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Looking At The Life And Times Of Thelonious Monk

Robin D.G. Kelley's new book, Thelonioius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, focuses on the career of the eccentric jazz pianist and composer. It reveals new details about Monk's life, music and mental health problems, and provides a glimpse into the New York jazz scene of the mid-twentieth century.

32:04

Other segments from the episode on December 17, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 17, 2010: Interview with Robin D.G. Kelley; Interview with Daniel Woodrell and Debra Granik.

Transcript

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Looking At The Life And Times Of Thelonious Monk

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Our first guest, Robin D.G. Kelley, has written a biography that has just come
out in paperback. Its subject is the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk,
whose dissonant harmonies and angular rhythms have had a profound and lasting
impact on jazz.

Kelley says his research debunks several myths about Monk. For example, Monk
often has been portrayed as eccentric, but Kelley says Monk actually suffered
from bipolar disorder. Monk sometimes was portrayed as primitive, but Kelley
says Monk possessed an impressive knowledge of and appreciation for Western
classical music, gospel music, American popular songs, and art songs. Monk was
born in 1917 and died in 1982.

Kelley's book is based in part on conversations with Monk's surviving
relatives, including his widow Nellie, who died while Kelley was researching
the book. Kelley also had access to tapes of Monk's music and conversations
made by Nellie and the photographer W. Eugene Smith.

Robin Kelley is a professor of history and American studies at the University
of Southern California. His book is called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times
of an American Original." Kelley spoke with Terry Gross last year.

Let's start with Monk's first recording of his most famous composition, "'Round
Midnight." This is a Blue Note recording from 1947.

(Soundbite of song, "'Round Midnight")

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Thelonious Monk at the piano, playing his composition "'Round Midnight."
This is his first recording of it, from 1947. My guest is Robin Kelley, the
author of a new biography of Monk. Robin D.G. Kelley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

So Robin, tell us the story behind "'Round Midnight." How did Monk write it?

Mr. ROBIN D.G. KELLEY (Author): Sure. The song was originally called "I Need
You So." It's one of my great discoveries. And it was written with lyrics, and
he worked with a friend of his who lived in the neighborhood, a woman named
Thelma Elizabeth Murray(ph), and she wrote these beautiful lyrics to the song,
and it was a love song. It was his attempt to get a hit, because one of his
goals was to get a hit.

But he copyrighted the song in 1943. This is four years before he first
recorded it, but he could not get his own recording. Eventually Cootie
Williams, the bandleader, basically made the first recording of it.

Bud Powell, who was a pianist himself, who was one of Monk's friends and hung
out with Monk, convinced Cootie to record it, and Cootie added an interlude,
and when he recorded it, which was typical of bandleaders, he put his name on
as a co-composer, and later he found another lyricist, a man named Bernie
Hannigan(ph), and he put his name on as a co-composer.

So in the end, not only did Monk not make the first recording, but from that
point on he became a third owner of the song, and to this day the Monk estate
only gets a third of the royalties as a result.

GROSS: Monk invented his own piano style. How would you describe some of Monk's
compositional and pianistic innovations?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, there - a few things. One, Monk loved dissonance, and by
dissonance, those clashing intervals, you know? Sometimes he'll play, like, an
F and F sharp at the same time.

Now, on the one hand, that sounds like it's innovative and fresh and new, but a
lot of these devices, the dissonance, the kind of off-meter playing, these are
devices that he learned from the old-stride pianists in Harlem, people like
James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion Smith. He just took it to a more
exaggerated place.

GROSS: Wait, wait. When you say he learned from them personally, like watching
them or listening to their records?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, personally. I mean, one of the things that amazes me about
Monk's story, no one's really written about before my book, is the fact that he
spent as much time hanging out with these old pianists in the late '30s and
early '40s as he did with sort of the bebop young musicians. and so there's a
great story that Billy Taylor tells in the book where, you know, he ends up
going to James P. Johnson's house.

He doesn't realize where he is, and he's there, and all these piano players, a
guy named Jippy(ph) and Clarence Profit and Willie the Lion Smith, and there's,
you know, young Thelonious Monk playing stride piano with everyone else. And
these little parlors became really spaces for musicians to show off and teach
each other and really just celebrate the instrument of the piano.

