It was kind of funny. While the overflow crowd of 450 or so ate in the dining room of Queens University of Charlotte, staffers took their lunch in the kitchen before Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, spoke.
No, it had nothing to do with race or class. (And no one had to use separate dishes or bathrooms.) It’s just that so many people really wanted to hear the woman who hit the New York Times best-seller jackpot with her first novel–optioned for the movies, she told us, by none other than Steven Spielberg.
Turned out the women who packed the room also wanted to share their stories.
Stockett–who grew up in Mississippi and now lives in Atlanta–didn’t disappoint fans of her tale of the relationships between white women and their domestic help in the 1960s South. Though Stockett came of age long after that time, her fiction is informed, she recounted in the book and in her talk, by her own relationship with the family’s maid and her confidante, Demetrie, “passed on to” her family by a relative, “which was the tradition of the time,” she said.
The majority of the women at the luncheon, many with impeccably styled white hair and tales of their own, could relate. During the question-and-answer session that followed, someone asked: “Have you read this book? Tell me, is it true?” Another, also a Mississippi native, said that after reading the book, she thought, “I never treated my help like that,” before realizing she had never wondered how her help looked at her.
Others called The Help the “best book I ever read,” and said Stockett was “one of the great writers from Mississippi.” When asked why so many good writers come out of that state, she got a laugh with her answer: “There’s nothing else to do.”
She was asked why only her black characters speak in dialect. “I wrote it like I remembered hearing it,” she said, though she added that you tend to think that everybody who lives somewhere else “talks different.” While she existed in proximity to the help, they definitely inhabited “somewhere else.”
Stockett left for New York when she was in her 20s and discovered how unusual her upbringing was. “I didn’t know how to do laundry,” she said. She felt pride and shame, “mainly pride,” being a writer from a state with as much baggage as Mississippi. She had time “to think about what a profound effect Demetrie had on [her] life.”
Some of the lessons she has discovered as she’s written the book and traveled to talk about it? “We are all just people,” she said. “We all pretty much operate the same.”
Understanding between races would improve if we “take color out of the picture.”