Sue Monk Kidd Talks About The Invention of Wings, January’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Photo credit: Roland Scarpa

Sue Monk Kidd is the author of The Invention of Wings (Viking Adult), booksellers’ top pick for the January 2014 Indie Next List.

Prior to becoming a bestselling novelist, Kidd wrote inspirational nonfiction, including three memoirs. Her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, became an international bestseller and was the number one pick for the March/April 2002 Book Sense 76 (the precursor to the Indie Next List) and was voted the winner of a Book Sense Book of the Year Award in paperback in 2004. It was also produced on stage in New York by The American Place Theater and was adapted into a movie by Fox Searchlight.

Kidd’s second novel, The Mermaid Chair, was a May 2005 Book Sense Pick and the winner of the 2005 Quill Award for general fiction.

The Invention of Wings takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, during the 19th century and was inspired by the historic figure of Sarah Grimké, an American abolitionist, writer, and suffragist. Focusing on Sarah and Hetty “Handful” Grimké, the slave that was gifted to Sarah on her 11th birthday, Kidd goes beyond what has been recorded in history to present their story in its many forms.

Kidd recently spoke to BTW about her writing and researching processes, the challenge of entwining fact and fiction, and the importance of women finding their own voices.

BTW: What drew you to the lives of Sarah and her sister Angelina Grimké, and what made you decide to write this book based on their lives?

SMK: This book started with me stumbling upon Sarah and Angelina Grimké in the Brooklyn Museum back in 2007 when I visited a Judy Chicago exhibit [representing 1,038 women in history].

I wasn’t looking for a novel idea at all! I just happened to see the names of these two sisters on the panels outside the exhibit and they were from Charleston, South Carolina, and it said they were early abolitionist women’s rights pioneers. This was very interesting to me, but what really caught my imagination was that they were from Charleston, the city in which I was living, and yet I had not heard of them. And here they are on this wall, making some huge contribution to history. I set out to discover who they were, and that was really how it all started.

BTW: How much of your novel is based on historical fact, and how did you decide which parts to add or fictionalize?  

SMK: This was a huge challenge for me — this intersection of fact and fiction; of history and imagination. I had never written a novel from that place before, and I found it really challenging, particularly in the beginning, because I revered the history of Sarah Grimké so much after discovering who she was and what she did, that I didn’t really want to veer off of it very much.

This had an effect of sort of limiting what I was doing. I had to free myself of that need and allow myself to explore Sarah in my imagination. Frankly, she really did not come alive on the page for me until I found her in my imagination as well as in history. Then I had to entwine those two things.

I should also say that from the very beginning, before I wrote a single word of this novel, and really before I even began much research, when I thought that I would write a novel about Sarah Grimké, I knew I had to write a story about an enslaved woman to be entwined with hers. That was very important to me. I wanted to show that world through all the lenses that I could and this was a crucial one, to show it through the lens of an enslaved person. I was daunted by that, to be honest, but I thought if I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t write the novel.

I discovered in some of the research I was doing that Sarah had what they called a waiting maid that was given to her when she was a girl, and her name was actually Hetty. She died when she was young — we don’t know exactly when or of what, a disease that wasn’t named. Sarah did not know her for a long time, probably just a few years. But during that time, they apparently formed an intricate and close relationship, at least Sarah thought so. So I seized upon this. I thought, here is my character, Hetty, and I’m going to try to bring her to life and imagine what her life would have been like if she and Sarah had another 35 years together. That’s how the character of Hetty started.

So this is to say, the whole relationship I imagined between Hetty and Sarah is all in my imagination. But underneath all of it, I feel that Sarah’s history is really embedded in the book and it is grounded in what she contributed to American life. I tried to include as much fact and history as I could and I feel like it’s well-represented.

BTW: I was excited to learn how much historical fact was included in the novel and saw on the Wikipedia page for Sarah Grimké that there are lines of dialogue in the book that were actually recorded in history.

SMK: Well you’re the kind of reader I like! Someone who will go and find out more about the character in the historical context. I’m a novelist, I’m not a historian. There are others who have done that. What I wanted to do was to tell was a story — a gripping story — that allowed the reader to learn a little bit about Sarah Grimké, and then perhaps go and find more about her. But you know, as a novelist, I wanted to tell a story. Everything in that book, as far as I could make it, is there to serve the story.

BTW: What did your research process entail to depict the lives of urban slaves in the early 19th century?

SMK: Well I couldn’t just read about it in books — though I did a great deal of that!

One of the things I felt was truly important for me to do was to become a student of American slavery. To take on something as big as American slavery was slightly intimidating. I had so much to learn so I did spend a lot of time reading. I’m looking at my bookshelf now, where I still have my research books up on the shelves, and there’s probably 35-40 books here on American slavery that I went through because I wanted to understand as much as I possibly could. Reading slave narratives from the 19th century as well as slave narratives created in the 1930s — I just immersed myself.

