De’Shawn Charles Winslow created one of the most memorable characters in fiction

Azelea “Knot” Centre, the main character in De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut In West Mills is easily one of the most memorable characters I’ve been introduced to recently. She is, excuse the cliche, a tour-de-force. Is she a saint? No, far from it. Her flaws make her as realistic as a character on page can be. If this book ever gets adapted in Hollywood (it should), whichever actress is lucky enough to play Knot will be stepping into an Oscar-worthy role due to how perfect Winslow wrote her.

The character inhabits a small North Carolina town, the titular West Mills, where the slow way of life means residents must fill their time with gossiping about other folk’s business. These secret lives and relationships are at the crux of the story, as Knot navigates life as both the protagonist and antagonist, depending on which character you ask.

I wanted to get to know more about how Winslow approached character development and setting in In West Mills, and spoke with him just days after his debut hit the shelves at bookstores.

Author photo: Julie R Keresztes

I want to start with Knot. I think a lot of people will have a lot of opinions about her once they read this novel. Who is Knot to you and where did she come from?

When I was a child, my great-uncle had a girlfriend whose nickname was Knot. She was a lot and had a lot going on. She was an alcoholic, much like the Knot in the novel. She was fairly well put together. She was a well-respected town alcoholic. I didn’t know much about her, but I knew she could make people laugh. I knew she could make people do what she wanted. If she wanted a dollar, people gave it to her. If she wanted a ride, people gave it to her.

She passed away when I was ten and didn’t know much about her. She always stuck with me. Her name comes up at family gatherings even to this day. She was the impetus for the novel.

Was Knot always who you were going to write about?

I think about her off and on all of the time. When I first started writing period, she was not on my mind. Another project I was working on hit a brick wall and Knot happened to be on my mind. I thought maybe I start a novel with that kernel.

What did you want the novel to be able to do once you did have Knot in mind?

I wanted to write about a female character who was strong and independent, but not perfect. I think a lot of times, a female character is often written as kind of perfect. I think a characters, especially women, can be those positive qualities, but also be terribly flawed at the same time. I wanted to create a character who was for real. 

I’ve seen some reviews call her an anti-heroine. Is that a label you would subscribe her to?

No – that term wasn’t even something I was aware of. I would imagine if Knot was interviewed and asked that, she would agree she is an anti-heroine. She just wants to be and be left alone. She just wants to drink and do her thing.

You mention her flaws, but what characteristics of hers do you admire?

I love that she sticks to her guns almost throughout the whole novel. Once she realizes she is not mother material, she sticks to that idea. She doesn’t try to her Fran and Eunice’s mom. She just wants them to not be angry with her. She also believes in keeping secrets. She believes not everything needs to be told. There are secrets she keeps and one she reveals at the end, but I do that off stage because I want to stick to her as much as possible.

Knot is such a great characters. Are there any other characters you created in this world who also stick out in your mind as a standout?

Even though Pip doesn’t have a huge role, I really liked writing her. She is also someone who is strong willed and loving. She’s also flawed though. She keeps secrets and stands in the back. She’s a real person. She could be a great, loving person, but if she is backed into a wall, she does what she has to do to get out of the corner.

The characters really make this novel, but the novel isn’t called Knot. It’s named after the town. How important was it to develop West Mills and the secrets that it holds?

Since this is such a small community where everyone knows a lot about each other, you can see how knowledge influences how the characters interact with each other. Once you know something about someone, you can’t un-know it. 

The small town setting was vital. I could not have set this novel in a big city because characters wouldn’t have cared about each other that much. Especially the private lives. It had to be set in a small town.

You grew up in Elizabeth City, a small town in North Carolina but have lived in New York City for a long time now. Was it natural to write about a fictional small town in North Carolina?

It was. Everything I tried to write has been set in a small Southern town.

You mentioned why this novel needed to be set in a small town, but what about those other projects? What about small, rural, towns attract you so much?

I think at heart, I am a small town person. Even though I live in New York and don’t see myself living in a small town again, I like them. I like the peace and that people know each other. It’s hard for me to try to write something where there are a million people. My mind can’t even go there. 

I’m always interested in regionalism of America. The Carolinas are apart of the South, but they’re vastly different than Mississippi or Texas even. What about those states make them different from the rest of the South?

I can only speak from what I have heard of people who live or from other parts of the South. From what I understand there is still a lot of segregation in states like Louisiana, Mississippi, or even parts of Georgia. I find that the Carolinas, while they still have some segregation, it doesn’t seem as vast as other states. I can understand why people from farther south don’t view the Carolinas as the South because they seem more liberal.

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