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The Secret Life of Bees: Sue Monk Kidd

By Marie Morreale | null null , null
Sue Monk Kidd is the author of <i>The Secret Life of Bees</i>. (Photo: ©Sigrid Estrada)<br />
Sue Monk Kidd is the author of The Secret Life of Bees. (Photo: ©Sigrid Estrada)

Scholastic News Online: Where did the idea for The Secret Life of Bees originate?
Sue Monk Kidd: I think it originated out of a combination of imagination and a little bit of my childhood memories. I actually grew up in a house in which bees lived in one of the walls, and they lived there 18 years, in fact, so it wasn't a fleeting thing. I mean, they really were a part of my experience growing up in the south, and it's a very eccentric situation—probably a hive of around 50,000 bees or so living in a wall of your house, but that was the case. It was an older country house, and the honey actually used to seep out the cracks in the wall in that room and run down in a puddle on the floor, in little puddles. And I can remember my mother going in and cleaning all that up before a guest would come. She was quite smart—she turned that room into a guest bedroom. But, you know, it was that kind of thing that lives in a writer. I suppose it surfaces at some point, and it was really all sparked by that memory. And it brought to mind a girl around fourteen or so who would lie in bed at night, and bees would come out of the wall and fly around the room. And it sort of really started in that house where I grew up.

SNO: What part of the south did you grow up in?
Sue: I grew up in Georgia in a small town in the southwest corner of Georgia, actually, called Sylvester. And you'll recognize a little part of that town's name in the book, where Lily grows up. She grows up in Sylvan, so I just sort of shortened that. And it was a little nod, I suppose, to my hometown, where my parents still live. They're in their 80s, and they are there, and a lot of my family's still there. And I think I mimed that town enormously for this book.

SNO: Does your family still have the bee house?
Sue: No, they left that bee house long after I left home and went to college and actually was married. So, you know, we lived there a very long time, but it's not longer… and I don't know if the bees are still there or not. But the house still is.

SNO: Did that ever spark an interest in bees?
Sue: Well, it's certainly full of nostalgia for me, but it never really went as far as to make me even dream of becoming a beekeeper. All I knew about bees when I started to write The Secret Life of Bees was that they can live in a wall of your house, and that they make this incredible thing that I loved. I just can't imagine anyone not loving honey. And when I was writing the novel, I used to just gorge on honey. I would crave honey when I was writing it because, I suppose, of the stories. But yeah, I think it did have a little bit of a nostalgic feeling for me, the bees. And they are incredibly enthralling creatures. I mean, they're amazing, and I became somewhat caught in the spell of bees and honey-making. And there's brilliant imagery and symbolism in all of that—that, you know, a writer's lucky they can catch some of.

SNO: In terms of creating characters, in particular these characters, do you write a profile of each character before you start developing a plot? What is your process?
Sue: The Secret Life of Bees was my first novel, so I had no process. I was flying by the seat of my pants, as they say, trying to understand how I as a novelist would work with story. So I learned a great deal as I went through all of that, and it took me almost three years to write this book. So I had a good long time to try and figure some of this out. But I began, really, with an image of that girl lying in bed, and that image would not go away. And I have found that most of my work seems to start with a very vivid image that my imagination wants to play with. And, so, I tend to ask questions about that image first and to let it sprout stories, so to speak. And I would say, who is this girl? In other words, who is my character? And what does she want? And that for me, as a novelist, is the seminal question—what does my character want? And the minute I got that this girl was Lily Melissa Owens and that what she wanted more than anything was her mother who had died. She was a motherless girl. I felt like then the story had really begun. And I do write character sketches for a while. I've waited for these characters to begin to appear in my head. And the next one was Rosaleen, Lily's caretaker, and then came her father T. Ray. And then I began to try to sit down and capture some of their character on paper. But they just wouldn't stay with it, you know, they had minds of their own. So after, I start revising it.

SNO: Young aspiring writers—do you have any kind of advice for them?
Sue: Well, I never know how to give advice to a writer because there's so much you could say, and it's hard to translate your own experience. But of course, I always try. The main thing that I usually end up saying is to read a lot. To read a great deal and to learn from that. And the other thing is to really trust your own experience, your own vision, what comes from inside of you as you work. So it's something that requires a great deal of belief in yourself and a willingness to just stay with it and not expect being published right away.

SNO: Are there any specific books that you would recommend an aspiring writer to read?
Sue: There's a number of good books for writers, of course. One thinks of Annie Lamott's Bird By Bird. There're several really wonderful books of course. There's an old book that I read, and reread, called Becoming a Writer. I hope it's still in print. I think it can still be found—by Dorothea Brande. Because it deals with that part of writing that no one ever writes about, that part that has to do with the soul and that passion to do it and to follow that path I was mentioning about, going inside one's self, finding one's own [voice]. But, you know, when I was first starting, mostly what I read was fiction. And when I was young, there were two books that probably were very formative for me. I mean, I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer. One was The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and I know a lot of students read that in some recommended list in high school. And the other one was Thoreau's Walden. And it's obviously not fiction, but it is someone writing from the soul out of the depth of their experiences. It is very narrative memoir to me. But those two things affected me a lot. I think a young writer has to find those works that particularly speak to them.

SNO: Do you have any suggestion of a writing activity or prompt that you think would be good for students, to inspire their creativity?
Sue: Actually, I do, and it surprises me that I do because that's a hard question. I wrote The Secret Life of Bees this way. At first, I hesitated to tell people this because it sounds like an incredibly simple process, almost like arts and crafts or something, but I do believe in the power of images to impact story and to guide us if they're coming from within. So one thing I did—and I think students could find this really evocative—is to create a collage. And I started once I had the image of the girl, and those characters started to just begin to appear. Even before I wrote the character sketches and started to think of the plot, I created this big collage. And I spent weeks, just a ridiculous amount of time on it in which I would comb through old magazines and catalogs and postcards and photographs, just stuff I had collected, and I picked out or cut out anything that I gravitated to. I didn't have to understand what it meant or how it might fit in the story, but if it sparked something in me, I cut it out. And then I sort of weeded those down, and I created this collage. That collage, believe it or not, became like a little seed out of which so much of the story grew. That is how I came up with the characters of August, May, and June, this trio of sisters. That's where the pink house came from. It's where May's wailing wall came from. Just a lot of things that I had not conjured up rationally came out of that collage as I sort of looked at it and imagined what it could be. So, you know, I think if you come up with a journal of a story and then create a collage and then begin to work with it as you write... Now, everything in the collage didn't end up in the novel, but significant things did.

Be sure to check out the Secret Life of Bees Special Report for interviews with the cast of the hit movie based on Sue Monk Kidd's book!

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