Photo Credit: Julie R. Keresztes
A 2017 graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, De’Shawn Charles Winslow holds a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English literature from Brooklyn College. He has received scholarships from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he was recently featured in an article titled “Black Male Writers For Our Time” in T Magazine’s December 2018 issue, alongside distinguished names like Kevin Young, Jamel Brinkley, Danez Smith, and many others. He lives in New York City.
Set in rural North Carolina, De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel, In West Mills, seamlessly carries dual narratives over nearly half a century. Characters age, their families grow, and the world changes around them, all told in the confident voice of Winslow’s neighborhood narrator. The town and characters become richer with each page of added history. Winslow builds around close friends Azalea “Knot” Centre and Otis Lee Loving, but the community expands outward, bringing vibrant life to the setting and ensemble. This is all to say, In West Mills is a novel that provides an enormous and well-defined footprint, one that gives the book a sense of literary permanence and magnitude.
Winslow and I discussed writing about close-knit communities, shifting points of view, and starting a novel while in an MFA program, by email. Our correspondence has been lightly edited for clarity.
Aram Mrjoian: One thing I really enjoy about your debut, In West Mills, is how you manage to navigate a close third-person point of view to several characters without it necessarily being rigidly segmented by chapter. You follow your protagonist, Azalea "Knot" Centre, for the majority of the novel, but there's a satisfying type of cinematic balance in how you hold onto the actions and emotions of other central characters as well. How did you think about this attentive, shifting lens? How did you decide where and when to focus on each character?
De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Thank you. I grew up watching dramatic TV shows that shifted the lens a lot. Daytime and evening soap operas do it, and I always liked it. So when I first wrote this project as a 30-something-page story, the third-person point of view was all over the place visiting several characters. When I decided to move forward with the project as a novel, I settled for two main points of view: Knot’s and Otis Lee’s. That made it MUCH easier on me. That’s how the alternating chapters came about.
AM: A central theme to this novel is Knot's lifelong struggle with alcoholism. I might be stretching to make this connection, but I found the narrator in some ways parallels that loquacious sense of drinking culture. The scenes flow fast and naturally, with the occasional interjection of efficient exposition, as if a friend at the bar was pausing just long enough to provide the necessary backstory. Additionally, the narrator tells the story as if they are a member of the local West Mills community. As you were drafting, did you have to work to nail the narrator's voice or was it organic from the beginning? How did pair the narrator's voice and the way in which the story is told to be cohesive?
DCW: I think of my narrators as characters who never get formally introduced to the readers—members of the characters’ community. I have to think of the narrator that way so that I don’t slip my own voice fully into exposition—though it’s often close to my own way of speaking. So the narrative voice came fairly easy to me. If I ever write a project that’s set outside of the South, I’ll be in trouble!
AM: This novel begins in October 1941 and ends in the late 1980s, following two connected African-American families in rural North Carolina through several generations. From my perspective, a timeline that large presents a slew of major narrative challenges: mapping the family tree, changes in technology, changes in regional employment, social and political upheaval, to name a few. What strategies did you use to map out the novel over this extended period of time?
DCW: Initially, I didn’t think about changes in technology, social and political climates, or any of that. I only cared about my characters and how they affected each other’s lives. I went back in later and put in the cultural references and all. It just wasn’t important to me in the beginning. Where characters’ family trees are concerned, I can’t say that I did any mapping, exactly. I just decided as I wrote that so and so was the daughter of so and so, who had three children, or one child, and so on. It was pretty random, like real-life family-building was before the days of people planning out their family futures. Folks just had children.
The reason I stopped the novel in the 80s is because I didn’t want to risk spilling over into a time period in which any sort of mobile phone would be used. That would ruin my characters’ constant visiting.
AM: Thinking about the family aspect of this novel, these characters come to know one another for decades. They're the kind of close neighbors who can come and go without an invitation. Do these deep relationships alter the way in which you develop characters? They know each other well enough to predict another's behavior, which in turn also shifts how information is revealed. Does this complicate plotting the novel as well?
DCW: The release of information is complicated quite a bit at times. I was constantly doing the thing of “She wouldn’t tell him that because she’s a secret-keeper,” or “He wouldn’t go and visit that character because he wouldn’t go to a gay man’s house.” Essie’s visit to West Mills, and its aftermath, for example, was tricky. So, yes. Their deep relationships created a lot of work for me. I did it to myself, though!
AM: To switch gears a bit, what books and writers were integral to writing In West Mills?
DCW: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Walker’s The Color Purple and Morrison’s Sula are the reasons In West Mills exists. Hands down.
AM: In the acknowledgements, you first give thanks to the Iowa Writers' Workshop and later to many of your mentors and peers there. Like many literary journals, The Southeast Review is a university publication and part of an MFA and PhD program, where many of our masthead (myself included) are going through workshops in hopes of bringing their own books into the world. I'm curious what your experience was drafting, revising, and publishing a book while in a revered academic creative writing program. How did the MFA change your approach or process to writing this novel?
DCW: It was my workshop-mates at Iowa who convinced me to stop being afraid of writing a novel. I went in thinking I’d write a short story collection. In West Mills was a story, initially, and everyone kept saying I was trying to squeeze a novel into 30 pages. Finally, I took their advice. Once I wrote a full draft of the novel, I only workshopped a chunk of it in Margot Livesey’s workshop. Most of the hard, hard work on In West Mills started after I’d workshopped that excerpt, and after I’d graduated from the program. I will always be eternally grateful to those who convinced me to let the project grow until it was done growing. And now, I don’t try to write short stories unless it’s a very short, snapshot sort of piece. And then they turn out sounding like stand-up comedy. My characters tend to have histories and secrets that require many pages.
AM: I know there’s usually a bit of a gap between when the book is out of your hands and when it is published. Have you been working on new material in the meantime? What are your current projects?
DCW: I’m slowly writing a second novel project. At this point, more is in my head than written on pages. But one thing I plan to do is bring a few of the In West Mills’ characters into the second project. I might look into taking some nonfiction-writing courses. I would love to be able to right a halfway decent personal essay someday.