It Came From Corsicana
By Marion Winik
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: The phone rings. It's Austin's newest resident novelist, Carol Dawson, whom I've been getting to know since she moved to town. "Can I read you something?" she says in a throaty Texas twang which, through occasional crisp consonants and fastidious vowels, conveys -- what is it? prep school? time spent abroad? writerly delicacy? all of the above? She is calling because at a recent lunch we'd been discussing the uses of a strong first-person voice in fiction and she mentioned a "miraculous" Eudora Welty story titled "Why I Live at the P.O." I confessed my ignorance, thereby earning this phone call.
"'I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo,'" Carol reads, now deep, deep South: molasses-dipped, unlettered, and peevish, "'until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course, I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking 'pose yourself' photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I'm the same.'"
"She's talking about her breasts, you know," Carol explains, breaking character. "Isn't she a hoot?"
Whether encountered on the page or in person, Carol Dawson is captivating. As a reader, I fell victim two years ago to the clever plotting and witty narration of her idiosyncratic Texas family saga, Body of Knowledge, as did readers and critics nationwide, locally including Robert Draper, whose appreciation of the book and its author appeared in Texas Monthly (October 1994). Dawson's new book, Meeting the Minotaur, came out this past summer; it is a different animal, yet with many of the same virtues. A re-imagining the myth of Theseus, transplanting its action from Athens and Crete to Dallas and Japan, Meeting the Minotaur casts as its hero an aspiring cat burglar with chronic vertigo -- a condition medically known as labyrinthitis.
In person, Dawson is no less bewitching than her novels, with expressive eyes, fine bones, and wide mouth animated by the force of a personality that combines down-home 'Daddy used to call it so-and-so' Corsicana roots with the erudition and insight of a woman who is fearsomely well-read, widely traveled, and sophisticated. This meeting of opposites goes all through Dawson: On the most superficial level, she combines soignee elegance -- one time, I see her in a sleeveless white linen pantsuit, the next, something in mauve sharkskin from a New Zealand designer friend -- with a wild, witchy, even primal, cloud of dark hair, and this combination resonates in the blend of intellectualism and old-fashioned yarn-spinning that marks her work.
Or put it this way: One-sided she is not.
Against the backgrounds of her native Texas, adopted second home of New Zealand, with pit stops in California, England, Italy, Taos, and other locales, Dawson has lived a life that she describes as "over the top, even for fiction." In addition to writing at least a half-dozen novels, she has been a jeweler, a nightclub singer, a student of the Maori language and people, and mother of three, including twins. A UT alumna with plenty of history in this town -- she used to live in the original Married Student Housing, she used to sing with Kent Cole, who owns the Magnolia Cafe -- this past summer she moved back from her "ranchette" in Mount Calm, Texas to a house built by the Dawson family a hundred years ago, on Dawson Road, for that matter. It sounds like there's a lot to tell -- but there's a lot she's not tellin'. In our interviews, she often smiles evasively, answers indirectly, or goes off the record; like many novelists, she takes care to keep the wellsprings of her imagination to herself.
Still, she cannot resist the impulse to tell a great story. When I boldly asked her how she met a certain debonair Southern writer whose name was linked with hers a while back, she replied, "Is this off the record?" And I said, "Sure." But who could resist this story, a Dawson-esque tale in its spice and sweep, a story whose details I have hopefully blurred enough to stay out of trouble? Not me. Not Mrs. Telling. Sorry, Mrs. Not Telling. I guess I lied.
After a pause, she began, taking me back, back, back -- back to when she was twelve going on thirteen years old in boring old Corsicana, and her mother announced they were going to the wedding of an old college friend's daughter in Waxahachie. Of course this friend had some perfect Texas name with four parts, Mary Louise Woodhouse Washburn or somesuch. "Daddy wouldn't go with Mama for some reason, so she piled me into the car and off we went," Carol remembers.
