September 28th, 2007 07:00 EST
Judyth Piazza chats with Sue Monk Kid, Author of FirstLight
Sue Monk Kidd was born and raised in the tiny town of Sylvester, Georgia, which is tucked among the pinelands and red fields of Southwest Georgia, a place she has lovingly referred to it as "an enduring somewhere." Her writing has been deeply influenced by place, and she mined her experiences of growing up in Sylvester as she wrote The Secret Life of Bees, her first novel.
Sue discovered her longing to be a writer when she was a child listening to her father`s imaginative stories. In adolescence, encouraged by English teachers who described her as a "born writer," she began writing her own stories, as well as keeping prolific journals that chronicled her experiences, both internal and external, a practice she has continued throughout her life. Two books which she read at the age of fifteen- Thoreau`s spiritual memoir, Walden and Kate Chopin`s novel, The Awakening- had a deep impact on her and would foreshadow the course she herself would eventually take as a writer: writing spiritual memoir and novels.
Her hope for a career in writing was not without an early detour, however. In what Sue has called an "inexplicable twist that is partly due to a failure of courage and partly due to the cultural climate of the South in 1966," she chose a more traditional path when it came time to go to college. She majored in nursing and graduated in 1970 from Texas Christian University with a B.S. degree, then worked throughout her twenties as a registered nurse on surgical and pediatric hospital units and as a college nursing instructor. During that time, she married Sanford (Sandy) Kidd, a graduate student in theology, and they had two children, Bob and Ann.
Shortly before Sue turned thirty the pull to writing returned. She was living in Anderson, South Carolina where her husband Sandy was teaching at a small liberal arts college. She enrolled in writing classes with the intention of writing fiction, but was soon diverted to non-fiction when a personal essay she wrote for class was published in Guideposts Magazine and reprinted in Readers Digest. Wanting to help support her family, she began a career as a freelancer, writing personal experience articles, most of them inspirational and art of living pieces.
Sue found immediate success as a freelancer, becoming a Contributing Editor at Guideposts. It was there she claims to have cut her writing teeth, studying the craft of fiction- character, plot, dialogue, etc- in order to write her non-fiction narratives, and gradually finding her own unique voice and style. She published several hundred articles during her freelance days, primarily in Guideposts Magazine, but in numerous other publications, newspapers and journals.
It was during Sue`s thirties that she began to experience an intellectual and spiritual flowering. She embarked on a serious study of the classics of Western spirituality, philosophy, depth psychology and mythology, while also reading voluminous amounts of literary fiction. She became deeply influenced by work of the monk and poet, Thomas Merton and Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung, which would impact her writing in the years ahead.
Her first book was a spiritual memoir describing her advent into contemplative Christian spirituality: God`s Joyful Surprise, published by Harper SanFrancisco in 1988. Her second book, When the Heart Waits, published by Harper SanFrancisco in 1990, was met with critical acclaim and revealed a deepening of Sue`s voice. Rooted in contemplative spirituality, the memoir recounts her intense and vivid spiritual transformation.
Her most powerful awakening, however, still lay ahead of her. While in her early forties, Sue`s explorations and study took an unexpected turn into feminist theology. The result was The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, published in 1996 by Harper SanFrancisco. This bold and highly successfully memoir had a groundbreaking effect within religious circles, evoking an astonishingly passionate response.
Another unforeseen shift unfolded during Sue`s forties as her desire to write fiction returned. Feeling, by her own account, somewhat intimidated by the idea of pursing her original dream, she nevertheless took the leap, enrolling in a graduate writing course at Emory University, and studying at Sewanee, Bread Loaf and other writers` conferences. She began by writing and publishing short stories in small literary journals. Soon she was garnering awards for her short fiction. (A list of Sue`s writing awards is compiled below)
In 1997 she began writing her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and worked on it for the next three and a half years. Published by Viking in 2002, it became a genuine literary phenomenon. A powerful story of coming-of- age, race-relations, the ability of love to transform our lives and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine, the novel tells the story of a fourteen year old Lily, who runs away with her black housekeeper in 1964 in South Carolina and the sanctuary they both find in the home of three eccentric beekeeping sisters.
The Secret Life of Bees has sold more than 4.5 million copies, spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list and been published in more than 23 languages. It was awarded the 2004 Book Sense Paperback book of the Year, nominated for the Orange Prize in England and chosen as Good Morning America`s Read This! Book Club pick. Taught widely now in college and high school classrooms, The Secret Life of Bees is fast becoming a modern classic. It has been produced on stage in New York by The American Place Theater and is being adapted into a movie.
Sue`s second novel, The Mermaid Chair, has sold more than 1.7 million copies since its publication in the Spring of 2005. It explores a woman`s pilgrimage to self-belonging, the inner life of mid life marriage, and the little known region in the female soul where the sacred and the erotic intersect. Set on a South Carolina barrier island, it tells the beautiful and haunting story of 42 year old Jessie Sullivan, a married woman who falls in love with a Benedictine monk and the crisis and self-awakening this ignites. The Mermaid Chair reached the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list soon after publication and remained on the hardcover and paperback list for nine months. Winner of the 2005 Quill Award for General Fiction, the novel is being translated into 23 languages and was produced as a television movie by Lifetime.
In the Fall of 2006, a collection of Sue`s early writings was released in harcover by Guideposts Books and was published by Penguin in paperback on September 25, 2007. Titled Firstlight, the book is a compilation of inspirational stories, spiritual essays, and meditations that Sue wrote for a little over a decade- from the age of thirty until she was around forty-two- and which offers an intimate glimpse into her formative years as a writer and a spiritual seeker. The book, which debuted on the New York Times extended bestseller list and was a book club selection for Spirituality and Health magazine, is being translated into several languages and has over 200,000 copies in print.
Sue serves on the board of advisors for Poets & Writers, Inc. and works to support their efforts for the literary arts and their advocacy for emerging writers. She is Writer in Residence at The Sophia Institute in Charleston. To see a list of programs: www.TheSophiaInstitute.org.
Today Sue lives beside a salt marsh near Charleston, South Carolina with her husband Sandy and their black lab, Lily. She writes in a book-lined, upstairs study where she can look out at the tidal creeks and marsh birds. She is at work on a new book.
For More Information: http://www.suemonkkidd.com/