Featured Writer Carlos Dews Interviewed by Juan Villacreces

Carlos Dews

Carlos Dews (1963-), born in Nacogdoches, Texas, holds an M.A. and Ph.D in American Literature (University of Minnesota) and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing (The New School). He is a noted scholar of American novelist Carson McCullers, having written a dissertation on and later edited her autobiography, published as Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers (1999). From 2001 to 2003, he served as Founding Director for the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, in Columbus, Georgia. Other academic endeavors include two essay collections co-edited with Carolyn Leste Law: This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (1995) and Out in the South (2001). In fiction, he has co-authored the Novel of Secrets paranormal thriller series with crime writer S.J. Rozan (under the joint pseudonym Sam Cabot), and is currently working on the solo novel Hush for Negative Capability Press. He lives in Rome, Italy, where he serves as professor and Chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University.

JV—It’s the final days of July—the summer solstice may have passed, but at a mildly-tolerable 92 degrees, the season continues as strong as ever here in Mobile. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially as I prepare for Carlos Dews’s interview (conducted virtually!) from the comfort of a well-regulated, air-conditioned room, that these temperatures are a rather tangible, unavoidable expression of how Southern culture expresses itself. The summer heat presages hot Fourth of July barbecues, a time to both celebrate with our loved ones and celebrate the South’s strong patriotic identity; invites a time to relax on our porches (or balconies, for the apartment sort) with damp cups of tea perspiring in our hands; beats down on agricultural workers as the summer harvests are collected and proudly displayed at farmers markets around the city.

It’s a South that Carlos Dews hasn’t lived in for many years. I wonder to myself, how much is different in Rome, where he is now? Is it different enough to forget the ubiquities of Texas, how it felt to live surrounded by Southernism, day after day for years? I can relate; I myself have only come to Mobile in the last year, arriving from southern Florida, where, some would argue, its multiculturality may dilute the “true” Southern identity. I know a little bit about Carlos from previous correspondence—he grew up in Texas but has also lived in Florida, and he used to play the bass trombone, not too dissimilarly from my years playing the alto saxophone—so I can’t help but wonder if he’d know what I’m talking about here. Perhaps it’s good that I’ve sat down to carry out this conversation with him—a couple of cultural expatriates.

It’s 76 degrees in Rome right now. Maybe he was the lucky one.

Juan Villacreces: I know we’re not meeting in person, but Negative Capability Press likes to think of itself as global. I myself grew up in Ecuador before living in the States, and you’re living in Italy after growing up in the South. If we were to meet anywhere for this interview, where would you like to be?

Carlos Dews: I think the ideal setting for an interview about Hush, given its setting, would be in the shade of a pine tree in Nacogdoches County, Texas.

Villacreces: Where in Texas is Nacogdoches County, exactly? What is it famous for? Sue Walker, the publisher of Negative Capability Press, said that when you visited her in Mobile, Alabama, you brought her some delectable sweet potatoes still dusted with Texas soil.

Dews: Nacogdoches County is a couple of hours north of Houston, in what is known as Deep East Texas. In my biased opinion it is the most beautiful and unfortunately least known part of the state. It is mostly rural and agricultural, the entire county has a population of only sixty-thousand or so, and is known for its huge pine forests and rolling fertile hills. The county seat, Nacogdoches, is most known for the part it played in history. It is officially known as “The Oldest Town in Texas” and is the home of a large state university, named after one of the “founding fathers” of Texas, Stephen F. Austin.

Villacreces: Tell us a little about yourself. We know you’ve lived in Pensacola, but could you tell us about your transition to Rome?

Dews: My life has been an exercise in trying to achieve escape velocity from Texas, with each phase of my life taking me farther and farther away from my home state. After leaving my home county after my first year of university there, I moved to Austin, the place Texans go for internal exile. I then lived briefly in Spain, then went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I taught for ten years at the University of West Florida, in Pensacola; then went on to live in Columbus, Georgia; then Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; then Buenos Aires, Argentina; then Erongaricuaro, Michoacan, Mexico; then New York City. I finally found my emotional antipode in Rome, Italy, where I have been living for almost twelve years now. While living in Buenos Aires, before returning to graduate school for my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I decided I wanted to live abroad. I had enjoyed the “expat” life in Argentina and paradoxically found it easy to write about Texas when living outside the U.S. I seem to be able to write about “home” only when far away from it. After completing the M.F.A. in New York, I responded to a job advertisement for a position at John Cabot University in Rome and have been here ever since. My husband is Italian, and I am now also an Italian citizen. I plan to live here for the rest of my life.

Villacreces: When you talk about writing about home when far away, that’s sort of like Carson McCullers after she moved from Columbus, Georgia to Nyack, New York, right?

