An Addict, a Confessed Killer and Now a Debut Author
COLDWATER, Mich.—One October night in 2004, Curtis Dawkins smoked crack, dressed up for Halloween in a gangster costume and terrorized a household, killing one man and taking another hostage in a rampage that drew 24 patrol officers and a six-member SWAT team. He is serving a life sentence without parole in Michigan.
On Tuesday, he will also be a published author when his debut story collection is released by Scribner, a literary imprint at one of the country’s top publishing houses. The unlikely story of how Mr. Dawkins, a recovering addict and confessed killer, landed a major book deal is a strange inversion of the usual prison-writing trajectory:
Mr. Dawkins began as writer, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree before he committed his crime. And while his book, “The Graybar Hotel,” has received early praise from writers like Roddy Doyle and Atticus Lish, its release has also raised uncomfortable questions for the publisher as it tries to win over booksellers and critics to rally behind a work by an unknown debut writer — who is also a convicted murderer.
Most of the stories in “The Graybar Hotel” take place in jail or prison and are narrated in the first person, often by an unnamed prisoner. In “573543,” an inmate called Pepper Pie is given a dead man’s prison identification number and learns to become invisible and pass through walls, eventually escaping. The story’s title comes from Mr. Dawkins’s real prison ID number.
In “The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much,” the narrator is quarantined and undergoes psychological evaluation before being assigned to one of Michigan’s prisons. The protagonist’s crime is never revealed, but his guilt is palpable. The smell of burning tobacco “caused me to think of home and all the pain I’d caused,” he reflects. “I thought of my children and freedom, everything I’d taken and lost.”
The novelist Nickolas Butler said he was hesitant to endorse the book, given the gravity of Mr. Dawkins’s crime. He ultimately gave it a glowing blurb, calling the stories “authentic and rare” after learning of Mr. Dawkins’s remorse. “I wanted to know what happened and where he is with that now, because obviously there was a family that was shattered by his actions,” he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of members of that family have serious misgivings. Kenneth Bowman, the victim’s younger brother, said he wished that Mr. Dawkins, now 49, had received the death penalty. “I don’t think he should have the right to publish anything,” said Mr. Bowman, a contractor in Phoenix. “He should be doing nothing in that prison but going through hell for the rest of his life.”
Readers may have their own qualms and questions. Mr. Dawkins briefly refers to his crime in the book’s acknowledgments in a cursory mention that hardly captures the night of the shooting and its horrific aftermath, writing, “There’s often so much sadness and grief in my heart, it feels like I might explode.”
Nearly 13 years later, Mr. Dawkins still cannot fathom what drove him to murder.
“I don’t want to blame the drugs and say that it wasn’t me, because part of it was me,” he said during an interview. “I’ve spent the years afterwards trying to understand the events of that night.”
A Relapse, Then Violence
Mr. Dawkins grew up in Louisville, Ill., where his family ran a grocery store and meatpacking plant.
He started drinking when he was 12, a habit that worsened in his 20s, leading him to drop out of college.
In 1991, he went to an addiction treatment center and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He eventually got sober and took a job in his father’s meatpacking business. When a man he met at A.A. gave Mr. Dawkins books by Faulkner and Salinger, he fell in love with fiction and went back to school to study English at Southern Illinois University.
He later enrolled in a graduate writing program at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where he studied with Elizabeth McCracken, Jaimy Gordon and Stuart Dybek. In a writing workshop, he met Kimberly Knutsen, a Ph.D. student in English, and in 1998, they started dating. She had a 3-year-old son, Henry, and after they had been together for several months, they had a son, Elijah, born prematurely, at 26 weeks. About two years later, they had a daughter, Lily Rose, also premature.
They bought a house in nearby Portage, Mich., and Mr. Dawkins found a job as a car salesman while Ms. Knutsen worked on her dissertation. He went to A.A. meetings regularly, attended a nondenominational church and took the children to Pokémon conferences and baseball games.
But money was tight, and the couple argued. Mr. Dawkins began to slip back into addiction, starting with prescription painkillers. He started using ketamine, then heroin. In the summer of 2004, Ms. Knutsen asked him to move out. As his drug use escalated, he became paranoid about meeting drug dealers and bought a gun for protection, a Smith & Wesson .357-caliber revolver.
