A conversation with one of Southern literature's boldest new writers
After more than forty-five straight rejections of her novel from literary agents, Kathryn Stockett says, “I quit keeping track. It sort of became like a game.” Opportunity finally knocked when an e-mail came from Susan Ramer, now her agent. Even then, Stockett almost missed the opportunity. “Her e-mail went to my spam box,” she says. The two eventually did connect, and Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, was published in February 2009. Since then The Help has spent nearly a year on the New York Times best-seller list.
The novel, set in the racially charged Mississippi of the 1960s, details the lives of two African American maids and one naive but good-hearted Southern woman who decides to document their lives for a book that puts them all in peril. One big reason for the novel’s runaway success: Stockett bravely—and convincingly—tackles a few Southern taboos. She writes in the voices of African Americans, and she illustrates the complicated, contradictory relationships between white families and their maids in the 1960s.
Stockett, forty, now lives in Atlanta with her husband and seven-year-old daughter, after sixteen years in New York City. She is at work on her second novel, about women in Mississippi who are trying to survive the Great Depression.
The subject matter of The Help is very much rooted in your childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, right?
Yes. My grandmother had a maid named Demetrie who had a huge impact on my life. She really stepped in when my parents split up and went out of her way to make us feel like we were still in one piece. I spent a lot of time in Demetrie’s care as a child. She was the best company you could ask for.
She had different relationships with the different members of my family. To me, she was just pure affection and humor. She was so funny and would do anything to entertain us. But my grandmother grew up in Shanghai. She went over there as a white missionary, you know, to show the heathens the way to God [laughs]. Grandmother had a very clear sense of the class system. And I have to be careful here…but she also had a sense of entitlement to her. Skin color meant something in Shanghai, too, just like Mississippi. Grandmother had a strict employer-to-employee relationship with Demetrie, while I viewed her as the next best thing to Mom.
Did you study creative writing at the University of Alabama?
I’ve been writing stories all of my life. I’ve always had to get things down on paper. The first story I sold was in the third grade. It had a print run of two. Some sucker on the playground bought it for twenty-five cents.
At Alabama I didn’t have the nerve to join a creative writing class my first year. My second year, I finally worked up the nerve. On the first day of class I literally ran from my apartment to the classroom, all hell’s bells. I showed up so nervous and out of breath. I walked into the class…and I threw up on myself, right in front of everybody. I got up, excused myself, and left. I really can’t believe I had the nerve to show up for the second class.
How did you get to New York City?
On an airplane [laughs]. Actually it was my friend, Tate Taylor, who got me there. We grew up together in Jackson under similar circumstances. My parents were divorced and so were his. We were just always looking for fun. The two of us got into so much trouble. After college he called me from New York and said, “Get your ass up here.” I thought about it for two weeks, then packed my bags and went. We lived in a 250-square-foot apartment. We had a ball.
Was it strange being a Southerner in New York?
I think New York gave me invaluable perspective on the South. From the outside you can see some of the ironies of the relationships, for instance how Demetrie served our family in such an important capacity and yet we still followed the rules and restrictions of the time. I was born in 1969, so a lot of things had changed by the time I came along. But in a house like my grandmother’s and in other houses in the South, just because there is change on the street doesn’t mean there’s change in the house. Demetrie wore a white uniform. She didn’t drive—we drove her everywhere. It was our responsibility to take care of her. And I’m going to get in trouble for this one, but we also understood that we weren’t required to provide her with the same standards that we provided for ourselves.