Sue Monk Kidd discusses ‘The Invention of Wings’

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd

Viking, $27.95

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Meet Sue Monk Kidd

She will be at Highland Park United Methodist Church (3300 Mockingbird Lane in Dallas) at 7 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the book and sign copies. The event is free. Tickets to a 6 p.m. reception with the author cost $30 per person. For information, call 214-523-2249 or go to hpumc.org/authorslive.

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“If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.”

Sue Monk Kidd, the bestselling author and Oprah Book Club favorite, expresses that thought in her new novel, The Invention of Wings. Alas, the TCU graduate (Class of 1970) didn’t always embrace so bold a philosophy. When Kidd was a college student, she chose to study nursing, even though her ambition since childhood had been to become a writer and a storyteller.

“Let’s call it a lack of courage to seize that dream,” Kidd says. Now, as she prepares to visit North Texas for the first time in nearly a decade, she notes, “I never lost my desire to be a writer, but I took what was a more traditional route [for a woman] in the ’60s.”

Not until eight years after graduating did she “break out, pursue writing and find a voice of my own.” And it wasn’t until she was in her 40s, already a successful nonfiction author, that she turned her attention to fiction.

Her debut novel, 2002’s The Secret Life of Bees, was a life-changing phenomenon.

The book spent more than 2 1/2 years on the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and elevated her to the rank of a literary giant.

“Sometimes a detour is the best way to get there,” she muses.

Perhaps, but one can’t help wondering what additional gems might have been written had she made her leap of faith years earlier.

The Invention of Wings (published by Viking in January) focuses on Sarah Grimké, an early-1800s abolitionist who led a free-thinking, activist life during a time in America when few women spread their wings, and on Hetty, the “handful” of a slave who entered Sarah’s life as an 11th birthday present. The book has been showered with critical acclaim and quickly shot to the top of the bestseller list.

We chatted with Kidd while she was preparing for a promotional tour that brings her to Dallas next week for a free “Authors Live!” event and book signing.

What turned you on to the real-life story of sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, pioneers in the abolitionist movement who began their lives in an aristocratic Southern slave-holding family?

I was completely captivated by Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina from the moment I learned about them. How do two women from the South during the antebellum period in Charleston, S.C., become the first female abolition agents in America? How in the world does this happen?

That was what drew me: the transformation that must have gone on inside of them, what they had to overcome and what they had to give up. And they had to give up quite a bit. They had to make a break from their family and homeland and traditions in order to do the work that they did.

When I discovered all of that — and realized that their story began in Charleston, where I lived — I knew I wanted to spend years with these women writing their story.

Given their pivotal role in history, why aren’t the Grimké sisters famous?

I’ve asked myself that many times. How in the world did I not hear of them before? I thought I was fairly well read in women’s history, yet I missed them. I think part of it is a failure on my part. But I also believe there are a lot of cracks in American history where women have fallen.

They are well-known in academics, in women’s studies classes. But they’re not nearly as well known in the popular culture as they need to be.

When most people think of slavery in America, they probably picture cotton fields instead of the city-based slavery that you write about. Why do you suppose that is?

Most of our textbooks and our movies and other books seem to focus a lot on plantation slavery. Yet we also had urban slavery all through the colonies, all through the South. It’s just not as familiar to us. This book’s urban setting does look quite different from plantation slavery. But it is every bit as brutal.

The book is painstakingly researched, your description of 1800s Charleston so vivid. Yet you were willing to invent new facts — details of Hetty’s entire adult life, for example — to tell a good story. Why work so hard getting the historical details right if, ultimately, you make things up?

Writing from the place where history and imagination intersect is a real challenge. I revered the history of Sarah Grimké. I want people to discover her and Angelina. I think a historical novel needs to resonate accuracy and authenticity and stay as true as it can.

But at the same time, I had to serve my story. So it became a grafting on of my imagination. The history is the scaffolding, the foundation for this book, but it also needs to be this rich story that you allow your imagination to come into.

Your book already has many fans. But how meaningful was it to get a stamp of approval — it’s literally a stamp on the cover of your book — from one fan in particular, Oprah Winfrey?

It’s been so gratifying to have the kind of response that I’ve experienced from readers and reviewers. To have Oprah endorse the book was a thrill. It was extraordinary to have her call, wanting to make this her Book Club pick. I was not expecting that. It was astonishing and amazingly wonderful.

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