In West Mills, the debut novel from De’Shawn Charles Winslow, follows the life of Azalea “Knot” Centre—a brazen, eccentric resident of the small, rural town of West Mills in North Carolina—over the course of four decades. The novel examines themes of secrecy, family (both chosen and unchosen), the kindness of neighbors, and the reckoning of addiction and intimacy.
Winslow’s characters come alive in this short novel, which thrives on the complex nature of relationships and how they impact the residents of West Mills. By the end of the novel, I found myself wishing I didn’t have to leave these unique characters behind. Winslow has bestowed them with a graceful, tender humanity—replete with all its joys and sorrows, harmony and discord.
De’Shawn Charles Winslow was born and raised in a rural town in North Carolina. He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017 and holds a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English Literature from Brooklyn College. Winslow has received scholarships from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He currently resides in East Harlem.
Winslow and I had the opportunity to chat recently via phone about the immense timeline of this short novel, the family you choose, and the platonic nature of true friendship. The author is just as graceful and kind as the characters he crafted in this much-anticipated debut novel.
The Rumpus: The novel begins in 1941 and ends in 1987, a span of over four decades. As Garth Greenwell notes, the “scope of this thin novel” really is astonishing. From a craft perspective, how did you manage the sprawling timeline?
De’Shawn Charles Winslow: I knew I did not want to write a five-hundred-page novel. I basically turned to novels or stories that I either read or that people told me about that covered forty or fifty years. If it’s been done, I figured I could try it. The first part was just knowing myself and knowing I didn’t want to write a really long novel. And I just said to myself, “I’m going to skip over some decades. I’m just going to do it. And some people will say, ‘What happened in these years?’” I’d make sure that it didn’t matter. That was the strategy.
Rumpus: I think you were really successful with that. I never found myself needing to fill in the blanks beyond what was on the page. You trusted the reader to make those jumps.
Winslow: Yes, I figure the reader will see. They’ll see people aging. For example, when they see Knot’s daughters aging, they’ll just assume they lived regular teenage lives.
Rumpus: The characters in this book are so lovely and endearing. I’m curious about how long you lived with these characters before sitting down to pen the first draft of the novel.
Winslow: I would say that, for most of them, probably forever. There’s a little bit of my mom, a little bit of my dad, a little bit of me, all my aunts and uncles. Everyone and their personalities show up in the novel. Knot is probably the only one I had to create. While I knew a woman named Knot when I was a child—she was the girlfriend of a great uncle—she died when I was ten, and I wasn’t around her on a daily basis. I had to create Knot. The only thing I pulled from the real Knot was the alcoholism.
Rumpus: Azalea “Knot” Centre, the main character of the novel, is a highly-educated, eccentric, somewhat-crass lover of men, literature, and moonshine. She stands out in this small town. What was it like to plop her down in the middle of a place like West Mills?
Winslow: You know, it was fun. It was me sort of imagining myself returning home. Not that people in my hometown aren’t educated, but I come from a small rural town. There’s a university, and there’s a community college. Large scale, though, people are blue collar workers. People tend not to be avid readers there. I just thought, I’m going to imagine what it would be like if I moved to a small rural town in the late 1930s or ‘40s.
Rumpus: In the acknowledgments, you mention growing up “village-style.” One of the things I loved about the novel was the way in which West Mills acts as an anchor for these characters. They’re almost like boomerangs, like they can’t help but return. I’m curious how much your village-style upbringing informed the sense of place that West Mills has in the book.
Winslow: It informed it a lot. Everyone, to varying degrees, is in everyone’s business and life. Neighbors who don’t even necessarily like each other tend to figure out a way to get along. They find themselves knowing way too much about each other’s lives. Growing up that way, there was no way I couldn’t put it in the book. It’s such a part of who I am and the way I was raised and the way I saw people interact with each other. That part came easily.
Rumpus: My family is from the South. My mother and father were next-door neighbors in Texas. In my experience, familial secrecy is embedded in Southern culture, and secrets are a central theme in the novel. I was hoping you could speak about the way you threaded secrets through In West Mills.
Winslow: I have Margot Livesey to thank for the idea of adding secrets, because I think initially there were just a couple big secrets. During one of Margot’s lectures, she said something like, “Secrets never hurt a plot.” A secret gives people something to hide, something to react to when they learn the truth. As I was writing, I kept running into spots where I could drop in another secret. For example, Pep [Otis Lee’s wife] not being Otis Lee’s first lover. That just came out of nowhere. I hadn’t planned that originally. Originally, I thought they’d be each other’s first lovers. Anytime an opportunity came along, I thought, “Oh, this character can know this thing and the other one won’t know it, and I’m going to take advantage of that.” Eventually, the secret will come out and be fun for the reader. I have Margot to thank for the secrets.
