“If you want to impact people,
you must tell them a story
that really captures them.”

“What I’m really after is
to grasp the heart of the
reader because that is
where all the power lies,
in a person’s heart.
I think the shortest distance
to that place in the heart
is through a story.”

“One of the more moving
letters came to me
from East Africa, from
a classroom of girls,
all 16 and 17 years old.
They read
The Secret Life of Bees
because of a teacher
from America.”

The Impact of Stories

by Paula Michele Bolado

EVERY YEAR, ADULTS and teens across the country read The Secret Life of Bees, and every year these readers close that book with an intense, wonderful sigh. Along with classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders, this novel is at the top of middle and high school reading lists in school districts across the country. Like the themes in those classics, Kidd has an ability to highlight issues personal to teens such as how dysfunctional situations can carve out personal identities, create special friendships, and foster unexpected love. And through her other intensely powerful books, The Mermaid Chair and the more recently published, The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd continues to embody the art of storytelling, using key moments in history and the first person female point of view as major components to her writer’s craft.

In addition to her fictional works, she is known for her non-fiction spiritual and inspirational writings, continuing the power of the story through Love’s Hidden Surprise, Firstlight, God’s Joyful Surprise, When the Heart Waits, and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. She has also co-written a memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, which chronicles both their mother-daughter relationship and individual journeys of self-discovery during travels to sacred places in Greece, Turkey, and France.

I had the opportunity to interview her about her craft prior to the Sanibel Island Writers Conference in November, where she will be the Keynote Speaker. She spoke to me recently on the phone about her journey and formula for creating memorable characters.

Paula: You’ve said before that storytelling is such an important part of the novel, The Invention of Wings. The power of passing on our story and having our story witnessed by someone is very healing; it creates meaning in our lives. Writers resonate well to the art of storytelling. Were you always a storyteller?

Sue Monk Kidd: I think I grew up in an environment of storytellers and maybe I absorbed some of that through osmosis. My father was a great storyteller and I remember as a child just being spellbound by his stories which were really imaginative. I think that’s when I learned there is a great power in stories that we can tap. My original feeling about them was that they can cast this spell that you can never wake up from. And I really wanted to do that.

My earliest memory of wanting to write was wanting to create stories that had that kind of spell or effect on people. But later I came to understand more of the real power of stories: they are not only healing in many ways, but I think the way people change most readily is through hearing and taking in a story and making it their own. When people read my novels, I want them to learn something, gain some new knowledge, but what I’m really after is to grasp the heart of the reader because that is where all the power lies, in a person’s heart. I think the shortest distance to that place in the heart is through a story, and that is the connection I finally made: If you really want to impact people, then you must tell them the story that really captures them. So, I don’t know if I have always been a storyteller, but it’s something that I have gravitated to and worked toward since I was a girl.

I understand you were a nurse at one time. Were you telling stories to patients then because, like you said, storytelling has a healing power?

You know that’s an interesting question that I never really have been asked before, and what comes to me is that I wasn’t really telling stories during that phase of my life; I was absorbing stories. I’ve often said that my time as a nurse taught me so much about the human capacity for suffering and the ability to heal. I learned so much about human beings at their extremes, and when I think about it now, I realize that every person I worked with brought a story. And I was going to be immersed in that story to some extent, and my approach to it was always through trying to enter and connect their story, not just who they are in this moment, but what is their history, who are they, beyond just the physical body — just see the whole person. It was later when I began writing at 30 that I began to try to find my voice and tell my own stories.

You do a lot of research prior to writing fictional novels, and since have written many spiritual and inspirational books like God’s Joyful Surprise, When the Heart Waits, and Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Does this transparency and ability to write about your personal life and spirituality better allow for delving into fictional characters so realistically?

I think that it does for me. What I’ve realized is that every writer’s approach is so different, and what works for me may not work for someone else. I’m compelled, for some reason, to really reflect on my life and to really understand what my motivations are — why I’m doing what I’m doing, and what does it mean. I really want to try to make meaning out of my life, so that is what drives me to write memoirs for instance. The interesting thing is that it really translates over to my fictional characters because I treat them the same way.

At least so far, I have written my novels in first-person and so I try to drop deeply into my character and see the world through their eyes and feel it with their hearts. So, I need a lot of empathy to do that and I try to bring that same introspective spirit to it, you know, to really understand who they are and how to make meaning with their life. So from that standpoint, yeah, I think it’s helpful to be able to probe that human spirit not only in ourselves but in our characters.

Would that be advice you would give to writers — to explore their philosophical and spiritual side in order to create better characters?

It’s always hard for me to give advice. It’s like who am I to give advice? [laughs]

We are all so different and yet I think when it comes to the spiritual aspect of writing, for me, there is no difference in creativity and my spirituality; it is all bound up together. Sometimes I think when I write, that’s my prayer really, but I think if other writers want to go into themselves, that can only be a good thing. It’s not always a pleasant thing because we meet all this stuff we don’t particularly like about ourselves or want to encounter. But I’ve done that as well.