Dews: One of the things I clearly identified with when I first discovered the life and work of Carson McCullers was the many similarities I saw between our lives. Like Carson, I felt from a very young age the desire to leave the South. And like Carson, as soon as I was able, I moved away.

Villacreces: Would you care to comment on any family, siblings you grew up with?

Dews: Unlike the younger of the characters named Carlos Dews in Hush who is an only child, I grew up as the youngest child of three. I have two older sisters. Although there are other characters in the novel with whom I share my name, the novel shouldn’t be read as autobiographical and instead as a fiction, as the subtitle describes it.

Villacreces: We’ve discussed some of your musical aptitude before, and I know you served as Founding Director for the Carson McCullers Center at Columbus State. Aside from writing, would you say your sensitivities lie with music as well, in any way?

Dews: My creative instincts, if I have any, and my desire to create emotion in my work, are more indebted to my study of music than my studies of literature and creative writing. I was trained as an orchestral bass trombonist. I would still be a musician if a medical problem hadn’t prevented me from continuing my music career. When I write I find that I structure my work, try to create emotion, and form sentences more akin to the way I experienced music than I do inspired by the literature I have studied.

Villacreces: Did you know Carson’s friend, David Diamond? He was once an Advisory Editor for Negative Capability.

Dews: Yes, I was fortunate enough to meet David Diamond when I interviewed him for a documentary on Carson McCullers that was, unfortunately, never completed. I interviewed him at his home in Rochester, New York, and then later accompanied him to a performance of some of his work at the Ethical Culture Society in New York. David and Carson McCullers met very soon after she and her husband Reeves moved to New York City. The three of them were briefly in a plural relationship.

Villacreces: I notice that much of your already-published work is academic in nature, focused on the study of Carson McCullers herself. This makes me wonder: what inspired you to delve into fiction writing alongside S.J. Rozan, and into historical-paranormal thrillers in particular? Are there any points of similarity with your academic work?

Dews: I have never tried to find a connection between my academic work, which focusses primarily on the life and work of Carson McCullers, and the two novels I co-authored with S.J. Rozan. But since you asked, I can see a single similarity that might even explain my original interest in working on our historical-paranormal projects. In a word: the Gothic. I have always been drawn to the darker, or perhaps starker, aspects of McCullers’s work. Writing the two Sam Cabot novels with S.J. also allowed me to revel in what might be called my Gothic concerns.

Villacreces: Let’s talk a little about Hush, your work in progress. It takes place largely in the American South throughout the 20th century, and delves rather deeply into the culture and norms of that time and place. You called the South home as well in your early years, but is there something in particular about this period that you’ve wished to explore in writing?

Dews: The stories I recount in Hush were inspired by those I heard from the women in my family. I grew up as the only son of an only son of an only son and spent most of my time growing up surrounded by a group of incredible women. Given the ages of the women in my family, it was only natural that I set the stories they told me in the period in which they actually happened. The stories range from the early 20th century to the 1970s. The lives of these women were severely limited by choices that were made for them and the narrow roles open for women at the time. But as I said in a previous answer, I have taken great creative liberties with the stories told to me, in many ways to provide reimagined alternatives to the lives those women actually lived. In some ways I think the lives of the women I explore in the novel are exercises in fantasy fulfillment. I wanted to give them futures that they couldn’t have imagined for themselves. Although I won’t ever indicate where it is, there is a point in the novel where I leave behind the stories I was told and turn to the purely fictional.

Villacreces: Reading through Hush, I’m reminded of Carson McCullers’s own upbringing in Georgia, and how some of the book’s elements parallel those of McCullers’s work. I’m particularly reminded of her expressed desire to find her own community, her “we of me,” when seeing how your protagonists find solace with each other after their immediate families have rejected them. Did you find inspiration in McCullers for your work?

Dews: Given my familiarity (some might say obsession) with McCullers’s work, I can’t deny that her work influences my own fiction. But I see what you describe in the question as more an expression of what might be a universal need for love, connection, and support, and not necessarily closely akin to McCullers’s “we of me.”

Villacreces: Like you’ve mentioned, Hush begins with a disclaimer that all characters therein are fictional, yet no less than three of them share your own name, each with their own stories. Much of their background is also similar to yours, so I’m wondering, what motivated the decision to use your name, and spread it around several characters?

Dews: It is difficult to answer this question. The decision to use my own name as the name for various characters in the novel, while also arguably autobiographical, was less conscious and more instinctual. I toyed with changing the names but simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. I am reminded of one of my mentor’s books and something similar he did in his first novel. If I remember correctly, Dale Peck’s first novel Martin and John uses the same characters’ names across time. Also, in Hush, if I try to justify the use of the names it might be to underscore the idea of inheritance and the weight of cultural inheritance the men in East Texas experience, in particular the inherited awful idea of what it means/meant to be a man.

