Merlene Davis: Network of friends brings 'Saint Monkey' author to town

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 3, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    What: Jacinda Townsend, author of Saint Monkey, her debut novel, will read excerpts and answer questions.

    When and where:

    ■ 6 p.m. March 7, Wild Fig Bookstore, 1439 Leestown Rd.

    ■ 7 p.m. April 2, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green Circle.

While Jacinda Townsend was studying at the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, she met and interviewed award-winning Lexington author Crystal Wilkinson for a radio program.

Over the years, they've met several times and have become part of a informal network of authors and friends who keep in touch.

Now that Townsend has published her first novel, Saint Monkey, (W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95) that network of friendship is bringing her to Lexington on Friday and April 2. She'll read at Wilkinson's Wild Fig Bookstore, a small independent store on Leestown Road, before Joseph-Beth Booksellers in April.

It was a coup for Wild Fig to get Townsend, especially because the author is getting a great deal of positive national press.

"It is hard," Wilkinson said about landing Townsend. "We are competing with some of the big stores," stores that are far better known in the world of publishing than hers.

"But she really wanted to do this," Wilkinson said.

It helps that Townsend is a native Kentuckian. Born in Bowling Green, Townsend graduated from Warren Central High School in 1988 at age 16 and enrolled at Harvard University. She earned a law degree from Duke University and a master's degree from Iowa. She lived in New York for eight years before teaching creative writing at Missouri State University, Southern Illinois University and Indiana University, where she is now. In fact, she's in a teaching position that Wilkinson used to hold.

Her heart remains in the Midwest, she said, and she has always been drawn to Eastern Kentucky.

"I have always been intrigued by Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia," Townsend said, adding, "There's not that many black people in Eastern Kentucky."

Townsend, who taught at the Governor's Scholars program at Morehead State University, isn't all that familiar with Eastern Kentucky. For Saint Monkey she did much of her research through newspaper articles and interviews with residents in the area.

Saint Monkey is based in Mount Sterling in the 1950s. The main characters are two black girls who face tragedy early in life. The reader watches how both deal with it, the segregation of the times and with growing up.

In the first part of the book, readers see the world through Audrey's eyes, and in the second from the viewpoint of her friend, Caroline (Pookie).

Both girls want to leave Kentucky but go about it in different ways. One has an easier road than the other.

Townsend started writing the book when her first child was 4 years old, and it took her about 2½ years to finish, she said. Her first child is now 9 years old, and the book has gone through several drafts since then and she has given birth to a second child.

The novel is about "loving someone despite imperfections," she said.

What does she want the reader to take away from the book?

"The title has little to do with the take-away," she said. "When you get to the end, you will find something out of character but it is nothing that someone wouldn't do."

Townsend has finished her second novel, Souria, which is told from the viewpoint of an American woman who kidnaps a Moroccan girl and the child's Moroccan mother.

Chapters of Saint Monkey have been published in the literary magazine Mythium Literary Journal, which Wilkinson and her partner, artist and poet Ronald Davis, publish.

Because of the authors network the women are a part of, Wilkinson has heard Townsend give readings. That network is how Elaine Neil Orr, author of A Different Sun, (Berkley Trade, $16) came to be at Wild Fig last year. Orr and Wilkinson teach at Spalding University in Louisville.

Wilkinson has just completed a novel that is in the hands of her agent. The Birth of Opulence is about a community of women in a small Kentucky town. A thread of mental illness is sown through their relationships.

And she is working on a memoir of her mother.

"It is exciting on a lot of levels to see a black woman published and characters that are Kentucky-based," Wilkinson said.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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