Brief Interviews is a new series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.
Sue Monk Kidd is the author of The Secret Life of Bees. Her latest book, The Invention of Wings [Viking, $27.95], was published this month.
A fictionalized account of abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Moore Grimké, The Invention of Wings undulates in narrative perspective from the viewpoint of Sarah, and of her family's 10-year-old slave, Hettie (nicknamed Handful).
What are some of the challenges you encountered in writing The Invention of Wings?
It was really daunting to imagine writing about slavery. It's a vast, complicated topic. I had to find my courage, I think, to take that on. More than anything I wanted to render that in the right way, and explore it from the standpoint of urban slavery, and through the eyes of an enslaved character. That was the other big challenge: writing in the voice of an enslaved character. Initially, that was intimidating. I would go to bed at night and wake up worrying about it. But in the end, I felt so compelled to do this. I think you just have to listen to that place inside yourself as a writer. It's just a creative knowing. I just took a breath and decided to take it on, and write in her voice, and trust than an authentic voice would come to me.
Where do you like to read?
I have several spots. I read usually in the morning, in my kitchen at breakfast - a short reading time, usually poetry. I read in bed every night. I usually get in bed pretty early with a book, and I read until I can't prop my eyes open anymore - sometimes rather late. On weekends, I sit in a lounge chair on my balcony. I love to be outside when the weather's right. I can stay there pretty much all day.
What is your favorite word?
There are just so many beautiful words. In this particular novel, Handful's voice was compelling to me. She'd say, "I live on the scarce side of mercy." She has her own unique way of talking. I was often entranced by how she might go about saying things. Her words aren't typical. They're from another time and place.
Also because of this book, I love the word "flight." I love the word "arc." I think the word "freedom" is beautiful, not so much in its phonics, but just in the power of the word itself.
What is the first book you remember loving?
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I can't tell you how many times I've read it. I still have the first copy I read. I remember reading it as a girl, outside, under a Mimosa tree, just lying in the grass.
If you could recommend just one book, what would it be?
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, or To Kill a Mockingbird.
The novel that probably had the most impact on me, however, was The Awakening. Feminism is a huge motif in my latest book. It goes back to the roots of women's rights in this country, and the first sparks that ignited the path for women. Exploring what Sarah and Angelina Grimke accomplished was a way of highlighting the importance of a woman's right to find her voice in the public sphere - politically, socially, however she chooses, and not be confined to the domestic sphere. The Grimes linked women's rights to abolition. I was trying to explore the relation between race and gender.
Do you prefer print or e-books?
I prefer to read print books. Maybe I'm just a little old school. I do read e-books. Right now I have a book on my Kindle; I travel with it. I don't think it's just nostalgia or familiarity. As a writer, I work with abstractions all day long, every day. For fours years I worked on my computer with words, writing this novel. At the end of the day, I want to hold something concrete in my hand. There's something about the weight, substance, and concreteness of the words. They're visible, not floating around in the netherworld.
[CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article cited The Invention of Wings as Sue Monk Kidd's second book, when it is in fact her seventh.]