And so Monk is very much rooted in these older traditions, and so he would take
these old practices, even the bent notes that he played, and he'd take that
from James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion and, you know, give it a kind of
modern twist.

And then the other thing about Monk is that, you know, he came up at a time
when bebop was taking off, and piano players used their left hand less
frequently, whereas the old-fashioned players always used the left hand.

Playing - having a strong left hand was part of what made you a pianist. So
Monk was able to retain that strong left hand, and when you listen to him play,
his left hand had such great independence that if you just listen to the lower
notes, they're very carefully placed. They're not just supporting the
harmonies. They're rhythmically rich and fascinating, and they have their own
kind of counter-melodies.

So he has a melody on the right and a melody on the left going at the same
time.

GROSS: Well, I want to play "Trinkle, Tinkle," which is one of Monk's
compositions, and his left hand is so strong on this. You know, Max Roach is
the drummer on this track, but it sounds like there's two drummers almost, you
know, Monk's left hand and Roach.

Mr. KELLEY: Exactly.

GROSS: So say something about "Trinkle, Tinkle" and this recording of it and
what's special about it to you.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, well, "Trinkle, Tinkle" is one of my favorites. Most people
know the version he did with John Coltrane, but this is the first recording,
made in 1952, and Max Roach, as you mentioned, is the drummer. Gary Mapp is the
bass player, and to me it is an example of Monk's virtuosity as a piano player.

And like you say, you know, his left and right hand, the independence of them
both, make the song, but he is able to, I think, recover or restore the sort of
old-stride pianist's little tricks with his right hand, and he has this kind of
rhythmic sensibility that's so strong and so powerful.

He swings so hard that he's always on the beat. You know, even when he seems to
be floating away from it, the beat's always there, and it's a very – it's a
very difficult song to play, I'll put it that way.

GROSS: And just one other thing. His runs are so great and so off-kilter.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, definitely.

GROSS: Okay, so this is "Trinkle, Tinkle," recorded in 1952, Thelonious Monk.

(Soundbite of song, "Trinkle, Tinkle")

GROSS: That's Thelonious Monk's 1952 version of "Trinkle, Tinkle," his own
composition. Robin, is that his first recording of it?

Mr. KELLEY: That's his first recording of it, yeah.

GROSS: Max Roach was featured on drums. My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley, and he's
written a new biography of Thelonious Monk, called "Thelonious Monk: The Life
and Times of an American Original."

What was going on in Monk's life when he recorded "Trinkle, Tinkle" in 1952?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, it was a very difficult time. Nellie, his wife, called it the
un-years, you know, U-N, un-years, because in 1951, in August, he had been
arrested for possession of heroin. The short version of the story is that he
was in a car with Bud Powell and two people he did not know. Bud Powell had a
glassine envelope with heroin in it.

When the police pulled up, just to investigate the car sitting in front of
Monk's house, Bud Powell threw the heroin in front of the car, and it landed at
Monk's feet. He - they all were arrested, but it was Thelonious who served
time.

He ended up serving 60 days - Rikers Island, in the work house, and he never
did turn Bud Powell in, you know, which - it would be unusual if he did, but he
ended up taking the rap.

What's interesting, and probably worse than the jail sentence, is that he lost
his cabaret card. And in New York City, as a result of a law that was passed in
1940, everyone who worked in establishments that served alcohol, because of the
cabaret laws, had to have a cabaret card. The police issued these cards, and
they also took them away.

And so because this was Thelonious' second conviction, he'd been arrested for
drug possession in '48, he lost his card indefinitely. And so from 1951 until
the spring of 1957, he had no cabaret card, and that meant that, in theory, he
could not work in places that served alcohol in New York. That's the bad news.

The good news is that thanks to the outer boroughs, places like Brooklyn and
the Bronx and black-owned clubs, Monk was able to find some work, but it wasn't
enough to sustain his family.

I mean, his wife worked constantly. He had a small son. He was born December
'49, and it was a real struggle then. And these recording sessions, few and far
between, were one very small source of income.

