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Author Kathryn Stockett Giving a Voice to 'The Help'

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Ask Kathryn Stockett about Demetrie, the maid who helped raise her in 1970s Jackson, Miss., and the memories flow freely: the way Demetrie arrived six days a week for some 32 years before the first light to put on a pot of coffee and bake biscuits; the way she wore two pink rollers in the front of her hair and only took them out for church; and the way she stood a 9-year-old “Kitty”-awkward, insecure and struggling with her parents’ divorce-in front of a mirror and said, “Look at how beautiful you are. You’re so special.” But ask her about Demetrie’s own life outside of work and “it’s obvious how little I knew about her,” acknowledges Stockett, relaxing in the sleek living room of her newly renovated Atlanta home. For three decades, “I never once wondered what she was thinking.”

In 2001 Stockett, then working as a number-cruncher in New York City, grew homesick in the wake of 9/11. Her thoughts of home led her to remember Demetrie, who never had kids of her own and died when Stockett was 16. She began writing and found that her former caregiver’s voice came back “like playing a tape,” says Stockett in her pecan-pie-sweet accent. “I was surprised by how easily it came out.”

As book clubs across the country know, the result was The Help, Stockett’s 2009 novel about black maids in 1960s Jackson and the complex, intimate, unequal bond they shared with the white families who employed them. With more than five million copies in print and a new film based on the book garnering Oscar buzz, The Help (see page 39 for movie review) has transformed Stockett, 42, into a literary superstar. Having received 60 rejection letters before the book’s publication, “there was a real freedom in writing these characters,” she says, “because I didn’t think anyone was going to read it.”

But along with legions of readers has come controversy: Stockett has taken flack from some critics for her black characters’ heavy Southern dialect. “I was trying to draw a picture of a certain time and place,” she says. The novel has also sparked a lawsuit from Ablene Cooper, who works as a maid for Stockett’s brother in Jackson. Cooper claims that Stockett misappropriated her name and certain details of her life-one of The Help’s chief heroines is Aibileen Clark, who, like Cooper, lost her son; she is seeking damages of $75,000.(A hearing is set for Aug. 16.)

Of Cooper, Stockett says, “I met her, I think, twice.” She adds, “If I had known before the book was published that [Cooper] had lost her son, I would not have even used a name that started with the letter A.” (Stockett’s publisher has issued a statement calling the book “a work of fiction.”)

Lately Stockett has also been grappling with the end of her 10-year marriage to tech salesman Keith Rogers. Newly divorced, the exes share custody of their 8-year-old daughter Lila. “I’m motivated by two things: writing and Lila,” says Stockett, who is working on a follow-up novel, this time set in the Depression. But she is still enjoying the pinch-me moments that came with The Help’s success. “I had supper with Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg,” she says, beaming. Ever the proper Southerner, she adds with a laugh, “I was so bothered they didn’t take their hats off at the table!”

Despite her newfound wealth, Stockett says she is “adamant” that her daughter continue to attend public school. Lila also appears in the film, which was directed by the author’s childhood best friend Tate Taylor. “We were just two oddballs who circled around the nucleus of the normal people,” Taylor recalls. “We always stuck together in our quirky, creative spirit.” A literary kid, Stockett says the character of Skeeter (played by Emma Stone in the film) is not based on her: “I can’t convince people enough that this is something I made up.” Shooting the movie in Mississippi “was electrifying,” she says. “We were in a place we love, a place we’re ashamed of, a place we view as almost a character in the story.” The book and movie are clearly personal for both author and director. “I think this was another journey,” says Taylor, “we had to go on together.”

For Stockett, it’s been an extraordinary journey that would never have been possible without the early encouragement of one woman. Asked to reflect on Demetrie’s legacy, Stockett takes a long pause. “I would hope if she was alive today, she would see The Help as a thank-you,” she says. “That what she did meant something.”