Author tries to settle into 'this crazy life' after success of debut novel, 'The Help'

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Sunday, August 15, 2010; E04

Kathryn Stockett sounds exhausted when she comes on the line.

Reached by phone in a Greenwood, Miss., bookstore, she's fuzzily apologetic, she's asking someone for water -- it's been one event, one interview, one somebody-wanting-to-talk-to-her-about-the-phenomenal-success-of-her-debut-novel, "The Help," after another.

The book hit the New York Times bestseller list in March 2009 and has been there since. Inspired by a maid who served her family for generations, it's set in early-1960s Jackson and is about intimacies, secrets, shared loves and stoked hatreds between black maids and the white women whose houses (and children's behinds) they scrub.

It is the No. 3 novel in Washington and has been on the local bestseller list for 56 weeks. Having sold 1.8 million copies, Stockett has accomplished a dream feat for any writer, let alone a first-timer. And she won the prestigious South African Boeke Prize.

But that's just for starters.

The story is being made into a movie by writer and director Tate Taylor, who grew up down the street from Stockett. It stars Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard and is set in Greenwood, where Stockett, 41, has been with her 7-year-old daughter for three weeks, visiting the set, working on her second book, and giving interview after interview. It has been a stunning, life-altering, stratospherically successful year.

So she's tired.

But it's a very good tired.

The soft-spoken Stockett doesn't think she has changed, but the world has shifted around her and, "I don't know, I'm a little more overwhelmed by everything."

Although her time is shorter now, "I'm still a mom and, I hope, a wife in some sense," she says wryly. But "the power has shifted in some ways." Her husband did very well in technology sales in New York. "He was traveling all over the world, and I was staying home. Now, we've moved to Atlanta, his clients are down the street and I'm traveling the world."

And although she doesn't get recognized on the street, "I get to talk to authors that I've admired so much all my life," she says.

Author Karin Slaughter, who writes horror, reached out, and Stockett has become friends with Pulitzer-winning Mississippi playwright Beth Henley. "Now I can talk to her, e-mail her and say, 'Oh, my God, can you believe this is happening?' That's an incredible feeling, to talk to another writer who has already made it, and get some pointers to how this crazy life works."

Stockett, who grew up in Jackson and graduated with a degree in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama, had been working on the business side of a New York magazine before 9/11. Afterward, she said, she wanted to do something creative, so she took a month off to write about her Southern recollections, and, especially, channel the voice of Demetrie, the black maid who had worked for her family for decades and helped raise her father and uncle before her. A woman she loved fiercely and whom she saw out of uniform only once, in her coffin. Those memories became the first chapter of the book.

She quit her job after getting pregnant and says, "I had a really quiet existence. . . . I had a nanny who would take my daughter out a couple of hours a day, and I'd just kind of sit at my desk and write and hear these voices that I had really left behind. In New York City, they don't really talk the way they do in Mississippi. It was like going home a couple hours every day."

Her deep evocation of place, of textures, and words that drip with dialect has been part of "The Help" phenomenon, says Wilda Williams, a fiction editor for the trade publication Library Journal. It "continues to resonate for many readers, especially for white readers who grew up in the segregated South, because it is the only recent novel that accurately captures the complicated and contradictory relationships between blacks and whites in the South," she says.

"Southern friends who have read the book have told me the novel vividly depicts the deep love that black caretakers and their charges often shared, but it also made them realize in retrospect how demeaning life must have been for their 'help.' Of course, the issues of prejudice and racism touch all of us, so Stockett's novel also has broad appeal to readers outside the South."

Williams, an Alabama native, has a wait-and-see attitude about the movie. "With the exception of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' Hollywood never gets the South right," she says.

Former National Urban League president and Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan called Stockett to say that as a young chauffeur for the mayor of Atlanta, he could relate to her characters. But the past year has also featured critics, for her use of black dialect and for a white woman telling -- and making money from -- black stories.

It's a criticism that "makes me cringe," Stockett told NPR in December.

"I agree" that black voices are undervalued, Stockett says. But she set out to write one story, a piece of fiction with voices that sounded to her ears like music, that were close to her heart. "I don't think I got it right by any means," she says. "I wish I could change little nuances."

"People say, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe she would try to represent black women that way.' Demetrie didn't go past sixth grade. She lived in a shack. I wasn't trying to represent a whole race or people," she says. It can sound almost like a plea.

That's been a daunting part of this phenomenal year for Stockett, a lesser ghost of Mississippi. This white woman, who never really liked to talk much, is suddenly being asked about history and cultural anthropology, to address and redress, when she really just wanted to write letters from home. So it has also been a time of figuring out her role, which, by the way, can make her relationship with her own help dicey.

"I have a Hispanic housekeeper now, and I don't speak Spanish, so there's not a whole lot of intimacy there. I have a nanny from Georgia, and she's white and she brings her daughter." They are great friends and work well together, but neither relationship exists in the same fraught cocoon as those "help" relationships in the Old South.

In writing a book that tried to imagine what the world looked like from the help's side, Stockett says, she is now keenly aware of how she treats her own. "I think about the fact that my Hispanic nanny has to leave her own child at home to come clean up after mine. I tell her to bring her kids," Stockett says.

"I think as a Southern white woman, it's just this instinct that we feel guilty when someone else comes in our house doing our chores, cleaning my kitchen. . . . We try to treat our help with almost kid gloves, maybe, cause we're reflecting on how they were treated in the past."

Stockett returns to Atlanta on Monday, but she doesn't want to go. Her next book is set in the Mississippi Delta, and she'd much rather stay close. She'd rather "sit back and observe," take it all in silently.

Kind of like the black maids who raised generations of white children and whose deeply imagined stories have struck a national chord, and in one year, totally changed Kathryn Stockett's life.

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