Helen Phillips ’07 M.F.A. and De’Shawn Charles Winslow ’11, ’13 M.A. walking across campus
I like to read the newspaper reviews, but I really like to read Goodreads reviews, even the ones that aren’t glowing, to see how people are feeling about things,” says author De’Shawn Charles Winslow ’11, ’13 M.A. as he reflects on the success of his first novel. “I care about the reader; if I’m honest, I care about the reader more than the big publications because I feel like those are the people who come back to you. Newspapers may not like your second book. But a person who went into the bookstore and bought it and enjoyed the first one, they are more likely to come back.“
“I’m not courageous enough to read my Goodreads reviews,” says Helen Phillips ’07 M.F.A., herself a novelist and Winslow’s one time professor. “But I think that’s a really cool way to think about it, whether it’s a good review or a bad, you’re really connecting with someone, you’re having some kind of exchange with them.”
“I don’t reply to them, though,“ adds Winslow.
“Never reply!” says Phillips, and the two, sitting side by side in the Brooklyn College Library’s Woody Tanger Auditorium, break into laughter. They have met on the occasion of the recent publication of their award-nominated novels to catch up and consider how they got started with their writing careers and what the future holds.
Winslow opens up with a confession. The native North Carolinian, who plays the piano, relocated because he was thinking of a career in music and believed New York City would be the best place to start. He also admits that he wanted more independence from his family. “They weren’t bothering me,” he says, laughing. “But in the mind of a 23-year-old, if your mother or aunts can show up at your door, they are too close.”
He soon realized that “I was not nearly as talented as most other musicians I met, so I abandoned that.” Following a series of jobs in data entry, at coffee shops and a cupcake store, and behind the front desk in gyms, he was spurred to complete his B.F.A. and M.A. after his father died. “I was 30, and his passing made me want to write about him,” he says. This decision landed him in Helen Phillips’ creative writing class in the spring of 2011.
“That was a strong, exciting class,” says Phillips, whose own debut book, And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press), was about to be published that May. She has since written four more books, including The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt and Co., 2015), praised by the renowned science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin as “funny and sad, scary and beautiful,” and Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt and Co., 2016), called by The Los Angeles Times “part dystopian fantasy, part thriller,” and likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Phillips recognized Winslow’s talent early on. “Recently I pulled up a workshop critique that I had written to De’Shawn, and it really emphasized the dialogue in his piece…. Obviously, he’s come a long way since then, but the dialogue was so good,” she says, turning to Winslow. “And you were using [North Carolina] dialect to some degree then, really getting people’s voices on the page and getting the cadence of conversation on the page. Even at that time it was just shining and striking. I have read so many thousands of student pieces over the years, but that piece, it just stays with me. It has a tactile quality for me still,” says Phillips.
Winslow credits two of his professors—Phillips and Helen Rubenstein—with giving him the entrée to writing about subjects that are important to him: black rural life, black community, and the black family. “Both professors encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. They nurtured the writer in me right after reading my work for the first time,” he says. “I believe it’s rare to find instructors who so badly want to see their students succeed. Their mentoring at the very early stages is why I pursued an M.F.A.”
Now peers, the novelists talk shop—teaching lit courses versus teaching creative writing is one topic on Winslow’s mind. “I feel guilty that I enjoy teaching published literature more than I do hot-off-the-press works,” he says. “It makes me feel like I’m such a selfish writer who doesn’t want to teach other people. This is not my intention.”
“It’s a completely different endeavor to select something for your syllabus that you think is the best story ever written and is really fun to talk about with people,” says Phillips. “It’s rare that someone is going to hand in for workshop the best story ever written. I feel like so much of our job as creative writing instructors is to build communities out of our classrooms and figure out ways to make us a further community.”
Phillips has a question for her former student. “This has been such a long journey for you De’Shawn, and it’s gone so phenomenally well. I think that so much of being a writer means you’re in solitude, you don’t know how what you’re doing will land with other people. And arriving at that moment where you actually get to connect your brain to other brains by having them read your book—I find that to be one of the most terrifying moments of writing, but also one of the most ecstatic. How does it feel to have gone through this whole process?”
“It feels…good,” says Winslow. “The question reminds me that it happened. When it’s just me by myself, I still feel like an M.F.A. student, still climbing for it. There’s always ‘What’s next?’ You write the book, good. Now get an agent; OK, good. Now get it sold. Now you hope people will like it. There’s always something next. So it takes other people reminding me that I did it,” he says. “In these moments it’s ‘YES! I did it!’ ”
In turn, Winslow has a question for his former professor: When does she have time to write?
“When I’m teaching in the midst of a busy semester I carve out one hour per day and set a timer,” she says. “It’s usually after I get my children to school and before I turn my attention to all of my teaching and other responsibilities. To some degree I feel like, yes, it’s only five hours a week, but that time does add up. I once read a writer’s quote in an interview (I think it was with Sarah Manguso, though I haven’t been able to re-find the quote), that said basically, ‘I don’t want to read books by people who have time to write books.’ And that really inspires me and I think it’s such a good point, about the book you are writing in that stolen hour, and the book you don’t really have time to write, and the book that you’re rushing to. I try to comfort myself with that idea. That I don’t always have time to write books, but I squeeze them into the cracks, and that brings urgency to them.”