Author Crystal Wilkinson’s book Water Street is the focus of this year’s One Book Read at WKCTC. Wilkinson, a Kentucky native, will visit the WKCTC campus as the culmination of this annual event. She is currently working on a non-fiction about her mother. iMeet this fascinating author who is an inspiration to many.
Welcome to iMeet, Crystal. Let’s introduce you to Paducah...
I was raised by my grandparents in northeast Casey County, Kentucky. We lived in the Indian Creek community. It was once a bustling enclave where most of the county’s Black families lived, but it had dwindled to about four Black households by the time I was born.
My grandfather, Silas, was a respected tobacco, corn and sorghum farmer and my grandmother, Christine, was a housekeeper and worked in the homes of school teachers in the county. I went to school in Casey County where my family was one of few Black families in the area. My grandmother taught me to read before I went to school so reading became an early love and of course my love of reading sparked my love of writing.
Because we are a blended family across two marriages Ron and I have five adult children. (Well, our youngest is sixteen.)
Did where you grew up affect and influence your writing?
Being from Kentucky and being from a rural place is integral to my writing. My primary identity has always been and still is as a rural woman. I think that perhaps when I wrote my first book I was just accepting that that was who I was and at the beginning of celebrating my ruralness instead of hiding it.
I spent a great number of years trying to hide the fact that I was a rural woman because I didn’t want to seem backward or country. When I say country, I don’t mean a small town. I mean I lived in a world where our house backed up to the woods.
We lived on a gravel road with an outhouse and all of our water came from a well. No inside running water or inside toilets. Our house was heated by wood burning stoves and we could only get one television station but replete with creeks, trees, green land it was such a beautiful place.
For much of my young adulthood I was obsessed with trying to hide my accent so that no one would know where I was from. But then I fell back in love with my upbringing and gained the confidence to celebrate my background and to allow my writing to be a sort of praise-song to that upbringing.
I think the writing has helped me combat stereotypes about African American rural identities. I haven’t really subtracted any identities in recent years or added any. I’ve been comfortable in my own racial, geographical skin for a number of years now. Kentucky proud.
Your book Water Street is this year's One Book Read. That's amazing! Tell us more about the book…
Water Street focuses on the hardworking people who live on Water Street, in a fictional town in Kentucky and is a short story cycle. It is comprised of thirteen interconnected stories - the book focuses on both the private lives,and public lives of each character. My goal was to leave the reader with a snapshot of each of these characters lives so that each builds on the other. By the end you get an intimate view of what living in an isolated place or a small town is like. I wanted to not only capture the place but also the spirit of this place - this fictional Water Street.
This form is one that I return to again and again, the composite novel, or the fractured narrative. The book is informed by a cluster of books that came before it including Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and a host of others. I am so happy this book was chosen for One Book Read and I hope everyone who has read it has enjoyed it and is eager to discuss it and ask me questions.
Tell us about your other books…
My first book is Blackberries, Blackberries, a collection of short stories which rely exclusively on the oral tradition for its strength. I wrote this book with the people who sat in living rooms or in church pews telling the stories of the ancestors in mind. The stories are from the speaking and listening traditions of both African American culture and Appalachian culture.
As the title indicates the stories are small bursts of delight but they are not all sweet. They all tell the truth of the characters they encompass and sometimes that truth is biting. In these stories I tried to replicate life for rural country people and infuse them with humor and sadness - but always with honesty.
With the recent success of my third book, The Birds of Opulence, I was elated when the University Press of Kentucky decided to reissue Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street with new forwards and afterwards from nationally acclaimed writers.
My third book, The Birds of Opulence is a novel and I’m so proud of the national attention it has received. It’s my first novel and it is a multigenerational book that follows four generations of women in a rural black township in Kentucky.
When a child is born in a squash patch a lifetime of memories, fears and madness is unveiled. The book centers around around how both Black families and Appalachian families deal with the stigma of mental illness and how secrets can reverberate through generations. What happens when some of the deepest secrets begin to be unraveled?
What did you do for a living before writing?
I’ve always been a writer. My undergraduate degree in in journalism and I worked in public relations for both city and state government for a number of years. I’ve done a lot of things but writing has been central in my professional career. But I’ve had some interesting jobs outside of that too.