BIANCULLI: Author Robin Kelley, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with author Robin Kelley.
His biography of jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, called "Thelonious
Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: Monk also had problems with his mental health. Were there signs of that
early on? Later in life, it disabled him. Later in life, there were periods
where he was just about catatonic, but in the early '50s, at the time of the
recording we just heard, what was his mental health like then?

Mr. KELLEY: You know, that's a good question. I find evidence of bipolar
disorder, you know, the manic depression, and these cycles of manic depression,
as early as the 1940s. But these examples, the evidence always got portrayed as
examples of Monk's eccentricities, you know, that he would be up for two or
three days at a time. Then he'd crash. He'd go from house to house looking for
a piano.

This became part of the story or the lore around Monk, but of course, no one
knew about bipolar disorder in the 1940s and couldn't see it as a diagnosis.

By the '50s, and around the time he made these recordings, he was pretty
stable, but as the decade progressed, his cycles became more frequent, and they
got worse. And so 1957, late '56, actually, Christmas '56, he was hospitalized
for the first time, taken to Bellevue Hospital after he got into a small
fender-bender with someone, and the police didn't know what to do with him, and
he was sort of standing there uncommunicative.

And he ended up spending about three weeks in Bellevue with no diagnosis. A
couple of years later, he ends up at Grafton State Hospital in Massachusetts,
and there he is diagnosed with depression, and they give him Thorazine.

And the thing about Monk's experience with mental illness, there are two things
I try to establish in the book. One is that these incidents were episodic. You
know, he wasn't constantly unraveling. They're just moments, in fact they were
almost seasonal, when he would unravel.

And he got - the second thing is that he got very bad medical care, and it's
not - you know, race has something to do with it, but it's not just that. A lot
of it has to do with the fact that the state of psychiatry just isn't where it
is today, and so a lot of the diagnosis was sort of, you know, not clear. The
medication was kind of problematic. Thorazine was the antipsychotic drug of
choice, and it didn't help Monk, at all, in terms of handling these episodes.

GROSS: One of the things Monk became known for that was considered a sign of
his eccentricity is that sometimes on the bandstand or outside of the club, he
would just start spinning around in circles. And you know, some people say, oh,
he was dancing, and now I know - some people think of this as a sign of
autistic behavior. And I wonder if you've thought about that at all? Mr.
KELLEY: I thought about it and rejected it. GROSS: Tell me why. Mr. KELLEY:
Only because Monk was very clear about dance. I mean - and he also wasn't the
only musician who got up and danced, actually. You know, he was the one who was
the most famous, but he loved to dance with music and he used dancing in
various ways, one to conduct the band.

Ask any drummer, and they would say when Monk got up to dance, he actually
would give you the accents that he wanted. He would basically show you and
demonstrate what he wanted to do. And there's a wonderful moment during his
rehearsal for his big band in 1959, when his French horn player, we know as
Brother Ah, couldn't get the rhythm right.

So Monk takes a break, takes him to the corner, and he dances the whole part.
He dances his part, and it's like all of a sudden it just clicked and he
understood exactly what he needed to do. Then went back to the rehearsal,
played it just fine.

And then Monk does come out of a tradition of dance. When he was a teenager, he
was one of the hoofers. He was among the tap-dancers in his neighborhood, where
everyone tap-danced, you know. So I see the dancing as dancing.

GROSS: Interesting. My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley, and he's written a new
biography of Thelonious Monk, the great composer and pianist.

I want to play another composition by Monk, and it's called "Crepuscule With
Nellie," and this was dedicated to his wife, Nellie, who did so much to help
him through his life. What are some of the things she did to take care of him?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, you know, they knew each other since they were teenagers,
really, and they grew up in the same neighborhood. So Nellie, you know, knew
Monk very, very well, and in many ways, during the first early years of their
lives, she worked.

You know, she worked as a hotel elevator operator at the Hotel Taft. She worked
for Chock Full o'Nuts. She had all these odd jobs to make it when Monk couldn't
find work.

She, you know, raised two children, but she spent a lot of time on the road
with Thelonious, first as a road manager in some ways, traveling with him. She
made sure he was ready, dressed, you know, always, you know, looking good.

