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De'Shawn Charles Winslow on his new novel 'Decent People'


We're going to return now to West Mills, N.C. That's the setting of De'Shawn Charles Winslow's first novel called "In West Mills." It won a passel of awards. Now it's 1976, and Dr. Marian Harmon, the only Black physician in town, has been found shot to death alongside her brother Laz and her sister Marva in their home. Many suspect Olympus Seymore, known as Lymp, the half-brother who lived next door. But white authorities in town don't seem much interested. And it falls to Jo Wright, who's just moved back, to ask some hard questions and look for the killer. "Decent People" is the title of this new novel. De'Shawn Charles Winslow joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DE'SHAWN CHARLES WINSLOW: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Jo has been in Harlem for decades and has become a fixture of life there...


SIMON: ...Working, living, having husbands. What brings her back to West Mills?

WINSLOW: Retirement is sort of the primary reason. She decides that she wants to move back south. It was where she grew up. Well, part of her childhood was there, and she was snatched away abruptly for reasons that she doesn't learn until the end of the novel.

SIMON: Yeah.

WINSLOW: When she goes to purchase a home, she reunites with Lymp. She decides that she's going to go back home and marry him. So that's what takes her back.

SIMON: And why does community suspicion fall on Lymp in this murder?

WINSLOW: Because, well, he's their half-brother, but also there's a history of them never having gotten along or being close. And more immediately, he has really been angry with Marian. He asked her for a loan. And not only did she decline, you know, she made fun of him needing the money and humiliated him.

SIMON: Yeah.

WINSLOW: And he was very vocal about that to some people in town.

SIMON: Well, tell us about West Mills. And, of course, I have to ask, you, grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C. Boy, you must get tired of being asked this, but is West Mills Elizabeth City?

WINSLOW: No. West Mills is based on a neighboring town called South Mills, N.C. And that is where my mother was born and raised.

SIMON: Well, tell us about West Mills, the place that you've created. The novel's set in 1976.

WINSLOW: It's a small town, and everyone truly knows everyone. It doesn't mean everyone communicates, but people know who you are, who your family is, how long your family has been around. They can spot an outsider right away. You know, they know people's cars and faces they've never seen before. And it is a segregated town. You know, the canal - it's a color line. And people would largely stick to that rule.

SIMON: And what brings you back there for your novels?

WINSLOW: Well, part of it is logistics. When I decided to write "Decent People" and I decided that I wanted to reuse the Lovings - Eunice, Breezy and her son La'Roy. And I was like, either I'm going to move them to someplace else (laughter) - you know? - or I'm just going to stick with the same setting.

SIMON: Yeah. La'Roy was - tugged on my heartstrings. I found myself very moved by him, yeah.

WINSLOW: Yeah. He's - 14-year-old queer kid. And he's tortured. And, you know - well, I don't know that he's tortured so much that his mother is, you know? But he is a little bit of a pariah. But, you know, La'Roy was actually happy. You know, it was when people start to want to change him that things start to go wrong.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, then he runs into people who think there's some kind of - you know - oh, there must be some kind of treatment for this.

WINSLOW: Right. Right.

SIMON: Totally personal question, but I think you would agree that maybe your novels call out this question. Do you know what it's like to feel a little bit like La'Roy?

WINSLOW: Oh, yeah - 100% - probably not as - in such a dramatic way. Fortunately, my parents never tried to have me fixed. Well, you know, I'll take that back. I think my parents did in their own way try to have me changed. But I think it was not through any form of violence, or at least not physical violence. But I think I share a story with La'Roy and a lot of my gay peers, people around my age range - I'm 43 - where our parents do try to force us to do more masculine things around that age. But I was fortunate in that my parents sort of gave up in that way. They realized that I just wasn't going to do it, and they weren't going to spend - use resources on it.

SIMON: Do you feel, Mr. Winslow, as a novelist, that you have a responsibility at some point to give every character their chance to be understood?

WINSLOW: Yes, I'll say I don't know if it's a responsibility, but it's something that I choose to do, because I could easily write a white man in the '70s in a town like this. I could easily make him a one-note monster. But I don't believe any human being is one-note. I don't know that it makes people all good, but I do think most human beings have something hidden away (laughter), you know, that is kind. So I choose to try to show something good about every character, even if it's just one moment.

SIMON: De'Shawn Charles Winslow's new novel is "Decent People."

Thank you so much for being with us.

WINSLOW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.