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Mississippi Arts: Kathryn...

Mississippi Arts: Kathryn Stockett’s writing rooted in the Magnolia State

By: Susan Marquez - February 28, 2024

  • Growing up a child of divorced parents in Jackson in the 1970s, author Kathryn Stockett spent much of her time as a child at her grandparents’ home in Jackson.

When Kathryn Stockett began writing her novel, The Help, she never dreamed anyone would actually read it.

“I started writing it the day after September 11,” she told Claire Suddath of TIME magazine. “I was living in New York City. We didn’t have any phone service and we didn’t have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick – I couldn’t even call my family (in Mississippi) and tell them I was fine.”

Stockett worked in magazine publishing and marketing in New York after graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Stockett began writing in the voice recalled from her childhood. Growing up a child of divorced parents in Jackson in the 1970s, she spent much of her time as a child at her grandparents’ home in Jackson. They had a maid named Demetrie. Writing in Demetrie’s voice was soothing to Stockett, with a dialect which had a musicality on the page for her. That voice later became the character Aibileen in Stockett’s best-selling novel. 

Writing about race was a touchy topic for Stockett, who has been raised not to speak of such things.

“For a long time, we didn’t talk about it at all,” she told Elizabeth Day with Observer. “We were so afraid of saying the wrong thing and being typecast as a racist. In order to get better at something you have to practice, and we haven’t been practicing at all.”

One of the major plot twists in the book deals with black maids being forced to use separate bathrooms while working in the homes of white families. Stockett’s own grandparents had a separate lavatory for Demetrie, but she says she didn’t know about it until after Demetrie died when she was 16.

“I still have never been in that room. It was out a back door and you turned right and there was another little door you went through. It really surprised me when I found out.” 

The novel took five years to complete, then the arduous process of having it published began. Over a period of three years, she submitted the manuscript to over sixty literary agents, and received as many rejection letters. Yet she persevered and agent Susan Ramer agreed to represent her. It was a good bet for Ramer, as the book has since been published in 35 countries and 42 languages. Published by Penguin, the novel has sold over ten million copies and spent more than one hundred weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list.

When the book was released in February 2009, Stockett went on a multi-state book tour. I interviewed her prior to her stop in Jackson, first as a featured speaker at the Millsaps College Arts and Lecture series, and the next day at Lemuria bookstore. Nervous about speaking to a Jackson crowd, Stockett said she was concerned that too many people might be upset about the book. However, at the Millsaps event, a full house with a diverse audience listened as she talked about writing the book and how the characters were developed. A question-and-answer session afterwards was surprisingly positive. One African-American audience member praised Stockett for her “fearless storytelling” and for “opening lines of communication.” 

The Help was adapted to film in 2011 by Walt Disney Studios. Stockett’s high school classmate at Murrah in Jackson, Tate Taylor, wrote and directed the box office hit. The film received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress for Viola Davis, and Best Supporting Actress for Jessica Chastian and Octavia Spencer. Spencer was presented with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 84th Academy Awards. The cast also won numerous Screen Actors Guild awards. Parts of the movie were shot in Jackson, while most of the film was shot in and around Greenwood, which was staged to represent Jackson in 1963. 

Stockett received many honors for the book, including the Indies Choice Book Award for Adult Debut, Townsend Prize for Fiction, SIBA Book Award for fiction, and the Christian Science Monitor Best Book for fiction. 

About the Author(s)
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Susan Marquez

Susan Marquez serves as Magnolia Tribune's Culture Editor. Since 2001, Susan Marquez has been writing about people, places, spaces, events, music, businesses, food, and travel. The things that make life interesting. A prolific writer, Susan has written over 3,000 pieces for a wide variety of publications.