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Kathryn Stockett: Life in the belle jar 

Can the best-selling, anxious, overrated, vulgar, talented, burned-out author Help herself?

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DRESSING THE PART: The Help's massive success landed Stockett a spot in a glammed-up Vanity Fair photo spread last February. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • DRESSING THE PART: The Help's massive success landed Stockett a spot in a glammed-up Vanity Fair photo spread last February.

The Persian restaurant is playing some sort of bland piano tune, the kind of light plinking and plunking that blends in with the rattle and chime of wine glasses. Stockett has eaten little of her food. Already in the middle of one story, she interrupts herself, saying, "It's an awful, awful feeling to think that you've made money — and you can print this if you want — to think that you're benefitting from somebody else's loss. It's a terrible, guilty feeling. I give a lot of money away."

Stockett's critics often point to the fact that she's a white woman from a well-to-do family as a way of criticizing her for writing from the perspective of working-class black characters. Stockett herself acknowledges her own anxieties about this in an afterward to the book, saying, "I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person." It is a line few authors cross — writing across race — and Stockett articulates that precisely, writing, "I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand."

This is what makes The Help a daring, compelling failure. This impossible task — the attempt at understanding a human that is not yourself — is at the heart of what fiction aims for. It is always a lie, but, we hope, an insightful lie, a lie that tells something other than itself. What distinguishes Stockett's book is that it lies in a fraught but ambitious way.

Earlier this year, Stockett was sued for unpermitted appropriation by Ablene Cooper, a maid employed by Stockett's older brother. Aside from the obvious similarity in name, Ablene bears some biographical resemblance to the Aibileen of the book. But coverage of the lawsuit in the New York Times and on Salon.com puts it in a more ambiguous light, suggesting that the lawsuit's origins may reside more with Stockett's family than the maid.

In either case, Stockett's unable to comment on the pending lawsuit, and responds instead by speaking in stiffly kind but vague terms about her brother, noting that they are "different" but that he is a "good" person.

When Stockett returns to the routine questions about the book, her eyes glaze over only a little bit, her voice changes just enough to explain how many times she's told it, and, yet, one can't help but notice that her spiel is a truly earnest story for her, despite the fact that being earnest gets to be difficult when it's your professional routine. Routine, it is. Try to redirect her when she's in this zone, and she'll just interrupt and say, "Oh, no, I was just going to tell you the same story I tell everybody."

Stockett promised The Help's film rights to Taylor when it was still a manuscript, languishing in rejections, and he was a struggling filmmaker. Despite the book's massive success, Stockett kept her word and didn't pass the project off to a big-name director.

At dinner, Stockett says she still hasn't seen the film, and that she had little do with the making of it. On the phone, Taylor explains, saying, "Do you cook? You know how when you spend all day making this great meal and then you don't even give a shit about eating it? She didn't want that to happen."

Stockett plays along for as long as it takes to get through the same five damn questions that have been asked for the past three damn years, until at some point during the meal — somewhere around the tired questions about how Skeeter moves to New York just like Stockett did and how she sure does resemble her and how much exactly is her and how much is made up — she will just shake her head and check her wine glass and look down as if to say, "Don't you know how much this conversation has already been done?" She won't respond with anything about growing up in Mississippi and aspiring to be a writer or how she had to pay her dues with rejections just like Skeeter. Instead, she'll just say, "I think I might be all of [the characters], I think I might even be the worst ones."

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