“Tomato Red” & Woodrell on Writing

I’ve lost my direction. There’s no more stories for me to tell.

In recent months I’ve felt this way, like my reservoir for ideas has dried up and the concrete that once held water is now cracked. Weeds grow through the cracks and useless debris clutters the area. It’s a dead space in my brain that’s been neglected. I haven’t wanted to fix it. Instead, I’ve wanted to turn my back on the dusty old reservoir and walk away, but then I read Daniel Woodrell’s 1998 novel, Tomato Red and water is beginning to seep back through the cracks.

Tomato Red Woodrell is best known for his novel, Winter’s Bone, a murder mystery about a teenage girl in search of her father who she presumes is dead. It was adapted into a film starring a young Jennifer Lawrence and even presents a cameo appearance of Woodrell. It’s a simple, yet poetic crime story and it’s what originally attracted me to Woodrell’s fiction.

Woodrell’s novels are set in the Missouri Ozarks, a region where he grew up and currently resides. His characters are of the blue-collar variety, lonely individuals scraping together a livelihood on the outskirts of society. They are outsiders and outcasts, un-wanted and often times un-loved. They are not criminals, yet they have a criminal element that brews inside of them and is dangerously close to boiling over and exploding. They are a modern version of the noir protagonist: morally ambiguous and sexually frustrated, railroaded on a sad fateful journey that leads only to a single station: doom.

Sammy Barlach is Woodrell’s victim in Tomato Red. He’s a young man with nothing and nobody until he meets the Merridew duo, Jason and Jamalee, a brother and sister team of petty crooks who get their kicks by breaking into the homes of rich people and fiddling around with their possessions. The empty void in Sammy’s life is now filled upon meeting the Merridews, he belongs to a group of people. He’s got a family of sorts. He may only be the hired muscle to Jason and Jamalee, but he cares for the queer-boy brother and the fiery petite red-headed sister whose hair is described as “tomato red” and whose flesh is the object of Sammy’s lust. But when a person cares for or desperately needs other people, making their feelings known and out in the open, they make themselves vulnerable and the chances of getting hurt and becoming angry increase like a balloon full of hot air. It’s only a matter time before Sammy Barlach pops.

Daniel Woodrell’s fiction fits into that small genre of crime fiction labeled as country noir, along with other notable crime authors like Joe R. Lansdale, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Thompson. At the end of Back Bay Book’s version of Tomato Red is a reading group guide with an interview with Woodrell. In the interview Woodrell discusses his career and previous novels (dating back to the 1980’s) and opens himself up to us. However, it was his comments about writing that hit me in my guts the hardest:

“I wrote for ten years for nothing. And I wrote for almost every day…I filled up boxes of stuff that didn’t go anywhere. But I needed to do that. And I don’t think of myself as an incredibly fast learner. I learned at the pace that I learned at. But I’m told that ten years is about right. I had to emotionally develop. It’s an emotional thing as well as a technical thing. And I had technique before I had the other. The emotional honesty is what really takes you further and further.”

And when Woodrell was asked about balancing his writing with holding down a day job, he responded:

“I wasn’t equipped for the conventional world of employment and I didn’t want to be. I would rather live under a fucking bridge and write on old grocery sacks if it comes to that.”

Thank you, Mr. Woodrell. You’ve helped me rediscover my direction. Now let the reservoir waters flow.

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