Early on, there were signs that the Chicago Tribune Author Talks program with Kathryn Stockett, who crafted the best-selling novel "The Help," would be an event. A large literary happening, in fact.
An early indicator: Tickets sold out in a matter of days.
It's a story of two black maids in the Jackson, Miss., of 1962 who find themselves joining a young white socialite as she takes on writing the true story of what it's like to work as a black maid in the South's white homes. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights era, though, the book has carried a larger symbolism, becoming the framework of a national conversation about race, Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor told the audience in her introduction.
First, Liz and Kathryn just spoke generally about "The Help" and how Kathryn came to write it. At the heart of her story-telling, Kathryn told the crowd, was a conviction that it is important for all of us to simply wonder what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.
That has been a controversial aspect of the novel's time in the limelight, she acknowledged. Some people see it as a dead-on portrayal of the 1960s Mississippi; others are critical of the notion that a white writer presents the story in the voice of black women. And some people find it thought-provoking and shame-producing as they examine their own lives growing up in the Deep South half a century ago.
"Race is sticky in the United States," Kathryn observed. "No one wants to talk about it.&"
The audience questions went further:
-- Advice for aspiring writers? Read, Kathryn said. A lot.
-- Her next book? It's already overdue. She hasn't written it yet but described being intrigued by Mississippi in the '20s and '30s. "I am just sick I missed the Depression," she noted, launching into a tale of how she enjoys conjuring up a story for a particular type of group of women who had no skills to speak of and yet "come up with a unique way to earn a living." Ahem.
-- The movie based on the book? Her longtime friend has developed the screenplay, which was shot in Mississippi and is due out in August.
-- A teacher asked for the names of books that inspire her. Kathryn listed several current favorites, such as "The Paris Wife" and ';The Unbroken" the latter a new offering from Laura Hillenbrand, whose "Seabiscuit" was wildly popular as both a book and a movie.
She loves Eudora Welty's work, especially because her grandaddy (to whom she dedicates "The Help") was great friends with the Mississippi writer. Kathryn also cited plays by Beth Henley, calling herself a fan of much of her work. But famed author William Faulkner, not so much.
-- Did the book publisher change the title? Ha. Well, it went from "Help" to "The Help."
-- How do the people in Jackson, Miss., like your book? "Some like it better than others."
Afterward, people lined up with their book copies for autographs and photographs. And, they talked and talked about the book and the author.
My informal, ad hoc reviewers of the evening festivities: Jill Holsclaw, Holly Vanzant and Lea Ann Fracasso. The three friends are all lawyers and great readers.
Lea Ann: "This is the first book that everybody in our book club has actually read," alluding to one of the pitfalls of book clubs in which the socializing can sometimes overrun the book focus. They have moved on to the next level of book love, sharing their copies with family and friends.
They found the issue of race intriguing, partly because they have such different perspectives influenced by their own personal geography.
Jill found herself paying close attention to Kathryn Stockett's Southern drawl, sweetly smoothing over even the sharpest edge of an answer. It occurred to her that for some reason, she read the book from her own Midwestern grounding. "Everyone I'm around is from the Midwest, and that's how I read and heard Skeeter's voice," she said, referring to the book's protagonist author. Now, she has a new prism to consider and can imagine Kathryn's accent for a different shading.
However, Lea Ann's touchstone was her parents longtime interest in the Civil Rights era, which she finds intriguing because they grew up in Canada and looked across the border to an experience they could barely fathom. And Holly has lived in different states. Colorado has a different mix of people and racial identities, as does Florida. Place matters, they all agree.