This story appeared in the January 2014 issue of Naples Illustrated.
The deep yearning for a place to belong is a common thread in the human experience and a powerful theme Sue Monk Kidd returns to again and again in her best-selling novels.
Her latest work, The Invention of Wings (Viking, 2014), is inspired by historical figure Sarah Grimké. She was one of two real-life sisters who were among the earliest pioneers for women’s rights in early nineteenth-century Charleston, South Carolina. The powerfully stirring novel focuses on the relationship between Sarah and fictional urban slave Handful, who becomes her handmaid.
“A writer really shouldn’t compare her literary children, but for me this is my best work,” says Kidd, whose literary themes often focus on gender and race equality. “My characters are always trying to find that place of belonging. I was searching for that myself in my 20s.”
In the 1970s, Kidd had what many would consider an idyllic life: a husband, two toddlers, a station wagon and a dog. Yet she struggled with an intensifying restlessness. Ironically, she felt homesick in her own home.
“It grew over the years, the needing to express myself creatively through words,” Kidd says.
Marking a milestone in her life apparently stirred the courage to reveal herself. “I remember it was my thirtieth birthday. I walked into my kitchen where my family was sitting at breakfast and just announced: ‘I’m going to become a writer!’” says Kidd, now 65 and a resident of Marco Island. “I hadn’t planned to do it. It’s taking out your courage pieces at a time and then leaping off and jumping in over your head. I became a writer by really jumping in over my head, no doubt about it.”
In her journey as a writer, Kidd penned nonfiction for years, finding her voice in memoirs until she neared yet another milestone—one that would nudge her to turn inward once again.
“When I was approaching 50 it felt like my writing had kind of gone to seed, as if something had run its course. I wanted to become a novelist and I was trying to gather my clarity and courage to do that,” says Kidd, who then began taking trips with her daughter, Ann—traveling to Greece, Turkey and France. “We all have these passages where life takes new turns and we have to reimagine our lives or reinvent ourselves or see what else there is inside of us that wants to be expressed. I was at one of those places creatively.”
At 53, she published her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees (Penguin, 2003), which was widely lauded in literary circles and became an award-winning feature film in 2008.
In an interview, Kidd shares her insights on truth, courage and why the Paradise Coast just might find its way into her next literary work. Edited excerpts follow.
Finding a muse: The black Madonna is an iconic spiritual symbol I discovered when I was traveling. I was so entranced with her imagery and iconography that I began to study what she was about. She stands for resilience, strength, authority, courage, compassion and inclusion. She’s about no one being left out. She became very muse-like to me and I put her prominently in my novel, The Secret Life of Bees.
Her writing space: I have a room that’s floor-to-ceiling books around the walls and I have images of black Madonnas, besides a vase of flowers and an array of seashells. I also have rocks from where I have traveled that mean something to me. One is from Sarah Grimké’s graveside when I visited her resting place. There are also postcards of artistic pieces from the Louvre. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” is a favorite piece. It was very inspiring to see that graceful flow with her wings behind her.
Feather figure: I’ve been collecting feathers for many years. I have owl feathers, osprey feathers and all kinds of feathers that are reminders of that part of our life that wants to be free—that wants to soar. I’m sure that is the reason I had feather collectors turn up in my novels.
Memorable quote: “Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows,” by poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I believe creativity comes from this deep place inside of us that he’s speaking about. There’s so much our conscious mind can do, but it’s this deeper place that can create and cause our work to soar in a different, new way
What matters: One of the guiding things in my life is being true to myself. To even understand what our truth is can be quite an endeavor, and not parrot someone else’s truth that belongs to a family, friend, religion or political party.
On courage: I always wanted to write from my most authentic voice, to tell the truth of my experience and then express that truth from my imagination. That always took a kind of courage. I don’t leap out of airplanes and skydive but I always try to take creative risks and dare what I can with my work and my life, trying to evolve it.
Daily ritual: My husband and I watch the sunrise and I usually take a 45-minute walk along the Gulf. I love the light in the morning and the rhythm of the waves. The sounds, the smells, and the sensuality of this place where the Gulf touches the beach—I love that edge of life. It has to do with nurturing a contemplative environment that can fuel my work.
On writing with her daughter: It was one of the best experiences of my life to write Traveling with Pomegranates (Penguin, 2010) with Ann (pictured right). She worked for years on it and one day she called and said, “Mom, would you like to write this book with me? I’m only telling half the story.” She wanted my voice in the book. Of course, I leaped at it. It’s a mother-daughter story as well as a travel book, but it’s also the story of me becoming an older woman trying to kind of re-find my creative bearings, which I had lost at that point. And Ann at the other end of life trying to set out and find her way.
Next chapter: While I probably won’t be thinking about a new book until the summer, I would be surprised if it didn’t have connections to Florida. An important part of my life is the place I’m in. I want to relate to that place and write about that place.
Favorite spots on Marco Island: I love to sit out on the dock at Snook’s [Snook Inn] and watch the dolphins and eat shrimp. I enjoy Quinn’s at the Marriott on the beach, where I just walk the beach and enjoy the activities around there. At any moment we can see dolphins outside of our windows and manatees, and ospreys flying and the bird life. These things are magical.