Big hair is in the offing as Southern belle Kathryn Stockett takes her seat in an Atlanta hair salon, getting primped for a Glamour magazine photo shoot with American sweetheart Katie Couric while simultaneously handling a long-distance call from Canada with the impeccable courtesy that every proper young lady growing up on the right side of the tracks in green and pleasant Jackson, Miss., absorbed from birth. Along with the perky drawl that flows through the phone line like the scent of magnolia on a summer breeze.
To say that Stockett is the most popular author to come out of Jackson since Eudora Welty almost diminishes her achievement: Over the past two years, Stockett, 41, has sold 2.5 million hardcover copies of her first novel, The Help, and the new paperback edition landed at No. 2 on The New York Times bestseller list within moments of its release this spring. With a film version headed by an A-list cast and set to be released by DreamWorks Studios this summer, Stockett's new take on the Old South is a cultural phenomenon.
And what makes it succeed is its violation of all the rules that framed the budding belle's youth. Stockett ticks those rules off as the scissors fly. "You don't walk with a cigarette. You cross your legs when you're sitting. And you never discuss race or anything related to it," she says, going on to explain that she has since broken all the rules - including "the cigarette and sitting with my legs splayed."
Oh my gosh.
"At the same time!" she exclaims.
But Stockett's foremost transgression - and greatest success - is the discussion of race she dramatizes in The Help, which dares to imagine the civil rights era through the eyes and ears of the black maids employed in the genteel white households of her hometown. Although Jackson was the site of major disturbances during that time, including the assassination of black activist Medgar Evers, The Help is an intimate story of ordinary women on both sides of the colour barrier, led by two indomitable black maids, quietly and sometimes comically struggling to achieve change.
But intimate does not mean shy: While Stockett's main character, Skeeter Phelan, risks the wrath of her Junior League friends by reverse-crossing the colour bar, the author herself tweaks contemporary sensibilities not only by adopting the maids' points of view, but also by writing their dialogue in a down-home dialect.
That effort was sufficiently realistic that Stockett's own brother's long-serving maid - with her employer's encouragement - recently sued the author for appropriating and misrepresenting her character. Stockett refuses to discuss the lawsuit, saying only that the character was strictly fictional, and she winces in anticipation of future attacks. "I'm still waiting for the jack-in-the-box to pop," she says, "for somebody to corner me and say everything I say in my own head - that I had no right to do this."
In fact, some have done that, accusing the author of the very contemporary sin of cultural appropriation. But when it comes, Stockett says, the criticism is sometimes a relief. "I do wish that people talked about the subject of race, especially in the South," she says. "It's just a really hard and uncomfortable topic."
No such ambitions drove the author when she first began writing the story, which was motivated in part by nostalgia for the maid who had helped raise her in the 1970s. "I felt like if I wanted to hear her again - she died when I was just 16 - the fastest way to do that was to start writing in her voice," Stockett says. "Honestly, I didn't think anyone was going to read the story."
As a result, she wrote with "abandon," letting her feelings lead her. It was only much later, when she decided to try publishing what had become a full-blown novel, that she started to get "very nervous that I had crossed a line that should never be crossed in America."
To help cover her tracks over that line, Stockett recruited an actress friend, Octavia Spencer, to participate in her first book tour. "I would read the white parts and she would read the black parts and we had a lot of fun," Stockett says, adding that Spencer's free spirit was the inspiration for Minnie, one of her two black heroines. "She got it. She grew up in Alabama and she understood that world probably better than we do."
Despite the heartfelt origins of her first novel, Stockett is no naïf. After graduating from the University of Alabama, she spent 16 years in New York working as a business consultant to the magazine industry - a journey Skeeter parallels in The Help. For the author, as for Skeeter, seeing beyond Mississippi was a revelation. "It took me a couple of years before I realized how absurd the box was that I had been living in," she says. "Had I never left Mississippi, I don't think I would have had that awakening."
But staying true to Mississippi was at the top of her mind as the popularity of her novel exploded and Hollywood beckoned. Resisting the initial embrace, Stockett insisted on selling the film rights for The Help to her childhood friend, actor and director Tate Taylor, who went on to write the script. "I absolutely loved that somebody who understood that lifestyle could tell the story for me," Stockett says. "I just knew he would get it right."
And she had her way: Scheduled to be released in August, the film version of The Help, starring Emma Stone and Viola Davis, is Taylor's first major feature - with Spencer in the made-for-her role of Minnie.
Currently living in Atlanta with her husband and daughter, Stockett is doing her best to keep writing as her two-year book tour ascends even greater heights with the paperback launch. She is now writing about women in the Depression - not about race explicitly but, once again, about "the things that divide us," the natural métier of a Southern belle gone bad.
"I don't plan this stuff," she insists. "But knowing me, it will probably be pretty controversial. I can't stay out of it!"
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