When I entered the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas for the Arts and Letter Live Special Event on Tuesday night, I was already a fan of Kathryn Stockett's debut novel, The Help, which has been on the NY Times bestseller list for a stunning 93 weeks to date. After less than five minutes of listening to the slow, southern drawl of this Mississippi native, I became a huge fan of the author too. Her quick wit, dry sense of humor and obvious southern charm worked its magic on the packed sanctuary of mostly (white) women who spent the night in rapt attention or in roars of laughter.
Although it may seem like the book became an overnight success, Stockett spent five years writing The Help and received a total of 60 rejection letters before finding a literary agent who was willing to represent her and the book.
"What if I had given up at 15, or 40, or even 60?" she asked. "Call it tenacity, call it resolve, or call it what my husband calls it, stubbornness. I could not give up."
She even shared some of her rejection letters with the audience. "I really didn't like this book at all," she read aloud from one letter before going on, "Please do not send me any more of your writing again." She can smile about these letters now, given the enormous success of The Help which has sold over 2.2 million copies.
The book is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the the civil rights movement in the 1960's and explores the relationship of young, southern white women and their black maids who they trust to raise their children, clean their homes and cook their food but not to polish the silver. An unlikely friendship leads to a secret project that uncovers the stories these maids have never been able to tell and breaks all the rules of society.
Stockett talked about finding the voices of Aibileen and Minny, the two black housekeepers who work for white families in Jackson. When the book was released, she convinced her best friend Octavia Spencer to come on her book tour and read aloud the character of Minnie. Then she selected her best childhood friend Tate Taylor to write the screenplay and direct the movie version of the book, which is scheduled be released in August 2011. Stockett herself makes a cameo appearance in the movie (as does her mother, sister, and friends) in the DAR scene. Her daughter, Lila, is also cast as the young Skeeter, although she does not have any lines in the movie.
Blonde haired, petite and "adorable" (as dubbed by one of the ladies during the Q&A session), Stockett kepts us entertained the entire night. I was not the only fan in the room of Stockett. One woman waked up to the microphone and told the author how much she had enjoyed the evening and how she wanted to "hit her friends over the head with this book for not being here tonight."
"Call them!" Stockett drawled, "Let's tell them what they're missin!"
Another fan in the audience, had this advice for the entire audience. "If you liked reading this book, then you will like it five times more if you listen to the audio book". I am in complete agreement because that is how I heard The Help. The accents and heavy dialect of the black characters drew me in to the story and I could almost picture Abilene and Minny sitting at the kitchen table sharing stories over their coffee. If you haven't read The Help already, I suggest you read (or listen) to it before the movie comes out this summer.