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Take 5: Daniel Woodrell on his new book about an old tragedy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013 - On Friday, April 13, 1928, an explosion at a dance hall in West Plains, Mo., killed many of the town’s young people. No one was ever charged for causing the explosion, but questions and emotions that grew out of what happened that night still simmer.

In his new novel, “The Maid’s Version,” author Daniel Woodrell looks at those events through the eyes of a fictional maid, but also through the eyes of someone who has lived in the region for a good part of his life.

Woodrell, author of “Winter’s Bone,” which was made into an award-winning movie in 2010, will speak about his fictional take on the real tragedy at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30 at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters.

Woodrell, who lives in West Plains, spoke with the Beacon about life in the Ozarks, his previous novel’s star turn, and what readers can expect next.

Beacon: I’m also from Springfield, Mo., and spent a lot of time in the Ozarks growing up. When I visit, it feels different from other places I’ve lived, but I can’t quite say why. Obviously much of your work is set there, but when asked, how do you describe the Ozarks to people from other places?

Woodrell: Well the Ozarks aren't a mountain range exactly, but a plateau that had hollows and valleys cut by runoff from the ice age and so on. That's why all the sharp peaks you see in the distance are about the same height. Not great dirt in many or maybe most parts of the region, so growing is limited. It is a region that has been isolated for a long time, but that is fading fast. Good people, good neighbors, but some others are, as ever, present also.

Beacon: What impact does living there have on your writing? Is it easier to access the complexities, or do you find yourself getting so used to them that you don’t quite notice them anymore?

Woodrell: I have benefitted from living here as a writer, because the most telling details of a place are often absorbed from simply being there, listening, remembering. All of those things have given a certain richness to my understanding of the Ozarks that I couldn't get living at a remove.

Beacon: Your novel “Winter’s Bone” takes place in the Ozarks and was adapted into a film, winning top awards at Sundance in 2010 and nominated for several Oscars that year, too. What was it like to see the finished product?

Woodrell: I was happy with the film, and locals were happy to see themselves in it, too. It's always interesting to watch actors deliver so many lines you've written, to give them their own intonations and spin.

Beacon: Your new novel, “The Maid’s Version,” is based on a real tragedy that happened in West Plains, Mo., in 1928. I read in one interview that the dance hall explosion was pretty taboo for a while. How have people in town reacted to the book?

Woodrell: The explosion was never explained to the satisfaction of all, and it was just not a good idea to speculate about it in front of folks who lost loved ones and so on. I don't expect anybody to be upset by my fictional rendering of an event that was never quite solved.

Beacon: What are you working on next?

Woodrell: I never know for a fact that there will be a next.

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