Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Secret Life of Bees
While writing The Secret Life of Bees, I kept a quotation framed on my desk, some words by Leo Tolstoy:
If I were told that what I should write would be read in twenty years’ time by those who are now children and that they would laugh and cry over it and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.
During the three and a half years I worked on the novel, those lines from the Introduction to Anna Karenina stared me in the face. They were there to challenge me with a large and inspiring vision. I assure you, however, it never crossed my mind that what I was writing might actually be read in ten years’ time, much less twenty.
Yet here we are at the tenth anniversary of The Secret Life of Bees, and the story of Lily Owens is still being read. Ironically, some readers are fourteen- year-olds who were four when the novel came out. Or as the quotation on my desk put it, readers who were then children.
The most frequent question I’ve been asked about the novel in the last ten years goes something like this: “Did you ever expect The Secret Life of Bees would find the kind of reception it did?” I ran out of ways to say, “Of course not.”
When Bees was first published in January 2002, I had three pragmatic hopes for the novel: first, that the book would find a modicum of respect in the literary world; second, that my publisher had not been overly optimistic in commissioning a first printing of 68,000 copies; and third, that my family and friends, who might possibly number as many as 500, if I really stretched it, would read my book along with 67,500 other people who were not related to me and who had no idea who I was.
In the weeks leading up to the novel’s publication, a few gallant, if not utterly biased people, such as my own husband and children stated that they thought the book could be a big success. I loved them for saying so. Then I asked them to please come back to earth. Bees was a debut novel by an unknown author, and there were thousands of other novels out there to read. It seemed wildly implausible, not to mention presumptuous, to imagine anything beyond the pragmatic hopes I had adopted. Besides, since when was it circumspect to wish for 68,000 readers?
On publication day, I embarked on my first book tour which took me to twenty- four cities. I set out like the uninitiated, with too many outfits, with things for every situation and emergency. I had a flashlight in case the hotel electricity went out and there were too many of those little boxes of raisins in my purse. I told myself I would be content with what is and not ask what else.
Early on, some of the events drew so few people they might have been canceled were it not for store employees who rallied from behind the counters to fill seats. I’d admonished myself not to ask what else, but I wouldn’t have minded if the audiences grew to include actual customers. They did, naturally, and to my surprise, a quaint and vintage form of social networking called Word-of-Mouth kicked in. As you know, this mode is much slower than Electronic Virus but, like the Pony Express, very reliable. By the end of the year, my pragmatic hopes had been realized.
When the paperback was published in January 2003, I arrived at a bookstore in Connecticut only to be informed that my talk and signing would have to be held across the street at the high school gymnasium. The store was sorry for the last minute switch, an employee explained, as she scurried about, but given the circumstances, they were doing the best they could. What circumstances? I crossed the street, wondering what sort of glitch had necessitated this impromptu store evacuation. Plumbing? Electrical? I was that clueless—or, as I would like to claim, unassuming. The “glitch” was that six hundred people had unexpectedly shown up. I can still picture them all, sitting on the bleachers, and I feel the same incredulous wonder now as I did then.
Despite incidents like these, I didn’t quite grasp the growing reach of Bees’ readership until one evening while watching Jeopardy! on television. Again, whether my ignorance was due to greenness or some certifiably odd resistance is up for debate. The contestant said, “I’ll take Women Writers for six hundred.” What popped on the screen was: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, “What are bees?” Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help.
Success of any kind or amount is a funny thing. It can stun and flummox a person almost as easily as it can thrill and gratify. My most important lesson regarding success arrived just two weeks after Bees was first published. I was signing copies of the novel in a bookstore when an exuberant woman rushed up to me and exclaimed, “I love your novel! I think it is the book of the year.” This precipitated a small surge of vanity, and perhaps I beamed a little too glaringly, because the woman quickly followed her accolade with a line that has remained vividly with me for this entire decade. She said, “But, of course, it is only February.”
You have no idea the perspective this gave me. The comment put everything into its proper proportion. It became clear that while the process of writing a book may depend on some blend of innate ability, craft, and determination, having written a book is all about perspective, and indeed, life itself is about perspective— seeing one’s life in its true and proper scale and measuring it correctly in relation to everything else.
I have no illusions that my vanity died a sudden death that day, but since then, somewhere in my head it is always “only February.”
The second most frequently asked question from the past decade is most likely this: How did you come up with the idea for The Secret Life of Bees?
It seems the story sprang from a mixture of imagination, memory, and errant personal threads. When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive- full of them— that is to say, fifty thousand or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for eighteen years. Occasionally, they squeezed through cracks in the wall and flew around. My mother, genius that she is, turned the room into a guest bedroom. The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives.
Over the years, I more or less forgot about the bees until one evening when my husband, Sandy, told our dinner guests about the first time he visited my home and was put in the guest bedroom. He was awakened in the middle of the night to find bees flying around the room.
