Creative Careers in the Arts

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Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with Author, Raconteur, Social Entrepreneur, & Story Teller Crystal Allene Cook

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2009 | Updated May 12, 2019

Okay she plays the tuba. Wrote a book with the indomitable title of Bombardirovka. Is a Fulbright Scholar. Lived in the USSR (when it still existed), West Germany (when it still existed), the former East Germany, Spain, and Armenia. Is a strong woman's advocate. Passion is her middle name of spirit — and most of us who know her call her Crystal Allene Cook.

And if I do say so myself, Crystal rocks.

I met Crystal at a Book Expo cocktail party at this funky cafe in downtown LA. There she was dressed in all these colors, smiling, and laughing — and I just walked up to her and asked if I could take a video of her for Spirited Woman. Without ANY hesitation, this 37-year-old Bluefield, West Virgina-born woman, who is now an LA resident said, "Sure, why not." And starting talking into the camera. Now, that's gutsy.

And since then we've become friends. And also since then, I realized that Crystal, who refers to herself as a raconteur, social entrepreneur, author, advocate, tuba player, spirited woman and more is a bundle of an "I-can-do-this attitude." In fact, I'd say she's unstoppable.

Her next feat is Art Knows No Borders, an all-volunteer benefit (where 100's are expected to attend) to benefit Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Her goal is to raise over $20,000.

As Crystal enthusiastically says, "I got the idea for raising money for MSF while doing research in the Caucasus in 2004. After interviewing someone who spoke about the importance of MSF's work in his town. I knew then that, I wanted to support MSF. So far, more than 100 artists have donated their work for the event. There will be live music, dancers, live art, readings, rock bands, etc., and I'll give away 500 art house copies of my novel Bombardirovka, signed by me and artists that have done work on the cover. The suggested donation is $20, but no one will be turned away at the door."

You go, Crystal! I urge anyone wanting a dose of unstoppability to read her interview and for those of you in LA, to support Crystal at her event.

Q. Crystal, you refer to yourself as a raconteur. Okay, I give — what is a raconteur? And how long have you been one?

A. A raconteur is someone skilled at storytelling. I pretty much recognized I had some talent for this since I won a story-writing contest in second grade. I distinctly remember thinking to my seven year-old self, "Hey, you know, I think I am on to something here!"

Q. You're also a social entrepreneur. Why do you describe yourself that way and what is your mission as a social entrepreneur?

A. To quote Pablo Neruda talking to the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector:

Lispector: What is the most important thing in the world?

Neruda: To try and make the world a worthy place for everyone, not just for the privileged few.

I see that as my mission as a social entrepreneur. I have a very creative, can-do spirit — and I grew up surrounded by a small business. My dad was always inventing things: board games, card games, machines, music — you name it. So along with writing, I see myself as adept at coming up with creative solutions to social problems. I really thrive in the start-up phase of things, when creative input is needed most and ideas need an adrenalin shot of feasible actions. I have been on the ground floor of non-profit start-ups, community start-ups, etc.

Q. Passion seems to be the essence of your life. Have you always been this way? What does passion mean to you?

A. Well, as I commented to someone last week. "I am me all the time!" I guess I don't find my energy exceptional, but maybe it is. A friend once said of me "You have a certain exuberance that is precluded by close observation." That was me in my 20's — unbridled enthusiasm for social issues and writing as well as whatever else I got enthused about. Now, in my 30's, I am more strategic, more diplomatic, and more focused. But, yes, I have always been super energetic. And, what I do must have meaning to me.

Q. Do you come from a line of spirited women?

A. My mother is the youngest of ten from a sharecropping family in the mountains of Virginia. She milked cows as a child, helped take care of her elderly mother starting at the age of 18, and was a factory worker for years. My sisters are a lot older than me — so we weren't that close, but my mother and I have become much closer in the last ten years. My mom is social and very concerned with helping her friends. She also went out and did charity work when I was a kid and that left a big impression on me.

We've had our ups and downs — but she has really achieved this grace in her elderly years that I just find rare and compelling; she is at peace with being old and old to her is not a dirty word — and when does that happen for women these days? I'd love to have that kind of perspective when I am 73!

Q. Not many women are U.S. Fulbright recipients — what did you receive it for — and how has it changed your life?

A. I was an "At-large" recipient in creative writing. That means I didn't apply through a university — which is an even less common way to get one.

The Fulbright gave me a big boost of confidence in terms of my creative and work lives. I received this year funded to do nothing but research this book, reach out to people, read. It was great. I was in Armenia for ten months on the Fulbright — and even though I had lived in Germany, in Russia, and in Spain, I really dug Armenia; it resonated with me. I also got to travel to Syria, to Turkey, and to Georgia while I was in the region — and I got a whole new perspective and appreciation for cultures east of the Bosporus.

Q. What's important for you to achieve in your life — right now?

A. In my "public" life — connection and meaning are important to me. I want to use my skills for good, and to give from a place of abundance in my life. I am also working on how to achieve abundance. I tend to give out, rather than take in, so I am seeking more balance there.

Q. Tell us about your book, Bombardirovka, and why you decided to give it away at your upcoming Art Knows No Borders event?

A. Several reasons. I feel I have already been paid for it with the Fulbright and a grant I was on in the 90's. The people I interviewed for this book were very generous with me — it is their story as much as it is my writing. The novel started as an examination of war, American naiveté, and of the "Other" (in the fem. lit. crit. sense). I wanted it to serve as a springboard for discussion, so my intent never had been to make $ off it. I had this dream of earning 40k so I could give ½ to MSF (Doctors Without Borders)... but the comments I got back from agents kept talking about how hard this book would be to market.

So, earlier this year I decided, you know what, I am going to just give this away and figure out how to raise 20k for MSF anyway! I now see it as a piece of public art — thus I am giving away the only print copies at the event and then posting it in various PDF'S online for free download. I am hoping that reading the book will also prompt folks to donate more to MSF.

Q. You are involved in GEM (Gender Equity in Media) — why is that such an important issue for ALL WOMEN?

A. I am also involved in the start up of a "Chick House" at Sundance. Both GEM and Chick House are just now getting off the ground. The issues for both are such: getting more females in principal positions on and behind the camera in entertainment media. Very simply in this cultural arena there is a terrible dearth of females, from being only one in three on screen in film to only 6% of directors of top features. Take one look around and it is obvious our society needs more women working as culture makers, not just culture consumers.

Q. If you had one nugget of wisdom to impart to women everywhere what would it be?

A. Do whatever inner work we have to do, no matter how painful, to stop obsessing (looks, men, whatever!) and to start being able to sit with ourselves. And, when in doubt, go ahead and wear red!

Q. Crystal, why do you feel that you are a Spirited Woman?

A. As much as I can, with where I am each day, I work to face my fears, be true to my sense of ethics and purpose, be direct in my dealings but also kind, and take each bull charging me by the horns. And most importantly, if the bull I am riding decides to bust up the china shop, I try to laugh at where and how I ended up there. Then I hop off and start picking up the glass!

©2009 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

Next: Interview with 'Fried Green Tomatoes' Author and Actress Fannie Flagg