The night he killed Thomas Bowman, 48, a house painter who lived in Kalamazoo near the college campus, Mr. Dawkins went first to see Ms. Knutsen and the children. They had dinner together, and he watched a baseball game on TV with Henry, who was 10. He said he was going home to watch a movie and would call Ms. Knutsen later. It was Saturday, Oct. 30, and he planned to come back the next night to hand out candy while Ms. Knutsen went trick-or-treating with Henry; Lily Rose, 4; and Elijah, who was almost 6.
Instead, he went to the north side of Kalamazoo and bought and smoked crack, which he later told the police that he had never tried before. He drank alcohol for the first time in years. At some point, he put on a Halloween costume, a 1920s-style gangster suit and hat purchased at Goodwill, and a menacing flesh-colored mask. He grabbed his gun and wandered down the block to some off-campus Halloween parties.
The first 911 call came in around 1:40 a.m., according to the police report. Mr. Dawkins had approached a group of people on the street, in front of a house where a party was going on. A young man named Jarrod Keeler asked Mr. Dawkins what his costume was supposed to be. Mr. Dawkins suddenly pulled out his revolver and put it against Mr. Keeler’s forehead. Mr. Keeler, who at first thought the gun was part of a costume, grabbed at the revolver, and Mr. Dawkins ran down the street, firing into the air.
He ended up in front of Mr. Bowman’s house. Mr. Bowman was on the porch, smoking a cigarette. Mr. Dawkins asked him for money. When Mr. Bowman refused and told him to leave, Mr. Dawkins shot him in the chest.
A nearby police officer heard gunfire, called for backup and headed toward the house. He could see Mr. Dawkins through the windows. Mr. Dawkins started banging on the doors of the rooms where Mr. Bowman’s housemates were sleeping. One of them climbed out of his window onto the roof of the porch to escape. Another locked his door.
The third, James Honz, opened his door, and Mr. Dawkins entered with his gun raised and ordered him to sit on his bed. Then he pointed his revolver at Mr. Honz’s head and told him to kneel. He asked Mr. Honz if he was afraid to die, and told him to get ready to meet Jesus.
A six-member SWAT team arrived at the house, where Mr. Dawkins had barricaded the bedroom door with a mini-refrigerator and an air conditioner. When the police tried to ram through, he shot at the wall and yelled that he would kill anyone who entered.
One of the officers tried talking to Mr. Dawkins, asking if he believed in God, and telling him that God would forgive him. Mr. Dawkins let Mr. Honz go, then shut the door and asked for a phone. He wanted to call Ms. Knutsen and the children to say goodbye before he shot himself. Mr. Dawkins eventually came out shortly before 4 a.m. with his hands up.
The detective who took Mr. Dawkins’s videotaped confession, Michael Slancik, said Mr. Dawkins had seemed dazed and unclear about why he had done it. “He wasn’t a jerk, he wasn’t yelling, he wasn’t bouncing off the walls or anything,” Detective Slancik said. “I’m going to actually say that he was calm.”
The victim, Mr. Bowman, had had a difficult childhood, and suffered from a learning disability so severe that he didn’t learn to read until he was 17. He eventually got his G.E.D., married and later divorced, and started his own business. He was a well-known figure in his corner of Kalamazoo, where he served on the neighborhood watch and delivered food to neighbors who were elderly or on welfare.
“Tom wasn’t a perfect person, but he tried, and his death has left a big hole,” his brother Kenneth said.
Mr. Dawkins was convicted on nine counts, including felony murder. At the trial, Mr. Bowman’s mother, Sharon Hilton, confronted him, and said that she forgave him despite the pain he had caused.
“Obviously it wasn’t easy,” Ms. Hilton, a devout Christian, said in a phone interview from her home in Crab Orchard, Tenn. Now, she feels pity for Mr. Dawkins more than anything, and said she was happy that he’s found a purpose through writing. “I can’t think of anything more horrific than having to spend your life in prison,” she said.
Commercial and Ethical Barriers
It’s surprising how little contemporary fiction has emerged from American prisons. More than two million people in the United States are incarcerated, and many prisons have writing programs. PEN America runs a writing program that reaches more than 20,000 prisoners. But very little contemporary prison literature is released by major publishing houses, which seldom consider writers who are not represented by agents and which may be wary of the logistical and ethical pitfalls of working with convicts.
