An Interview with Sue Monk Kidd
The novel is set in South Carolina in 1964. Did you experience the South
in the 1960s?
In 1964 I was an adolescent growing up in a tiny town tucked in the pinelands
and red fields of South Georgia, a place my family has lived for at least two
hundred years, residing on the same plot of land my great-great-grandparents
settled. The South I knew in the early sixties was a world of paradoxes. There
was segregation and the worst injustices, and at the same time I was surrounded
by an endearing, Mayberryesque life. I could wander into the drugstore and
charge a cherry Coca-Cola to my father, or into the Empire Mercantile and charge
a pair of cheerleader socks to my mother, and before I got home my mother would
know what size Coke I'd drunk and what color socks I'd bought. It was an
idyllic, cloistered, small-town world of church socials, high school football
games, and private "manners lessons" at my grandmother's. Yet despite
the African-American women who prominently populated the world of my childhood,
there were enormous racial divides. I vividly remember the summer of 1964 with
its voter registration drives, boiling racial tensions, and the erupting
awareness of the cruelty of racism. I was never the same after that summer. I
was left littered with memories I could not digest. I think I knew even back
then that one day I would have to find a kind of redemption for them through
writing. When I began writing The Secret Life of Bees, I set it during
the summer of 1964 against a civil rights backdrop. It would have been
impossible for me to do otherwise.
What parts of The Secret Life of Bees were drawn from your own life
Once, after I gave a reading of the scene where T. Ray makes Lily kneel on
grits, someone in the audience asked if my father had ever made me kneel on
grits. She couldn't imagine, she said, anyone making that up! I explained that
not only had I never knelt on grits, or even heard of kneeling on grits before
it popped into my head while writing the novel, but that T. Ray is the exact
opposite of my father. I conjured most of the novel straight out of my
imagination, inventing from scratch, yet bits and pieces of my life inevitably
found their way into the story. Like charm school. Lily wanted to go, believing
it was her ticket to popularity. As an adolescent, I went to charm school, where
I learned to pour tea and relate to boys, which, as I recall, meant giving them
the pickle jar to unscrew, whether it was too hard for me or not. And there is
the fact that Lily and I both wanted to be writers, rolled our hair on grape
juice cans, refused to eat grits, and created model fallout shelters for our
seventh-grade science projects. We also both had nannies, but otherwise Lily and
I are more different than alike.
My favorite piece of personal history that turned up in the novel is the
honeybees that lived in a wall of our house when I was growing up. We lived in a
big country house in Georgia, where bees lived for many years inside the wall of
a guest bedroom, squeezing through the cracks to fly about the house. I remember
my mother cleaning up puddles of honey that seeped out, and the unearthly sound
of bee hum vibrating through the house. The whole idea for the novel began one
evening when my husband reminded me that the first time he'd visited my home to
meet my parents, he'd awakened in amazement to find bees flying about the room.
After he told that story, I began to imagine a girl lying in bed while bees
poured through cracks in her bedroom walls and flew around the room.
I couldn't get the image out of my head. I began asking myself: Who is this
girl? What is the desire of her heart? That anonymous girl became Lily Melissa
Owens, lying there, yearning for her mother.
Are any of the characters modeled on people you know?
I'm inclined to say that no character in the novel is modeled on a real
person, but nothing is ever that simple, is it? As I wrote about Rosaleen, I
could hear my own nanny's voice in my head. She had a colorful way with words,
and some of her sayings found their way into Rosaleen's mouth. For instance my
nanny used to say that if you put her husband's brain into a bird, the bird
would fly backward. You may recall that Rosaleen said exactly the same thing
about her husband. Like Rosaleen, my nanny was also a connoisseur of snuff. She
carried around a snuff cup and had a distinct manner of spitting it that
Rosaleen inherited. Other than a few borrowed traits and sayings, however, the
two of them weren't that much alike.
While I borrowed some trivial details from my own adolescence and gave them
to Lily, she was essentially her own unique creation, just as T. Ray, Deborah,
Zach, Gabe, and Neil were. All of them sprang to life the same wayconjured
from anonymity. As for August, May, June, and the Daughters of Mary, I'm sure I
drew on amorphous memories of growing up around a lot of wonderful Southern,
African-American women. As a child, I loved to listen to their stories. But I
wasn't thinking of any particular one of them as I wrote. The inspiration for
August came mostly from a vision I carry inside, of feminine wisdom, compassion,
and strength. I just kept trying to imagine the woman I would've wanted to find
if I'd been in Lily's complicated situation.
In the past you have written books of memoir. Would you describe the
transition you made from writing nonfiction to fiction? Will you write another
nonfiction book in the future?
