If you don’t know Sue Monk Kidd for her most recent novel, The Invention of Wings, you may know her for her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, which was made into a film with Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Dakota Fanning and Alicia Keys. She visits The Music Hall as part of its Writers on a New England Stage series Friday, May 8, for a presentation and onstage interview with New Hampshire Public Radio’s Virginia Prescott. She recently talked with the Hippo from her Florida home.
Why did you want to take part in this event at The Music Hall?
I’ve heard a great deal about it. I know writers who have really enjoyed talking about their experiences of work and writing. And I love the format. … My favorite part about any event is when I get to have some dialogue with someone or with the audience. … I’m learning from my readers all the time.
How do you decide which ideas you want to turn into a book?
Usually, for me it starts with an image or a particular character that compels me … and then it takes root in my imagination. … It won’t leave me alone. I have to say, it starts to sprout a story. And so I try to play with it. The idea needs to be played with, needs time for the imagination to browse around with it.
And how did The Invention of Wings come about?
I stumbled upon Sarah and Angelina when I was at a Brooklyn Museum “Dinner Party” exhibit [by artist Judy Chicago]. At the time, I was working on a memoir I co-authored with my daughter, Traveling with Pomegranates, and I wasn’t looking for a new book idea at that point. I like to finish a book and have a period in which I’m dormant — that’s my ideal world — but as I was finishing Traveling with Pomegranates, I went to this exhibit and these two sisters completely captured me. I had been living in Charleston, S.C., then, and I couldn’t believe what these two women had done, and that they had somehow escaped me. … Once I read about them, I knew almost immediately I wanted to write a novel about them.
The Invention of Wings is a work of fiction, yet you use Sarah and Angelina’s real names. Why not create entirely new characters based on the female abolitionists?
I wanted people to know about Sarah and Angelina, the real historical figures. I think they fell through a little crack in history in some ways. They’re not as widely known as they should be. … The novel is based on their lives, particularly Sarah’s of course, and you know, I stayed very true in many ways to her life and her history. I had to draft a lot of imagined events in her history, and that’s primarily her relationship with [Hetty]. … But the essence of her life in history is really there. … I think it’s a real intersection of fact and fiction.
Did living in Charleston — the same place the Grimkes lived — help you write the book?
I did my research while we were living in Charleston. When it became time to write the novel, we moved to Florida, and so I wrote the novel here in Florida. … It was wonderful to be in Charleston, a city I really loved, and to be able to do research on the same streets and go in [the Grimke sisters’] childhood home and have all those resources right there. That city became alive around me as I imagined it in the 19th century. I could go to various places and experience it because so much of that has been preserved in the city.
It’s been over a year since The Invention of Wings was published. Are you still focused on this book, or have you started something else?
I have a new idea, but it’s so new and embryonic, I’m not talking about it yet. … I’m delighted people are still talking about [The Invention of Wings].
Tell me about your writing process.
In some ways, every time I start a novel, I feel like a beginner. ... It’s not all bad. … It keeps things fresh and new, and it keeps you hungry.
Didn’t the success of your books give you confidence, though?
The success of The Secret Life of Bees gave me a great amount of confidence I didn’t have. … I’ll have days when I feel really confident about the work. Then the next day I’ll think, what am I doing? This will never work. And you have to write through it.
As seen in the April 23, 2015 issue of the Hippo.