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Winchester’s Sunflower Dog finally has its day

by Chuck Gordon

By this point in our societal battle against the novel coronavirus, you’ve probably churned through Tiger King and a good chunk of Netflix’s stash of comedies and police procedurals. You’ve played charades, worked a few jigsaw puzzles and trimmed and retrimmed your shrubbery within an inch of its life.

Might be a good time for a book recommendation.

Well, Wingate University’s own Kevin Winchester happens to have one, by his own hand. Winchester, a 1995 Wingate graduate and currently director of the University’s Writing Center, has published his first novel, Sunflower Dog: Dancing the Flathead Shuffle, a comically Southern-gothic page-turner.

Sunflower Dog tells the tale of a quintet of quirky characters whose lives gradually become intertwined as they all take an interest in a plot of land in fictional Mason County. Drawing on influences such as Clyde Edgerton and Carl Hiassen, Winchester has created a compelling, hilarious yarn that offers just a hint of a dark underbelly.

Sunflower Dog cover

It’s been a long road, both for Winchester and for Sunflower Dog. Winchester, who turns 60 in September, began working on the novel about a decade ago, though it was a short story at the time. One of Winchester’s mentors from graduate school persuaded him to submit the story, about an obsessive-compulsive husband, to The New Yorker magazine, and their reply was encouraging.

“I’ll never forget this,” Winchester says. “The draft I sent them was 21 pages long. The rejection letter I got back was, ‘These are 20 fantastic pages. You need to rewrite the ending.’”

Winchester agreed, but he could never quite reach a satisfactory conclusion, so he set the story aside. A few years later, stuck in traffic on his Harley heading toward downtown Monroe, he saw two women having a fight in the parking lot of a funeral home. “Everybody’s out there in their suits trying to keep them separated,” he says. “I just thought, There’s a story there. So I went home and immediately started writing that scene.”

Eventually he melded the two stories into one, and Sunflower Dog was born.

The novel finishes with a somewhat madcap finale, after a host of characters both major and minor all rotate around several acres of land, drawing closer and closer to each other as the novel nears its conclusion.

Winchester wasn’t sure early on how it was all going to come together. He admits that he doesn’t outline his work very well, saying that meticulous plotting robs him of the creativity that makes the prose dance. “If I’m surprised as I’m writing it, I feel like my reader will be surprised,” he says.

Instead of trying to stick to a predetermined plot, Winchester simply worked on his writing. He wanted to improve his pacing, and he was looking to incorporate more humor into his work.

To help him along, Winchester started reading works by Tim Dorsey, a mass-market author of fast-paced, humorous paperbacks. Winchester would copy sections of Dorsey’s books, Nuclear Jellyfish, maybe, or Hammerhead Ranch Motel, until he nearly had them memorized.

“At some point it’s like, OK, this is what it feels like to write this way,” Winchester says. “And then I could tell, when I would just put that aside and go back to what I was working on, ‘OK. It feels right. It sounds right.’”

The resulting snappy pace makes Sunflower Dog highly readable and addictive, but the characters make the novel stick with you. The neurotic husband who’s just lost his job. The college professor with a passion for sunflowers. The profane, suspicious and hard-headed old woman. The numbskull wannabe pot dealer. And they all revolve around Sally, a dealmaker trying for a big score.

“Each of those voices is as unique as those people would be if they were in real life,” says Amee Odom, director of the Ethel K. Smith Library and one of Winchester’s editors. “There are these great tragic components and you think, How did this person just not crawl in a hole and give up? And yet these characters kind of keep going.”

Finding the novel a home

When he finally completed a draft he was happy with, in 2014, Winchester shopped Sunflower Dog to a variety of publishers, all of whom professed to love the book but didn’t know how to market it. He revised it, sat on it awhile, then shopped it around again through a new agent. When nothing came of that, Winchester, fed up with the process, decided to focus on a new novel he was working on and instructed his agent to shelve Sunflower Dog. “I’m approaching 10 years with this thing and I’m tired,” an exasperated Winchester told him.

Then, out of the blue, the novel found a home. Southern Fried Karma, a niche publisher in Atlanta, got hold of a copy and loved it.

