My husband, Pinckney, and I are such fans of Katie Estill’s work that we knew our 2007 Surreal South anthology wouldn’t be complete without one of her stories. She very kindly let us publish The Drinking Gourd, an historical haint which formed itself out of the house in which she lives. This year, Katie’s heart-wrenching crime novel, Dahlia’s Gone, caught the attention of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers. They selected it as a finalist for 2008’s Hammett Prize, which will be awarded at the Bloody Words Mystery Conference in June. I’m so pleased she’s taken the time to answer a few getting-to-know-you questions here at The Handbasket because I think you should know her too!
LB: Dahlia’s Gone could be described as a literary crime novel. Did you set out to specifically write a crime novel, or did the story evolve into one?
KE: I wrote Dahlia’s Gone because I wanted to write that story, and it was about a murder, but the novel also came from the context of my life. At the time, I was head of a county task force, and our mission was to reduce violence against women, so I was interacting with all sorts of people I’d never known before. Law enforcement officers, for one. I came to empathize with their experience as human beings, who, for the most part, are basically doing social work, but the kind that’s sometimes very dangerous. So these things were made real to me, not just as ideas. And also, in the small town atmosphere in which I live, if a young woman is murdered, it’s quite possible that you’ve brushed shoulders with at least one of the parents, and so you are more affected by these incidents. I became emotionally engaged.
LB: Your first novel, Evening Would Find Me, is set in Greece and is different in tone from Dahlia’s Gone, which is set in the Ozarks. But both books seem very rooted in their locations, their characters heavily influenced by their physical environment. Does that attachment to place translate into your own life? What does “home” mean to you?
I do have an attachment to my environment. We’ve got a funky old house that’s just so riddled with personality and odd touches that we can’t seem to leave, even if sometimes it seems inadequate. Daniel’s office was built by a previous owner, the Reverend Mock, and he carved crosses atop all the bookcases in the office, a strange touch we enjoyed immediately. The basement was full of several hundred bottles of water, all of them dated, supplies set aside for Armageddon. We’ve heard that our house was built over a cave and was a station on the underground railway during the Civil War. A neighbor told me that as a child he used to play in the cave (before it was closed by the city) and he found arrowheads. So we know the Osage spent a lot of time on these grounds, around the springs and caves, and that human beings have used and loved this ground for a long, long time.
That feeling is somehow infused into the place. I look out our large, wavy glass windows to the most beautiful century oak. We’ve written five books in this little house, and that also makes us fond of it. Our cats don’t ever want to leave. I think “home” is where you can overlook any number of little eyesores. We’re still walking through a couple of doors that we’ve somehow never gotten around to putting doorknobs on.
LB: I was tickled to see that Amazon has Dahlia’s Gone paired with Winter’s Bone, written by your husband, Daniel Woodrell. Tell me about the trajectories of your writing careers and the ways you influence each other’s writing.
KE: I’m wondering if this Amazon pairing has something to do with the Hammett nomination. I don’t think many people knew we were married before. Daniel’s been telling writer acquaintances that I’m up for the Hammett, and one of them said, “That’s your wife? What are they putting in the water down there?”
Before I began publishing, I had seen close up some of the realities of publishing and the challenges. In fact, the business is in such a state of flux that by the time I started publishing, publishing had changed from the way it was when Daniel began. When he started, a writer would not dream of contacting newspaper editors and, so on, in hopes of generating reviews. My experience with Dahlia’s Gone revealed that if I didn’t do those things, there would be no coverage at all.
We are big influences on each other’s writing. We have different processes when we write, but we talk about writing every day; we bounce ideas around and serve as each other’s first editor. Daniel has a short story I really like a lot in the June Esquire, and when he first started the story, it was in the first person, and he felt something was off. So we talked, passed the ball back and forth, and I said, “Hey, why don’t you change it to third person?” And boom. As is so often the case, that simple change in approach made all the difference. That’s how we live.
LB: Would you talk a bit about your relationship with the late Raymond Smith, publisher (with wife Joyce Carol Oates) of Ontario Review Press, which published Evening Would Find Me? You must have worked closely with him on Evening Would Find Me.
KE: Raymond Smith was a great editor and man of letters, but what first comes to mind is what a kind and gentle man he was. I did work closely with Ray. He was my editor, and we discussed and made decisions about every aspect of bringing Evening Would Find Me into print–from manuscript revisions, to line by line copy editing, to finding a cover image and designing the cover–I mean everything down to the type set. We frequently spoke on the phone, and the impression he gave me was that he and Joyce Carol Oates would sit at the dinner table in the evening and discuss, among other things, the questions that he and I were talking about, and then he would give me her feedback.
Ray must have seen everything, when it came to literary types. When we met for lunch in Princeton, he saw the liter bottle I was toting and very calmly asked if it was vodka. I said, “No, Ray, it’s water!” I thought, oh, god, am I acting impaired? But, you know, the real alcoholic writers don’t act impaired; they just don’t ever want to be in the position of running out. And good thing I had the water, because it was rush hour when I got back to New York, and I had to walk from Penn Station to the Soho Grand.
I often wondered what it was like sharing life with one of the most prolific and celebrated writers in America. Ray always kept his private life private. But once, when Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about Marilyn was coming out, he said, “Yes, our lives are in a whirlwind right now, but I’m usually in the calm at the center of the storm.”
He never gossiped. He never dropped names. Ray Smith was a true gentleman.
LB: Will you share a bit about what you’re working on now?
KE: I don’t want to break the mojo here. But I can say the idea came to me while I was finishing Dahlia’s Gone. An inner voice started talking, and it was so strong, so imperative that I had to put aside my manuscript and furiously write it all down.
LB: Finally, if your life were written as a graphic novel, what would you call it?
KE: This one is tough, because, to be honest, I’ve never read a graphic novel. I couldn’t even get through a whole comic book when I was a kid, and the two forms may not even be similar. But if I ever did attempt one, it would undoubtedly be “The History of the Third Nipple”.