Thursday evening, authors Michael Wallis and Teresa Miller presented awards to student writers from OSU in front of a huge crowd which filled the entire lower level of the PAC. Clifton Taulbert, known for his non-fiction books about African Americans, commented that “writers craft the past and craft the present to build a better future.” He then presented fellow Mississippian Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, with the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers’ Homecoming Award. There was a standing ovation for Stockett, who commented that she had never spoken in front of such a large audience before.
Petite and feisty, Stockett was disarming in her candor. She currently lives in Atlanta, but was raised in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1970’s which she says “were just like the 60’s, which were just like the 50’s.” Her mother was a feminist, her parents were the only divorced couple she knew and all of her other siblings were much older. She said she spent hours in the kitchen of her home with an African-American servant named Dimitri. There was a big wardrobe in the kitchen and Dimitri would stand her in front of it and have her look at herself in the mirror while Dimitri told her she was beautiful.
“In Mississippi,” she explained, “white people would put their help in their wills and will you on to the next generation of the family. This meant job security, but you were pretty much stuck whether you liked the white family or not because no one else would hire you if you tried to go elsewhere.” She amused the audience with a story about her great aunt Carrie, who hired a second cook “because she was so afraid the first cook would die without leaving her any of the recipes.” She said she had always thought she had had a pretty normal childhood in Jackson until she traveled out of the South as an adult.
“I grew up loving libraries. Books were so important to me. But I was scared of librarians,” she said, laughing. “Mrs. Kemp was the scary librarian in my life. She color coded the shelves in the library by grade and wouldn’t let you read books on other grades’ shelves.” This posed a problem for Stockett because she was an avid reader and would get through all the available books quickly and have nothing else she was allowed to read.
By fifth grade Stockett had become a reading “addict.” She said she started “stealing books” from her older sister’s stash to accommodate her addiction. In her sister’s books she found writing by Judy Blume, V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. These books were a real departure from the ones available at the conservative, private Presbyterian school she attended. She said she was the only kid to get kicked out of fifth grade because she” got caught reading Erika Jong’s Fear of Flying hidden inside a regular fifth grade book’s cover.”
When she was 24 she moved to New York City. Because most people in New York come from other places, she always had to tell people where she was from, and often received negative feedback about being from Mississippi. “The way I feel about being from Mississippi is the way I feel about my mother. Don’t you dare criticize her unless she’s your mother, too.”
She started writing The Help on September 11, 2001 while living in New York as a way to hear the comfort of her old friend Dimitri’s voice. “When you can’t hear the voices you miss, you write in that voice.” It took her five years to write the book and find an agent for it.
Stockett told the audience she got 60 rejection letters from agents before finding someone who liked her book. “You can’t give up if you want to be a writer,” she said. “What if I had given up on the sixtieth rejection letter?” She still has those rejection letters and gave details about three of them. One was written by one of the top agents in New York City who lived next door to her. It said, “Apologies. I did not fall in love with the book.” She received a rejection letter for someone else. In the third, the person circled the reason why her book was rejected.
Stockett gave aspiring writers in the audience a piece of advice: “You’ve got to listen to the people around you because they will give you the most fabulous material. The other day I was in Kroger watching a mother deal with ornery kids. The woman said, ‘I have two words for you kids: Be-Have.’ It was so funny I put it in the second book I’m writing.”
When asked if she was influenced by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Stockett replied that Lee wrote the book in 1963 and that it was a brave time to write that kind of book. She said she wanted to show someone who was also brave at that moment of social unrest and feels that her character Skeeter is like that. An audience member wanted to know which of her characters Stockett relates to most. She said, “Sometimes Mae Mobley because I was not an attractive child. Sometimes Celia when I have my blond moments. But perhaps the one I relate to most is Minny.”
The book that she is currently working on is set in the 1930’s. In it, she says she likes to “take women with no marketable skills and strip away everything and see what they will do to make a living.” When asked what she learned from writing her first book that is helping her write her second, she quipped, “Nothing! I’m starting from scratch.”
For more information, go to www.kathrynstockett.com