KATHRYN STOCKETT, carrying a bottle of wine in her purse, arrives alone at a Persian restaurant on Peachtree Street, slips her petite frame between the cramped tables, and sits with careful poise on the long expanse of black leather below the restaurant's plate glass windows. Despite the old, Southern heat bearing down on the pavement outside, the Chardonnay's still cold when she pulls it from her purse. She pours a glass and adds a splash of soda.
Despite her blond looks, her penetrating eyes, her striking, fit body, the 42-year-old author attracts no eyes in the restaurant and that seems to suit her. She keeps her mannerisms reserved and murmurs in a sweet Southern tone, uninterested in drawing the sort of hyped-up attention her best-selling debut novel, The Help, has been lavished with since its publication in 2009. She's comfortable and dry in conversation, just like that white wine spritzer. She's light but earnest, casually redirecting the discussion to any subject but the book, joking about her daughter, asking about the right way to eat the grape leaves appetizer, talking about something, anything, anything but the book.
Plenty has already been said about The Help, a sprawling novel narrated by three women living in Civil Rights-era Mississippi: Aibileen, a stoic, older black maid, Minny, a sharp-tongued, witty black maid, and Skeeter, a young, ambitious white writer. The paperback cover blares with quotes such as, "This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird" (NPR.org) and "The must-read choice of every book club in the country" (Huffington Post).
After starting the manuscript about a decade ago, having it rejected more than 50 times, selling more than a million copies in its first year, selling another million and another million (the count is now somewhere past five million copies sold), appearing on television and in magazine photo spreads and among the pages of countless newspapers, going on book tours, and writing essays about writing the book, it might be safe to assume that Stockett, too, has had an opportunity to say everything there is to say about The Help.
In her words, "It's so, ugh, played."
But there are contracts and expectations and foreign rights and translations ("39, I think? 40?" she asks) and a new press cycle for the book's fast-tracked DreamWorks film adaptation starring Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer, opening Aug. 10, and enough revenue coming off this thing to float a whole corner of the flailing publishing industry. She's part of a small club of authors — Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling among them — whose novels actually achieve the status of mass entertainment. The point being: Kathryn Stockett has to talk about The Help whether Kathryn Stockett wants to or not.
Tonight, picking lightly at a spread of appetizers with her fingers, Stockett acknowledges her success and then brushes it off, uninterested. She's burned-out on answering the same questions over and over. She's six months past deadline on her second book. She's sweet and friendly as can be, but Tate Taylor, her childhood best friend and director of The Help's film adaptation, summed up her current mood on the phone later, saying, "The truth is that she's busy as fuck. She doesn't need to have her ego stroked. She kind of doesn't give a shit."
After the lamb kabobs and saffron rice have arrived and the white wine spritzer has been refilled, she remarks, almost as an aside, "The best part is that I didn't have to cook it. Don't you think that way sometimes? The sheer pleasure of someone else making your meal for you," and then launches into the same spiel she's told to a thousand other journalists, about being homesick for Mississippi while living in Manhattan in the days after 9/11 and writing in the voice of Demetrie, the African-American domestic worker who raised her in lieu of her oft-absent parents, as a way of comforting herself. Stockett admits that writing in Demetrie's voice, inventing the character that would become Aibileen, was the first time she'd honestly questioned what life was like for the maid, what it meant that she had to use a separate bathroom in the household where she was supposedly "a part of the family."
In the novel, it's this line of questioning that spurs Skeeter to pitch her New York publishing contact an oral history examining the lives of African-American domestic workers: "Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it." The passage is like a big red arrow pointing back to the book saying, "HERE: This is what I'm trying to do with this book." What's ironic, of course, is that The Help isn't that oral history volume at all, but an imagining of it by a white author. Just below the narrative's surface is a complicated set of emotions — an adoration and nostalgia for the days of table linens and deviled eggs and perfectly ironed pleats existing simultaneously with a deep shame about the systematic racism and violent oppression used to keep that silver polished.
Despite the occasional comparisons from overeager critics, The Help is not To Kill A Mockingbird. It's too long, often running on and on about cute babies or dresses or the pressure from your mother to find a husband as a way to balance out the novel's heavier moments. The prose is often just passable, never stunning, occasionally clever. But Stockett does offer richly complex characters, precisely conveying the subtleties of their social engagements and obligations. This is particularly clear in the chapters narrated by Aibileen, who, at times, can express a lifetime of conflicted longings in what she chooses to not say aloud.