Cover Story - Kathryn Stockett: Life in the belle jar
Can the best-selling, anxious, overrated, vulgar, talented, burned-out author Help herself?
KATHRYN STOCKETT, carrying a bottle of wine in her purse, arrives alone at a Persian restaurant on Peachtree Street, slips her petite frame between the cramped tables, and sits with careful poise on the long expanse of black leather below the restaurant's plate glass windows. Despite the old, Southern heat bearing down on the pavement outside, the Chardonnay's still cold when she pulls it from her purse. She pours a glass and adds a splash of soda.
Despite her blond looks, her penetrating eyes, her striking, fit body, the 42-year-old author attracts no eyes in the restaurant and that seems to suit her. She keeps her mannerisms reserved and murmurs in a sweet Southern tone, uninterested in drawing the sort of hyped-up attention her best-selling debut novel, The Help, has been lavished with since its publication in 2009. She's comfortable and dry in conversation, just like that white wine spritzer. She's light but earnest, casually redirecting the discussion to any subject but the book, joking about her daughter, asking about the right way to eat the grape leaves appetizer, talking about something, anything, anything but the book.
Plenty has already been said about The Help, a sprawling novel narrated by three women living in Civil Rights-era Mississippi: Aibileen, a stoic, older black maid, Minny, a sharp-tongued, witty black maid, and Skeeter, a young, ambitious white writer. The paperback cover blares with quotes such as, "This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird" (NPR.org) and "The must-read choice of every book club in the country" (Huffington Post).
After starting the manuscript about a decade ago, having it rejected more than 50 times, selling more than a million copies in its first year, selling another million and another million (the count is now somewhere past five million copies sold), appearing on television and in magazine photo spreads and among the pages of countless newspapers, going on book tours, and writing essays about writing the book, it might be safe to assume that Stockett, too, has had an opportunity to say everything there is to say about The Help.
In her words, "It's so, ugh, played."
But there are contracts and expectations and foreign rights and translations ("39, I think? 40?" she asks) and a new press cycle for the book's fast-tracked DreamWorks film adaptation starring Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer, opening Aug. 10, and enough revenue coming off this thing to float a whole corner of the flailing publishing industry. She's part of a small club of authors — Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling among them — whose novels actually achieve the status of mass entertainment. The point being: Kathryn Stockett has to talk about The Help whether Kathryn Stockett wants to or not.
Tonight, picking lightly at a spread of appetizers with her fingers, Stockett acknowledges her success and then brushes it off, uninterested. She's burned-out on answering the same questions over and over. She's six months past deadline on her second book. She's sweet and friendly as can be, but Tate Taylor, her childhood best friend and director of The Help's film adaptation, summed up her current mood on the phone later, saying, "The truth is that she's busy as fuck. She doesn't need to have her ego stroked. She kind of doesn't give a shit."
After the lamb kabobs and saffron rice have arrived and the white wine spritzer has been refilled, she remarks, almost as an aside, "The best part is that I didn't have to cook it. Don't you think that way sometimes? The sheer pleasure of someone else making your meal for you," and then launches into the same spiel she's told to a thousand other journalists, about being homesick for Mississippi while living in Manhattan in the days after 9/11 and writing in the voice of Demetrie, the African-American domestic worker who raised her in lieu of her oft-absent parents, as a way of comforting herself. Stockett admits that writing in Demetrie's voice, inventing the character that would become Aibileen, was the first time she'd honestly questioned what life was like for the maid, what it meant that she had to use a separate bathroom in the household where she was supposedly "a part of the family."
In the novel, it's this line of questioning that spurs Skeeter to pitch her New York publishing contact an oral history examining the lives of African-American domestic workers: "Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it." The passage is like a big red arrow pointing back to the book saying, "HERE: This is what I'm trying to do with this book." What's ironic, of course, is that The Help isn't that oral history volume at all, but an imagining of it by a white author. Just below the narrative's surface is a complicated set of emotions — an adoration and nostalgia for the days of table linens and deviled eggs and perfectly ironed pleats existing simultaneously with a deep shame about the systematic racism and violent oppression used to keep that silver polished.