She describes the beautiful home where the wedding was held, the tented dance floor, the swimming pool full of flowers. She doesn't remember much else, because that was the night she first drank liquor. As the daughter of a Baptist family, she'd had only a tiny sip of her daddy's very rare beer on a trip to Germany. But this night the waiters swooped down on the young woman with trays of champagne flutes. To describe her reaction to the beverage, she refers to the famous apocryphal story of Dom Perignon, inventor of champagne, who is said to have staggered down the stairs on the night of his ultimate success to announce to the other monks, "I have been drinking stars." She drank several glasses of stars, she says laughing, and that's about all she remembers, except maybe a flash of the geeky groom in his Buddy Holly glasses.
End of chapter, fast-forward several decades. We next find Carol at home for a visit from New Zealand, browsing through bookstores for something to read. Falling in love with the writings of the gentleman author in question, she buys every one of his books, reads them, and sends them on to her parents. She's never sent her parents a book before, but somehow this writer seems like the place where they will finally connect. Upon receiving the package, her parents call right away. "Why, these books are by Mary Louise Woodhouse Washburn's ex-son-in-law!"
At the time of our interviews, Carol is busy raising her teenage twins (her oldest son also lives in Austin, working on his degree and at a bookstore) as well as finishing the last chapter of her new book, The Mothers-In-Law Diary. "This," she pronounces with a devilish glint, "is as close to memoir as I'm going to get." The novel examines a woman's life through her relationships with real and virtual mothers-in-law, starting with the mother of a boy she dated in high school, and continuing through other also-rans and four actual grooms.
"Four husbands?!" I exclaim. "Have you...?"
"I have not been married the same number of times Lulu Penfield has been," Dawson intones, sounding quite rehearsed, and I can see this is all I'm going to get out of her. (Though I'll tell you -- I'm betting on at least five.)
Here are some other tidbits from recent conversations with Dawson, held at various local restaurants (she is quite an orderer -- just sort of commands three or four things that appeal to her off the menu, an entrée here, a side dish there, all light, vegetarian things, but impressive in their sheer unfettered numbers) and also at my sickbed, where she solicitously appeared with soup and fruit juice when I canceled a final meeting due to a bad cold.
Austin Chronicle: What made you want to revisit the Theseus myth in Meeting the Minotaur?
Carol Dawson: The thing about Theseus that fascinates me is why he was such a dork. He wasn't thick like his cousin Hercules, so why these choices? Why, for example, did he scoop up Ariadne -- who had defied her father to help him defeat the Minotaur -- bring her back to his ship, promising to take her back to Athens to be his queen, only to hit the island of Nexos and dump her off? I've been looking at the answers to that question since my first novel back in my twenties, a science fiction adaptation of the myth called Ariadne.
In the original story, the suggestion is that Ariadne got seasick and had to rest on the island. He went back to the ship to load provisions. A storm hit, and by the time Theseus got back, she was dead. Other versions say that he lost his nerve because she was Cretan, and after he slipped away in the night, Dionysus came and comforted her and made her one of his wives. Yet another possibility is that she was pregnant, and died in childbirth.
In Meeting the Minotaur, I wanted to get past the cheap excuses. My Theseus, Taylor, is a modern guy who has a lot of feeling for his mother and an empathy for the female in general. So why would he do a thing like this? A man who loves women would have to have a very good reason. It was an interesting adventure figuring out my version of the reasons why he would betray her, and what I came up with was a kind of psychic treason on her part -- her having totally misperceived him, and his moral horror as a result.
In the acknowledgements of Minotaur, I thank my grandmother who gave me the money when I was small to buy my first book of myths. I have been fascinated by mythology ever since. As I wrote in a line I ended up cutting from the book, "Etched inside the brain is the grid that holds the story. We all have it living within each of us." I think myths provide a template for all human behavior.
AC: I notice that in the two of your books that I've read there is a "handicapped" character. In Body of Knowledge, the handicap is obesity, in Meeting the Minotaur, Taylor has a balance problem. What is your fascination with that?
CD: In Body of Knowledge, I'm dealing with how one person can be the incarnation of a family history. I didn't know how I would do it until I actually heard Victoria's voice in my head, saying, "You want it? Well here's the scoop." Then the mists cleared and this gigantic person was sitting there. Why is she like this? I had to know. Why is she so obscenely obese? And her answer gave me a whole new take on obesity, on why someone would choose to be that way.