But it was not just reading. I had to go to places like historical houses, historic societies, plantations. I was living in Charleston when I was researching much of the book. I went to the Aiken-Rhett House where they preserve the work yard that was in place in the 19th century. You can see how urban slavery is dramatically different from plantation slavery. It’s a whole other kind of system. The brutality is the common denominator, but they look somewhat different because of the settings where they were operated.

To go to these magnificent old homes in Charleston and see a preserved work yard where slaves lived out their lives, above the stables or carriage house or kitchen house, and in that work yard — there’s no substitute for that feel of confinement, being able to feel the walls around you. I walked those places and tried to empathetically imagine myself there, and let story come.

BTW: The novel switches back and forth between the voices of Sarah and Handful, and as soon as I saw the name signifying who was narrating each chapter, I found myself hearing their voice. So I’m wondering how you did that. What was the process like to write a book from two distinct yet fully developed perspectives? How were you able to have such overlap between the two women narrators, without letting them blend into one indistinguishable voice?

SMK: First of all I should probably say, I’m not sure how I do anything! As a novelist, you do a lot of thinking and reflection and character development and imagining and research. But in the end, when I sit down and write, all that goes somewhere else and I just try to tell story and try to be inside the minds and hearts of the characters.

A lot of that is not plotted out very well, so it’s fuzzy to me how exactly that happens.

A challenge in writing the book — besides the history and imagination dilemma — was trying to make sure that the voices of Sarah and Handful were strong and distinct; that they each had their own way of talking, that it was unique to them, and the reader would never get confused. I also felt that Handful’s voice in the beginning came more readily to me, and I believe that was because of what I was saying earlier, that since I hadn’t discovered Sarah in my imagination, she was speaking to me like the woman from history, in a more stilted way, so I had to loosen her voice and give her reign.

So I had to work with the voices a lot. From the beginning, Handful had a lot to say to me. I could hardly keep up with her sometimes; she had so much to say. And I knew how I wanted her to sound, too. I didn’t want her to have a heavy dialect. She was a somewhat educated enslaved person; she was able to read and write. I felt it was also important to be able to give some irony and humor to her voice from time to time, to offset the heaviness of her story.

Another challenge was making sure Sarah and Handful’s stories synchronized, that they had a comparable substance or weight to them. I couldn’t have Sarah’s story overshadow or dominate Handful’s or vice-versa. I think a reader might identify with one character over another and that’s natural. My job was to render their stories with as much of a comparable kind of heft as I could, so they could stand on their own. But they also had to be entwined.

I was constantly trying to work with their characters and stories: how they influenced each other, how their destinies were shaped by one another, think about what’s going on in Sarah’s life, what’s going on Handful’s life, what’s going on in history, how they all coordinate. This is why it took me four years to write this novel!

BTW: Many people are drawing connections between the themes in this novel and those in The Secret Life of Bees, especially in regard to young women finding their voices and places in the world.

Why did you choose to introduce Sarah Grimké ­­— an accomplished abolitionist — at the young age of 11? As a woman and a writer, how do you relate to the processes your characters often go through to establish themselves?

SMK: We’re on a subject now that matters deeply to me, and that is empowering women and girls. For some reason — I’m sure there are personal roots here — this seems paramount to me as a writer and as a person. I agree with Hillary Clinton, when she said this is the work we have to do, empowering women and girls and finding them equal rights globally because we need that so much in our world.

I still think whether it’s a girl or woman’s lack of selfhood or vision, and whether it’s political or religious or monetary, there are so many things that can limit them and their voices, and their contributions are so needed.

Why we gravitate to certain motifs in our stories, that remains somewhat of a mystery, but I’m not surprised that mine gravitate to these ideas so strongly.

Why did I want Sarah to begin as an 11-year-old? I think this is the age when girls can become so acculturated; they can lose touch with the core of themselves. I’m interested in looking at where they begin and what the process is to get them to where they need to go, and how they unfold their lives with daring and courage and live into themselves.

It’s true, in Secret Life of Bees, too, I love looking at where we come from, who we are then, and how we become the women we become. That was imprinted in Sarah. The question was would she be able to do it.

I’m entranced by this process: can we unfold our lives to become ourselves, and how can we do that? For some, it takes more courage and daring than others. What is it in our family, religion, culture that stops us?

I can relate to some of this personally. I grew up in pre-feminist America, a child of the ’50s, I came of age in the ’60s, in a pre-Civil Rights era. Those things that I felt and witnessed are embedded in me, and I did not forget that history. I think that our history as a people will tell us who we are and how we respond to it. That’s all in the book. That’s why they were introduced as young girls, so readers could follow them and see how they became who they are.