Kathryn Stockett never intended to write a best-selling novel. In fact, when she started writing her debut novel, The Help, she didn't think anyone would ever read it. But since coming out in February, her story about the complicated relationships between African-American domestic servants and the white women who employed them in pre-civil rights Mississippi has spent over 30 weeks on the New York Times' best-seller list. Stockett talked to TIME about growing up in Mississippi and what it's like being a white woman from the South writing from the perspective of African-American maids.
Why did you decide to write The Help?
I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn't have any phone service and we didn't have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick I couldn't even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help]. I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, "Hmm, that's good." As I wrote, I found that Aibileen had some things to say that really weren't in her character. She was older, soft-spoken, and she started showing some attitude. That's [how another character] Minny came to be. After a while longer, I decided to make it a book.
You spent five years trying to get a literary agent. How many rejection letters did you get?
I have a record of 45 rejections, but there was one despondent summer where I blasted out about 15 letters without keeping records. I thought, What's the use? I'm just going to get a big fat no. So the official record is 45, but really it's probably more like 60 rejections. And then finally Susan Ramer at Don Congdon agreed to take it on. I couldn't even believe she was excited about the book. We ironed out a few wrinkles and then she sent it out. In my mind, it was like, a week before it was published. But maybe that's because the five years of rejections made it seem so short. She only sent it out to three publishers.
When did you realize the book was taking off?
I was driving from Mississippi to Atlanta with some friends of mine and there was this tornado that literally tore across the highway. We had to pull over, so we went to this truck stop and were drinking beers when [my publisher] Amy Einhorn called me and said, "You're on the New York Times best-seller list." I thought the best-seller list was just 1 through 10; I didn't realize it was so extensive. I think we landed at No. 16 or so. And then we were on it again and again. It just hasn't fallen off. I don't understand it.
What were the relationships between black servants and their white employers like in the 1960s?
Well, I can only talk about my experience. I grew up in the 1970s, but I don't think a whole lot had changed from the '60s. Oh, it had changed in the law books but not in the kitchens of white homes. As children, we looked up to our maids and our nannies, who were playing in some ways the role of our mothers. They were paid to be nice to us, to look after us, teach us things and take time out of their day to be with us. As a child you think of these people as an extension of your mother.
For the adults employing them, the relationship is different. You hire someone to clean your house and do your laundry. But in many cases, these women worked for the same white family for generation after generation. That, to me, is the difference between an employee and someone you feel close to. They're an important cog in the wheel of your family. Some readers tell me, "We always treated our maid like she was a member of the family." You know, that's interesting, but I wonder what your maid's perspective was on that. You look at all these rules in place in the '60s the separate bathroom, the separate plate and cup. That's not how you treat a member of the family. And that conundrum is what got me started on the real plot of the story.
Did you talk to any African-American women who lived through that time period?
I did get to interview a white woman and her maid who were together in the 1960s. It was so interesting to compare their perspectives. The white woman's strongest memory of her maid was of the delicious pralines she made. When I went to speak to the maid, she [remembered] working for this woman when [civil rights activist] Medgar Evers had just been assassinated. Her children were walking down the street in a protest and she was so afraid her employer would turn on the TV and see them and then she would lose her job.
Did you worry about the implications of being a young, white author writing in the thick dialect of African Americans?
I'm still worried about that. On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn't think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn't have written it in the type of language that I did.
How's the second book going?
It's a scary process. I sit in my little office and I feel like I've got all my readers staring at me. The first book you write because of the way it makes you feel. The second one you can't help but wonder how it's going to make the reader feel. That's something I'd never thought about before.