And later, when his health began to really fall apart, she took over a lot of
the functions of the band. She would hire and fire musicians. She was, you
know, making arrangements and dates, and she was basically doing everything
until it got to be too much for her.

GROSS: Tell us what's happening musically in this and what you'd like us to
listen for.

Mr. KELLEY: This was Thelonious' only, what's called through-composed
composition, meaning that there is no improvising. It is Monk's concerto, if
you will, and in some ways it speaks for itself. But he wrote it very, very
carefully and very deliberately and really struggled to make it sound the way
it sounds. You know, but it was his love song for Nellie.

GROSS: Okay, let's hear it. This is "Crepuscule With Nellie," recorded in 1957,
Thelonious Monk.

(Soundbite of song, "Crepuscule With Nellie")

BIANCULLI: Robin Kelley is the author of "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times
of an American Original." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with
more of Terry's interview with author Robin D.G. Kelley. His biography of jazz
composer and pianist, Thelonious Monk, titled, "Thelonious Monk: The Life and
Times of an American Original," is now out in paperback.

When we left off, they were talking about Monk's wife, Nellie. Terry spoke with
Robin Kelley last year.

GROSS: There's another woman very important in Monk's life, the Baroness
Pannonica de Koenigswarter. And she was actually a Rothschild - de
Koenigswarter was her husband's name. So she was a Rothschild. She had pedigree
and had more money than Monk did. They met in Paris when Monk was performing
there and she moved to New York. They became very close. She helped take of
him. He lived with her during the last years of his life.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the nature of their relationship.

Mr. KELLEY: Sure. As you said, they met in '54. They became very close friends.
And it's very important to establish that she also became close friends with
Nellie. And this is something I've been trying to say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: ...for a long time. It's almost like a lot of people don't hear
this part. All three of them were friends. She was as close to Nellie as she
was as close to Monk.

GROSS: Are you saying a lot of people thought well, Nica and - the Baroness was
called Nica - Pannonica...

Mr. KELLEY: Right.

GROSS: ...Nica short for that. So you're saying that a lot of people thought
that Nica and Monk's relationship was probably more than platonic and that
Nellie...

Mr. KELLEY: Right.

GROSS: ...must've been angry about it, but that wasn't the case.

Mr. KELLEY: That wasn't the case. I mean the rumors that they had a romantic
relationship or the rumor - the other rumor is that Nellie and Nica competed,
and it's not the case at all. They both worked together in Thelonious's
interest. And, you know, she was like an aunt to the kids and like a, you know,
sister-in-law to Nellie in some ways. And she was very, very important at
certain moments in Monk's life when he needed help, when he needed to get his
cabaret card back for example.

GROSS: And you know what, something else that Nica did for Monk - during the
period when he didn't have a piano, she got a piano at her place and he could
come over and play there.

Mr. KELLEY: Yes. Yes, beautiful sentiment.

GROSS: And during the last few years of his life he lived with her. And this is
a kind of, you know, mysterious thing. He's married to Nellie but he's living
with Nica. How come?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, in 1973, it was clear that, you know, she couldn't take care
of him. His condition had worsened. He had been hospitalized again. And so
everyone decided it would make more sense for him to live in the house in
Weehawken, New Jersey.

The important part of the story is that Nellie came over just about every day
on the bus. She'd cook for him. She'd take care of him. He had his own floor.
He had the second floor of the house. So she was still very much his wife and
Nica basically had the space and resources to make sure he was well cared for
during those last years.

GROSS: Well, let's get back to some music.

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You've chosen some things for us to hear and the next one is Monk's
version of "Nice Work If You Can Get It," the Gershwin song. And this is from
1964. I love Monk's recordings of pop songs, because he reworks them.

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Like you can tell he loves the melody.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: You can tell he loves old songs - not that this one was that old, but,
you know, he recorded older ones too. But you could tell he loves the song and
yet, he reworks it.

