Published Sunday, January 20, 2013

'Bees' author talks about not-so-secret life as writer


The most authentic creativity is a “conversation between myself and my soul,” Sue Monk Kidd said at her recent lecture at the Centre for Performing and Visual Arts in Newnan.

Kidd, the author of “The Secret Life of Bees,” was the first to present in the Anne Quinn Powell Authors’ Series, sponsored by Central Baptist Church and the Centre.

“My writing life was probably inborn in a little town in Georgia. I listened to my father tell stories to me and my brothers. He told of a trickster mule that would go through the cafeteria. He invented Chewing Gum Bum, who blew bubbles so big, he would fly away. He told about a cabbage so big a little girl could live in it,” she told a January audience at the Centre.

“At age 10, I thought there was no better thing than weaving these stories. I started announcing I was going to be a writer, having found a true small light in myself at an early age. Then I lost it, then I had to find it again, then lost it,” she said.

“My first lack of courage was” going to college and studying nursing, leaving writing behind, she continued. “After a while I became homesick for my place of belonging (writing).”

On her 30th birthday, Kidd announced to her husband and two toddlers that she was going to be a writer. It seemed so absurd and “so completely foolish that I wondered how I would even attempt.”

Kidd had worked in hospitals but knew nothing about creative writing. “Deep gladness is what you love and it is incumbent upon us to find this gladness.”

She continued, “The imagination needs time to browse. It looks on the outside like loitering. ‘Being’ is crucial to the life of a soul. Most of us feel besieged by life. The world seduces us with an artificial sense of urgency. We need refuge from our driven selves. Technology malfunctions 24/7, but our minds do not. Our souls have much slower rhythms.” 

For 10 years, she wrote short narratives for Guide Posts. 

Her first piece of fiction was the first chapter of “Bees.” 

“I took it to a writers’ conference. The teacher read it and said he didn’t think it had promise as a novel” and advised her to turn it into a short story. She did and submitted it to a small academic journal that paid $35 and gave her 10 free copies.

Then she moved on, writing short stories for four more years.

“I was invited to read a short story at the New York Arts Club. When I was speaking with someone in New York, I was told, ‘You should be reading something Southern. People love that stuff up here.’ I read the first chapter of ‘Bees’ and a literary agent was at my elbow and said, ‘I hope that’s the first chapter of your novel.’ I had gone full circle and worked on ‘Bees’ for the next three years,” she said.

“Bees began with a childhood memory,” she said. “We lived in Sylvester, Ga., population 3,500. Bees lived in the walls for 18 years. My father tried everything to get rid of the bees. Finally we gave up and lived with them. They made an unearthly sound and we were told there may be as many as 50,000 bees in the wall. So my mother turned the room into a guest room. When the occasional guest would come, we would clean the honey off of the floor. Like any Southern eccentric family, we just normalized it and went on.

“My husband and I went to a dinner party while I was trying to write fiction. He told the story of his sleeping in the guest bedroom. He was actually stung that night. I began to imagine an adolescent girl in the room with bees,” she said. Then she needed to decide who this girl was and what does she want. She was Lily Melissa Owens lying in that bed wanting her mother.

In her travels, Kidd said she had been unduly consoled many times for her wretched childhood. She was never made to kneel on grits and about the only similarities between her and Lily are they are both from small Southern towns, both wanted to write, both observed civil rights unrest, both rolled their hair on grape juice cans and they both had black caretakers.

In “Bees” she “wanted to write about a sanctuary of women, the sisterhoods, bonds and strengths of women taking in this child.” In doing so, she exposed the luminosity and the darkness of the South meeting.

“Racism is the great wound of the South — an American wound,” she said.

“Besides racism being a major motif in the novel, so is a quest for love, a search for a place of belonging, home and family. I just wanted to write a good story that would make my mama proud.”

Kidd hadn’t realized how far the book had traveled until one night in Boston she was in a hotel room watching “Jeopardy” on television. The inverted question was “Sue Monk’s debut novel is about this insect.”

“I shouted ‘BEES!’” at the TV.

Her next novel, “The Mermaid Chair,” is about a woman who falls in love with a benedictine monk. 

Her latest book, “Traveling with Pomegranates,” is a co-written with her daughter, with each writing alternating chapters over a course of three years. While it might seem like a travelogue going from Greece to France and back to Greece, it is more of the adjustment between a woman fresh out of college and her mother, who has just turned 50. “This was the hardest book I’ve written, but it is the most satisfying,” she said.

Her next novel, probably out in the spring of 2014, takes place in Charleston. The two main characters are a slave and the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner who turns into an abolitionist.

Kidd and her husband, Sandy, live in Florida.

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