Have any of you read The Help by Kathryn Stockett? I recently finished it and though I really liked the book on its own, I started liking it even more after reading the author’s note and reviews. I’m fascinated by the ongoing debate this book has started about racial etiquette in writing.
Stockett, was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting of her fiction novel. She and her siblings were raised by black help, and she felt the closest to her nanny, Demetrie. Stockett’s nanny never had any children of her own, but referred to the Stockett family children as hers. It was the nagging wonder of what happened to Demetrie and how did she feel working for a white family that pushed Stockett to write this book.
I love dipping into author’s research behind their books (need I remind you just how far I go, see here and here). Other than her personal account, Stockett says she did interview one white woman and her maid who were together during the civil rights movement. Their perspectives, she said, were interesting because the white woman’s fondest memory of her maid involved the pralines she would make, while her maid remembers working for her at the time of Medgar Evers‘ assassination and being worried she would lose her job if her employer turned the TV on to see her children at the protests.
Stockett’s author website only provides the basic info, but her interview with TIME magazine is fascinating. She began writing The Help the day after September 11th. She was living in New York City and the phones were all down, she couldn’t call anyone to tell them she was ok. She started writing in a voice that felt like home. That voice based on Demetrie, according to Stockett, became the leading character Aibileen in her novel. When the need for Aibileen to speak up in a way that wasn’t true to her nature arose, she created the second key maid character, Minny.
Now, Stockett has appeared rather passive in her later interviews on the book’s success and how it depicts racial segregation in the 1960’s south. I thought it was very honest of her to admit her feelings about the criticism of her novel that is happening since the novel has gone widespread through book clubs and reviews.
I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.
It’s a scary process. I sit in my little office and I feel like I’ve got all my readers staring at me. The first book you write because of the way it makes you feel. The second one you can’t help but wonder how it’s going to make the reader feel. That’s something I’d never thought about before.