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: He does - he completely - he changes the harmonies and alters the
rhythms. Talk to us about his version of "Nice Work" and why you chose it.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah. Well, he, "Nice Work" is a song that's been in his repertoire
since the '40s and he loves it because he loves Gershwin's sort of use of
certain sonorities. You know, for the technical people, it's the flat 9th. But
it's a certain sound that Monk loved and he loved the fact that the harmonies
moved in chromatic descending ways and it was - it just matched his own
compositional sense.

And what's interesting about Monk in these old standards is that he didn't
stray too far. I mean he put his own imprint on it but he would play on the
elements that are already there. And he just loved - and Gershwin's a great
songwriter.

GROSS: All right. So this is Thelonious Monk's 1964 recording of "Nice Work If
You Can Get It."

(Soundbite of song, "Nice Work If You Can Get It")

GROSS: That's Monk playing Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It," recorded
in 1964. My guest, Robin D.G. Kelley has written a new biography of Thelonious
Monk.

What was going on in Monk's life when he recorded that?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, '64 was in some ways Monk's year. He was on the cover of Time
Magazine, you know, in February of '64.

GROSS: What was he doing on the cover? What was the angle?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: Well, the short version of the story is that Barry Farrell, who
wrote the cover story, wanted to write about a jazz musician and almost by
default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were
too controversial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: So Monk was chosen. I know it's funny, huh, when you think about
it. Monk was chosen and the article became a story about Monk's weirdness,
eccentricities and his drug use, you know, on the one hand. And on the other
hand it became a story about Monk not being so weird, because in fact, in this
day when black jazz musicians seemed to be more militant and complaining and
whining about racism, Monk had no complaints. That Monk, in fact, was the safer
bet, you know, because he wasn't so political. You know, and so - and, of
course, I challenge that, but still, in some ways the cover story was a way of
kind of presenting a more tame Monk while still presenting him as the eccentric
genius.

GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. KELLEY: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Author, Robin Kelley, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. His
biography, "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original," is
now out in paperback.

Coming up, a visit with the director of the movie, "Winter's Bone," as well as
the author of the original book. This is FRESH AIR.
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Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
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N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
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Set In The Ozarks, Adapted For The Screen

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our next guests collaborated on "Winter's Bone," a film that won the grand jury
prize for drama at the Sundance Film Festival. It's winding up on a lot of end
of year top 10 lists and it tops the best of 2010 list of our own film critic,
David Edelstein.

Our guests are Debra Granik, the director of "Winter's Bone," and Daniel
Woodrell, the author of the book on which the movie is based. Terry spoke with
them earlier this year.

"Winter's Bone" is set in the Ozarks, in a poor community where people have
turned to cooking meth to make a living. The main character, Ree Dolly, played
by Jennifer Lawrence, is a 17-year-old girl. She's taking care of her two young
siblings because her mother is mentally ill and her father, who cooks meth, has
gone missing.

After being arrested and putting up the family home for his bail bond, he
disappears. Unless Ree finds him, she will lose the family's home and have
nowhere to go. To find out where her father might be, she goes to the homes of
relatives and other people her fathers(ph) knows, most of whom are also in the
meth business. They're not interested in talking.

In this scene, Ree is looking for Thump Milton, the leader of this meth
underworld. As she approaches Thump's house, she's met by his wife, played by
Dale Dickey.

(Soundbite of movie, "Winter's Bone")

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

Ms. DALE DICKEY (Actor): (as Merab) You got the wrong place, I expect. Who
might you be?

Ms. JENNIFER LAWRENCE (Actor): (as Ree Dolly) I'm Ree. My dad's Jessup Dolly.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

Ms. DICKEY: (as Merab) You ain't here for trouble, are you?

Ms. LAWRENCE: (as Ree Dolly) No, ma'am.

Ms. DICKEY: (as Merab) 'Cause one of my nephews is Buster Leroy, and didn't he
shoot your daddy one time?

Ms. LAWRENCE: (as Ree Dolly) Yes. But that ain't got nothing to do with me.
They settled that their selves, I think.

Ms. DICKEY: (as Merab) Shooting him likely settled it. What is it you want?

Ms. LAWRENCE: (as Ree Dolly) I got a real bad need to talk with Thump.