The most definitive place for writers to have is that lack of self-consciousness.

Exactly. So I guess my advice is kind of vague; it’s not really particular when it comes to that question. I say: go into yourself, explore, ask questions of yourself, reflect on your life, take the time to really do that, and see what wells up. I mean, writing is a conversation that you have with your soul, but it’s not always like that. Sometimes you are just pulling your hair out. But ideally, it’s really a conversation with this deeper part of ourselves.

As an English teacher, I always encourage my students to read The Secret Life of Bees because it’s perfect for their age. We have a book club at The Sanibel School with over 20 kids in it, including boys, and they are all reading the book. When you were writing these novels, did you envision teen readers reading these stories?

This was the biggest surprise I had when these books were published, particularly The Secret Life of Bees. I never saw it coming [laughs]. When I was writing that novel, even though my character was 14 years old, I didn’t see it initially, and probably largely, as a young adult novel. I had never seen an adolescent young person show up to my book signings and I had never heard of one reading the book. Then one day a mother and daughter came to one of my book signings and the daughter was holding the book and she said, “Would you sign my book.” And I said, “Oh, did you read The Secret Life of Bees?” And she said, “Yes, and I got my mom to read it.” This is when I starting thinking, well, that’s interesting. And then suddenly, all of these young people were writing to me, talking about the book, or coming to my events, and it was very eye-opening for me.

Of course, this is amazing! And I never did anticipate it being on curriculums like it is. And so, this is a great surprise and wonderful thing for me because to have young people involved in my stories and my characters’ lives is a real gift for me.

That’s great and it introduces them to this bigger world of lifelong readership. These connections these kids are making — they really get it, even though they are historic novels, they get it; they understand dysfunction and finding love in unique places.

It’s been fascinating to get the student’s responses to the books. I’ve gotten thousands and thousands of letters about The Secret Life of Bees. It has been out 12 years now and I’ve interacted with a lot of classrooms and what they tell me about their experience of the book is so moving to me. A lot of teachers tell me that the students got turned on to reading because of The Secret Life of Bees.

What a gift to give the world. I bet every one of those letters are so special to you.

Well, they are. I treasure them and I cry over them and I laugh over them. The things they tell me sometimes are almost confessional. One of the more moving letters came to me from East Africa, from a classroom of girls, all 16 and 17 years old whose parents had died in the AIDS epidemic. They read The Secret Life of Bees because of a teacher from America and they all wrote essays about it and sent them to me. I cried over every one of them. And you know the book is so much about the search for a mother and trying to find family and love in unlikely places and they [the East African girls] resonate. So yes, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all the stories that I’ve heard from students and young people who’ve embraced that book particularly.

Since we are talking about tragic moments and the finding of a mother... You have these stories take place during historic and ugly times, particularly in the South, and you create strong female protagonists from these times, so this sense of connection is really important for people to make. And now racial tensions are at the forefront of national news, so as a writer, will you continue to capture the voices of these historic moments?

I have and I think about that a lot. I certainly hope so. I realize that I gravitate to certain topics and themes when I write. It’s always been in me ever since I was in high school. I remember thinking that if I ever write a novel, it will be set in 1964, which was when I was about 16 years old, and I will address this issue of race, this pain really, of racial divide. I think I gravitated to both race and gender. Both of them are very important topics for me and I can’t help but feel kind of a social responsibility about it as a writer. I grew up in the South. Racism is the great wound and sin of the South, and indeed really, the great wound and original sin of America. I did write about it in The Secret Life of Bees, and with The Invention of Wings, I wanted to return to the origins of racism, which is slavery, and try to understand and do what I could to tell a story around that particular wound and how we can begin to address that and maybe inspire people to do that. I’m sure I will probably return to that again, but I’m equally interested in gender equality, and empowering particularly girls and women, so I’m sure that will be a big part of what I’m doing, too.

Many writers are looking forward to hearing you speak as the keynote speaker for the Sanibel Island Writers Conference. What are some highlights that you will be talking about at the conference?

I’m going to talk very personally about the writing life, and my experience of it, and try to extrapolate from that some thoughts that can translate to other writers. Again, I guess I’m approaching it as, “I’m going to tell you a story, my story, about writing and hope that you can identify with some of it and then take what is yours to take from it.” It’s a highly abridged story of my writing life, but I’m going to focus in on what inspired me to write, how I came to write, and some of the challenges I’ve had as an aspiring writer when I was first setting out — things I’ve learned over the years. I’m going to talk specifically about my novels, and where the seed of inspiration came from, and some of the things we need in our life in order to sustain the writing life. So much of it is about courage. My presentation will be an abridged story of my life as a writer trying to inspire other writers. •

Sue Monk Kidd is the keynote speaker at the 11th Annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference, November 3-6 at BIG ARTS and the Sanibel Island Public Library. She will be speaking November 5 at 6pm in Schein Hall at BIG ARTS, located at 900 Dunlop Rd. on Sanibel. The event is free. For information, call 590-7421.

November-December 2016