The film version of The Help began production in July—in and around Greenwood, Mississippi—as the book itself passed an extraordinary milestone: one solid year on the New York Times bestseller list. It was one of the biggest success stories of 2009 and well into 2010, with more than 2 million books in print.
Kathryn Stockett, who lives in Midtown Atlanta with her husband and daughter, famously received at least sixty rejection letters before landing a publisher for her first novel. Set in Stockett’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, at the cusp of the civil rights movement, the novel explores the intricately choreographed relations between white society matrons and the black maids who ran their households.
Among the film cast: Viola Davis will play Aibileen, a formidable black maid who has raised seventeen privileged white children. Octavia Spencer is strong-willed maid Minny. And Emma Stone (of Zombieland) will play the pivotal role of Skeeter, the earnest, young, white college graduate who befriends Aibileen and Minny and starts asking all the hard questions about black-white relations in the 1960s South. Stockett’s own childhood maid, Demetrie, was the inspiration for the book.
Stockett, forty-one, who says she never really expected many people to read her book, seems genuinely surprised by all the attention. She is soft-spoken and self-deprecating—quintessentially Southern—and she says, “Oh gosh,” enough to convince any skeptic that she has maintained a sense of wonder at her own journey.
From a stop in Salt Lake City, Utah, on an exhausting national book tour, Stockett talked recently about fame and memory and big news: a possible prequel to The Help.
How are you holding up? This is the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced. [Laughs] I lead a slow lifestyle usually. But you hit the road and you just don’t stop.
How do you keep yourself grounded? I have had the fortunate opportunity to have friends meet me along the way. Octavia Spencer—who will play Minny in the film—has been touring with me. She reads the black voices and I read the white voices. It’s so fun. It’s like a show instead of just a reading. We talk and share experiences about growing up in the South—she’s from Alabama—and then we read the scenes together and laugh. We have a ball.
You lived away from the South for a long time. Do you think you had to move away in order to write this story? Oh, absolutely. When I was in New York, all I wanted to do was write about Mississippi. Now that I’m in Atlanta, I would love to write about New York! I think you have to get away from it. And also, it’s pretty daunting to write about your neighbors. Move to another town and you can spill all the secrets.
Skeeter is sort of an outsider in the book. Do you think she is able to ask some of the questions that you wish you had had the chance to ask at the time? Not so much the chance to ask, but I wish I had been that brave. I never questioned anything until I was in my thirties. And Skeeter was questioning everything as it was happening.
You’ve said before that 9/11 made you homesick and sort of inspired you to write this book. What was it about the South you were missing at that time? We couldn’t get in touch with our families for about forty-eight hours. You know, you just want to tell your mama, “I’m fine.” So I just started writing in a voice that really comforted me. For me, that was Demetrie.
After this kind of success, how difficult is it to sit down and write another novel? A funny thing has happened. When I first sat down to write last year, the words just wouldn’t come. But then something happened. It’s the same dynamic I had when I was writing The Help. When you’re writing a book, you don’t really want to tell people—especially your first novel, because people roll their eyes and say, “Everybody’s writing a book!” They don’t take you seriously, and I get that. I do.
So you start keeping it secret. With The Help, it got to the point where I would sort of sneak away and write it and not tell people. I would literally go check into a hotel in the city for twenty-four hours and write, write, write. So now that my time is getting to be limited, it’s that same feeling—I sneak off to write again. And once again, the words are coming back and it’s fun.
How far along are you on the next novel? I’m only about 100 pages in. I know it’s set in Oxford, Mississippi, during the Great Depression. I’m just at the edge of it. But I’ve thought a lot about it and can’t wait to get back in.
How involved will you be with the movie version of The Help? Technically, by the contract, I’m not involved at all. But fortunately, it’s in the hands of very good friends, Tate Taylor and Brunson Green. Both are from Jackson. Tate wrote the screenplay, and he’ll be directing it. Brunson is the producer. And they have some pretty incredible “big brothers” looking over their shoulders: Chris Columbus and Steven Spielberg [at DreamWorks].
The hardest part of writing a screenplay is usually condensing hundreds of pages into two hours’ worth of film. Do you think this screenplay works? The script is beautiful. It really captures the essence of the book. Tate couldn’t stick to the book in every case. But he actually made it better. It’s just fantastic.
Some critics have had trouble with the African American dialect in The Help. In hindsight, would you have done anything differently? I wouldn’t know how to write it differently. It’s funny when you’re surrounded by people who think something is normal, and then you go out and realize that everyone has their own version of normal. All I can say is, that’s how I remember it now in my mind. The dialect plays back like a tape recorder. My mother and stepmother speak very properly. I really enjoyed putting two very different voices on the page together. I don’t think I’d be capable of writing it any differently.
What made you leave New York and move back to the South? We were just getting a little worn-out in the city. We needed some more square footage. I mean, we’re not big-house people. We’re very aware of our carbon footprint. But we wanted to at least have a second bathroom.
Who are your literary heroes? Oh God, I love that question. I am in love with Lee Smith. I’m reading On Agate Hill now, and I am in awe. And Kaye Gibbons I love. There are many others.
You got rejected so many times before you found an agent for this book. How did you keep pushing? I’m just stubborn. It’s the same thing that keeps me writing. If you tell me I shouldn’t be writing or I should be doing something else, heck, I’ll just get in my car and go find a hotel room and write. That probably makes it better. If you tell me I can’t get published, I’ll just keep banging on doors. I don’t think it’s such a bad trait for a first-timer to have—tenacity.
When did you first know that you were a writer? I wrote and sold my first story when I was in third grade.
You sold it? Who bought it? Some sucker on the playground. [Laughs] It’s called The Little Ant. I wrote it and illustrated it. It actually had no plot. And we had a print run of two. Printed two and sold one—for a quarter. Not bad!
Would you ever write a sequel to The Help? No.
You’re done with that story? I am not done with that story, but I think it will be a prequel. It’s not going to be my second book, but maybe my third or fourth, if I survive this tour. I’d love to put together stories about what happened in these characters’ lives before they stepped into the pages of The Help. They didn’t all know each other, so I don’t think it’ll be a big, arcing story. It’ll be more like individual short stories. Maybe I can find a way to intertwine them.
How long does it take you to write a novel? The first one took me five years, so I wouldn’t be expecting anything anytime soon. I’m slow. And I’m lazy. [Laughs]
Photograph by Kem Lee