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Book Talk: Sue Monk Kidd explores slavery, women's rights in new book

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Author Sue Monk Kidd has written movingly about her native South, most notably in her 2002 bestseller “The Secret Life of Bees”, which was later made into a movie starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah.

But it took a trip to the Brooklyn Museum in New York to find inspiration for her new novel, “The Invention of Wings”, which commences in early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina.

The book revolves around a headstrong Sarah Grimke, who is based on a real-life abolitionist, and Hetty ‘Handful’ Grimke, a slave given to Sarah on Sarah’s 11th birthday. Kidd spoke with Reuters about the book, its characters and success.

Q: How did the idea for this book come about?

A: I was in the Brooklyn Museum, I think in 2007, for Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ exhibit. They have this heritage panel where they list the names of 999 women who have made contributions to history, and I found on the wall the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke. They were abolitionists, and I had not heard of them. And the ironic thing was they were from Charleston, South Carolina, where I lived at the time. I read about their lives and became completely captivated with them.

Q: How did you come up with Hetty?

A: As I was researching I came upon a reference to a young girl who was given to Sarah when she was a girl to be a waiting maid. This girl’s name was Hetty and she was a slave in the household, and according to Sarah’s journals she loved Hetty and became very close to her, and she taught her to read. When I came upon this character I knew it was the other half of the story.

Q: How did you find Hetty’s voice?

A: Hetty was more readily accessible to me than Sarah, strangely enough. I think I drew on memories of my childhood, African-American voices in my childhood that still resonate with me. I read over and over the voices of the Gee’s Bend quilters, in Alabama (female slaves who made quilts). And I read slave narratives that were written in the 19th Century.

Q: Why does Sarah have a stutter?

A: Sarah Grimke was not known for her public speaking. But she didn’t have a speech impediment, I gave it to her, because one of the important themes in the novel is Sarah’s search for a voice in the world, and she had to overcome so much. A novelist’s job is to make a bad situation worse, and that’s what I did here.

Q: You worked for a while as a nurse. How and when did you turn to writing?

A: I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a child. But when it was time to go to college, this was in the ‘60s, we still were pretty much following more traditional professions for women. I chose nursing. And I think it’s an incredibly noble profession, but it wasn’t my place of belonging. So when I was 30 I turned to writing. I had been developing my voice and writing mostly non-fiction. I didn’t write fiction until I was in my 40s.

Q: How has your relatively late success affected you?

A: I think I felt pretty grounded with it all. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, but I think I’ve taken it in stride and maybe a slight bit differently then if I was in my 20s. I certainly appreciate it more. It’s made for a nice third act.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’m not working on a book right now. I just want to be with ‘The Invention of Wings’ for a little bit longer before I plunge into the next one. I usually have a fallow time where I try to let the mind and spirit rest a bit.

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Sophie Hares