Sue Monk Kidd Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd

An interview with Sue Monk Kidd

In discussing The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd talks about the concept of urban slavery and how relevant the aphorism "write what you know" truly is.

This is a work of historical fiction inspired by the real Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina. How did you discover them and what was it about them that you found to be interesting enough to create a story for a novel? You focus primarily on Sarah. How much of her story is fact and how much did you create?

The novel began with a vague notion that I wanted to write a story about two sisters. I didn't know initially, who the sisters might be or when and where they lived. Then, while visiting Judy Chicago's Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I came upon the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimké on the Heritage Panels, which list women who've made important contributions to history. I discovered they were sisters from Charleston, the same city in which I was living. Embarrassingly enough, I'd never heard of them. Perhaps the most radical females to come out of the antebellum south, they were the first female abolition agents in the country and among the earliest pioneers for women's rights, and yet they seemed only marginally known. As I began to read about Sarah's and Angelina's lives, I became certain they were the sisters I wanted to write about.

Gradually, I was drawn more to Sarah's story. As dramatic as her life as a reformer was, I was even more compelled by what she overcame as a woman. She belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic, slave-holding family, and before stepping onto the public stage, she experienced intense longings for freedom, for a way to make a difference in the world, and to have a voice of her own, hopes that were repeatedly crushed. She experienced betrayal, unrequited love, self-doubts, ostracism, and suffocating silence. She pressed on anyway.

The novel is a blend of fact and fiction. There's a great deal of factual detail in it, and I stayed true to the broad historical contours of Sarah's life. Most, if not all, of her significant events are included. But it was apparent to me that in order to serve the story, I would need to go my own way, as well. I never wanted to write a thinly veiled history. I'm a novelist, and I wanted room to explore and invent. I probably veered off the record as much as I adhered to it, primarily in the scenes related to Sarah's relationship with the fictional character of Handful. Sarah's history and the inner life I gleaned of her from my research is the ground floor of her story, but the only way I could bring her fully to life as a character was to find her in my own imagination.

How did you approach writing an enslaved character? How did Hetty Handful Grimké come about?

From the moment I decided to write about the historical figure of Sarah Grimké, I was compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character that could be entwined with Sarah's. In fact, I felt that I couldn't write the novel otherwise, that both worlds would have to be represented. Then I discovered that at the age of eleven, Sarah was given a ten-year-old slave named Hetty to be her handmaid. According to Sarah, they became close, and she defied the laws of South Carolina by teaching Hetty to read, for which they were both punished. Nothing further is known of Hetty except that she died of an unspecified disease a short while later. I knew immediately that this was the other half of the story. I wanted to try to bring Hetty to life again and imagine what might have been.

There's an aphorism in writing that says you should write about what you know, and if I'd followed that rather bad piece of advice, I never would have attempted to write in the voice of a slave. That's not to say I wasn't intimidated by the prospect—it would take me further out on the writing limb than I'd ever been. It probably wasn't arbitrary that in Sarah's first chapter, I have her announce a little slogan she creates for herself that helps her over the hurdles in her world: "If you must err, do so on the side of audacity." I could only hope that writing the character of Hetty Handful Grimké was not some audacious erring.

I'd written my other two novels in first person. I love the interiority of it, how intimate it feels, nevertheless, I started off by telling myself I would write Handful from a third person perspective, which seemed a little more removed. I think the word I'm looking for here is safer. I hadn't written more than two pages, however, when Handful began talking in the first person. My need to inhabit her more fully kept breaking in. Finally, I just gave up and let her talk. While writing this novel, I read an interview with author Alice Walker, who, in speaking of her mother, said, "She was all over my heart, so why shouldn't she be in literature?" I felt that way about Handful.

With this novel, you join a tradition of depicting slavery in an open and unflinching way, though you've written about a form of it perhaps less known to most readers: urban slavery. Can you give us a glimpse of it?

When a person thinks of American slavery, probably what comes to mind are plantations, cotton fields, and slave cabins. Urban slavery, however, was quite different. In antebellum Charleston slaves worked in the city's fine houses and mansions or in the walled work yards behind them. They lived in small rooms above the work yard structures—the kitchen house, the laundry, the carriage house, and the stables. Large numbers of slaves were hired out to work away from their residences, providing labor for the wharves, the lumber yards, and other places of business. Slaves ran stalls in the city market, peddled wares on the street, and crisscrossed the city, carrying messages and running errands for their owners. On Sundays, they were often required to show up at their owners' churches and sit in the balcony. Slave auctions took place right on the street up until the late 1850s. Every day, the streets teemed with slaves, who nicked time to fraternize in alleys and on street corners. The city was alive with networks of information passed slave to slave and yard to yard, and watchful eyes were everywhere. Urban slavery was built on an intricate system of surveillance and control: curfews, passes, badges, searches, and ordinances that dictated how slaves should behave on the streets—all of it enforced by the presence of militia companies and the City Guard. Infractions could send slaves to an establishment known as the Work House, where they were whipped or otherwise punished. Even more disturbing, owners could arbitrarily send slaves to the Work House to be punished for a fee. Urban slavery might have looked and functioned differently from plantation slavery, but it was every bit as brutal.

The Invention of Wings takes place in the early part of the nineteenth century in Charleston. What was it like to write a novel set two hundred years ago? How is historical fiction relevant for readers today?

Basically, I sat down at my computer almost daily for three and half years and transported myself back in time. I would be in the grand Grimké house on East Bay Street in Charleston, or in the work yard where the Grimké slaves carried on behind hidden walls, or I might be on a ship sailing north, or in the attic room of an abolitionist home in Philadelphia. My husband joked that I spent more time in the nineteenth century than I did in the twenty-first. My aim was to create a "world" for the reader to enter, one as richly

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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