Ms. DICKEY: (as Merab) And he ain't got no need to talk to you.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. LAWRENCE: (as Ree Dolly) But I need to. I really, really got to, ma'am.
Please. Some of our blood, at least, is the same. Ain't that supposed to mean
something? Isn't that what is always said?

Ms. DICKEY: (as Merab) Ain't you got no men could do this?

Ms. LAWRENCE: (as Ree Dolly) No, ma'am. I don't.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

Ms. DICKEY: (as Merab) You go wait in the yard somewhere by that coop, and I'll
tell Thump you're here.

Ms. LAWRENCE: (as Ree Dolly) Thanks.

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's a scene from "Winter's Bone," the movie adaptation by Debra Granik, of
Daniel Woodrell's novel.

Debra Granik, Daniel Woodrell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, the man that Ree, the
character in that scene, is trying to see, Thump, Daniel Woodrell, in your
novel, "Winter's Bone," you describe him as having a face that's a monument of
Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold-shaded parts the sun never touched.
His voice held raised hammers and long shadows.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a man I don't want to meet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now that we heard a scene from the film, Daniel Woodrell, let me ask you
to do a short reading from the book that the movie is adapted from. And this is
another scene in which Ree is trying to find out what happened to her father
now that he's skipped bail. And in this scene, she goes to see her father's
brother. Would you read that scene for us?

Mr. DANIEL WOODRELL (Author, "Winter's Bone"): Sure.

What's this all about, anyhow? I got to find Dad and make sure he shows in
court. That's a man's personal choice, little girl. That's not something you
ought to be butting your smarty nose into. Show or don't show, that choice is
up to the one's that going to jail to make, not you.

Uncle Teardrop was Jessup's elder and had been a crank chef longer, but he'd
had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a
savage, melted scar down his neck to the middle of his back. There wasn't
enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was
gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue
teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his
scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he'd three times done grizzly
prison deeds that needed doing, but didn't need to be gabbed about. They said
the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man, and the lost
ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the
wall.

GROSS: That's Daniel Woodrell, reading from his novel "Winter's Bone," which is
adapted to the new film of the same name by Debra Granik.

GROSS: Daniel, what are some of the things you most wanted Debra to know about
your area that you drew on for the novel and you felt that she needed to
understand?

Mr. DANIEL WOODRELL (Author, Winter's Bone"): Well, it's been a way of life for
a long time. I’m - to me, the Ozarks was more or less settled by people who
largely wanted to be left alone, originally. And there's still just a strong
thread of that running through a lot of the people who've been here awhile,
this sense of privacy and don't ask too many questions about other people's
business. And there's so much physical beauty and yet, it's always been
difficult to make a living in the Ozarks. So, there's a lot of the attendant
poverty that goes along with that. And yet, it's in such a beautiful setting
that I really wanted her to appreciate that.

GROSS: Debra, what struck you most that you hadn't seen before?

Ms. DEBRA GRANIK (Director, "Winter's Bone"): I feel like I hadn't seen a
variety of hand-built houses. That was not familiar to me, or houses that may
have had one part built from another form of housing, but yet, a form of
trailer or a kit house and then additions or small add-ons very much built as
needed, or as could be afforded. So the texture of people's homes were
extremely rich and diverse.

GROSS: Did you decide to shoot in actual homes?

Ms. GRANIK: We did choose to shoot in actual homes. It would've been a very
difficult feat and probably with very little fruit to, like, imitate those
homes or build a set that replicates it. Instead, we did come to believe that
the only way that we would get the film just jammed with visual detail that was
very precise and very much from those coordinates where we were filming, was to
actually go the full tilt and say - could we, over time, gain access to
collaborate with certain families, and then work on their properties, film. And
that, in the end, meant like, basically, from A to Z. It was people's vehicles,
their clothing, objects in their home.

GROSS: Daniel Woodrell, the missing father in your novel "Winter's Bone" cooks
crank, and everyone in the extended family seems to be involved in the
business. Why did you want to write about characters who cook and sell meth?

