Krystal A. Smith on Speculative Fiction and Writer’s Block
A North Carolina native, Krystal A. Smith (i.e. K.A. Smith) is a Black lesbian writer of poetry and speculative fiction. Her work has been described as “lyrical” and “intriguing.” Her poems have appeared in Tulips Touching (UltraVioletLove Publishing 2011) and recent short stories have appeared in Ladylit Publishing’s Summer Love: Stories of Lesbian Holiday Romance (2015) and Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Fiction (BLF Press 2016). Her debut collection of short fiction Two Moons: A Collection of Short Fiction (BLF Press) will be released in 2018.
When did you start writing speculative fiction? Who are your major influences in this genre?
I had imaginary friends growing up. Little Bruno, Bubba, Shubby. My older brother was in on it too. We used to have so much fun running in and out of the house going on adventures. A few times my older brother and I made up stories about sacred burial grounds with spirits who called out to scare people. We were always creating things, so maybe that’s my speculative fiction origin story. I don’t think I knew what the genre was called until high school. I think Octavia Butler has had the most impact on my writing. Some other writers include Jewelle Gomez and Nalo Hopkinson.
The first Octavia Butler book I read was Dawn. I hadn’t read anything like it before and that opened my eyes to a completely different world of fiction. From that point on I wanted to read everything and just absorb all that I could. Hopkinson writes the most magical and fantastical stories. Her perspective is so unique and incredible it really makes me think about how I can be true to myself in my writing. I feel like my whole self is engaged when I read these authors.
Which of your characters do you identify with the most? Why?
From Two Moons? I’d probably say Korinthia. She’s doing what she’s always done and she’s not satisfied, she’s not happy. But she’s not sure about next steps and she doesn’t want to let anyone down. So, she’s trying to find a way. I’ve been there. I am there.
What role does art or literature have in social or political protest?
Art teaches different perspectives. Not everyone’s view or position is the same. Art and literature show how many different people’s lives have value. When there is social or political unrest art and literature has to be there. It’s a voice fighting just like the people standing in the streets. There is a power in it that voice that speaks to the people.
Several of the larger publishers are using “sensitivity readers” to make sure that their work isn’t racially or culturally offensive. What are your thoughts on that practice?
You can look at it as having a content editor go over your work. It’s an extra set of eyes reviewing and asking, are you saying what you mean to say? Is this really how you want to portray a specific character or situation? Yes, it makes sense to do this. But it also seems like writers without varying cultural and social experiences are having to do a lot of this when they write about people and situations they don’t know or understand and have never experienced, which makes me question how they came to write about such characters and situations in the first place. It makes me wonder what exactly they’re trying to do in their work.
How do you avoid cultural stereotypes in your own work?
I think about the whole character when I’m building/creating someone. I ask myself how would it make me feel if this person/situation was meant to represent me or people like me. Does that sit well or is it problematic? I adjust from there and make sure I understand why.
What has been your biggest challenge in being a Black woman writer?
I think the biggest challenge has been believing in myself and figuring out who I am. I didn’t grow up with parents who said, “I’m proud of you,” so that’s always been an issue for me. I had to figure out how to be proud of myself and what that means to me.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Not having to do anything. Not having plans. Just having a day where I can go from the bed to the couch back to bed. Working in customer service makes me not want to talk to people sometimes. It feels decadent to not have to go to work or talk to anyone.
If you could sit down with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?
Alice Sola Kim. I’ve been reading her stories lately and I like this idea of monster girls. I’m always interested in other people’s writing processes, so I’d probably ask how she comes up with her stories and how she builds characters.
What draws me to Kim is both how strange and real her stories are. Beautiful White Bodies is probably my favorite of hers. There’s this sickness making girls beautiful, so beautiful that they don’t seem human anymore. They are frightening. The consequence for being recognized as beautiful is this awful sort of loss of self and humanity even. The way we force the idea of being beautiful on girls and women backfires when we turn into monsters— not looking like humans and behaving even less so. I love the way a seemingly harmless concept like beauty gets flipped to show that ugliness.
What have you read within the past year that made you feel differently about fiction or about your own writing?
“Who Will Greet You At Home” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. This story had me from the first word to the last. Like my mouth was literally hanging open as I read it. I was so captivated by its originality, creativity. I felt an immediate connection with main character Ogechi. She is almost a study in character desire. She wants with her entire being. Then when I read it a second time I realized that this is THE type of short story that I wish I had inside me. It’s both the story that makes me want to keep writing and quit at the same time. It’s the best story I’ve ever read with my eyeballs.
What has surprised you the most about being a writer?
How easy non-writers think writing is. And how they think that as a writer you must have a desire to write their life story.
How do you overcome writer’s block? If you’ve never experienced it, how have you avoided it?
For me, writer’s block isn’t a “block.” It’s a fear. It’s being afraid that what I write won’t be right, or good, or interesting. It’s falling prey to that mean little voice in my head that makes me doubt myself. “Nothing will ever be as good as the last thing you wrote.” That’s the song she likes to sing in my head. The “block” is the fear of not living up to my own expectations. It can be hard to shake, especially if you’re on a deadline. But as someone who has decided writing is what I want to do, what I have chosen to do, I push through. I get up and go outside to look at trees and walk around. I work on other things, talk to my characters, doodle, read. I do anything I can to get my mind off that nagging feeling that the voice is right. Then I write. I sit down and write.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Figure out why you write and who it is you write for. Know that those reasons/people can and will change from time to time. You can still write what you want to write.
Writing feels good to me even when it doesn’t. It always has. The way I solve problems and express myself is through words. It’s healing. I can be different versions of myself and play with ideas and figure things out. I think I write mainly for myself. The me that is afraid, that is curious, that is sometimes insecure. I write to self-soothe.