to fit themselves into the narrative of the tragedy somehow. Can you talk about the character of “the town” and the ways you use conflicting voices, time, and memory in this novel?

I am fond of fiction that shifts about in time, and this novel seemed to fly best when put together that way. I tried to write it in a simple chronological shape, but it only sparked to life when I threw simple chronology out the window. I realize there are masses of readers who can’t hack time shifts, or be bothered to notice the names of characters so they’ll recognize them six pages later, but I gotta write it the way I feel it.


Mesha Maren is a fiction writer from southern West Virginia.