I think the most interesting job I’ve ever had was being a sales clerk for the J. Peterman Company. We would actually go get the items that the customers were considering purchasing and describe it to them. We were not allowed to be curt and sometimes we’d stay on the phone with them for a long time. One of my first customers was the actress Tyn Daley.
Working on anything new?
I’m working on a nonfiction book about my mother’s life-long struggle with mental illness and also working on some other books too - a novel and a collection of poetry among them.
When did you discover that you were destined to be an author?
I’ve told this story a million times and I still smile when I tell it. I was raised by my grandmother and she encouraged me to read. I was a voracious reader at a young age. She always told me that when I had read all the books in the house that I began to write my own. I was a shy child and always lived in my imagination and once I began to write stories then an entirely new world opened up to me. I still have so many of those early scribbles. I treasure them really.
What authors inspired you?
There are so many, a long list of books I go to again and again: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich; The Meadow by James Galvin; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid; Abeng by Michelle Cliff; Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje; and an entire host of short story cycles beginning with Jean Toomer’s Cane and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio on up to the present.
All of these are books of great inspiration for me but my interest is fluid; there are always new books, new movies, new art that slide in as influences. Many of these I’ve mentioned are always on my list but in the last couple of years I’ve been inspired by writers who are friends and strangers. Tayari Jones, Honoree Fannone Jeffers, Kiese Laymon, Marlon James.
I’m also influenced by friends and mentors alike here in Kentucky. Some of these are mentors in the flesh. Some mentors on the page. Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Gurney Norman, bell hooks, the Affrilachian Poets, DaMaris Hill, Nikky Finney, Kelly Norman Ellis. This is not the question to ask someone who used to own a bookstore and has more than 1,000 books in her private library at home. There are so many. All art forms inspire me.
What's the best part of being a writer? What's the most difficult?
I think the absolute best part of being a writer is the writing itself. I’m in an entirely disconnected universe while in the throes of writing. There is no other feeling like it, to be fully taken by a character and the world you’ve created for them. The imagination is such a powerful thing. To be able to step outside one’s self into an entirely different person and place yet have a thread of truth connect back to your reality. There is absolutely nothing like that for me.
The next best thing would be meeting readers and engaging in conversations about where they met the work I created or even how they connected to their own lives or in some cases other books. I love when that happens. It would be cliche to say the same things I love about being a writer are also the most difficult but I believe it’s true.
Tapping into my imagination and getting to that “floating” place is hard to do and being a woman who was raised on a farm, it’s ridiculous to compare writing to the hard work that the daily activity on a farm takes but it is my profession and it’s not always easy and some days are harder than others to keep my hand on the work and to move through the hard places. And innately I’m a reserved person who values solitude so it’s both exhilarating and exhausting to be around people so much.
There is a social media meme that says “It’s too peopley in here.” Sometimes I feel that way when I’ve been on the road a lot but it is always worth it to meet the people who are actually responsible for any success I might have. I guess none of it is really hard especially when I think about the work that my ancestors did. I’m grateful for the work that I do. It’s a privilege to do it.
What do you like to do in your free time?
My husband and I are science fiction film addicts. I love to watch films.
Watching or reading anything good that you'd like to share?
I am reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James and I really love it. I am also reading Boy Erased by Garrard Conley and The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Wang. All are so good.
And my watching list is sometimes embarrassing but I watch a lot of British television but I eagerly binged the entire season of the new Lost in Space in one day.
Who has been the most influential in your life?
No one has been more influential than my grandparents, Silas and Christine Wilkinson. They raised me and they were kind, generous people whose morals were uncompromised and lived their lives as simply as they could. They have been gone for years but I pay tribute to them every day. Any bit of goodness I do in this world is primarily owed to them.
Thank you for much for sharing your story with us this week on iMeet, Crystal. We wish you much success with your latest book and hope to read many more you’ve written in the future.
If you would like to meet Crystal Wilkinson in person she will be speaking during the One Book Read celebration at WKCTC on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 12 & 13. For more information please visit kctcs.edu.