The Help: Today’s To Kill a Mockingbird? With Author Kathryn Stockett

Image: Kem Lee

The author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller joins Joni Evans to talk about the book that started as a quiet, personal novel – and grew to two million copies.

WOWOWOW: I am delighted to welcome Kathryn Stockett to the wowOwow community. How nice to have you.

KATHRYN STOCKETT: Hi, Joni. Thank you for having me.

WOW: Well, you are such a hero. Almost everyone I know has read your book already it seems. You know, it’s one of those publishing phenomena that sells and sells and sells, just by word of mouth. I guess it was published just over a year ago. Is that correct?

KATHRYN: It came out February of last year and it didn’t set the town on fire when it came out.

WOW: Well, not at first …

KATHRYN: No, it was a slow climb and I toured, and I toured hard, and I would show up at book tours and sometimes there would be 200 people, and then other times, one in particular, there were six people and four of them were related to me. It’s been a fun year.

WOW: Isn’t it wonderful? And it’s just climbed up and up, to the top of that bestseller list in hardcover forever, and I’m sure the same thing will happen in paperback. Do you have any idea of the numbers of how many books you’ve sold?

KATHRYN: I don’t know sales figures exactly. I try to not worry about that too much. But I did find out recently that there are about two million copies in print. And, again, I don’t think as a writer it’s very healthy to think about numbers like that. I just have to keep my head down and keep writing.

2010_0401_thehelp.jpgWOW: Wow! Well it’s rare, as you know. Not that many people write a book that has all these elements — the powerful story, voice, characters … the feel of a classic; you know, as you read it you feel you are reading something classic. For those who don’t know what The Help is about — and there are only about five people who haven’t read it yet — I think I won’t give anything away by saying this is a novel that takes place in Jackson, MS, in the early ’60s, and it tells the world of the white world versus the “colored” world as it was then called. It really portrays what happens when the two worlds collide … I would say, the domestic community — mostly maids, and the white – what would you call them, not upper class?

KATHRYN: I’d call them the white social climbers.

WOW: There you go. OK. And the explosion of what happens when insidious prejudice becomes public. This comes out of your personal experience. Can you tell us a little bit about how your personal experience informed this book?

KATHRYN: I was born and raised in Jackson, MS. I didn’t grow up in 1962, I came along a little bit after that, but things change pretty slowly down there, and it wasn’t much different, I don’t think. It was different on the law books, but I don’t think there was very much change in the homes from the early ’60s to the ’70s. It was just such a phenomenal time in history with all of the marches and the Civil Rights movement going on, and that’s really more of a backdrop to the story. But when I was writing The Help I kept thinking that I was writing about just a small bubble, just something very personal, and thought I’d just be lucky if my family read it, honestly, because we grew up (me and my brothers and sisters, and also my father and uncle) with a black domestic named Demetrie, who had just an incredible impact on all of our lives. She was so gentle and she was so funny, and she came to work for my grandmother and stayed with our family for the next 32 years. And the relationship that she had with my grandmother was employer and employee, but the relationships that she had with us, the grandkids, was so close and so dear, and we loved her so much. But when I turned about 30 — you know, Demetrie died when I was 16, and I think I was around about 30 years old, living in New York City, and for the first time in my life I started to wonder what Demetrie must have been thinking all those years working for our family. And we knew, for sure, how we felt about her; we loved her, we understood, she was part of natural life for us, that there was a divide between blacks and whites. But it never occurred to us to wonder, gosh, what she did on Saturday afternoons? I never saw Demetrie outside of her white uniform until she was in her casket. So there was a whole part of a life, as much as we loved her, that we never knew about.

WOW: And was there an “aha” moment where you thought, “Wait a minute? I should tell this story”? What spurred you to think about her in this way?

KATHRYN: I was living in New York and I was in magazine publishing, just working my rear end off, and I finally threw in the towel and said, “I need about a month just to do something creative.” I was working on a story that evidently was not going anywhere. So I holed up in my apartment downtown in New York and then about two days later came 9/11. And I’ll tell you, it’s the most homesick feeling I’ve ever had; we didn’t have Internet, we didn’t have landline service, our cell phones had been cut. There was no way I could call my family in Mississippi and just say, “Hey, we’re fine.” And I think to comfort myself, and to meet this homesickness, I started a new story in the voice of Demetrie. And I didn’t think much of it but it was kind of a salve to me, writing in her voice, and hearing her voice in my head. It was just like playing back a tape.

WOW: Oh, how interesting. How bold of you to write in the voice of a black woman.

KATHRYN: Oh, it’s not that bold if you think no one’s going to read it.

WOW: OK, so you’re writing this privately; you’re feeling this – your story – is only for yourself?

KATHRYN: Oh, yes.

WOW: So how long did the process of writing it take you?