Mr. WOODRELL: Well, it's been a pretty widespread issue around here for the
last 15 or 20 years, I suppose. And from my own house, I could throw a rock and
hit a meth cook right now. And it's just pretty ingrained, and it's a way to
make some quick, easy money. You don't really have to be a master scientist to
cook it or anything, and you can turn a quick profit. And at one point, we had
a number of people nearby who were engaged. And when they've been using crank
for a few days in a row, you don't know what they might be - they might do. So
- and all manner of things did happen.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. WOODRELL: Broad-daylight violence. I used to have a neighbor who'd chase
his girlfriend-wife with a table leg after he'd been up too long in the broad
daylight, down the middle of the road. And things like that were happening,
petty crime.

GROSS: So when you saw your neighbor chase his wife with a leg of a table, did
you call the police, or just let them to do their thing?

Mr. WOODRELL: We went out.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WOODRELL: My wife won't let me just stand there if somebody's going after
his wife like that. So at one point in like, two years, we had six domestics
that were so close to our front door, we felt required to be the ones to go out
and break it up. And that was all happening then, and it hasn't happened again
now in some years, so - all associated with the burgeoning of meth in the
neighborhood.

BIANCULLI: Daniel Woodrell and Debra Granik speaking to Terry Gross earlier
this year.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with filmmaker Debra
Granik, director of the award-winning movie, "Winter's Bone," and Daniel
Woodrell, author of the book on which the movie is based.

GROSS: Debra, your previous movie was about a woman who's a coke addict. She
was played by Vera Farmiga, and she's the mother of two - just as in your new
movie, Ree is the older sister of two children, and she's basically bringing
them up on her own. So it's that combination of taking care of children and
drugs that hold these two movies together - that, and the fact that the word
bone is in the title of both of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So tell us why stories where drugs have an impact on a woman taking care
of children are stories that you want to tell.

Ms. GRANIK: I in these situations, the stakes are just so high when drug use is
an issue and children are present, so that the behaviors of a female who is
responsible for children, it's just the pressures to do the right thing are
even higher. The responsibilities are even higher. And I think that part of
what fuels Ree in Daniel's novel is that she does feel the stakes are high for
her. It's not just whether she could go out and sort of make her way and escape
a bad situation, but that she does feel that she has these two young people
that are very much tied to her, their well-being is completely tied to her.

And so I feel like in any novel or film, the - that responsibility - that
existential responsibility, if you will, raises the stakes of what that
protagonist is going to do, what choices she will make, what moves she'll make.

GROSS: Daniel Woodrell, in Esquire magazine in 2007, in the Esquire 100 issue,
you were number 63. And your entry was written by Benjamin Percy. And I want to
quote what he had to say about your novels. He said: Pick one up, and you'll
find blood and hay, barbed wire and whiskey, a Ziploc bag of crank. You'll find
barroom brawls and trailer-park meth labs, guns, a stripper with peroxide-blond
hair. These are books for men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think that's kind of funny, since Debra, you adapted one of his books
into a movie and really related to the fact that it had a strong woman
character. So Daniel Woodrell, is Ree an unusual character for you? Is it
unusual for you to be telling a story from a woman's point of view?

Mr. WOODRELL: Well, in a way, she's sort of the combination of - or an
elaboration on some female characters that I've kind of written about all
along, usually in smaller roles. But I think I've always included a lot of
women in my books, and they're usually pretty potent women. But in this
instance, she just was clearly the straw that stirred everything here. And once
I started writing on it, she became more and more prominent, and I realized
it's basically going to be all her.

GROSS: I don't want to give away too much of the movie, so I'll just say here
that there is a scene where a couple of women beat up another woman. And then a
man basically wants to know like did a man hit her? And so one of the women
says - this is how she says it in the movie. She says: No man hit her. I put
the hurt on her. And then in the book, the way she says it is: No man here
touched that crazy girl. I drubbed her good myself.

So there seems to be almost a code here - that like, bad for a man to hit a
woman; okay for a woman to hit a woman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Daniel, is that the code?

Mr. WOODRELL: Well, I wouldn't say it's code, but I think there might be some
ancient perception that that's a fair fight.

GROSS: Right. Right. Is that why you did it that way?

Mr. WOODRELL: Yes. Yes. And I have seen a few women brawls that were every bit
as nasty as anything I've seen men do, so it definitely happens.

