Crystal Wilkinson was a guest lecturer my first semester of my MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She spoke eloquently about circular, fragmented, and braided forms. She spoke about how Point of View can circle overhead like a bird, coming to rest over different people. I wrote it all down very carefully, because I was not particularly good at writing linear stories and it was the first time I heard someone say that I didn’t have to write in a straight line.
I’d like to say that I had her sign THE BIRDS OF OPULENCE when I met her, but I was way too shy to ask!
About THE BIRDS OF OPULENCE:
From the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street comes an astonishing new novel. A lyrical exploration of love and loss, The Birds of Opulence centers on several generations of women in a bucolic southern black township as they live with and sometimes surrender to madness. The Goode-Brown family, led by matriarch and pillar of the community Minnie Mae, is plagued by old secrets and embarrassment over mental illness and illegitimacy. Meanwhile, single mother Francine Clark is haunted by her dead, lightning-struck husband and forced to fight against both the moral judgment of the community and her own rebellious daughter, Mona. The residents of Opulence struggle with vexing relationships to the land, to one another, and to their own sexuality. As the members of the youngest generation watch their mothers and grandmothers pass away, they live with the fear of going mad themselves and must fight to survive. Crystal Wilkinson offers up Opulence and its people in lush, poetic detail. It is a world of magic, conjuring, signs, and spells, but also of harsh realities that only love-and love that’s handed down-can conquer. At once tragic and hopeful, this captivating novel is a story about another time, rendered for our own. (Goodreads)
THE VIRTUAL INTERVIEW:
In addition to writing books, you also own a bookstore, Wild Fig Books + Café. Tell us a bit about what that is like! Has your experience as a book seller changed how you think about writing or publishing?
I have always loved that quote by Toni Morrison that says “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So when we decided to open a bookstore it was important to approach it with the same mindset. As writers if there was a way that we always wanted a bookstore to feel; books we always wanted to see on the shelves; a particular ambiance we wanted the store to have; then we had to make sure that our store contained it. We are a black owned bookstore in a gentrified area of Lexington and we wanted the bookstore to feel good to our neighbors and also to anyone who might visit there. But we always had a safe space to be a person of color and to be a writer of color in mind. That was very important to us. We have been told that there are only 50 or so black-owned bookstores left in the country. There is nothing glamorous about owning a bookstore. We do it because it means so much to us. It’s heart work that we are doing. It’s for the community and our efforts to try to walk the talk that we are in this business.
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
One book? There are so many books that I go to again among them are: 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 that come in and take the place of others, though most of these have been on my list for a long time.
Where do you love to be?
In nature. I was raised on 64 acres of land and I still have a jones for open pastures and blue sky unencumbered by buildings. I love being in a cabin in the woods as long as I have food, drink and a computer, books and notebooks around me. But at the same token I also love the total opposite from time to time. I love NYC too. The hustle and bustle and the diversity of people is something you don’t experience where I live. To stand still or sit still for a while on a New York street and see every kind of people and culture and religion in the world if you sit there long enough is wonderful.
5. Which talent do you wish you had? Can I say I wish I could fly? I hate flying in airplanes and I’ve always been afraid of heights but when I watch birds I wish I could do that. Such freedom, such grace, to have been born with such magic would be magnificent. And if your question is something more realistic then I wish I could play music. My mother played piano by ear. She could hear any song and replicate it note by note with jazz-like riffs in between and I have always wished I could play. She made it look so easy. I took piano lessons once thinking that the gift for music must be in my blood but it involved so much precision and I didn’t feel any of that improvisational prowess that my mother had and I quit my lessons in utter disappointment. I still remember how I felt.
What time of day do you love best?
Ah, an easy question. I love 4 a.m. That is my peak writing time. When I am working on a project and writing at the top of my game I am up by 4 a.m. writing. I always describe this time as a scribbling fury. This is the time of morning that I am close to my dream state. I’ve read all the research about art production when one is in the dream state but for me it goes beyond that. As a woman it is a free time. I don’t have to wash the dishes. The children don’t need clothes. Bills don’t have to be paid. Papers don’t have to be graded. My neighbors are not firing up their yard equipment. No one has to poop at 4 a.m. Nothing. It is the peak and pure opportunity for solitude. Just me and the word and the characters and their situations. Bliss.
What three things would you want with you if stranded on a desert island?
- A book (Can I say books? Greedy? Huh?)
- Does a Liquor Barn count as one thing?
- Pen and pad (this is one thing isn’t it?)
What are you currently working on?
The book I’m currently working on is a nonfiction book and it is primarily about my mother’s history of mental illness and how that has impacted me and how I see it affecting future generations of women in my family. It is not a linear look at the subject of mental illness in my family but one that takes various shapes and forms. Memory is not linear. I think my agent would have loved to see it written as a straightforward memoir but it has come to me in poems, in short bursts, in reflection and I am simply honoring the process of how things come. I have poems and letters. I have written a series of poems based upon letters (that I found during my research) from my grandmother to my mother’s doctors. There may be several books. Maybe the poems are a separate book. I’m not sure. I had a recent inquiry about publishing them separately. I’m not sure yet. Already I’m whispering “Structure is the last frontier” to myself as I write like a mantra. I have to write more of the book so it can show me the way. I am confident that it will show me what it needs to become. The others have.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I once worked as a customer service representative for J. Peterman. My first customer was the actress Tyne Daly of Cagney and Lacy fame. It was a creative job and that’s why I loved it so much. We were instructed to talk to the customers as long as they wanted us and the clothes and other items were on the floor with us so when we talked to a customer about the feel of the fabric or the etchings on a ceramic item we were to actually stand up and fondle the fabric or hold the item while we talked to them. It was true customer service but it was so much fun. The quality of the items hand chosen from all over the world were so strange. The ad copy for their catalogue was pure poetry and the owners would walk through from time to time. They were celebrities too. I had regulars who called and talked their way through the catalogue with me and never bought anything. We had to take a grammar test to be hired. It was the most amazing job. I still think about it. If I could have lived off my salary I don’t think I would have ever sought a professional job. J Peterman customer service representative and writer would have been a divine existence.
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— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) March 31, 2018
Crystal Wilkinson is an award-winning feminist poet, novelist, memoirist, and professor from Kentucky. She’s a born and raised country girl and literary force of nature. Her structural innovations start from the ground up with sentences that read like poetry and characters that live and breathe on the page. She is the current Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College and is a faculty member of Spalding University’s MFA program.
Wilkinson’s first book, Blackberries, Blackberries won the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature; her second book, Water Street, was a finalist for both the Orange Prize and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award; her third book, The Birds of Opulence, won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, The Judy Young Gaines Prize for Fiction, and the Weatherford Award. Her work—fiction, poetry, memoir—has been widely anthologized and published in countless journals. She and her partner, Ron Davis, co-own and run the beloved independent bookstore, Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington, Kentucky. (Goodreads)