The PEN Ten: An Interview with De’Shawn Charles Winslow
In his new novel, Decent People (Bloomsbury, 2023), De’Shawn Charles Winslow returns to the fictional town of West Mills. This time, with a mystery at the heart of the story.
In conversation with PEN America’s Community Outreach Manager, Alejandro Heredia for this week’s PEN Ten, De’Shawn discusses bringing his experiences of rural small town communities to the page (Amazon, Bookshop).
1. How was the experience of writing your second novel different from writing your first novel?
In West Mills wasn’t very plot-driven and it jumped whole years and decades. So I didn’t have to worry too much about pacing. But with Decent People, I had to be hyper aware of pacing because I didn’t want the murder mystery element of the book to last decades. I also had to constantly remind myself that there was a mystery in the background of the novel that needed to be attended to in just about each chapter. It was a lot of fun, but it was an exercise in staying on track.
2. It was really exciting to see characters from your first novel, like Knot, pop up again in Decent People. Can you give us a little bit of insight into your process of expanding the world of West Mills this time around? How did it feel returning to West Mills?
I loved returning to West Mills because, for me, it’s like being in the real town of South Mills, NC, which I know so well. What takes place in Decent People could probably take place in any small rural town that borders another state. It’s such a specific place, and yet, I feel anyone who has lived outside of a big city can understand how the town operates. Bringing back a few of the characters from In West Mills was fun for me because it gave me an excuse to spend more time with them. Haha.
“What takes place in Decent People could probably take place in any small rural town that borders another state. It’s such a specific place, and yet, I feel anyone who has lived outside of a big city can understand how the town operates.”
3. Though we have such deep character studies, as is common in literary fiction, in Decent People there’s also a propulsive energy that keeps the reader turning the page to witness the novel’s mystery unfold. Did you read a lot of mystery or crime novels as research for the book? What’s your relationship to the genres?
I’m not an avid reader of mystery or thriller at all. I watch more mystery/thriller TV than I read the genre. I sampled some mysteries just to get an idea of the common structure and pacing, but I’ve only read one mystery cover to cover. I think I’ll read more mysteries now because I do eventually want to write another. But, I prefer to read character-driven books with some plot humming in the background, and now I think that’s what I like to write.
4. There’s a real exploration in Decent People of the role of community when institutions that are supposed to serve people fail to do so. Jo wouldn’t have to go on the journey that she does if the police department in West Mills was actually doing the investigative work they needed to do. Can you speak a little to what went into creating the nuanced community dynamics in this novel?
So many of the characters in Decent People are on a quest for respectability–– their own and/or that of their children. I wanted to show what lengths people would go to just to conceal truths: a child’s queerness, an addiction, hypocrisy. I don’t know that I was going for nuance, exactly. I think I was just portraying people the way I’ve often encountered them.
5. Each chapter of the novel follows a specific character. On a craft level, how did you decide which characters would get their own chapters? Did you always know the novel would be structured like this, or is that something that came to you while writing?
One thing I was certain of from the outset was that La’Roy would not have his own chapters. The reason for that is I’m not yet ready to write fiction from the P.O.V. of a queer character. I find myself interested in how non-queer people/characters react to queerness. As for the other characters, there were characters who tumbled out of the book altogether, and at one point, Lymp was going to have his own chapters. But when I had a hard time imagining enough chapters from his perspective, I decided to just make him part of Jo’s chapters. I guess a lot of those decisions were made while writing.
“I wanted to show what lengths people would go to just to conceal truths: a child’s queerness, an addiction, hypocrisy. I don’t know that I was going for nuance, exactly. I think I was just portraying people the way I’ve often encountered them.”
6. Through a few of its roster of characters, the book also comments on queer Black life in a small southern town. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write about the experiences of characters like Herschel and La’Roy?
While I don’t share the exact experiences Herschel and La’Roy suffer, I, like Herschel, knew that the only way for me to have anything close to a nice life as a queer man, was to leave my hometown and go to a bigger city. And that’s what I did in ’98 when I moved to Durham, NC.
Like La’Roy, I know what it feels like to be known among teens and adults, alike, as one of the town’s “funny” boys. In a small town, there’s really nowhere to hide. With it already being hard enough for Black people in a small, still kind of segregated place, having another difference that’s viewed as “bad” only makes things harder, more isolating.
7. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process, and how did you overcome it?
I think I will forever want to write the 80-page novel. So, I always get a bit frustrated about having to stretch a story out. But after I’ve done it, I’m always glad I did.
8. If you could claim any writer(s) from the past as part of your own literary tradition, who would you claim?
I’ve learned so much from all of Toni Morrison’s novels. Hers and Alice Walker’s work gave me the courage to write about fraught family and community dynamics.
“In a small town, there’s really nowhere to hide. With it already being hard enough for Black people in a small, still kind of segregated place, having another difference that’s viewed as “bad” only makes things harder, more isolating.“
9. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
There are so many, so I’ll name just a few: Jamila Minnicks, Tyriek White, and William Pei Shih.
10. I have to ask! Do you think we’ll be returning to West Mills for your next project? Are there other questions, characters, or histories you’re interested in exploring in this town?
I’ll shelve West Mills for my 3rd project, but I plan to return to it eventually. There are some characters I’m not through with yet.
De’Shawn Charles Winslow is the author of In West Mills, a Center for Fiction First Novel Prize winner, an American Book Award recipient, and a Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction winner, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book, Lambda Literary, and Publishing Triangle awards. He was born and raised in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.