Despite the occasional comparisons from overeager critics, The Help is not To Kill A Mockingbird. It's too long, often running on and on about cute babies or dresses or the pressure from your mother to find a husband as a way to balance out the novel's heavier moments. The prose is often just passable, never stunning, occasionally clever. But Stockett does offer richly complex characters, precisely conveying the subtleties of their social engagements and obligations. This is particularly clear in the chapters narrated by Aibileen, who, at times, can express a lifetime of conflicted longings in what she chooses to not say aloud.
The Persian restaurant is playing some sort of bland piano tune, the kind of light plinking and plunking that blends in with the rattle and chime of wine glasses. Stockett has eaten little of her food. Already in the middle of one story, she interrupts herself, saying, "It's an awful, awful feeling to think that you've made money — and you can print this if you want — to think that you're benefitting from somebody else's loss. It's a terrible, guilty feeling. I give a lot of money away."
Stockett's critics often point to the fact that she's a white woman from a well-to-do family as a way of criticizing her for writing from the perspective of working-class black characters. Stockett herself acknowledges her own anxieties about this in an afterward to the book, saying, "I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person." It is a line few authors cross — writing across race — and Stockett articulates that precisely, writing, "I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand."
This is what makes The Help a daring, compelling failure. This impossible task — the attempt at understanding a human that is not yourself — is at the heart of what fiction aims for. It is always a lie, but, we hope, an insightful lie, a lie that tells something other than itself. What distinguishes Stockett's book is that it lies in a fraught but ambitious way.
Earlier this year, Stockett was sued for unpermitted appropriation by Ablene Cooper, a maid employed by Stockett's older brother. Aside from the obvious similarity in name, Ablene bears some biographical resemblance to the Aibileen of the book. But coverage of the lawsuit in the New York Times and on Salon.com puts it in a more ambiguous light, suggesting that the lawsuit's origins may reside more with Stockett's family than the maid.
In either case, Stockett's unable to comment on the pending lawsuit, and responds instead by speaking in stiffly kind but vague terms about her brother, noting that they are "different" but that he is a "good" person.
When Stockett returns to the routine questions about the book, her eyes glaze over only a little bit, her voice changes just enough to explain how many times she's told it, and, yet, one can't help but notice that her spiel is a truly earnest story for her, despite the fact that being earnest gets to be difficult when it's your professional routine. Routine, it is. Try to redirect her when she's in this zone, and she'll just interrupt and say, "Oh, no, I was just going to tell you the same story I tell everybody."
Stockett promised The Help's film rights to Taylor when it was still a manuscript, languishing in rejections, and he was a struggling filmmaker. Despite the book's massive success, Stockett kept her word and didn't pass the project off to a big-name director.
At dinner, Stockett says she still hasn't seen the film, and that she had little do with the making of it. On the phone, Taylor explains, saying, "Do you cook? You know how when you spend all day making this great meal and then you don't even give a shit about eating it? She didn't want that to happen."
Stockett plays along for as long as it takes to get through the same five damn questions that have been asked for the past three damn years, until at some point during the meal — somewhere around the tired questions about how Skeeter moves to New York just like Stockett did and how she sure does resemble her and how much exactly is her and how much is made up — she will just shake her head and check her wine glass and look down as if to say, "Don't you know how much this conversation has already been done?" She won't respond with anything about growing up in Mississippi and aspiring to be a writer or how she had to pay her dues with rejections just like Skeeter. Instead, she'll just say, "I think I might be all of the characters, I think I might even be the worst ones."
The worst ones in The Help leave their kids in shitty diapers all night so the help can change them in the morning. The worst ones write "NIGGER BOOK" on the inside of Frederick Douglass's autobiography. The worst ones take out loans to build separate bathrooms for the help, because, they say, "99% of all colored diseases are carried in the urine." Stockett thinks about what she just said for a second, and then says, "I think a lot of generations have to die before we shake this whole prejudice thing."
As the waiter arrives to refill the wine glasses, the subject changes to her book cover, a purple and gold design that she abhors, she says, because it reminds her of obnoxious LSU football fans. "Did you read the book?" she asks.
Why would she think that a reporter assigned to profiling her hadn't read her book? "Well, you're not a 55-year-old woman," she says.
The massive gymnasium of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta is swimming in a sea of pastels. The assembled group — almost exclusively women, mostly white, generally middle-aged, and dressed in aquamarine, canary, carnation pink and so on — has descended on the MJCC for the Summer Book Club Bash, an event designed to provide "resources" for book clubs. One of the few men in the room, Decatur Book Festival Executive Director Daren Wang, is here to introduce Mary Kay Andrews, another Atlanta-based best-selling author.
