Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd, award-winning author of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE MERMAID CHAIR, published by Penguin, has garnered high acclaim throughout her writing career. She has penned five books, including GOD'S JOYFUL SURPRISE and THE DANCE OF THE DISSIDENT DAUGHTER, (Harper Collins). Selling more than 4.5 million copies,THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list and was awarded the 2004 Book Sense Paperback book of the Year, whileTHE MERMAID CHAIR received the prestigious 2005 Quill Award for General Fiction and reached the #1 spot on the New York Times list, with 1.5 million copies in print.
October 6, 2006
Long before her bestselling novels THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE MERMAID CHAIR, Sue Monk Kidd worked as a contributing writer and editor for the inter-faith publication, Guideposts magazine. Her latest release, FIRSTLIGHT, is a compilation of many of these spiritual articles, as well as other emotionally driven and anecdotal essays spanning her writing career of nearly 30 years. In this interview, Kidd describes the pivotal role that faith has played in her writing and recounts the lucky event that jump-started her relationship with the magazine. She also discusses what inspired her to return to her dream of writing fiction, and reveals the difficulties of overcoming her own fears and insecurities to begin working on her second novel after the huge and unexpected success of the first.
Question: How did your writing career begin?
Sue Monk Kidd: On my thirtieth birthday, I walked into the kitchen of my brick house in South Carolina and announced to my husband and two children: “I’m going to become a writer.” That was my annunciation. In a kitchen. To a two-year-old and a five-year-old and a husband who was trying to get them to eat their cereal.
Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming a published writer.
SMK: The day after my thirtieth birthday, I enrolled in a writing class in which the teacher gave us an assignment: write a personal experience article and send it off to a magazine. I wrote a very simple story about the first Thanksgiving after I was married and submitted it to a writing contest sponsored by a magazine that I’d often seen lying about the house when I was growing up. The magazine was Guideposts, an inter-faith, inspirational publication with millions of subscribers that had been founded by the late Norman Vincent Peale and his wife in 1945. To my amazement, I was one of fifteen winners who were invited to New York to a writers’ workshop. You can ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you I barely opened my mouth the entire time. I believe the Guideposts staff assumed I was shy, but the truth was that I felt like I’d been dropped off on a new and unknown planet. People spoke a mysterious literary lingo --- in media res, S.A.S.E.s, take-aways, denouements. I’m pretty sure I was the only writer there who could not speak the language, who’d never had anything published, and whose whole assemblage of work was comprised of one story. Mostly, though, mine was the silence of a sponge soaking everything up.
Q: And your relationship with Guideposts continued after that writers’ workshop?
SMK: That was 1978. I would continue writing for Guideposts for the next twelve years. It was through Guideposts that I began an apprenticeship to the narrative form. I learned not only how to write stories, but to love them, to revere them even. I discovered the power of honest, personal, revelatory writing. Humans, I discovered, need stories the way we need air.
Q: How has your spirituality influenced your writing?
SMK: For as long as I can remember I’ve been compelled to write about the workings of my soul, to record my ponderings about God and my search for meaning in things great and miniscule. “I cannot see my soul, but know ‘tis there,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Some part of me has always felt the truth of that, has experienced moments of quickening when the knowledge of a mysterious, unseen inner life flames up. Meister Eckhart, a theologian from centuries back, called this combustion the “god-spark.” Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk, referred to God’s presence in the soul as the point vierge. This French phrase refers to the “virgin point” that comes just before dawn --- those ripening moments before the first ray of light flares into the darkness. Whatever name we give this hidden incandescence, this “Firstlight,” I believe it exists in all of us. I believe, too, in the impulse to capture its flickerings through words. It seems that I’d been trying to do this in one way or another, with varying degrees of skill, experience, and success from the moment I set upon the writing life.
Q: How did you transition from writing non-fiction to writing fiction?
SMK: 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. I was especially intrigued with chronicling my interior or spiritual life. My books THE DANCE OF THE DISSIDENT DAUGHTER, WHEN THE HEART WAITS, and GOD'S JOYFUL SURPRISE 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. I need to see my life in context, to derive the deeper, more illusive meanings from it. You’ve heard the saying: “Being oneself is an acquired taste”? I can tell you with certainty that writing memoir definitely helps one acquire a taste for one’s less-than-perfect life. In fact, writing memoir, which technically means writing the story of one’s memories and reflecting on them, is in some ways a work of wholeness. Some have suggested that writing memoir is a self-absorbed endeavor. There may be truth in that, but I suspect, no more really than one would find in any kind of writing. In fact, paradoxically, I found that writing memoir tended to free me from myself. Given all this, I thought I would go on writing it 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 90's, to my astonishment, my old spurned 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 set off a creative tension in me. It 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 art and craft of fiction writing. More importantly I practiced, writing short stories, and re-writing them over and over.
Now, of course, I can’t imagine my life apart from writing fiction. Undoubtedly, though, I will continue to write non-fiction. In fact, my next book will be a mother-daughter memoir that I’m co-writing with my daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. I still have a need to create a narrative of my life. To keep writing it until I see how it turns out.
Q: Were you surprised by the success of your first novel?
SMK: Honestly, the last thing I ever imagined is that THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES would become as successful as it did. In fact, for quite a long while, I couldn’t seem to take it in. Then one night on a speaking trip, I was having dinner in my hotel room and watching Jeopardy on television, when one of the contestants said, “I’ll take Women Writers for $600.” What popped on the screen was: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about this insect.” The contestant responded, “What are bees, Alex?” And I sat, my fork poised in the air, blinking. It finally got through to me. I decided to step up to the reality of my novel’s unexpected success.
Q: What was the greatest challenge in writing a second novel?
SMK: Soon after I began writing THE MERMAID CHAIR, I bumped into someone who had just read THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. “Oh my gosh! I loved it,” she exclaimed. “I don’t see how you could ever write another one that good.” I gave her a weak smile. For a couple of weeks after that, doubt seeped in. I suddenly felt all sorts of pressure. I became stymied.
After floundering around for those two weeks, I’d had enough of it. I told myself to flat out get over it, that I was a writer, and I wrote what I wrote, that my second novel would be its own unique creation. I would no longer worry about the pressure to live up to something. I was just going to write. And from that moment, I relaxed. For the next two years I wrote THE MERMAID CHAIR, and never looked back. The biggest challenge about writing this book was finding the courage to do that.
Q: How has your Southern background influenced your writing?
SMK: My family has lived in the South at least 200 years and I’ve lived there my entire life, except for a single year I spent in Africa. Beyond that, the South is not only a geography on the map, but it’s also a peculiar region in the mind which haunts, possesses, confounds, and in some cases, exerts an autonomy that you cannot define or dispute. The South is the most soulful place on earth. It has leaned heavily on me my whole life. Considering everything, how could it not affect my writing?
Q: Whether you are writing non-fiction or fiction, storytelling remains a common denominator. Why?
SMK: I believe in stories. The world has enough dogma. It’s stories we need more of, stories that reverence the still, small voice that sings our life. As Anthony de Mello observed, “The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.” Jesus, Himself, told stories about the most common things in the world: a lost sheep, a seed that falls on rocky ground, a woman who sweeps her house in search of a coin, a man whose son runs away from home.
All personal theology should begin with the words, Let me tell you a story.
© Copyright 2017, Sue Monk Kidd. All rights reserved
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