Success was banging on her door, but Sue Monk Kidd wasn't opening it up, until one night when she was alone in a Boston hotel.
Watching the quiz show Jeopardy, she knew the answer to a $600 question was "bees," and it referred to her debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees. Monk Kidd hollered out the answer, as did a contestant on the show. She began comprehending that her creation was part of mainstream American life.
"I was just going to have to step up and take this in," she said. "The only problem is then you have to follow it up."
Dressed in black and with short, dark hair, Monk Kidd last night charmed a sell-out audience of 900, nearly all female. She spoke in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater as part of the Authors! Authors! series co-sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. Bees and her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, were both inspired by pictures that lodged in her mind.
"How novels start for me is a particularly vivid image that wants to take root in my imagination," said Monk Kidd, 57, of Charleston, S.C. The image for her 2002 word-of-mouth bestseller Bees grew out of her husband, Sandy Kidd, telling friends about his first overnight visit to her parents' country home in rural Georgia. Bees lived in the walls of the guest room where he tried to sleep, and the hive was so large that the walls vibrated with their activity.
"When he told that story, I began to picture an adolescent girl who was lying in her bed at night and bees were flying around her room," she said. "Who is this girl and what does she want? Those are the central questions a novelist must ask."
The Mermaid Chair, her 2005 novel about a 42-year-old woman, in midlife marriage who has "become lost in the small spaces of her life," began with a friend's description of an old wooden chair into which a mermaid was carved, in a little church in Cornwall, England. A mermaid symbolizes sensual urges that swim beneath the surface, and a mermaid in church suggests dualities, such as above and below, the sensual life and God.
"How do you reconcile all these things?" Written in intimate first-person, the book was her attempt to answer a question that befuddled even Sigmund Freud: What do women want?
"A woman wants love and freedom and she wants them at the same time," she said. By freedom, she means self-realization, finding one's substance, one's inner authority, one's voice.
Bees will be made into a motion picture and Mermaid into a television movie. She is writing a book with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, about their travels and spiritual journeys, to be published in early 2007. And she's mulling an idea for a novel. "I think I'll incubate it for a year."
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