When I began writing at the age of thirty, my dream was to write fiction, but
I was diverted from that almost before I started. I became enticed by the notion of writing memoir. For over a decade I was
compelled by the idea of turning my own life into narratives. My books The
Dance of the Dissident Daughter and When the Heart Waits were
narratives of my spiritual experience. I think many people need, even require, a narrative version of their life. I
seem to be one of them. Writing memoir is, in some ways, a work of wholeness.
I thought I would go on writing only nonfiction the rest of my life. Ah, but
never underestimate the power of a dismissed dream. I think there must be a place inside of us where dreams go and wait their
turn. In the early nineties, my old dream of writing fiction resurfaced. To be
honest, initially I was both compelled and repelled by its unexpected return.
Compelled because it was a genuine impulse from deep within and had a lot of
passion attached to it. Repelled because I was, to put it bluntly, afraid I
couldn't do it. The dilemma forced me to come to terms with my fear.
I took on the role of apprentice fiction writer. I read voluminous amounts of
literary fiction and set about studying the craft of fiction writing. More
important, I practicedwriting short stories and rewriting
them. Now, of course, I can't imagine my life apart from writing fiction. Will
I, then, write another book of memoir? Oh, undoubtedly. I still have a need to
create a narrative of my life. To keep writing it until I see how it turns out.
What was the process of writing the novel? How long did it take to
The novel began as a short story in 1993. At the time I wrote it, I wanted to
develop the story into a novel, but I'd only just begun to write fiction, and
felt I needed more time as an apprentice before taking on a novel. I put the
story aside. Years later I was invited to read my fiction at the National Arts
Club in New York. I dug out my short story, "The Secret Life of Bees."
After the reading, I was again filled with the desire to turn it into a novel. I
still didn't feel ready, but I figured I might never feel ready, and meanwhile I
wasn't getting any younger.
It took me a little over three years to complete the novel. The process of
writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon
Surmelian referred to as "measure and madness." He suggested that
writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly
true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous "measures," such
as character studies, scene diagrams, layouts of the pink house and the honey
house. I had a big notebook where I worked out the underlying structure of the
book. I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure "madness,"
which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into
the work. Before I started the novel, I created a collage of images that vividly
caught my attention. They included a pink house, a trio of African-American
women, and a wailing wall. I propped the collage on my desk with no idea how, or
even whether, these things would turn up in the novel. Inducing
"madness" also meant that I often left my desk to sit on the dock
overlooking the tidal creek behind our house and engage in a stream of reverie
about the story. I considered this earnest work.
How does having a sisterhood of women make a difference? Have you
experienced such a community?
Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa, once said, "All sorrows can be
borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them." Ever since I
first read that line, I've carried it with me. When women bond together in a
community in such a way that "sisterhood" is created, it gives them an
accepting and intimate forum to tell their stories and have them heard and
validated by others. The community not only helps to heal their circumstance,
but encourages them to grow into their larger destiny. This is what happened to
Lily. She found a sanctuary of women where she could tell her story, and have it
heard and validated - an act that allowed her not only to bear her sorrow but
I have been part of several communities of women over the years. Each of them
was created simply because we wanted a place to tell our deepest stories. In
every case we found that there is a way of being together that sustains us, and
now and then, if we are lucky, returns us to ourselves.
Where did your interest in Black Madonnas come from? Are there actual
Black Madonnas in the world? If so, what is the story behind them? How did a
Black Madonna end up in your novel?
For a number years I studied archetypal feminine images of the divine and
grew fascinated with how the Virgin Mary has functioned as a Divine Mother for
millions of people across the centuries. It was during this period that I
inadvertently stumbled upon an array of mysterious black-skinned Madonnas. They
captivated me immediately, and I began to explore their history, mythology, and
Approximately four hundred to five hundred of these ancient Madonnas still
exist, most in Europe. They are among the oldest Madonna images in the world,
and their blackness is purportedly not related to race or ethnic origins, but
has to do with obscure symbolic meanings and connections to earlier goddesses. I
traveled to Europe to see some of the Black Madonnas and found them to be images
of startling strength and authority. Their stories reveal rebellious, even
defiant sides. Black Madonnas in Poland and Central America have been the
rallying images for oppressed peoples struggling against persecution.
I decided the Black Madonna had to make an appearance in my novel. I had no
idea, though, what a starring role she would end up with. I thought she would be
a small statue, sitting quietly in the background of the story. Then I visited a
Trappist monastery, where I came upon a statue of a woman that had once been the
masthead of a ship. It was deeply scarred and didn't look particularly
religious. I asked a young monk about it. He told me she'd washed up on the
shores on a Caribbean island and wound up in an antique shop. She wasn't really
the Virgin Mary but was purchased and consecrated as Mary. I fell in love with
the masthead Mary. I imagined a masthead Black Madonna in the pink house. I
pictured fabulous black women in grand hats dancing around her, coming to touch
their hands to her heart. I understood in that moment that here was Lily's
mother, a powerful symbolic essence that could take up residence inside of her
and become catalytic in her transformation. Just like that, the Black Madonna
became a full-blown character in the novel.
