Bestselling author Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Invention of Wings, begins in Charleston, South Carolina, with a gift. For Sarah Grimké’s 11th birthday in 1803, she receives a slave, and her story first intersects with that of Hetty (known as “Handful” to her mother, a slave in the same household). The novel follows Sarah and Hetty well into adulthood, as their personal choices play out against the backdrop of one of the most tense periods in American history.
As in her bestselling previous novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, Kidd’s characters have to pick out a path among difficult options. (As one character says, “I’d chosen the regret I could live with best, that’s all.”) No one’s the perfect good guy (or good gal) here, but the complex characters try to do right by themselves and their loved ones.
Kidd spoke with our editor, ML Philpott, before her appearance in Nashville. This is their conversation:
Some people may not realize that you did a tremendous amount of historical research before even starting this book – and that the characters are based on real people of the same names. You’ve said, “My aim was not to write a thinly fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s history, but a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.” Can you tell me a little about what it was like to build fiction around the framework of non-fiction?
SMK: A big challenge. I had to learn as I went how to weave imagination and history together. I’ve never written a historical novel before. People say The Secret Life of Bees is “historical fiction,” but I remind them it took place in the 1960s, and I was alive then – so that can’t be historical fiction!
This was such a process for me, to understand how to balance my facts and fiction, because I revere the history of Sarah Grimké very much, and she comes with such a big historical script. I was hesitant to deviate very far off that script at first. I had to gradually let go. I really feel like you come away with a very good idea of who she is and what she accomplished, and the chronology should all be accurate. But I grafted on a lot of scenes and events.
Were you at all nervous about writing a first-person narrator in an African-American voice, especially when so much of her story had to do with the emotionally charged issue of racial inequality?
SMK: It was daunting to think about that. But I felt very compelled – from that place inside that writers have to listen to – to let her speak. I didn’t do it lightly. I wanted so much to represent Hetty’s character with dignity and not as a victim or as passive. I wanted to capture her voice and spirit the very best I could. So I just took a deep breath and did it.
Actually, I started off writing Hetty in 3rd person, but it didn’t last very long. I thought it might be an easier way to begin writing her – and maybe it was safer – but she broke in with her voice pretty quickly, and I could not ignore it. So I said to the character, in my head, “OK, you, just talk.” Once I stepped out of the way and allowed my imagination to give her free rein, her voice began to flow. I read a lot of slave narratives, and I have a lot of memories from my childhood of voices I think may have sounded like hers, but of course her voice is her own.
I’m curious about a specific word in the book: the way you spelled “mauma.” I’m a lifelong Southerner, and my kids call me “mama,” but I’ve never seen it spelled that way. Where did that come from?
SMK: I came across that in my research, and I liked it. I saw it used particularly in Charleston. I liked how the spelling set it apart and even gave a somewhat different feel to the word. It felt different, unique for Hetty. It was not my invention.
Your books have such a strong sense of place. Do you think they resonate more with Southern readers?
SMK: I can’t say that’s true at all. I certainly hear from readers in the South who identify and connect and say my books evoke nostalgia and memory and all kinds of cultural feelings. But I hear as strongly from readers from other parts of the country. They seem to identify with something universal.
I’ve seen your book filed online under the category “women’s fiction” – how do you feel about that term?
SMK: I love to resist any kind of category. You can’t, of course, because people are always going to decide whatever they decide, and people like to pigeonhole things. But it does tend to limit readership in a way, because people think, “Oh, she writes for women.” I think we need to get away from pegging books in that way. But I get it — I understand it. It doesn’t make me upset. I just wish we could all say, whether we’re men or women, that we write simply “fiction.”
I read in the New York Times the other day that you have a poetry habit. I do, too! This is something I feel strongly about, that mastering poetry – either reading it or writing it or both – enhances one’s own writing. Do you think your appreciation for poetry adds something to your work?
SMK: Oh, I agree with you – poetry brings not just the most distilled kind of wisdom about experience, but a rush of beauty in language. Imagery and metaphors are so evocative. It’s like listening to a gorgeous piece of music to me.
Music and poetry have a lot in common.
SMK: They do. Poetry is one of my favorite things to read. I don’t really write it, though. I’m hopelessly moored in the long form; but I do think it enriches my writing. All reading, of course, enriches our writing and strengthens it in some way.
OK, before we wrap up… Can I just say that you seem so polished, so put together. Are you really as ladylike in everyday life as you seem?
SMK: Oh gosh, no! You know they make you dress up for these photo shoots, right? They send people to do your hair and your makeup, and then they try to edit the wrinkles out. Don’t believe all that. When I go to work every day in my study, I’m wearing sweatpants and t-shirts and bedroom shoes – that’s my uniform.
I think my mom would want me to be friends with you – she’d say, “Why don’t you call up that Sue girl – she seems like a good influence.”
You know, I went to charm school in the early 60s – I don’t know why I’m confessing this! – when all girls had to go to such a thing for a few days. So I did learn how to be a lady. But I’ve unlearned a lot of it.
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Sue Monk Kidd speaks Wednesday, January 15, at the Nashville Public Library as part of the Salon@615 series, a partnership among the Nashville Public Library, Parnassus Books, Nashville Public Library Foundation, and Humanities Tennessee. The author talk begins at 6:15 p.m., and a book signing will follow. All advance tickets are sold out. A limited number of extra tickets will be available onsite. We recommend you arrive early for the onsite ticket line.
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