And then there are the tables — a dozen or so libraries, bookstores and publishers are all here with the intent of snagging their slice of the book club community. The publishers are giving out advance reading copies of their upcoming titles, openly hoping for the sort of word of mouth that leads to hits like The Help. When asked if her book club has read The Help, one woman in attendance responds, "Is there one that hasn't?"
What makes the right book for a book club? Stockett's publisher and editor, Amy Einhorn, laughs at the question, "If I knew the answer to that, I'd be sitting on the beach and not under fluorescent lights in New York City." But she explains, "One of the hallmarks about book club books is that they want to discover their books on their own and they don't want to be told what to read."
But at the Book Club Bash, there's definitely an effort to tell them what to read. The physical books themselves seem molded to a certain form: thick but not too long and packed with "Discussion Questions" or a "Reading Group Guide," usually filled with zingers like, "Who was your favorite character? Why?" Then, of course, there are the covers, which unabashedly aim toward the sensibilities of the women in attendance tonight, either illustrated with ornate designs of purple and gold or washed in irrepressibly pretty images of shoes and dresses.
The images invoked mirror the romanticized nostalgia that runs through Stockett's book. It's no accident that The Help's U.S. cover evokes the beauty of an ornate serving dish without any indication of a maid. It brings to mind the feeling Stockett notes at dinner, "the sheer pleasure of someone else making your meal for you."
So, what happens when it works? What comes after for an author like Stockett, whose book strikes such a strong chord with the book club crowd? Einhorn simply says, "It's a very good problem to have. All of our authors should be so lucky to have this problem."
At dinner, Stockett divulges that the divorce with her husband became final a few weeks ago. There is silence at the table for a few seconds as the news settles in. "Oh, a new spin! No one's printed that yet!" she says. Stockett met her ex, Keith Rogers, while in New York and they have an 8-year-old daughter, Lila. They moved to Atlanta a few years ago, before Stockett sold the book.
The thrill in her voice goes out as quickly as it came, and she asks, "Have you ever slept with a snorer? For 11 years? Have you ever slept with a snorer for a month? You start out not sleeping. Then you move on to getting up to go sleep somewhere else. And then the next stage is that you actually start sleeping in separate bedrooms. And then the next stage is that you start sleeping in separate floors of the house. And then you just get different places."
Stockett takes a second to regroup. "So, maybe I could just offer some advice to any couples out there with a man who has a snoring problem? He needs to take care of that shit." She's laughing now and then she isn't again.
Stockett has a way of looking back at you blankly, of smiling just a little over her wine glass, of being silent in a certain way that makes you feel like she is either baring her soul one word at a time or making it up as she goes along.
There is an obvious disconnect between Stockett and her status as a best-selling author. "It has nothing do with who I am as a writer," she says. But the thing is, it very apparently does. The business of having a best-seller has weighed on her, and it has very much to do with her being a writer today.
"I'm hoping and praying for the day that I can sit down and write again," she says. "I know it won't be the same, but it would make me feel better. You know the anxiety of knowing you have to do something and putting it off for two years?"
She pauses. "I couldn't have another baby because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to write — to finish the book."
The plates aren't really finished, but the waiter takes them anyway. The bottle of wine is certainly done. Stockett checks her phone and puts it back in her purse. "It doesn't mean I'm going to write great books," she says and then lowers her voice. "I'm just stuck being a fucking writer my whole life. If I'm not writing I'm miserable."
A week later, Stockett shows up to the Creative Loafing offices for a photo shoot, apologizing profusely for being a couple of hours late. She's leaving the next day for Los Angeles for a press junket that means days more of interviews, days and days of the same five questions, of the slight glazing over of her eyes.
She alternates between confident and off put in front of the camera, joking with the photographer one minute and asking for it to please be over the next. She talks about going on a date. She says that if she could, if she weren't tied into a contract, that she'd probably never write as Kathryn Stockett again, that she'd just pick another name and start fresh.
She says that her publisher's being patient about her second book, that she doesn't even really get any pressure from them. But what about the pressure from herself? What about the expectations? What about all the extra attention that the film is going to bring?
Stockett just looks straight ahead and says, "There are people with bigger problems, you know?"