Years of social work motivate Columbia writer Damron’s novels

ussery-podcastPW1a-VFHow do you terrify a mystery writer? Choose her newest book, a literary novel, as this year’s One Book, One Community reading for Columbia. Writer Carla Damron, who weaves years of social work into her mysteries, says it’s an honor, but also terrifying to know many area book clubs will read her work.


By Jamie Ussery
Dec. 2, 2015

Fictional social worker Caleb Knowles lives to help people but keeps coming across murder mysteries filled with mental illness, drugs and death.

His knack for solving them and for dealing with the vagaries of the mind and the human condition come from Columbia writer Carla Damron, who weaves 35 years of social work experience into her writing as she tries to shed a little more light on things like homelessness and human trafficking.

“I want to entertain, but if I can raise awareness too, I’m happy,” Damron said.

Damron “is an advocate for everybody, and she knows how to help you find your way in a dark place,” said Anne Creed, a friend who is also in a writer’s group with Damron.

In her 2010 novel, “Death in Zooville,” Damron entangles Knowles in the reality of poverty. The setting is based on a homeless community near Riverbanks Zoo.

“In her books, she exposes a lot of things, like the homeless community, that we don’t know about and writes about them and now we know,” Creed said.

Damron’s first literary novel, “The Stone Necklace” to be released in January, has been chosen as this year’s One Book, One Community selection for Columbia’s part of the literacy-promotion program.

Being chosen, but also knowing many of the area’s book clubs will read the book, is “so exciting and so terrifying,” she said.

Carla Damron and husband
Columbia novelist Carla Damron’s advocacy goes beyond the people and problems she has encountered as a social worker. She and her husband, Jim Hussey, also protested the flying of the Confederate Flag at the S.C. State House before it was removed last summer. Photo courtesy of Carla Damron.

Damron’s passion and advocacy for those who need help show in everything she writes, co-worker Juliana Palyok said. But Creed said that while Damron incorporates that advocacy, she doesn’t let it limit her writing.

We sat down with Damron to talk about the writer’s craft and how she incorporates her social work experience. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

(Listen to the full podcast.)

What is the literary novel based on? …

There is a man who is a Realtor whose kind of a hypochondriac and he’s married to a woman who’s a breast cancer survivor. …

He always thinks he’s having a heart attack. And one morning he has the heart attack when he’s driving to work, and that causes a bad car crash. It’s about the five people whose lives intersect at the event of that crash and how it transformed them. …

How do you use the experiences that you’ve had through your clinical work in your novels? …

My point of view is what we call intimate. People say that I climb inside my characters. … I would say that I’ve learned a lot from the different clients that I’ve worked with over the years, but none of these characters are based on a client, because you just can’t do that. …

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One of your stories is based on homelessness. Which novel is that?

In the Caleb Knowles mystery series, the last one is “Death in Zooville. … It was inspired partly by something that happened a few years ago, probably in 2010, 2011? There was a homeless village in Columbia near the zoo. A tent village. And the people that lived there called it Zooville. … And what I wanted to communicate was how one homeless person is so different from another homeless person, but we tend to put them all in the same box. … I’ve tried to do a lot to raise awareness in my writing if I can. I want to entertain, but if I can raise awareness too, I’m happy. …

Damron’s latest writing project is about human trafficking in Columbia. She’s been involved in educating people about the prevalence of human trafficking and pressing for legislation against it.

How do you plan on making that novel very educational as well as also it being fictional? …

My market is people that want to read fiction, so I have to make it interesting that way; I can’t just be preachy. … That’s really what I want to do, just kind of create awareness about that so that we understand who is most at risk for becoming a victim and doing what we can to catch them before they become a victim. … So I write things that somebody might want to grab and read at the beach because it’s entertaining. …. But while they’re reading it at the beach, maybe they’ll think, “Oh my lord, this could happen in my neighborhood.” If I accomplish that, I’m happy.

Carla Damron where she works for the NASW of South Carolina
When she isn’t writing novels, Carla Damron is executive director of the National Association of Social Workers in South Carolina.

I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about Caleb Knowles. Now, he is a social worker in your novels, the three mystery novels. Where did kind of the influence for his character or the build of his character come from? …

He kind of arrived fully formed. … I decided I wanted to attack a little mystery project and I sat down and suddenly there is this guy that just appeared in my head. He’s a social worker in a smaller town than Columbia, it’s a fictional town, and he has a brother who’s a deaf artist. Those two characters immediately appeared. …

Would you say that you included any aspects of yourself within this character?

Yes, the coffee addiction would come from me, and he has my sense of humor but also very different from me too. … All of the characters have a little bit of me in them, all of the characters, but then they’re also themselves. …

You did social work for about 31 years. What made you want to be a writer? Did you always want to be a writer? …

It just became a therapeutic thing to do because I was in a pretty stressful profession. … Once I started doing it I loved it.

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