Rumpus: One of the other things I really loved was the way family is defined and redefined in the novel. There’s the sense of the family you’re born into and, more importantly for Knot, there’s the family you choose. Can you discuss that idea a bit?
Winslow: That comes a lot from my adult life. I’m gay, and I grew up in a family who are politely homophobic. To this day, even though I’m openly gay and they all know it, I still can’t be completely myself with my family. But when I’m with my friends, I’m one hundred percent myself. I consider my friends to be my family, as well. And that was the idea I was going for with Knot. She’s got this mother who is high-strung, and Knot just doesn’t want to be that person. She’s got sisters who are cool, but they’re following their mother’s lead. Knot can’t sit around and drink with them. She can’t sit around and play cards with them. She can’t curse and talk about her sexual escapades. But with her friend, Valley, she can do all those things. Valley becomes like her brother.
Rumpus: The relationships in this novel are such an integral part of the story. My favorite relationship is between Knot and Otis Lee Loving. I love how heartfelt and authentic their friendship is. It seems to me that Otis Lee is the only one who continues to show up for Knot over and over again. I was curious about how that relationship developed as you were writing In West Mills.
Winslow: Initially, I was going to have there be a love interest between them. I never wrote it, but it was in my mind. When I started writing, the Otis Lee that I was sketching out was too wholesome. He’s not a cheater. He may keep a little white lie, like letting his wife think she’s his first lover, but he’s not a cheater. He’s a fixer. I wanted to have him be like a big brother, a mentor—a nagging, big brother mentor—to Knot instead of a love interest. There are plenty of other men for her to be interested in or not in this novel. Also, sometimes I think it can become just a tad cliché when the male protagonist and the female protagonist turn out to be lovers. I wanted to do something different with Knot and Otis Lee.
Rumpus: As I was reading In West Mills, I kept thinking about how well it would translate to the big screen. Were you thinking about the cinematic qualities of the story as you were writing?
Winslow: Not while I was writing it, but I understand what you mean. I did grow up watching soap operas, and the novel is written in an episodic way. One scene ends and you go right into another scene, almost like The Young and the Restless would. I think I wrote it that way because that’s what I grew up watching. But, no, as I was writing I wasn’t thinking movie or television.
Rumpus: Have you thought about it since?
Winslow: Yes, I have. [Laughter] And I would love for someone to make us an offer.
Rumpus: I hope that happens.
Winslow: Me, too.
Rumpus: How do you see this novel fitting into modern-day America, or was that even a conscious consideration when you were writing the book?
Winslow: No, not one bit. Not one bit. Right now, just about every story I have in mind is set in the past. I can’t imagine writing characters that have cell phones, that can text each other. Even when we get into the 1960s and ‘70s, it’s not until the very end of the novel that I give Knot a telephone. I want her to go to people’s houses. I want her to walk through Otis Lee’s door. Like when she goes to see Valley that one morning—she’s heading over there to fuss at him—she catches a ride to his house, because she can’t just pick up the phone and call him.
Rumpus: When you think about people reading this novel, what are you most excited for readers to discover?
Winslow: I think I’m most excited for readers to discover that people can have really strong friendships without having romantic or sexual attraction to each other. Not that the concept is new to the world or anything, but I wanted to reiterate it. The other thing is about people with addictions. While the addiction tends to rule most of their lives, there are parts of them that still live. The pre-addiction parts. The example here is Knot: She drinks every moment she gets a chance, but she still loves to read British literature and bake cobblers for folks. And she has these philosophical morals about the way women should behave around men—and by “behave,” I mean not behave for men. And that women don’t have to do what society tells them to do. On another level, I want younger readers, the ones who are maybe twenty-five or younger, I want them to know there was a world that existed before them. I want them to know that this was the way people loved and communicated before the age of Internet and cell phones. Before the age of selfishness, if I can be blunt. People cared about each other as neighbors and knew each other well. Sometimes I think that gets lost these days.
Rumpus: It’s probably a bit early to ask this, but I can’t help myself. Are you working on something new at the moment?
Winslow: Yes, I’m working on another novel. All I can say at this moment, because it’s very early stage is that, unless I change my mind, it will also be set in West Mills. It’s not exactly a sequel, but maybe you can call it a spin-off. There will be a few characters from In West Mills who will appear in the novel, but the majority of the characters will be brand-new.
Photograph of De’Shawn Charles by Julie R. Keresztes.