ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
We're going to spend some time now talking about a book I can't seem to escape. For months, women have called or emailed me or approached me in the frozen food aisle - no kidding - saying that they needed to talk about a novel called "The Help." It seems to be a conversation starter, compelling white women to seek out conversations with black women about race and privilege.
The novel features two black housekeepers, Aibileen and Minny, who work for white families in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early '60s. Their worlds are turned upside down when a young white woman named Skeeter Phelan returns home from college. Skeeter's armed with a degree and all kinds of pesky questions about segregation in the South, questions like why black maids are subordinated so much that they can't use the family bathroom and yet trusted to raise that same family's children.
Kathryn Stockett is the author of "The Help." It's her first novel. And after a quiet release, it has slowly become a bestseller. Stockett herself was raised in Jackson. Her family had a black maid named Demetrie, and I asked her recently if the book is autobiographical.
Ms. KATHRYN STOCKETT (Author, "The Help"): It's fiction, but some of the facts and the settings and the backdrops - sure, that was Southern life. Having a separate bathroom for the black domestic was just the way things were done. Certainly, in my grandmother's time and when I was growing up, yeah, Demetrie's bathroom was on the side of the house. It was a separate door. Still, to this day, I've never been in that room.
NORRIS: Hmm. When you look back with candor and with honesty, how was Demetrie treated by your family? I'm wondering if this novel was in some way an homage to her or perhaps even an apology.
Ms. STOCKETT: I wouldn't say it's an apology. The homage, I think, is right on because in my mind, Demetrie was treated like a queen, in my mind growing up, I should say.
We all adored her. She didn't have children of her own. When Demetrie got sick, we knew it was our responsibility, the Stockett family, to take her to the doctor and to pay her medical bills. We embraced that. But the tricky part is, like so many families in the South, we also expected her to use a separate bathroom, to use separate utensils. What a dichotomy, you know? What conflicting ideas that we love and embrace these women and entrust them to raise our children and to feed us and to bathe us, but we keep something as silly as a bathroom separate.
NORRIS: Demetrie did not live long enough to see this story, did she?
Ms. STOCKETT: She died when I was 16. That would have been about 1986. I'll tell you, I've had that conversation in my head so many times, and I always wonder, like, when would she have taken off her white uniform and had the guts to walk into the white grocery store just as a consumer? I don't know, but I think about it a lot.
NORRIS: And she would have to wear that uniform to prove that she was not...
Ms. STOCKETT: That was her ticket.
NORRIS: ...crossing some sort of line in society.
Ms. STOCKETT: Your white uniform as a black domestic was your ticket anywhere in town.
NORRIS: There's a scene, and I was going to ask you if you wouldn't mind reading it. It's on page 52. Minny is working for a woman named Ms. Celia, and her husband doesn't know that she's hired a maid, and someone is approaching the house, and Minny is afraid that Mr. Johnny has come home.
Ms. STOCKETT: Okay, I'm reading in the voice of Minny. Forgive me, I'm just a little white girl. So hopefully, I don't tear this up too much.
(Reading) Ms. Celia, I dash into her bedroom, Mr. Johnny's home. Ms. Celia jumps out of bed faster than I've seen her move before. I turn around an idiot's circle. Where am I going? Which way do I go? What happened to my getaway plan? And then I snap into decision: the guest bathroom.
I slip in and keep the door cracked. I crouch up on the toilet seat so he can't see my feet up under the door. It's dark in here and hot. I feel like my head's on fire. Sweat drips off my chin and splats on the floor. I feel sick by the thick smell of gardenia soaps by the sink.
I hear footsteps. I hold my breath. The footsteps stop. My heart is thumping like a cat in a clothes dryer. What if Ms. Celia pretends she doesn't know me so she won't get in trouble, acts like I'm a burglar? Oh, I hate her. I hate that stupid woman.
I listen, but all I can hear is my own pantin', the thud-thud in my chest. My ankles hurt and creak, holding up my body like this. My eyes grow sharper in the dark. After a minute, I see myself in the mirror over the sink, crouched like a fool on top of a white lady's toilet. Look at me. Look what it's come to for Minny Jackson to make a damn livin'.
NORRIS: You know, Southern blacks and Southern whites often sound like each other in terms of their vernacular, but the black Southern dialect does have distinct differences. How did you know when you got it right, when you actually were writing in an authentic black woman's voice from the 1960s?
Ms. STOCKETT: I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn't get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.
I think that's a huge distinction between writing your first book and your second book. When you're writing your second book, you can't help but think how it's going to make the readers feel.
NORRIS: You know, I'm sure that you know this, that some black woman readers are very uncomfortable in reading the book. The book touches a chord with them, and many are quite angry, either at the situation the domestics find themselves in or the language that you use or the fact that a white woman wrote this book and attempted to get inside the head of black domestics.
What's your reaction to that? Are you surprised, or do you take some satisfaction that you actually touched a nerve, that you got some sort of emotion, that people are talking about your book?
Ms. STOCKETT: I'm a Southerner - I never take satisfaction in touching a nerve.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STOCKETT: I guess if I'm forced to find a good side, I'm glad that people are talking about an issue that hasn't really been discussed all that much. I'm glad that people are talking about it from both the black perspective and the white perspective.
NORRIS: What's been the reaction back in Jackson? You still have family there. What do they think about this?
Ms. STOCKETT: I do. You know, Jackson is a very conservative city, but I...
NORRIS: Are you going home for Christmas?
Ms. STOCKETT: I am. But, you know, I have heard chatter that, you know, I told too much, that I didn't represent all the love that was shared between the black domestics and the white families, and I have to agree with that. But that's a reaction I mostly hear out of white people. I haven't heard African-Americans complain that I didn't portray how much love was out there between the blacks and the whites.
NORRIS: Kathryn Stockett is the author of "The Help."
Kathryn, thank you very much.
Ms. STOCKETT: Thank you.
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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.