It took Sue Monk Kidd four years to write her sweeping new novel, The Invention of Wings. When the book was finally finished, the last thing she wanted to think about was starting a new project, so she and her husband took a getaway river cruise from Berlin to Prague.
“My husband’s from Mississippi, so [river cruising] is his favorite thing to do,” Kidd says by phone in her slow Southern drawl. “But it’s very hard to turn off the writer brain. I tell myself I’m not looking for an idea. Please, Sue, no ideas.”
But while she was traveling in Europe, she toured a concentration camp. “It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience for me,” she recalls. “I felt a couple of writer antennae go up, and I thought, oh no! Tap those down. It’s important to have fallow time.”
Kidd certainly deserves downtime after finishing her latest novel, which is based on a pair of real-life abolitionist sisters who lived in 19th-century Charleston. Writing about real people—albeit in fiction—was a demanding task.
“It’s certainly a challenge to write from a place where history and imagination intersect, as I found out,” Kidd says. “It became part of my challenge: I wanted to do them justice and have their history all there. At the same time, I’m a novelist. I’m not a historian, I’m not a biographer. I had to serve the story first.”
An exquisitely told tale of loss and triumph, The Invention of Wings is based on the real lives of Sarah and Angelina (Nina) Grimké, unconventional women who broke from their high-society family to fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Kidd first learned about these radical but largely forgotten sisters at an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
“It’s certainly a challenge to write from a place where history and imagination intersect, as I found out.”
Sarah is plain but smart, and she realizes from a young age that her dream of becoming a lawyer like her father is impossible; society judged her success simply on whether she could avoid spinsterhood. Angelina is beautiful and could have her choice of Charleston bachelors, but like her older sister, she has no interest in traditional roles.
When Sarah turns 11, her mother gives her a 10-year-old slave as a gift. Even at that age, Sarah knows she shouldn’t own Hetty, or “Handful” as everyone in the house calls her. Handful’s mother makes Sarah secretly promise that she’ll free Handful as soon as she can. In many ways, Sarah spends the rest of her life trying to keep that promise: Sarah and Handful become friends, and Sarah breaks the law by teaching her to read and write. The book follows their complicated friendship over more than three decades, as well as the attempts by all three women to make their way in a world that has already defined their path.
While historical records mention that Sarah Grimké had a slave, there is not much more known about her. This is where Kidd let her imagination go.
“Historical accuracy mattered a great deal to me,” she says. “I used it as scaffolding. I followed the truth as close as I possibly could, but I also invented a lot to bring them alive on the page. I went to their house [in Charleston]. I walked up and down the streets I thought they’d have walked. When I saw the stairway leading up to the upper floors, I could picture Sarah walking down. I could picture Handful sitting on one of the steps.”
In the end, it was easier for Kidd to fully realize Handful on the page. “Handful came alive much more easily than Sarah did,” she says. “That was a surprise to me. I tried to write her in third person, but it just didn’t work—she wanted to talk! She didn’t come with that heavy historical script that I had to be faithful to with Sarah and Nina. I could just let go.”
Kidd, who was raised in Georgia and remembers seeing the Ku Klux Klan in her hometown, says she relied on “voices from my childhood” to write from Handful’s viewpoint.
“I think you have to love your characters, and I just loved her,” Kidd says. “She started talking and talking and talking. I could not keep up with her. There was this unleashing of a character’s voice. I came of age in the ’60s—one of those baby boomers. I remember so much of that whole Civil Rights time—it was the background I lived in. It made a mark on me. Their voices stayed with me—the musicality and some of their expressions.”
After growing up in the pre-feminist South, Kidd was drawn to explorations of a woman’s place in society. This theme runs through much of her work, including her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002), and its follow-up, The Mermaid Chair (2005). Kidd realized tremendous success with both: Millions of copies of her novels are in print in nearly 40 languages. In some ways, she still sounds amazed by that success.
“It’s been such a surprising part of my life,” she says. “The Secret Life of Bees—I don’t think I’ve ever been more floored by anything. It took a while to wrap my head around it. It seemed like the success belonged to someone else. Did I really deserve all that? But mostly, to be honest, it’s been pure gratitude that someone wants to read my work and that you’re able to get your stories into the world.
“I felt some pressure after The Secret Life of Bees to produce something beyond myself. But I’d do it again, believe me! It’s been a wonderful and wondrous experience, but it’s not a pure experience. It has its nuances.”
Kidd isn’t the only writer in her family. Her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, also caught the writing bug.
“I sort of knew when she was young that she was a writer—she had all the little signs,” Kidd says with a hint of pride in her voice. “She reminded me of myself. She’d graduated from college, and I was turning 50. She was really searching for what she was going to do with her life, and the truth was, I was, too. I was trying to find the courage to write fiction. I told her later, ‘I knew you were a writer! But I didn’t want to step in there and influence that.’ She had to come to that herself.”
During their search, mother and daughter traveled together to ancient sites in Greece and France. They chronicled their explorations in Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story (2009), which Kidd counts as one of her favorite writing experiences.
After becoming empty nesters, Kidd and her husband moved from Charleston to the Florida coast, downsizing from two homes to one.
“You get to a certain place in life and want to simplify,” she says. “We finally took Thoreau’s advice and simplified.”
Judging by the breathtaking photos she regularly Tweets of the ocean view from her home, it’s a wonder she ever gets any work done.
“It’s kind of muse-like; it’s beautiful,” she says. “Beauty is good for the soul. I open the study door, and the rhythm of the waves in the room is soothing. But I get so immersed that I disappear in my work.”
A self-proclaimed introvert, Kidd is preparing to emerge from her cocoon to promote The Invention of Wings. A planned two-month tour will include stops at libraries and bookstores in 19 states., with a Canadian tour also on the horizon.
“I love my solitude, and I love my anonymity,” she says. “But it’s great meeting my readers. I need that. I retreated into the world of the 19th century for four years. I told my friend I felt like I was living in a cave in Afghanistan! I’m eager to start a conversation with the reader.”