On Wednesday night I heard Kathryn Stockett speak at Vanderbilt as part of their university lecture series. (The mission of the series is to bring individuals to campus who “spark poignant dialogue and debate.”) As you might imagine, the ballroom at the Student Life Center was packed, although I was able to get two copies of The Help signed without having to wait too long in line.
Anyone who has seen one of Stockett’s numerous media appearances (like this one with Katie Couric) knows she is articulate and funny. Here are a few other tidbits from her talk:
• Stockett gave two pieces of advice to all of the college students in the audience: Read everything you can get your hands on (especially banned books) and understand the process of rejection. After all, she said, The Help was rejected by 60 literary agents before she signed with Susan Ramer. What if she’d given up on #50? Also, she said, if following your dream means writing and not getting a “real job”—go for it! You won’t believe how long you can string along your parents’ pocketbooks.
• Stockett is at work on another book. From the PenguinUK website, I already knew a bit about the plot: “It also takes place in Mississippi, during the 1930’s and the Great Depression. It’s about a family of women who learn to get around the rules, rules created by men, in order to survive.” At Vanderbilt, Stockett revealed that she’s terrified of working on her second book, because she knows she’ll disappoint some readers after The Help.
• Interesting fact: Stockett said that the character Skeeter was not incorporated into her story until she’d written many drafts and unsuccessfully queried many agents. Also, the character of Minnie came about when the character of Aibileen started “talking back” to Stockett. Octavia Spencer is a long-time friend of the author’s, and from the beginning Stockett imagined the actress in this role (although she did have to audition for the movie, like everyone else).
• The iconic purple and yellow book jacket has “nothing to do with the story.” (In other words, you can stop looking for symbolism behind the birds.) In fact, Stockett was originally loathe to include that color combo on the cover, since it reminds her of LSU.
• When an African-American Vanderbilt professor (whose mother and mother-in-law had been domestic workers) asked about the varied response she’d gotten from black readers, Stockett was forthcoming. She has heard from readers who felt she’d accurately captured the experience of black “help,” and she’d heard from readers who couldn’t finish the book because they felt her writing in black dialect was not right. At the end of the day, Stockett says she has the right to imagine another person’s experience in her fiction—and readers are entitled to different opinions.
Overall, it was an engaging, interesting talk. Have you had a chance to hear Kathryn Stockett speak, or have you been to any good author events lately?
By the way, if you live in Nashville, you really ought to keep your eye on the Vanderbilt lecture series. Lorrie Moore will be there on January 19. I can’t wait!