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"Even a lot of realtors will tell you, 'Don't buy out here,'" says Woodrell.
The writer provides a tour of the area from behind the wheel of his Ford Taurus, whizzing past down-at-the heel dwellings without stopping. With a smile, he recalls the time he spent helping a group of Hollywood producers scout locations for an upcoming film based on Winter's Bone. They approached a Collinsville resident who, as Woodrell tells it, appeared stoned to the gills.
"He fired two shots in the air," remembers Woodrell. "And his wife came out and said, 'You know, he's getting upset with y'all.' I think it was a .22. It makes a nice pop. You get the message."
Woodrell is asked constantly by journalists why he doesn't head for, say, New York City, where he might find more intellectual companionship.
"I've lived in circumstances surrounded by artists and writers," he explains, "and it's kinda good, but I don't like sitting around talking about the business all the time, or complaining about someone who's had a hit. Writers are pretty big crybabies. What really captivated me is a biography of Cézanne who, like me, was not much of a social butterfly: 'I don't have to hang around Paris. I'm going to go back and hear my own thoughts, and do my thing.' And I took that to heart."
Woodrell couldn't be more removed from the elitist atmosphere he encountered in graduate school at the University of Iowa. "There's a whole lot of sucking and fucking to get ahead in the writing racket up there," he says. "I came out very angry. The truth is, I found the morality of the place repugnant."
During his first year, Woodrell ranked at the bottom of the class, he says, and one of the school's chief administrators asked him to leave. "He said I was fat and arrogant and was unfit to be put in front of a classroom. I wasn't really fat, either."
Leaving his professors' deconstructionist ideas about literature behind, he adopted crime as a plot vehicle while populating his novels with impoverished, down-on-their-luck Ozarkers as central characters. The realism of his taut prose is informed by the near-poverty he experienced much of his life.
"Writing about poor people or the left out, overlooked people has been my calling, whenever I don't indulge in fantasies of being some other sort of more conventionally acceptable writer," says Woodrell. "My juice only flows with the qualities I want when I do as I am 'called' to do. It's a deep and true thing."
A few miles south of West Plains, Woodrell's English ancestors lie six feet beneath the reddish earth at Home Land Cemetery. They arrived in the Arkansas Ozarks by way of Kentucky and Tennessee before the Civil War and came to West Plains not too much later perhaps, Woodrell speculates, lured by free homesteads.
Decaying flowers litter the graveyard, where an entire wing is devoted to the Woodrells. Some of the faded tombstones spell the family name with one 'L,' others with two. As Woodrell trudges from one plot to the next, he ticks off what led them here: "Alcoholic. Alcoholic. Alcoholic. Alcoholic."
His family's tragic history once filled him with dread about his own future. "One of the reasons I wasn't sure that I wanted to live here is I know all my family stories, and a lot of them are sad, man," Woodrell says. "People just didn't really get to find what they really wanted to find, because circumstances didn't allow much deviation. I know it's brightened up, people may not feel that way, but emotionally I sometimes get that feeling of the hardscrabble past and all of that."
His paternal grandmother was an illiterate maid whose dipsomaniac husband abandoned the family. Woodrell's father, a functioning alcoholic who died in 1993, moved his family to St. Charles when Woodrell was a year old to take a job as a metal salesman and attend night school.
"I remember waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and he's sitting there with his cans of beer doing his homework from Washington U. until two in the morning," recalls Woodrell. "Then he gets up and drives to St. Louis to sell metal all day. Comes home, has a few drinks and a bite, goes to night school. I couldn't do it."
As a child Woodrell couldn't digest food properly and nearly died from intestinal problems. The condition kept him indoors, giving him ample time to read the Mark Twain books his mother insisted upon. Later, he discovered Nelson Algren he was lured by the books' "sexy covers," he says. He credits St. Charles' public schools for igniting his literary ambitions. "I don't wanna knock [the Ozarks], but the emphasis on education here is not the same as in those old German towns you got around St. Louis."
Woodrell remembers St. Charles' pre-casino, pre-sprawl days fondly, despite its notorious clans of riverside bums and his family's lean times. "I found my mom's diary once when I was an adult from those years. She was just constantly worrying about shoes and all that stuff. 'Kids need shoes, school's gonna start in a month. We got nuthin'."