GROSS: Where did you witness them?

Mr. WOODRELL: Just at different establishments around my life, and places. And
one was in the Ramada Inn parking lot - actually, one of the most savage I ever
saw, in broad daylight.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. WOODRELL: A finger got bit off.

GROSS: Whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOODRELL: Yeah. And she spit it at the other woman's foot.

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. WOODRELL: And I thought no, I haven't even seen guys do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wow. That sounds - that sounds...

Mr. WOODRELL: Well, they were serious about wanting to hurt each other.

GROSS: Sounds like she had some pretty sharp teeth, among other things.

Mr. WOODRELL: Yeah, she did. She must've had to break it and gnaw a little to
get it off.

GROSS: Daniel, I'm going to ask you read another page from your novel,
"Winter's Bone." And in this paragraph, Ree Dolly, your main character, the 17-
year-old who's taking care of her two young siblings, is thinking about and
worrying about her sibling's future.

Mr. WOODRELL: (Reading) Ree's grand hope was that these boys would not be dead
to wonder by age 12, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So
many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to
live outside square law and abide by the remorseless, blood-soaked commandments
that governed lives led outside square law. There were 200 Dollys who were
living within 30 miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not,
but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin
in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one
another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town
ways, clinging to their own.

GROSS: So in your novel "Winter's Bone," Ree, the main character, is
considering joining the military. You were in the Marines. Why did you enlist?

Mr. WOODRELL: I was getting in just a little bit of mischief, and it seemed
like the military would be a good idea all the way around. So I went in the
week I turned 17, and both my parents thought it was a good idea. So, it
removed me from the scene for a while.

GROSS: But it sounds like it didn't work out the way you expected.

Mr. WOODRELL: No, there was trouble to be found there, as well. And as my
father so often said, I found it, so.

GROSS: When did you start to write? I presume it was after you got out of the
Marines?

Mr. WOODRELL: That's when I began to more seriously investigate it. It, I was
always attracted to the idea, I always loved books, and my mother made sure I
knew how to read before I went off to school. And I knew pretty early on that
I'd like to be a writer if it was possible. It really wasn't until my early 20s
that I really decided to dedicate myself to it, full tilt, and see if, in fact,
you had the ability to do it.

GROSS: How did you figure out what you were going to write about?

Mr. WOODRELL: For a long time, I wrote stories about working class life. And I
had a professor say, you know, that's always going to be hard when you just do
straightforward kind of kitchen-sink realism. And as I let that sink in for a
couple of years, I began to realize there were other kinds of fiction I also
liked that could almost blend. They almost - they complimented each other,
really. Social...

GROSS: Who were you thinking of?

Mr. WOODRELL: Well, social realist fiction and crime fiction have a nice
overlap. So I was turned on by all the writers in the canon, but I was also
always turned on by James M. Cain and Chandler and Thompson, and all the
others.

GROSS: A lot of book critics, in their reviews, have mentioned that you should
be better known than you are. That's kind of like a common refrain about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOODRELL: Yes.

GROSS: Sure you've heard that song sung a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOODRELL: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So, you know, it often works that once a movie's made, if it's adapted
from a book, the author of that book becomes a lot better known. Are you hoping
for that with this movie?

Mr. WOODRELL: I think it's unavoidable now, so I've decided to hope for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I hope you get it.

Mr. WOODRELL: Right. Thank you.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Debra
Granik, congratulations on your new film, "Winter's Bone," which is adapted
from my other guest, Daniel Woodrell's, novel of the same name.

Thanks very much to you both.

Mr. WOODRELL: Oh, thank you so much. Enjoyed it.

Ms. GRANIK: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Filmmaker Debra Granik and author Daniel Woodrell, speaking to Terry
Gross earlier this year. She directed the movie version of his book, "Winter's
Bone," and the film is landing on several end of year Top 10 lists.

(Soundbite of music)

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you
can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, lifestyles of the lonely and aimless. Stephen
Dorff tells us about playing Johnny Marco in "Somewhere," a film about a
Hollywood actor who examines his life after a visit from his daughter.

We'll also talk with Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed the movie.

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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