Villacreces: Do you think the notion of what it means to be a man differs according to location? Do you think manhood is fraught with more difficulties in the South than in other states and nations?

Dews: I believe that the ideas of what it means to be a “man” can vary by region, although toxic masculinity and the damage it can do to boys and men can be found anywhere. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in East Texas the idea of what it meant to be a man, and of making sure that one always behaved properly in sync with that idea, bordered on the paranoid. The actions men took to undergird their own sense of gender security and the damage that did to those around can perhaps be read as the subtext of Hush.

Villacreces: A major theme of Hush is characters’ parental relationships, and how they’re defined by them or try to escape unfavorable ones. What draws you to this topic?

Dews: Quite a few years ago the literary magazine Granta published an issue dedicated to “the family.” I clearly remember the cover of the issue and will use its title as a response to your question. “The Family: They Fuck You Up.”

Villacreces: You mentioned “escape” earlier in this interview; do you think we can ever escape our families? Whom were you named after, if anyone? Carson’s sister was called “Little Pretty” and she herself was known as “Sister” by her family at one point. Do you think we carry our childhood identities with us all our lives?

Dews: I was named after my paternal grandfather. My father’s name was anglicized to Carl, perhaps for racist reasons. My grandfather, somewhat like the elder Carlos in Hush, was given his name by Spanish-speaking nuns on the Indian reservation where he was born in Oklahoma (when it was Indian territory, before it became a state). I was always called Barney by my family, ridiculously after the television character Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, to avoid the confusion that would come from having two Carloses in the family. I am not sure if we carry our childhood identity with us all our lives, but we surely carry the shadow of it.

Villacreces: Do you find academia in Rome different than in the States?

Dews: My university in Rome, John Cabot University, is an American university and follows the American academic system. Since my experience of the academy in Italy is otherwise somewhat limited, I have to say that I see very few differences here.

Villacreces: Relatively late in your career, you obtained your M.F.A. from the New School, some years after your previous graduate degrees. Did something at the time spark a desire to write fiction professionally?

Dews: Yes, after having taught literature for a decade I wanted the proper credentials that would allow me to teach university courses in Creative Writing. During my near-decade at the University of West Florida, I had wanted to try my hand at a series of creative writing projects and wanted to find an atmosphere in which I could explore them in the company of fellow writers. As well, before entering the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program at the New School University, I had taken some time off to try my hand at fiction writing and prove to myself that I had the creative discipline to pursue fiction seriously. Some of the work I wrote during that time found favor with editors, so I decided to return to graduate school to pursue the M.F.A.

Villacreces: What advice would you give to students pursuing careers in creative writing?

Dews: The best advice anyone can give a student who wishes to pursue a career in creative writing is to read, read, read, and write, write, write. There are no substitutes for these two acts in preparing a student to write well. Studying music might also be a good idea. And, taking a big cue from Fran Lebowitz, having natural talent is also crucial. So picking one’s grandparents well can always prove useful.

Villacreces: How would you describe your writing style? In a character-driven work such as Hush, do you find any difficulty in conveying your characters’ thoughts? How do you balance that while also showing off the richness of the South?

Dews: The only literary critical word that I find that might be useful in describing my work was used by Raymond Carver to describe his work. The word is “precisionist”. Unlike Hemingway’s even more terse prose, Carver (and to some extent, and at times, Cormac McCarthy) used an economy of language to create the emotional lives and experiences of his characters. I also think that the way in which I was told the stories I somewhat recount in Hush also influenced how I told them.

Villacreces: When researching McCullers for your work, did you have any difficulty obtaining research material?

Dews: McCullers scholars are lucky in that there are a small number of university collections that hold almost all of the materials related to her life and work. Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Columbus State University, in McCullers’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, hold almost all the available papers of/on McCullers. I have been lucky to be able to spend a great deal of time in these collections.

Villacreces: Having lived and worked in Europe for some time now, would you still describe yourself as a Southerner, i.e. a Southern writer?

Dews: For better or worse I will always be a Southerner. I have now lived many more years outside the South than I ever did inside it. But it is impossible, no matter how far away I have gone physically from the place, to fully leave it; whenever I sit down to write the South is the most comfortable place for my ideas. My imagination was born in the South. Interestingly, after living in Italy for more than a decade, I feel less American than before. But my identity as a Texan (first) and Southerner (distant second) remain strong.

Villacreces: Now that you have finished your novel that Negative Capability Press is honored to publish, what are your plans?

Dews: Beyond my many academic projects on Carson McCullers, I am working on a novel that retells the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, setting it in the cockfighting community of East Texas in the 1970s.

Villacreces: We hope that you will be reading from Hush in Mobile, Alabama—and we can probably expect that you will be reading at the McCullers Center in Columbus, Georgia as well. Thank you for granting me this interview.