Crystal Wilkinson is an author, teacher, brick and mortar bookstore owner, and the editor of Mythium: A Journal of Contemporary Literature. She grew up in Indian Creek, Kentucky, on a farm in Appalachia and is noted as a founding member of the “Affrilachian Poets.” Her resume touts two short story collections published by Toby Press, and numerous other short stories and poems. I recently had a chance to ask Ms. Wilkinson about her writing process and her work.
WB: I read your short story collections: Blackberries Blackberries and Water Street. I’m enchanted by your grasp on setting and characterization. In Water Street, you write from several points of view from young to old, male to female. What is the process like for you to find and stay true to each character’s voice?
CW: I would like to be able to say it’s a matter of craft and of course it is to some extent but to an even greater extent it has to do with the process of actually developing my characters and actually hearing them aurally and letting them tell their story to me as I’m writing. This initial voice is always a first person narrator and then from there I add craft. So on some level it has to do with working around a germ of an idea until my imagination realizes an actual person and I hear their voice from that point craft then takes over.
WB: How do you begin a short story? Do you start with a character in mind, an image, or a situation you want to explore?
CW: Each story has its own way of presenting itself. Sometimes it comes from a line in a journal. Sometimes a character emerges right away. Sometimes I am sparked by some other impulse. I often speak of the stories I write in terms of haunts. My mind is always in overdrive with ideas for stories and poems. In some benign way I live in creative mania. Hundreds of story ideas come to me constantly but it is only those ideas that I’m “haunted” by that rise to the surface more than once that I actively pursue. Sometimes a story comes knocking on the door of my brain for years. I tend to ignore the hardest ones and they are often persistent.
WB: You write, teach, own a brick and mortar bookstore, co-edit a journal, and have family…how do you keep it all balanced? Do you have a solid routine? What’s a typical day like for you?
CW: I wish there was some magical trick to it all. I don’t have a solid routine, I feel that if I did I would be much more prolific and have a stack of books under my belt. I find that I go for long periods without writing while I juggle and juggle but just because I don’t put things down on paper every day that doesn’t mean that I’m not writing. I’ve learned to save things, to make notes, to let ideas churn and then when I can squeeze in a writing date then I often pull all-nighters or make writing dates with myself and write for long stretches. I will say that there is also another technique that I habit that I try to keep going in that I feel that 3 a.m. is my purest writing time. I try to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to write. Some mornings grading papers takes up my writing time, but that is something that I am constantly fighting with. As far as Wild Fig Books is concerned, my fiancé is the in-store presence though I try to give him a break when I can.
WB: From what I understand you’ve taught at the high school level and the college level. What’s your favorite age to teach, and your favorite course, and why?
CW: I actually haven’t taught high school except for about a five-year summer stint at The Governor School for the Arts. I loved working with high school juniors and seniors. As an Appalachian, I was especially thrilled to work with young people from the mountains in their formative years as blossoming writers. But I guess my favorite age to teach is on the college level. There is a certain satisfaction in teaching undergraduates and watching them grow and expand their understanding of craft and the technical aspects of writing along with nurturing their habits and processes as writers. I also enjoy teaching graduate students because these are usually students who have already ascertained a high level of writing experience.
WB: Are you working on anything new (a teaching project or a writing project) that you are excited about and you would like to discuss?
CW: What’s on my mind as a teacher of literature is that I will be teaching a course in the Spring on the literature of African Americans in the Appalachian region. Being from Appalachia is a source of pride for me as an African American woman and I feel really grateful for the opportunity to teach this class. As far as writing projects go I am always working on several projects at once—two novel ideas, a book of poetry about my grandfather and a nonfiction book with my mother at its core.
Many thanks to Ms. Wilkinson, for taking time to talk with me. For more information on Crystal and her work, visit http://crystal-wilkinson.blogspot.com/.