Monday, May 9, 2011

Lessons on Writing from Kathryn Stockett

By Pamela

One of the perks of living near a big city is taking advantage of the cultural offerings. I always reach for the entertainment section the Sunday Dallas Morning News first. Book reviews, movie listings, plays, musicals—all sorts of goodies to read about. Three weeks ago, I happened to see a tiny blip on the calendar featuring The Help's author Kathryn Stockett’s stop in Dallas, sponsored by the Dallas Museum of Art | Arts & Letters program.

I quickly emailed my co-bloggers and only Susan had the night free. On Friday, she recapped our adventure. But I wanted to share today, some of the writing advice Kathryn shared during her talk.

While I own a shelf full of writing books—some by agents, others by authors, a few by editors—and each book shares a unique angle on writing, for some reason, hearing nuggets straight from the mouth of an author who once obsessed over her query letter the same way we do, just makes the end goal seem that much more obtainable.

Here’s what we learned from Kathryn Stockett…

on writing: One of the first things Kathryn said from the lectern, as she began her talk, was that she wanted to address the writers in the room. And several times, throughout the 90 minutes she talked and answered questions, she made specific references to the task of writing. “Reading a lot makes for a good writer,” she said. “You learn the turn of a phrase and, if you read it enough, you can rip it off.” She good-naturedly continued to downplay her success, assuring us that everyone can learn the craft as she has. “There are those who are truly gifted—Hemingway, Steinbeck—but really, I’m just makin’ shit up.”

on editing: “When you write you spend a lot of time editing; a lot of time revising; a lot of time rockin’ in the corner; a lot of time on Prozac.”

on persistence: When she started sending out The Help to agents, she said her first rejection letter was pretty exciting. “It showed me someone had read it.” With the second one, she still felt it was pretty cool to think someone out there was responding. “After number 15, I started to get a little depressed. After 35, I thought about sticking my head in the oven. Number 60 just about put me under the bed. But all along, I kept writing and refining.” (Minny started out in third person.) “And at number 61, Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up after 60? You just never know.”

In response to a question from an audience member as to whether or not she’s had any contact with the agents who rejected her, to give a little nanner-nanner, Kathryn said, “You know, if I did meet one, I’d need to thank her. Every ‘no’ made me go back to the story and make it better.” (To give you an idea how much I think those rejections affected her, though, she brought some of the letters with her and read some excerpts.)

on choosing cover art: The first cover option for The Help was a B&W photo of a black woman’s hand holding the hand of a white child. She loved it, thought it was perfect but the editor was concerned that “people might think it’s about race.” Three months and 50 covers later, Kathryn said, “I don’t care a rat’s ass what you put on the cover, as long as it’s not purple and yellow. I went to the University of Alabama and we don’t care much for LSU. Of course, it’s a perfect cover because it has absolutely nothing to do with the book.”
Since The Help’s United States printing, its foreign rights have been sold 39 times. First version was the UK. The UK publisher sent Kathryn a photo of the cover they were going to use, featuring a photo of a white child with two black maids. (The publisher had found it in the US Library of Congress and it had a city and state on it—small town in Mississippi.) Kathryn sent a copy of it to a woman she knew there and that woman identified the little girl as a child whose family owned the local newspaper. “They had so much money, they had two maids,” the woman told Kathryn. To that, Kathryn added, laughing, “This just perpetuates the notion that the South is just one small town where everyone knows everybody.”

on the evolution of book-into-movie: “When I found out I was going on my first book tour, I asked my good friend Octavia Spencer to come along with me,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable reading in front of people in a black voice.” Octavia then read for the audio book (“She told me she’d never do that again!”) and was later cast in the movie as Minny.

Tate Taylor, screenwriter and director, went to kindergarten with Kathryn. When they were 14, they stole his daddy’s car and drove it to New Orleans, ate at Brennan's, drank champagne, and slept it off before driving it back. “I knew when we got home, we’d be in trouble but we didn’t care. It was worth it.” Later they moved to New York together and were roommates before he left for LA. Tate was one of her first readers. He asked for the movie rights and at first she said, No. Then she worried who might end up buying them … “possibly even someone from Canada!” So, she gave Tate the movie rights and he spent about a year writing the screenplay. Then he shopped it around and got nowhere until, one day, Steven Spielberg called him and said he wanted to make the movie.

Along with Octavia, the movie features Emma Stone as Skeeter and Viola Davis as Aibileen. Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) plays Hilly. “She’s never wanted for anything,” Kathryn said, and Kathryn’s daughter plays young Skeeter in a scene with Cicely Tyson as Constantine. “My daughter has no lines but, as soon as we got on set, she asked me, ‘Where’s my trailer?’”) Kathryn has a cameo and even dons a beehive hairdo. From the stills, I noticed she’s wearing purple!

on writing her second book: She didn’t say when we can expect it to hit shelves but shared that it takes place in the 1920s and ‘30s in Oxford, Mississippi. “Y’all, I’m so bummed I missed the depression,” she said. “It was such a defining moment for women.” In the story, the women “really didn’t have a skill set, but they come up with a unique idea to make money.”

She shared that the problem with writing the second book is: “Y’all are all the room with me. It takes me a while to clear everyone out of the way so I can write.”

on writing every day: Kathryn used the analogy of her granddaddy having a leather strap with all these keys on it. “When one would fill up, he’d just add another strap.” And, even though he knew what they opened, she never did. If she doesn’t write every day, it’s like “standing at a door with that strap of keys in my hand, trying to figure out which one to use.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing! Her story is such an inspiration! And she does sound so REAL!


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