In 1981, Random House published “In the Belly of the Beast,” a collection of writing by Jack Henry Abbott, a convict who served time for bank robbery and other crimes. He was befriended by Norman Mailer, who lobbied for Mr. Abbott to go free. Shortly after his release, Mr. Abbott was arrested in New York for stabbing a waiter to death.
Prisoners are allowed to write and publish books under the First Amendment, so the barriers tend to be commercial and ethical rather than legal. In some states, convicts are prohibited from personally profiting from a work of nonfiction that describes their crimes, and money made from such works can be seized and put in a fund for victims or their families.
In 1991, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s “Son of Sam” law, which barred convicted criminals from profiting by writing books or creating other forms of entertainment based on their crimes. The court determined that the law was too broad and violated free speech protections, ruling in favor of the plaintiff, Simon & Schuster, which had paid the convicted mobster Henry Hill to publish a book based on his life.
Scribner faces an awkward challenge in promoting “The Graybar Hotel.” While early reviews have been largely positive, “some people have been scared off by his circumstances and have mixed feelings about supporting somebody who’s committed the kind of crime that he has,” Kathy Belden, Mr. Dawkins’s editor, said.
Those who knew Mr. Dawkins in graduate school were shocked and unnerved by his crime. After his arrest, one of his former writing teachers, Ms. Gordon, reached out to Ms. Knutsen. No one wrote to Mr. Dawkins.
About a year after the trial, Ms. Knutsen and the children moved to Portland, Ore. She still speaks to Mr. Dawkins on the phone nearly every day and refers to him as her partner and best friend. She has never gotten over the shock of what happened.
“It’s like a bomb that just keeps going off,” she said.
Elijah, who just graduated from high school, suffered from acute anxiety and missed a year of middle school. Lily Rose, 16, was so distraught when the family last visited Mr. Dawkins three years ago that she wouldn’t go in to see him. Henry, 22, remains close to Mr. Dawkins and speaks to him several times a week. He still has dreams about bumping into Mr. Dawkins in the grocery store, then wakes up and remembers that Mr. Dawkins will never get out of prison.
For the first 10 months he was incarcerated, Mr. Dawkins couldn’t write. Jail was crowded and chaotic, and he felt suicidal. Once he got to quarantine, where he underwent psychological evaluations before being assigned to a prison, he wrote down the first line of his short story, “County,” inspired by his experience when he was first incarcerated in the Kalamazoo County jail. Like Mr. Dawkins, the narrator suffers from opiate withdrawal and is considered a suicide risk.
Writing became an escape for Mr. Dawkins.
“A part of me realized, if I’m going to live through this, I’m going to have to find a purpose,” he said.
With an electric typewriter sent by his parents, he typed his stories and mailed them to his younger sister, who submitted them to literary magazines. Most of his queries were met with silence or rejection, but a few stories were published in small journals.
Last year, Jarrett Haley, the founder of a small literary magazine, Bull, gave a selection of the stories to a literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra. A few days after she signed Mr. Dawkins, Ms. Dijkstra sold the stories to Scribner for a low-six-figure advance; Mr. Dawkins’s share goes into an education fund for his children.
Nan Graham, Scribner’s senior vice president and publisher, said that when she first read the work, she was astonished that Mr. Dawkins had managed to create “such devastating stories out of tedium.”
“There are a lot of people in prison who try to learn how to write, but there aren’t very many people who go into prison with an M.F.A. and with the tool kit to write fiction,” she said.
Mr. Dawkins — who is wiry, with short, thinning gray hair, a narrow face and watchful hazel eyes — comes across as a bookish introvert. During a two-and-a-half-hour interview at Lakeland Correctional Facility, he weighed his words carefully and appeared most at ease talking about the writers he admires — Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Joy Williams. He has the opening of Mr. Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” tattooed across his chest: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”
Recently, Mr. Dawkins has worked on a futuristic novel set in a massive, hivelike subterranean prison. The surreal setting seems to reflect something Mr. Dawkins still struggles with: the reality that he’s probably never getting out.
“I don’t know if I have come to terms with it,” he said. “Sometimes, walking around the yard, I still catch myself thinking, How’d you end up here?”