Sue Monk Kidd will return to Charleston this week to talk about her new novel, “The Invention of Wings,” which is based in part on the life of Sarah Grimke. She spoke recently about the sisters and their legacy.
Q: How long did you live in Charleston before learning about the Grimke sisters?
A: It had to be at least seven years until I knew about them. ... I do think that was rather a failure on my own part, but it does speak to the idea that there are a lot of women who kind of fall through the cracks as far as their contributions to history.
Q: Did you do more research for “The Invention of Wings” than for any of your two previous novels?
A: It was absolutely the most research I’ve done. I was living in Charleston during my research, and, of course, that was ground zero for my research. ... I think the thing that motivated my research was that I was very daunted by what I was doing. To take on a topic like American slavery is not something to be done very lightly. I wanted to make sure I had a real grasp and understanding of the time.
Q: What struck you the most from all that reading?
A: My whole inspiration for this book was Sarah and Angelina Grimke. I was truly awed by their life and wanted to tell their story. And when I started reading about them, here was this enslaved girl in Sarah’s life, who was her companion, euphemistically called her “waiting maid.” She didn’t live long. She died young. ... My first thought was, “Oh, here’s the other half of this story. I want to bring it to life again.”
Q: Some might consider historical fiction an oxymoron. How did you balance the two?
A: I struggled initially in trying to write Sarah in her voice and in her life, because I wanted to be respectful of her life and history and what she really did. So I began to approach it like I was a biographer or historian, but that didn’t work very well. It was only when I could give myself permission to allow her to go off script a little bit that she came alive for me. This novel is a blend of fact and fiction.
Q: What was your hope for the novel?
A: Toni Morrison, when she was writing “Beloved,” said her desire was to make history personal. When I read that, I said that is absolutely what I’m aspiring to here. I wanted very much for people to have an empathetic experience of this, of what it might have felt like to be an enslaved person in Charleston in the early 19th century or what it might have felt like to have been Sarah Grimke, who ... as a woman is severely limited by what she can do. She has her own quest for freedom in this book as well.
Q: What are your thoughts as this week’s public events honoring the Grimke sisters?
A: I think this is really thrilling to see the city embracing Sarah and Angelina in this very official and very public way. I think it will allow us to have a conversation about those two women and what they did. They didn’t betray Charleston. They were probably two of the best female incendiaries we had coming out of Charleston. They really lit a fuse, and it was extraordinary.
Q: How would you summarize the sisters’ biggest contribution?
A: Of course, they were the first female abolition agents in America. That’s no small thing. They were carrying on this great public crusade for abolition, and they outdid the abolitionists.
They not only were for freeing the slaves immediately but they were for racial equality. They were way ahead of many abolitionists in that regard. These were women very much ahead of their time, but I am equally impressed by their stands for women’s rights.
Long before Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, they were out there taking the first blows about women speaking in the public sphere.
Q: Talk about your family’s choice to move from here.
A: It was very hard to leave actually, but my husband and I made a decision almost five years ago to simplify our lives a bit and to downsize and to come to our place here in southwest Florida, knowing that Charleston would be there and we could return.
I wrote most of the book after I left ... and it gave me a kind of space in a way to write about Charleston from a free place because of the distance. Which seems important in retrospect, though I didn’t really think about it at the time because I feel so strongly about Charleston. It’s the most soulful place that I know of.
Moving to Florida from Charleston, in retrospect, allowed me a way to walk a very fine line to portray the paradox of Charleston, which is its great luminosity and its great darkness. And that’s the task of a writer: to be able to tell both sides of the place. So maybe moving did give me some space to do that in a way, but it will be wonderful to return next week.