KATHRYN: I wrote the story over the course of about five years, in fits and starts. I had a full-time job, I had a baby, I had a husband. And I think that’s how I operate, so it was a good way to do it. I don’t do well with deadlines, in case my publisher’s listening to this. I need to take my time and think about what I’m doing, rather than just dashing it out on a page.

WOW: And when you did show it, and when you did get a publisher or an agent, whatever way it happened, were you fearful of what the black community, as well as your own roots in the white community, might think? I mean, how brave you had to be to have taken this on, or did you not think of it that way?

KATHRYN: I mean, I was more terrified to show it to my writing group that was both black and white, men and women, because those are my peers. But I had been soliciting it, trying to find an agent, for two of those five years and got about 60 rejection letters. And after all that rejection, when I finally got an agent, Susan Ramer, she sold it in about three weeks. But still, it just never occurred to me that anybody outside of my family, and outside of Mississippi, would read it. So I figured there would be some repercussions personally, but I had no idea. I think it’s being published now in 35 countries and in three languages.

WOW: What was that reaction? Is there a sense of a different response to the reading experience between blacks and whites?

KATHRYN: I can’t stereotype any one reaction and say the whites feel this way and the blacks this way. Every reaction I’ve gotten is different. You know, they’ll tell me in their own unique way, “Oh, my gosh, I really related to the story. I grew up in the South, we had a black domestic and we loved her dearly,” which is wonderful to hear. And then I’ve heard from African Americans: “Oh, my gosh, I feel like you really captured our voice.” And then recently I heard from just a delightful black woman, just on an airplane yesterday, and she said that the language made her a little uncomfortable. So I’m getting all kinds of comments.

WOW: You’re getting everything.

KATHRYN: But here’s the truth, and I really mean this sincerely: I’m just happy people are talking about it. And “it” not being the book — “it” being the subject of race and the problems in America, and also the joy and the recognition of how far we’ve come.

WOW: You know, I wanted to ask, it’s been 50 years – how far has Jackson come? When you go back home do you see things completely differently? Is the town different? Is the feeling of the state different?

KATHRYN: Look, I’m no expert, I’m no anthropologist or sociologist, but I will tell you that just based on talking to my friends and family, I still see a huge separation socially and in the homes. But I see a great intermeshing in the business world, and I think that’s a great first step. And I’m talking about Jackson and, again, I haven’t spent that much time there lately, but I was so pleased … you know, my mom works for the state and half of her office — well, she’s got every person in the office reading it, you know. That’s your mother, of course.

WOW: Of course. Of course.

KATHRYN: But so many of the people that she works with – I shouldn’t say half – are … they’re of all colors, races, classes, everything. And, you know, they’re just all there together and I love that. I don’t think that’s something that existed in 1962. I don’t know if that’s something that existed in 1979.

WOW: Right. Do you think prejudice – this is a maybe too big question, or it’s a dumb question – do you think prejudice is learned, or innate, or is it different in every way?

KATHRYN: I don’t know, but I am asking myself that question right now because I have a daughter who is so wonderfully color-blind, and I’m just going to keep an eye on it and see if it changes, or if it doesn’t change, and just be proud of her. And hopefully we’re setting a good example.

WOW: So many readers of The Help think of it as an instant classic in the way that To Kill a Mockingbird was, or even Gentlemen’s Agreement. It’s got that kind of resonance. But then I think to caution you: I don’t think Harper Lee wrote anything, nor Laura Hobson after their great books. Are you working on something new?

KATHRYN: Oh, I am, and I’m loving it.

WOW: Oh, good.

KATHRYN: And I have to fight for time to work on it. But it also takes …

WOW: Is it in the same —

KATHRYN:
Well sort of …

WOW: — area, or completely —

KATHRYN: It takes place in Mississippi in a small town called Oxford, where the University of Mississippi is, Ole Miss. But it takes place during the Great Depression. It kind of starts in the flapper era, and moves into 1929, 1930 — and I’m having a ball. It’s a story about women and what women have to do to make a living in a time that was essentially catering to men. And, oh, I’m going to get in so much trouble from this one.

WOW: Well, it doesn’t sound like you’ve learned any lessons! Are there any lessons you’ve learned from this fabulous experience that will help you in the new one?

KATHRYN: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I feel like I’m still learning lessons every day from this. But I tell you, when you write your first book all you think about is how it makes you, the writer, feel. So when you write your second book you can’t help but think how it’s going to make the reader feel. So my challenge right now is to kind of clear all these people out of my office staring at me, and get back to that very private writing place.

WOW: That’s fabulous insight. A great lesson. This has been such a pleasure for us and we congratulate you heartily, and hope you’ll come back sometime. And for the five people left who haven’t enjoyed and raved about this book, grab it as fast as you can. A pleasure for us to have you stop by the Book Party and wowOwow.

KATHRYN: Thank you.

Editor’s Note: Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, MS. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and creative writing, she moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter. The Help is her first novel.

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