“The combination of the wicker desk and chairs, fluffy pink pillows, and plastic flower arrangements protruding from wall sconces made him feel like a Ken doll in Malibu Barbie’s dream house.”
Death in Zooville
When Carla Damron started blogging for WWK, I didn’t know her well. After reading her three novels back-to-back because I couldn’t put the page-turners down, I feel that I know her much better. The main character of her series, Caleb Knowles, is a clinical social worker, a profession that Carla has practiced in public mental health institutions and private practice. I won’t welcome Carla to WWK, since she blogs regularly here at WWK, but I will welcome her home.
The first book of your Caleb Knowles series, Keeping Silent, was published in 2001, the second, Spider Blue, in 2005, and the third, Death in Zooville, in 2010. That’s a lot of time between books. Why so long?
It wasn’t supposed to be that long between the first and second! My initial publisher, Writeway, went bankrupt before publishing Spider Blue. That novel was orphaned for a while as I worked to get the rights back and find a new publisher. I’m so grateful that Bella Rosa Books took me on!
Between the second and third novel, I worked on other projects and pursued my MFA in Creative Writing. (I graduated in January 2011.) I hope to have the fourth Caleb completed this summer. I’m not as fast as some other writers …
Could you give us a short summary of each plot in your three novels?
My novels have been called “social issues mysteries” partly because my protagonist, Caleb Knowles, is a social worker. In Keeping Silent, Caleb tries to clear his brother Sam of murder charges. Sam is a deaf artist accused of killing his fiancée, who was also deaf, and the police are railroading Sam as the only suspect. Sam’s silence—and withdrawal from Caleb—make clearing him a challenge.
In Spider Blue, Caleb’s involved in two mysteries. A young nurse and mother is stabbed in front of her home. When Caleb tries to help one of the children work through the trauma, he learns important details about the crime. The second mystery in Spider is more of a “why’d-he-do-it” than a whodunit. A worker goes into a mill, shoots several people, and sets his gun down. Caleb’s task is to determine why this normally kind, placid man would do such a thing, and eventually finds a tie between the two brutal crimes.
Death in Zooville came about after I did some volunteer work in a homeless shelter. Zooville was actually a homeless tent village in Columbia, SC, where I live—so I borrowed it. Caleb works in a homeless shelter where several people , including Caleb’s social work intern, are murdered. City officials blame the crimes on the homeless and attempt to shut down the shelter. Caleb’s determination to find the real culprit puts his reputation, and life, in jeopardy. FYI: my royalties for Death in Zooville have been donated to homeless resources.
What is the hardest recurring problem social workers face on a daily basis?
There are so many, but I’d say it is the lack of resources. Finding homes for folks with no money, helping them access medical care, find jobs, etc. It doesn’t help that our political climate has become so polarized. Our clients get blamed for being poor, for needing food stamps and other subsidies. Example: one legislator wants to cut food stamps for families if a child doesn’t get good grades. Being hungry is going to improve her school performance? Really? (Okay. Don’t get me started!)
How did you go from social work to an MFA in Creative Writing?
I’m a social worker. I’ll always be a social worker. But I’m a writer, too, and I wanted to be better at it. I felt like my writing had stagnated. School was tough, but it was low-residency, so I could keep working. It made for long hours, but it pointed me in the right direction and opened some doors in my craft. Plus, I met some wonderful writers from all over the country.
Since then, I’ve managed to get a few literary short stories published and completed a novel that most would call women’s fiction. It’s in New York trying to find a publisher.
When I read your books, it seemed as if Caleb Knowles practiced psychology. What is the difference between a clinical social worker and a psychologist?
Both can be skilled clinicians, but may approach therapy from a different perspective. Social workers tend to focus on the individual in the system within which they live—the family dynamics, the relationship issues, etc. Psychologists focus more on the individual and, sometimes, on testing, though they also do family work if needed. One way I describe it is that comparing psychologists and social workers is like contrasting Methodists with Presbyterians. They both try to accomplish the same thing but take different approaches.
Caleb has a lot on his plate. Not only his patients but also his daughter, ex-wife, current girlfriend and a brother who is deaf. Do most social workers have as complex private lives as their professional dilemmas?
Don’t we ALLLL have complex lives? I do think some of us get into social work because we’ve grown up trying to figure out our own complicated families. And we have a strong drive to help others. It would be hard to be effective at helping others if you always lived a perfect life, wouldn’t it?
What is an “intake” patient?
An “intake” is a client that we see for the first time. It involves a comprehensive assessment to see how we can help them.
Drugs are themes in your books. How does a professional dissuade patients from taking “bad” drugs but persuade them to take the “good” ones?
AH. A big challenge. When I was a young clinician, I believed everyone should abstain from recreational/addictive drugs if they were to recover. I know now that’s unrealistic—that recovery takes TIME, and happens in stages. So if I can get a crack addict to start with not using for one whole weekend, that’s a huge step. Then we try for two weekends, etc.
Compliance with psychiatric drugs can be a struggle because of the side effects. The psychiatrists I worked with were very skilled at finding the right medication and dosage to keep the patient stable but able to function, but pharmacology is far from perfect.
A sad note: One anti-psychotic that’s effective for some of our sickest clients can cause metabolic syndrome. One of my clients who had been tortured by voices all his life was finally able to live on his own and hold down a job. Unfortunately, the meds caused unstable diabetes, heart problems and other complications that killed him. This is one of the toughest things we face as clinicians. I HOPE researchers find a solution soon.
Social work in private practice seems vastly different from the work in public clinics. But I can also see similarities and frustration between the two. Which venue do you prefer?
I’ve done private practice, but I prefer public. We can take care of people regardless of their ability to pay. And honestly, I love working with folks who have a very serious mental illness—they have taught me so much, and most of them are served in the public sector.
Your publisher is Bella Rosa Books. How did you discover this publisher and how easy is thepublisher to work with?
I think I answered that above. Bella Rosa is GREAT to work with. However, they take on clients who already have a publishing history, so they’re not a good option for first novels.
Beach or mountains?
Carla’s novels are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.