That’s when the fun started. Round after round of editing trimmed the book about 20 percent. Out went an acid trip here, a minor character’s back story there. Winchester took to plotting the book out on a bulletin board in his office in the EKS Library, using color-coded index cards to make sure a change he made in Chapter 7 didn’t topple enough dominoes to create a mess in Chapter 20.

One major “problem” Winchester had to solve related to the main character. Or, rather, the lack of one. He had a wide cast of appealing characters, but no primary character driving the narrative. Southern Fried Karma editors thought the book needed one.

“They said, you need to go back and focus so that one is at least a little bit more of a main character than the others,” Winchester says. “I knew that all along. I like all these characters, I had fun with them, and I didn’t want to favor one over another.”

He beefed up the part of Salvador “Sally” Hinson, but the real main character might just be the parcel of earth upon which the plot hinges. “The land’s probably as much of a character in this book as anything else,” Winchester says.

It’s Winchester’s nod to his Southern roots. Winchester’s family was once one of Union County’s largest landowners. At some point, the remaining 40 or so acres will probably be passed down to Winchester, who says that in writing the novel he was partially wrestling with his own conscience. Does he keep the land, develop it himself, sell to a Sally Hinson?

“Writing the book did not answer those questions for me,” Winchester says.

But he did have fun with it. Winchester didn’t write about any one person he knows in Sunflower Dog, but the characters all contain elements of people he’s encountered in his six decades as a writer in Union County.

A writing life

After graduating from Sun Valley High School in the late 1970s, Winchester entered Wingate College and exited soon after, embarking on a series of careers: auctioneer, real-estate agent, forklift driver. In the early 1990s he returned to Wingate, intent on earning a college degree. After receiving a B.A. in English from Wingate, he added a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Queens University.

Diplomas or not, Winchester has always been a writer. “I don’t remember a point in my life when I was not writing,” he says. He just didn’t always have the confidence to do it professionally. A poetry class with the now-retired Maurice Thomas, convinced him otherwise, and pretty soon Winchester was plotting (to a degree) a career in writing.

He’s been successful, too. Seven years ago, his short story Waiting on Something to Happen won the prestigious Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and his short stories have appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies.

After Winchester won the Wolfe Prize, his friend Ron Rash, perhaps North Carolina’s most accomplished modern writer, called to congratulate him, but added, “All right. Now you’ll see.” It was a good-natured warning: Rash had written a bestseller, Serena, but didn’t quite replicate its success with his follow-up, The Cove.

Now, seven years after Waiting on Something to Happen, Winchester has his worthy follow-up, a Southern comedy with characters that linger long after you’ve read the last page.

“I think it’s really representative of neo-Southern Gothic commentary, because he has a really great voice for Southern characters, especially women, which is a real talent for a male writer,” Odom says. “There’s a Ron Rash element, when you think about how there’s so much reverence for place and setting and land, which is really nice, especially in the current Southern perspective, because that’s being lost a lot.

“I think it really is a nice hearken back to Southern roots and Southern traditions in that way. There’s these elements of redemption for a lot of characters.”

No matter how well Sunflower Dog does in these uncertain times, Winchester will keep writing. He’s now approaching 20 years as a professor and writing instructor at Wingate, by far his longest stretch of employment at one place.

“In most jobs there’s a knack to it, and once you figure out how the job works, that’s it,” Winchester says. “Once I’d see that, I’d get bored. I’m like, I don’t want to do this anymore.

“The only thing that I’ve done all the way from the time I was a child and never stopped doing was writing. I’ve thought a lot about that, and I finally figured out that it was the exact opposite of what all those different jobs were. I haven’t figured out writing yet.”

Some might argue otherwise, but don’t tell Winchester. Let him keep working on it.

If you’d like to learn more about Sunflower Dog: Dancing the Flathead Shuffle, tune in to a virtual release event on Facebook this Thursday at 7 p.m.

To get your own copy of Sunflower Dog, try Amazon.com, where you can find it in paperback or e-book form. Paperback copies can also be purchased at Park Road Books in Charlotte, or check with your local bookseller, who can order it for you.

April 6, 2020