As for Taylor, he didn't have a choice about his situation, and he's not mired in it. In fact, as the story progresses, he's defeating it. Yet I think you're right -- I think outsiderhood is a theme in my books because it was a theme in my life. I felt like such a misfit growing up in Corsicana.
AC: It was a pretty dark depiction of Japan in Meeting the Minotaur. Do you hate Japan?
CD: No, I love Japan, but I had to see it through the eyes of Taylor, to experience what he and the other victims experienced there. That was the exigency of the myth. And when I was looking for a modern-day equivalent for Crete, I found Japan conformed in practically every way: an island nation, with a homogenous population that had defeated an indigenous people. There is a national sport of divine origin: bull-leaping for Crete, Sumo wrestling for Japan. Did you know Sumo wrestling originated as a Shinto act of worship?
The country had to be an influential leader with the power to demand whatever it wanted from other countries. And both places were subject to earthquakes, a similarity I wound up not using. But ultimately, as I got into it, I found that the cultural structure supported the plot so well. The business and social hierarchies. It was such an interesting book to write, ranging across a wide territory geographically and culturally -- I got to do Hispanics, Japanese, and rednecks. Used to be more rednecks. My editor made me cut some of them out. And I also had to cut out an entire Mexican gang.
AC: How is Meeting the Minotaur doing now that it's been out there a few months?
CD: Very nicely, in spite of some real challenges! Let's see, let me start at the beginning. After Body of Knowledge came out in '94, my agent negotiated a contract with Algonquin of Chapel Hill for my next two books. I was in New Zealand at the time, and had several ideas, some of which I was already working on. I sent a few of them to my editor, Robert Rubin, and he said, "I like the one about the cat burglar." I thought, that's good, that's what I want to concentrate on, where my energy was going naturally. So I wrote it. Then, right when we'd almost finished editing, Robert left Algonquin to hike the Appalachian trail and write a book about it for Henry Holt. Hiking for Henry, I thought. Great. Since the book was technically finished, no new editor was assigned.
AC: It went into production with no "shepherd"?
CD: Yes, but Algonquin is a small and very familial publisher. Even though they are owned by the much larger Workman in New York, they remain extremely dedicated to literature, though of course, like everyone else, they're held up by the chains and the superstores. Put it this way, if it had been any other publisher, I'd have been in a panic. I was in a panic, actually, but it could have been worse.
AC: Did you pick the title? I haven't named either of my last two books. First Comes Love I wanted to call Do Not Try This at Home - The Story of My Marriage and for The Lunch-Box Chronicles I was hooked on The Yellow Dinner.
CD: Ah, the title. A problem I know well. This was the last thing that happened before Robert left. My original title for the book was simply Taylor Deeds, the name of the protagonist. They didn't like that, and came back with the suggestion Monster in the Maze. I replied that I had not written a Goosebumps book. Well, then they started to put on the pressure. My editor called. The publisher called. "We all think this is very good." "Over my dead body," I told them. So we went back and forth with dozens of alternate titles, but they just kept insisting on Monster in the Maze.
Finally they accepted that that wasn't going to be it, and we were down to choosing between yet another three titles, when I encountered a line of dialogue in a book I was reading: "Sooner or later, every man must meet the minotaur within himself." I realized that meeting the minotaur was the theme of the book -- and in Taylor's case, the minotaur is not what anyone expects it to be. It is his own innocence, which he destroys.
The book was published on June 6 of this year, with good pre-pub reviews, particularly Kirkus, which claimed that my books should begin appearing on American contemporary literature reading lists. That was over the top, but kind nonetheless. Things went well in Dallas, Denver, Boston, and then there was a half-page in USA Today. Everything would have been just perfect -- except that was when I learned that somehow Workman had failed to ship the books. Except in the very few stores where the books had been drop-shipped for my tour appearances, there was not a single book in any bookstore in the country.
AC: Oh my God! Good reviews and no books! What myth is that?
CD: The only way I could stop worrying about it was to plunge back into The Mothers-In-Law Diaries. And that's what I've done. Keep my head down, avoid Publisher's Weekly like the plague, and go on writing.
Meeting the Minotaur is available in bookstores everywhere.
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