From Convicted Murderer to Debut Author

Curtis Dawkins answers questions about his crimes, life on the inside, and his debut story collection, ‘The Graybar Hotel’

Alcatraz Prison. Photo by Chris Carr, via Flickr.

Countless authors have tried to capture what goes on inside a prisoner’s mind, but how much do they really know?

Curtis Dawkins began drinking when he was twelve; later alcohol turned into a big enough problem that he dropped out of college. He entered rehab, then Alcoholics Anonymous. He got sober and by the late-90s had earned an MFA in creative writing from Western Michigan University, married fellow writer Kimberly Knutsen, and started a family.

But as time progressed, Dawkins began taking prescription painkillers. His addiction grew to ketamine and heroin. On Halloween Night in 2004, he attempted to rob Thomas Bowman on the porch of his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When Bowman resisted, Dawkins — who was high on crack and had drank alcohol for the first time in years — shot him in the chest. He then proceeded inside, where he threatened Bowman’s roommate. A SWAT team had arrived by then, and Dawkins held the roommate hostage. Three hours later, he walked out of his own volition and was taken into custody.

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In July 2005, Dawkins was convicted of Bowman’s murder and found guilty of eight other charges related to the incident and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Inside, Dawkins began to write again. Eventually, he began submitting to literary journals, with his sister’s help. An agent took notice and sold a collection of Dawkins’ stories to Scribner. That collection, now titled The Graybar Hotel, takes readers beyond the cells and reveals the idiosyncrasies, tedium, and desperation of long-term incarceration. The stories also go deep into the characters’ pasts, exploring what their lives were like before prison and their lingering troubles. The result is a rich portrait of a frequently forgotten crossroads of humanity.

I corresponded with Dawkins about prison life, the controversy swirling around this book, and how writing remains an integral part of his life.

Adam Vitcavage: I just want to start with the basics of this collection. When did you start writing the stories that eventually made in into Graybar Hotel?

Curtis Dawkins: I began writing the first story in the collection, “County,” literally hours after arriving at quarantine, the first stop of any post-trial prison sentence. It was as if my brain, relieved at being out of the cramped, overwhelming county jail after 11 months, wanted to revisit the place in order to wring some sense out of the experience. The first sentence of the story: “Italian Tom was a saucier until a Cadillac hit him doing sixty-five and knocked the recipes out of his head,” kept repeating itself in my head, until I wrote it down. And then I figured, “I’ve got nothing else to do, I might as well keep going.” Which is how most of the things I write get written.

AV: When you were writing these, was the goal always publication?

Author Curtis Dawkins. From MI Dept of Corrections

CD: At first, no. This was late in ’05, and for the first time in my writing career, I wrote just for the sake of writing. Then ambition entered through the side door when my long-time partner and great novelist Kim Knutsen said she loved “County,” which she thought I should call “Bob” (she still thinks it should be called that), and that I should send it out to see if I could get the story published. I couldn’t.

But a huge side benefit in my renewed love of writing was that, for the first time in a year, I was not thinking of the horrible tragedy and disaster I had caused. Writing was a tremendous, and probably lifesaving, relief. It was, and is, hugely therapeutic, just in the sense that writing gets my mind off reality.

AV: These stories are very humanizing, which I think is important. How did you create such vibrant, nuanced characters?

CD: These are the people I know. They are all amalgams of the men I’ve spent more than a decade with. I’m thrilled that you found the stories humanizing, which is more the reality than the cliche musclebound, tattooed, shank-wielding subject of screens both large and small. Those men are in every prison of course, but I am interested in what is underneath. That shank wielder might be great at origami or have a daughter he adores. I guarantee you there is something about him that is unique and possibly beautiful. All I do is pay attention, maybe fill in some unknowns with details of my own imagining.

“I am interested in what is underneath. That shank wielder might be great at origami or have a daughter he adores. I guarantee you there is something about him that is unique and possibly beautiful.”

AV: “573543” really stood out to me. It touches on the theme of addiction. Was a lot of this drawn from personal experience or did you stray from making this with a lot of biographical elements?

CD: “573543” might be the most biographical, until the very last story, where the inmate goes home, becomes true.

The titular number is my actual prison number, and the drug abuse, while no excuse for anything, has been a fact of my life since the age of 15 or 16. It is a fact of nearly every inmate’s life. Though so is softball and rain, rooting for the Tigers, and people who disappear. And jackasses gleefully chirping that your season is over.

I was having fun experimenting with fiction disguised as nonfiction, as well as the creepy fact that a deadman’s number is often reissued.

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AV: I always ask every author this: what do your daily writing schedule and habits look like?

CD: I write every day except Sunday. I start at about 11 a.m., until we go to lunch between 12 and 1. Then I print out (my typewriter has memory, so it works like a word processor) what I’ve worked on, and work on improving it. Or scrapping it and starting anew.

I have found that writing for more than a couple of hours per day really doesn’t accomplish anything. I try to stop when I know what is going to happen next. That seems to prime the pump for the next day. I think most of my writing is done in my mind without my help after the actual physical writing is finished.

And I’m always reading fiction. Always looking for new writers, and old writers I’ve never heard of, to read. The first job of writers is to read.

AV: What does writing mean for your life?

CD: Most of the guys in prison have no purpose to their life. A person needs that, something to work at, goals to pursue. Writing gives me that. No matter how hard it is, I’m grateful, and I never take it for granted.

AV: When I told people I’d be sending you some questions, and explained your background, I got a lot of mixed responses. Is how people perceive you and this book something you think or care about at all?

CD: I have mixed responses about myself every day, so I don’t blame people who know me only by a list of facts to feel similarly. I would feel the same about any inmate if I were in their shoes.

I would urge those suffering from “mixed” feelings to read the stories. If they still feel that way, I would be happy to address, or just listen, to their concerns via the mail system. Here’s my address:

Curtis Dawkins #573543
Lakeland Correctional Facility
141 First Street
Coldwater, MI 49036

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