De'Shawn Charles Winslow
De'Shawn Charles Winslow's debut novel, In West Mills, ushers him into the world of literature with a boom.
The North Carolina native brings to life a wonderfully realized world tucked into a small nook in the South. In the city of West Mills, North Carolina, Winslow has rendered, in the main character Azalea “Knot” Centre, someone who is as much frustrating as she is endearing. Through the span of forty years, this novel mines family, friendship, love, and lust to ask us what we find underneath it all.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate now lives in New York and allowed Auburn Avenue a bit of his time to ask him a few questions.
--- Auburn Avenue Editorial Staff
"I come from a place where people don’t often do things that make their way out into the world, unless it's with sports."
In West Mills. (Bloombury). Release date: June 4, 2019.
How and when did you discover your love for writing?
I started writing around 2008. It started off as a ‘family history’ sort-of-thing and kind of morphed in fiction. I was trying to write about my father—the things I didn't know about him. From there it took a turn and I started writing fictional stories based on things I didn’t know, the things I didn’t get to ask him. I was 30 at the time; it came to me late.
You were born and raised in Elizabeth City, NC. How would you describe your relationship with the South?
My relationship with the South is not the greatest because I grew up in a small town in North Carolina where it wasn’t cool to be gay, and it wasn’t cool to be not into sports. So I wanted to get out as soon as I possibly could. When I go home, I love that it’s quiet and that there’s not a lot of traffic, but sometimes I feel like I can’t fully be myself when I'm in Elizabeth City.
You lived in Brooklyn, NY since 2003. Were there any regional revelations from spending your formative years in North Carolina?
At heart, I’m a small town person. I fantasize about living in a quiet place. I think that is something that I have learned about myself. As much I love living in New York City, and all that big cities have to offer, my fantasy would be to live in a small, quiet town someplace. However, the reason I don’t live in a small town is because of the things they don’t offer.
Your debut novel, In West Mills, will be released in June 2019. What drew you to tell this story?
When I was growing up, my great uncle had a girlfriend whose nickname was “Knot,” the same nickname of the main character in In West Mills. I loved Knot. She was a fascinating person because she was so different from any other woman that I knew. She was different from my mom, she was different from my aunts. She was an alcoholic, she didn’t have any children. From the best of my knowledge, any work she did was domestic. She died when I was 10 years old. I never have forgotten her. I have had curiosities about her and decided to create a life for another “Knot.” I wrote it from a place of questioning things that have been on my mind for decades.
In West Mills takes place in North Carolina from the 1940’s up to the 1980’s. Why did you decide to choose those the span of those decades as the timeframe for the story?
To be honest, I’m not completely sure. I didn't find out when the real “Knot” wasn’t born until after I’d finished the book. I didn’t have her last name, all my mother remembered was her real first name. I also knew that I didn’t want the novel to have a contemporary setting.
The central character, Azalea “Knot” Centre, is stubborn and easily irritable but is also strong and confident. In the book she has a very tumultuous, love-hate relationships with her family, lovers, and the townspeople in her small Southern community. How would you describe Knot?
I would use those words as well, but I would also call her caring and protective. She displays both characteristics in unusual ways. In the novel she keeps a secret from her friend, Otis Lee, and by keeping it, she’s protecting him. She’s definitely stubborn, but she’s also a protector.
Another main character---Otis Lee---can be described as caring, emotionally available to his friends and family, but somewhat unavailable to his wife. How would you describe him?
I would describe Otis Lee as definitely caring and loving, but he’s also a bit naive and sort of blinded by that naivete. He believes that his grandmother is this noble and perfect, and that everything that comes out of her mouth is the truth.
Secrets are abound in West Mills. Several characters deal with either keeping information confidential or telling information to others. What are your personal thoughts on keeping secrets vs. telling them?
It’s case by case. I think some secrets need to be kept for a while and eventually told when the recipient is in a better place to hear them. Timing is important. I’ll put it that way.
Which character do you think you personally relate to the most in the book? Why?
I think it would be Otis Lee. I think I’m a well-meaning meddler sometimes [laughs]. I’m a person that people call for advice, but by the time they hang up, they’re upset because I’ve told them to break up with the no-good-boyfriend, when all they’ve wanted to know was what they could do to get him to stop leaving his dirty laundry on the floor. But I promise it comes from a protective place.
What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a writer?
I think it would be to not be afraid to address topics you think might piss people off. If we don’t do that, as writers, we’ll just be writing fluff. Also, I believe writing the unknown is important. I believe Toni Morrison who once said that.
Has there been any part of this journey (writing your debut novel) that has been the most meaningful?
I come from a place where people don’t often do things that make their way out into the world, unless it's with sports. I would think, being seen is for celebrities or white people. To have written a book that is real, that people are already reading, is sort of mind-blowing. The meaningful part is that anyone can be what they want to be. They just have to put their mind to it.
It can be said that several characters in In West Mills are on journeys to find happiness. What makes you happy?
I’m happy when I feel that things are in their place, or when there’s no impeding doom looming. When I’m not in a state of fear, I’m happy. The older I get, the happier I get, it seems.