Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City, where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. The Help is her first novel. Here she talks with novelist Sarah Blake about her experiences writing The Postmistress.
Kathryn Stockett: I should start by saying that I am honored to be on the same page with you—I loved The Postmistress. The book is so complex, it gives you so much to think about and discuss. My first question to you is, how did the book come about? What made you start writing it?
Sarah Blake: Thanks so much, Kathryn—and I'd like to lob those kind words right back at you; it's a tremendous thrill for me to be in conversation with the author of The Help.
The Postmistress began with a picture that sprang into my head one day, of a woman sorting the mail in the back of a post office, quietly slipping a letter into her pocket instead of delivering it. Immediately, questions flooded forward: Whose letter was it? Why on earth would she choose to pocket it? What havoc would be wreaked by not delivering a letter? As I answered those questions, Emma and Will and their love story, and the workings of the small town in which Iris was the center, came to life. One hundred pages into that draft, Frankie Bard arrived on the bus, out of the blue. I had no idea who she was or why she was there, except that one character referred to her as a war correspondent without a war. That was interesting, I thought. By this time I had decided to set the novel in the late thirties, early forties. It was 2001 and I was living in Washington, D.C., after the attacks of 9/11, and I was very preoccupied with trying to make sense of what was happening around me. Were we in danger? Would we go to war? The parallels between that uncertain time and the time before the United States entered World War II resonated with me, and what was a novel about accident and fate and the overlapping of lives deepened into a novel with war as its backdrop, which asked questions about how we understand ourselves to be in a historical moment and what we do when we are called to it.
Kathryn Stockett: Your book features three different women. From a logistical standpoint, did you find it hard to pull off the different points of view? I know this is something I spend a lot of time on in my work—making sure the voices are distinct and also very much true to the different characters.
Sarah Blake: To be honest, with this novel, the challenge was trying to keep each of these women in line, since each one threatened at some point or another to run away with the story! It took eight years for this story to become the novel you have in your hands, and in large part that's because with the introduction of each character, I found myself going off and following an individual story, traveling further and further from a workable plot. By the time I had finished, I had written three separate novels, one for each of the three women—complete with love affairs, whole families, other towns—and the challenge came not in trying to keep them distinct, but in trying to figure out how to weave their stories together.
Kathryn Stockett: Who is your favorite character, and why?
Sarah Blake: I'm not sure I can answer that, since there are parts of each of these women I admire, and parts of each of them I don't like. They are all broken in an essential way—a way I find incredibly interesting. When a reporter finds she cannot tell a story and a postmaster finds herself unable to pass along a letter, the moments they have arrived at as characters are compelling. Mrs. Cripps was certainly the most fun to write—she didn’t have to carry too much weight in the telling of the story, and she was such a nosy parker it was fun to write her lines.
Kathryn Stockett: Is there a character in The Postmistress with whom you identify most? (And if you have been having trysts with good-looking soldiers in dark alleyways, please share!)
Sarah Blake: Oh, there are bits of me in all three women: certainly Frankie's rage and sorrow, the desire to get the story (something I despaired of often in the eight years of writing); Iris's love of order; and Emma's feeling of invisibility, her longing for the sense that someone would watch over her.
Kathryn Stockett: The most haunting scenes for me—and there were many—were those of Frankie on the train with Thomas and of the mother and child on the train platform. How did these scenes come about? Were they difficult to write?
Sarah Blake: Much of the drive to write the book had to do with my own attempt to write my way toward understanding the sudden, final breaks that crack into our lives, in the form of accidents, death, other irrevocable events. I have two sons, and while it is impossible for me to imagine putting them on a train by themselves, with nothing but paper to send them to safety, it was easy to conjure feelings of despair and heartbreak. The book is full of mothers and sons being torn apart by childbirth, bombs, and visas; but the last parting—the mother embracing her boy in the train car with Frankie—was probably the most difficult to write. It's the hardest to comprehend, and yet it happened all the time, saying good-bye, knowingly, possibly forever.
Kathryn Stockett: What research did you do for historical accuracy? You seem to have really nailed the time period.
Sarah Blake: Thank you. I'm glad it feels credible. I read many books on the history of World War II, pored through Life magazines from 1939 to 1945 for a sense of how much things cost and what they looked like, read Federal Writers Project interviews with all types of people living on Cape Cod in the 1930s, watched movies made in 1940 and 1941 (my favorite is The Letter with Bette Davis) in order to get the rhythms of idiomatic speech. I also spent many hours at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and at the Radio & Television Museum in Bowie, Maryland.
(Photo of Kathryn Stockett © Kem Lee)
From Publishers Weekly
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