Friday, September 24, 2010
This week I had the privilege and the fun of hearing the author of The Help speak to a very bright, enthusiastic audience in Baltimore. The fundraiser celebrated The Caroline Center's 15 years of "Transforming the Lives of Women Through Education." This is an amazing organization that helps under-skilled and under-educated women prepare for the workplace.
Held at the College of Notre Dame (a women's college in Baltimore), the event was packed, the auditorium full, upstairs and down. In fact, Kathryn Stockett said it was possibly the largest crowd she'd yet addressed on her widespread tour. Looking out at the mostly female, sold-out audience, in her very Southern, surprisingly soft voice, she said "Please be gentle," and we all laughed.
I'm going to skip over how terrifically she reads from her fascinating, funny, intriguing, best-selling novel. She's just that good. (Click here if you're interesting in very insightful comments from good readers discussing the book.) I'm also going to leave out many of the things she said about the movie directed by her childhood friend Tate Taylor. There was just never anybody other than her friend under consideration to direct and write the screenplay. She spoke with great enthusiasm in answer to questions about the movie.
Well, maybe just one brief story (This week they were in Jackson "at a drugstore where we used to go all the time," she told us, but most of the scenes are filming in Greenwood because it looks a lot like Jackson did in 1963.)
Her story about her friend Tate involved stealing his dad's car and driving to New Orleans, at age 14. For those of us who grew up in Mississippi, this isn't exactly startling news. We could drive at age 15 and get a learner's permit at 14. Many took off to New Orleans, just for the excitement of it. We certainly sneaked out of our houses in the middle of the night and drove our parents cars around the neighborhood. But I digress...
The reason she told the story was to illustrate their theory that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. And that she was a wild hellion, "hell on wheels" in fact, with a co-conspirator to whom she's fiercely devoted. She told how she and Tate dreamed up awful things (at this point there was a huge clap of thunder outside the auditorium and the skies opened up). She thinks perhaps that was how she was able to conceive of the Pie Scene...
Here are some of the audience questions, with answers. The questioners were articulate, mostly not asking the "how do you get your ideas" type I often hear at writing conferences and workshops. I really liked that about the evening.
One disclaimer: I am, of course, paraphrasing. I didn't record anything. These are just my notes. Please do not quote these answers as if they are the exact words of Kathryn Stockett. On a few occasions, I'll put quotation marks around something that was pretty much an exact quote.
Q: What was the reaction to the book from your friends and family?
A: After over 60 rejections from agents, my mother was so happy. Most family members have been supportive. (Here she hesitated but gave no clarification.)
To a follow-up question about why all the rejections, she explained that her "story was not there yet."
Q: How did she research the African American characters' stories and voices of the time?
A: She wishes she'd done more. She used the Jackson phone book to get a sense of what the culture was. She doesn't like to do research. She likes to listen.
(My own note: Stockett was not alive in 1963. She admits to not having interviewed many/ any African American women who lived during these times.)
Q: Why was the Naked Man in the book? Was that a symbol of anything?
A: (laughingly answered!) She's now putting one in every book she writes because the publisher told her it didn't belong in the story...
(real answer) Because she didn't just want the story to be just about race. She wanted to show how there's not that much that separates us.
When she grew up in Jackson, she was completely unaware that there was a race problem. She grew up in the "white bubble" parents created around her and her friends. She never saw her beloved maid's house, never went to the Black side of town. Surprisingly to me, she knew nothing of her maid's personal life.
"I am so proud that so much has changed, that people are talking about race," Stockett said. She's glad her book has opened up the topic for discussion, even though it has always been taboo.
The last question/ comment came from an African American woman near the front. She admitted that she hadn't yet read the book but that she's looking forward to it. She herself is a nanny to a young white boy, and she described the amazing love they have between them. How she drops him off at school and has even been mistaken for his mother by his young classmates and even by a substitute teacher. ("My how the times have changed," I heard a woman behind me say.) The speaker then told of growing up in Baltimore, of attending one of the first high schools to integrate in the 1960s. (Here I'm paraphrasing.) "We all got along just fine, black and white. And then Roots came along and everybody wanted to be Kunta Kinte." A funny, articulate lady, she told Kathryn Stockett she'd be happy to go with her to the awards ceremonies! Then she told us how she was a graduate of the Caroline Center and proud to speak a little about growing up Black in the 60s in the South. (My own note here: if anybody ever tries to say that Baltimore isn't the South, they have no clue. I lived there. I love the place! It's very Southern.)
Yes, my how the times have changed.
What a fitting ending for a wonderful evening.