De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel “In West Mills” opens with the book’s antiheroine, Azalea “Knot” Centre, being forced to choose between her two lovers: her boyfriend, Pratt, and the moonshine she can’t live without.
It doesn’t take her long to choose the latter. “Need some help packin’?” she asks the man who gave her an ultimatum. Defiant and unbowed, Knot refuses to keep anyone’s counsel, with the exception of Otis Lee, her next-door neighbor and best friend. “In West Mills” follows the two over decades in the fictional town of West Mills, N.C.
Winslow said he based West Mills on the North Carolina town of South Mills, not far from where he grew up in Elizabeth City. A recent graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Winslow now lives in New York. He spoke to The Times about his novel via telephone. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve been writing fiction for about 10 years now. What got you interested in writing?
My father had passed unexpectedly, and I realized that I had a lot of questions about him that never got answered. In realizing that there was nowhere else to get those answers except for him, I started to fictionalize what had started off to be an essay about my dad. I thought, "You know what? I don't have much to put into this essay because I don't have real answers, but if I write fiction, then I can create the things that I think are probably what happened in his life."
That's kind of where it started. I ended up losing interest in that particular project, and eventually just started writing about stories based on people I had grown up around, or people who had been long dead before I was born. That's where it kind of all started.
Was the story that you tell in “In West Mills” one that you wanted to tell for a long time?
Yeah. I would say the stories that are in “In West Mills” are things that I have been thinking about probably since I was a teenager. But I just had no clue that I was interested in writing it. It wasn't until after that whole thing of me trying to learn more about my dad through writing that the other stories started to come about, and they kind of just all ended up in one novel.
Knot Centre is such an unforgettable character. What was the inspiration for her?
The outer, superficial shell of Knot is based on a person who I actually knew. Her nickname was Knot. She was my great-uncle's girlfriend for a time, and she passed away when I was 10 years old. I knew very, very little about her except that she was an alcoholic. That was almost the extent of it. She was like the town wino. My great-uncle also had a very serious drinking problem during that time, so they were a perfect couple, you know?
She was very fascinating to me because people seemed to love her and treat her with a certain amount of respect. People had a hard time telling her no when she asked for rides and that sort of thing, and what that said to me is that people must have known Knot to have once been a person who was not messy, for lack of a better word.
But I wasn't able to get real answers about what was Knot like before she was an alcoholic. My mother would be like, "Well, I've only known Knot as an alcoholic, so I don't know." I was just so curious about what she would've been like before the drinking got serious. Even if she started drinking as a very young woman, I wanted to know what else her life was like. There was no choice but for me to create it, because she's been long deceased.
It seems like a lot of your writing is kind of a way to tell the stories of people that you knew, but that you might not have known so much about. Does writing fiction help you understand these people whom you might not have understood otherwise?
I think it does, and it does a couple of things. There’s a little bit of a historian inside of me. It allows me to explore that part of me, and look at when people were born and all that kind of stuff and just try to imagine what things would've been like for them. But it also allows me to put people who have been marginalized, the types of people that we tend not to think much about on a day-to-day basis,on the front line.
Knot isn’t what most people would call a conventionally likable character. Was it challenging to write about a protagonist who isn't necessarily the most virtuous person in the world?
Yeah, it was, because I tend not to stay in contact with people like Knot. So I had to create that snarky, angry, "leave me alone" type of attitude. I had to draw from just many, many experiences I've had with other people. But I didn't want her to be an alcoholic, but otherwise perfect. I wanted her to be an alcoholic and ornery, but also smart, and have her reasons for being ornery.
One of the things that struck me in the book is the friendship between Knot and Otis Lee. It seems like it's relatively rare in fiction to see platonic relationships between men and women. Did you always envision Knot and Otis Lee having a non-romantic relationship?
Yes. Before I started writing, the novel started off as a short story, and then eventually I kept getting advice to make it into a novel. When I finally took that advice, I thought, "This novel is not going to work unless I make them romantic partners."
But when I started thinking more about it, it was like, "I'm not going to force that." That's not what I intended. In the book it wouldn't be believable because the two of them have so many contrasts that they could only be friends and not romantically involved. So I decided that they would have to be platonic. There was just a little bit of thought for a moment that there would have to be some romantic interest, but I canceled that fairly early on.
I feel like you don't see that a lot in literature. All my best friends growing up were women, but it's rare to see that reflected in a novel.
Right, and that's what made me stick to the decision to not let them be romantically involved, because growing up as a gay teen and preteen, most of my friendships were with girls. Girls were who were more available to me, and I thought, "This novel can reflect that people from opposite sex can have best friendships."
When you were writing the book, did you go back to North Carolina to do any kind of research, or was it mostly based on your childhood there?
I did, but none of it made into the book. In an early draft, some of the town’s origins are mentioned, like when the town was founded and that sort of thing. I ended up cutting it because, first of all, I had to remind myself that I wasn't writing a historical textbook. And all that stuff really wasn't important.
The dialogue in the book captures the North Carolina accent really well, I thought. How did you go about capturing that dialect and that accent of the characters?
It wasn't a challenge, because I grew up listening to that. Most people in my hometown don't speak that way today in 2019, but I grew up — I didn't go to a day care. Day care for me was old women in the neighborhood. So I was around that sort of speech, that kind of talk, every day up until I went to kindergarten.
The book covers decades in the lives of the people of West Mills. How radically do you think that either North Carolina or the South in general has changed in the years since the beginning of the novel?
I think that certain areas have probably changed a lot. But unfortunately, I would venture to say that small towns have not changed much in terms of attitude and that sort of thing. They may change, they have nice hotels and lots of fancy car dealerships and stuff like that, but I think people on a large scale still feel the same way about social issues as they did probably in the ’40s, sadly. Because those teachings get passed down.
Schaub is a writer in Texas.