Did you know anything about bees and beekeeping before you wrote the
novel? How did you learn so much about bees?
I knew that bees could live inside the wall of a bedroom in your house. Other
than that, I didn't know much at all. I began my bee education by reading lots
of books. There's a mystique about bees, a kind of spell they weave over you,
and I fell completely under it. I read bee lore and legend that went back to
ancient times. I discovered bees were considered a symbol of the soul, of death
and rebirth. I will never forget coming upon medieval references which
associated the Virgin Mary with the queen bee. I'd been thinking of her as the
queen bee of my little hive of women in the pink house, thinking that was very
original, and they'd already come up with that five hundred years ago! Books
couldn't tell me everything I needed to know, so I visited an apiary in South
Carolina. Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment,
trying to get a handle on how they worked. There seemed to be thin veneer of
honey everywhere, and my shoes stuck slightly to the floor when I walked,
something I could never have learned from a book. When the beekeepers took me
out to the hives, I was unprepared for the rush of fear and relish I experienced
when the lid on the hive was lifted. I became lost in a whirling cloud of bees.
So many, I could hardly see. The scent of honey drifted up, bee hum swelled, and
the smoke meant to calm the bees rose in plumes all around us. Beekeeping, I
discovered, is a thoroughly sensual and courageous business. I got through my
bee education without a single sting. The first time August took Lily to the
hives, she told her, "Don't be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting
you. Still, don't be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants."
Did you know how the novel would end when you began it? Did you consider
having T. Ray change his ways by the end, beg for Lily's forgiveness, and admit
that he shot Deborah?
When I began the novel, not only did I have no idea of the ending, but I was
clueless about the middle. My idea extended only as far as Lily springing
Rosaleen free and the two of them running away to Tiburon. I didn't know where
they would end up once they got there. At that point the beekeeping Boatwright
sisters had not materialized. After I wrote the scene where Lily and Rosaleen
walk into Tiburon, I was stuck. I happened to flip through a book where I came
upon a quote by Eudora Welty: "People give pain, are callous and
insensitive, empty and cruel...but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage,
fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make." It struck me
clearly that I needed to create a place that would do that for Lily. I glanced
over at my collage, at the trio of African-American women, and it simply dropped
into my headLily would find sanctuary in the home of three
black beekeeping sisters. As I neared the conclusion, I knew some aspects of the
ending but not all of them. I knew that it would not be in T. Ray's character to
change his ways, beg Lily's forgiveness, and admit shooting Deborah. There was
never a possibility in my mind of that happening. I knew from the beginning that
Lily was actually the one responsible for her mother's death. It was a tragic
thing, but it made her situation, her emotional life, more complex and layered.
And it made her journey of healing so much more essential and powerful. No, the
part I hadn't figured out was where Lily would end up. Would she go back to the
peach farm with T. Ray? Would she stay at the pink house? Initially, I couldn't
grasp how to work it out so that she would get to stay. I was influenced, too,
by my impression (right or wrong) that "happy endings" in literary
novels were often sneered at. I decided she would have to go back to the peach
farm with T. Ray. Then one night I had a dream in which August came to me,
complaining about my idea for an ending. "You must let Lily stay with her
'mothers,'" she told me. I woke a little awed and a lot relieved. I knew
immediately that I would take August's advice. It was what I'd really wanted all
Do you have plans to follow this novel with a sequel? What are you working
This might sound peculiar, but after I finished the novel, I actually felt
homesick for the pink house. I missed being with Lily, August, May, June,
Rosaleen, and the Daughters of Mary. I moped around for a couple of weeks as if
all my friends had moved away.
I was sure that I would never revisit the story. I didn't want to risk
tampering with the world I'd created. I wanted to freeze Lily at this moment of
her life, fourteen forever, living in the pink house. Then I went on book tour,
and the most frequently asked question that I got from readers was: Will you
write a sequel? I was surprised by how strongly readers wanted to know what
would happen to the characters. I started off saying that a sequel was really
not a possibility. Still the question kept coming, along with disappointed looks
when I gave my answer. I began saying, well okay, it's not likely, but I'll
think about it. And that's as far as I've gotten. I'm thinking.
Right now I'm working on a second novel set in the Low Country of South
Carolina. All I can say is that I'm immersed once again with characters, in a
place apart, one that I will undoubtedly miss one day the way I missed the pink