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,"
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!"
photograph by Shannon McIntyre
Re-tasting those remembered stars, Carol did a second thing she'd
never done before -- she wrote a fan letter. Which led to a correspondence,
an exchange of off-color limericks, a highly charged meeting in New Orleans
at some publishing industry event, and, finally, a romance carried on in
ports of book-tour call all over the U.S. (As one who has cast an eye on
this fellow her ownself, I can tell you he's aged very well. Lost the
glasses. Got himself a man-sized dose of je ne sais quoi.) Soon, the
Dawson-Monsieur X alliance had literary gossips' tongues wagging. But alas.
"I had to go back to New Zealand -- to my children. That's just how it was."
She has a look of enigmatic tenderness on her face. I sigh with
satisfaction, as if turning the last page of a book.
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
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
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
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
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
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