His telling of this rather unique part of my family history coincided with a new desire I harbored to write fiction. At this point in my life, I had written only nonfiction—personal articles and essays and three books of memoir. Now, however, I began to picture a girl lying in bed while bees slipped through crevices in her bedroom wall and flew laps around the room. I envisioned their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and the air vibrating with the sound of z-z-z-z-z-z. The image stuck in my head. The appearance of bees in this anonymous girl’s room seemed to me like a visitation, a summons that would spin this girl’s life into a whole new orbit. It caused me to ask: Who is this girl? What does she want as she lies there, watching the bees? And what do these bees mean?
For me, those would evolve into the crucial questions a novelist must ask: Who is my character? What does my character want? And what is the symbolic core of the story?
I decided the character in my head was a fourteen-year-old, motherless girl named Lily Owens. What she wanted was her mother, along with all a mother might imply, namely love and home. And finally, I determined that the symbolism in the story, the very resolution of the story, was contained within the metaphor of the hive.
When I sat down to write the book, this was all I knew.
Other characters gradually appeared: a fierce-hearted African American woman named Rosaleen, Lily’s nanny and also her salvation; Lily’s father, whom she called T. Ray because daddy never fit him; and Lily’s mother, Deborah, who died when Lily was four, leaving behind too much pain and too many secrets.
The book had not been out very long when I discovered that some readers hold to the idea that when a novelist writes a book, she is writing surreptitiously about her own life. During the last ten years, countless strangers have consoled me on my wretched childhood.
But my childhood was not like Lily’s. Unlike her, my mother did not die when I was four. She is alive, well, and living in Georgia. At no time did she desert me. Indeed, she was once presented a Mother of the Year award. Likewise, my father is nothing like T. Ray. He, too, is alive and well in Georgia and no doubt wants me to make it abundantly clear that he never once forced me to kneel on grits, and that he is well aware Shakespeare’s first name is not Julius. I can further attest that I did not break anyone out of jail or ever run away from home.
Now, to muddy the waters: Lily and I do have similarities. We both grew up in houses with bees in the walls. We both come from tiny Southern towns, which begin with the same four letters— Lily from Sylvan, South Carolina, me from Sylvester, Georgia. Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months. I, too, had an African American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer. We both hated grits, rolled our hair on grape juice cans, and were once told we were pretty by a woman who was legally blind. Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our seventh-grade science projects and wrote papers called “My Philosophy of Life” before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy. The both of us had a lot of black hair with cowlicks. While Lily’s life was a little like mine around the edges, at heart it was nothing like mine.
At heart, Lily is a girl wounded by a terrible loss, a terrible betrayal, and a terrible guilt, and Bees is her quest to heal them. How does she go about it? The late novelist John Gardner wrote that all fiction can be reduced to one of two plots: a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a trip. Lily goes on a trip.
I came up with the idea of a trip long before I had any idea what the destination would be. After Lily broke Rosaleen out of jail, I had two fugitives on my hands and no idea where they were going. The writing ceased for weeks as I brooded over this dilemma. Then one night, I woke around 4:00 A.M., thinking about the problem of my two runaway characters. I padded upstairs to my study, where I picked up a collage of pictures. The collage contained twenty images I had glued together with the fanciful idea they might evoke characters or provide grist for the story. Some of the pictures had, in fact, spun narrative threads that had made their way into the book. My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head. My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women. Thus, the sisters, August, May, and June, and the women around them, whom I dubbed the Daughters of Mary.
This female world became Lily’s refuge. The pink house, the women, and the black Madonna who presides there (yes, a little like a queen bee in a hive), provide the milieu of Lily’s healing. Her transformation happens as she finds a place of love and belonging in the world. In this way, she is like all of us.
When I was writing about the inhabitants of the pink house, I was drawing on memories of growing up in the fifties and sixties around a number of African American women in Georgia. Bees is haunted by my own sense of place, and the real challenge was to write both lovingly and subversively about it. I wanted to tell the paradoxical truth, which meant exposing the charm, beauty, humor, and soulfulness of the South, as well as its tragedies, failures, cruelties, and violence.
I was never the same after the summer of 1964. I was left with images of cruelty and memories of horrific injustice that I could not digest. I think it possible that a place exists within the southern psyche and, for that matter, within the American psyche that stores collective racial wounds, and as long as these wounds exist, this place will go on offering up a stream of images bent on healing. In part, Bees grew out of a need to address my own stream of images and memories and bring some small redemption to them.
What did you think of the movie? I get this question all the time.
It was recently asked by a woman who could not bring herself to see the movie when it appeared in theaters because, as she said, she didn’t see how it could live up to the imaginings in her head. She wanted to know “from the horse’s mouth” if Hollywood had changed the book too much, and whether she should order it from Netflix or pass.
“By all means, order it,” I told her. “I can’t guarantee the movie will seem as good as the version your own imagination filmed, but it is still a wonderful movie.”
Still, I know how the woman felt. I was nervous about the movie, too.
When the script arrived at my door, I did not immediately read it. I told myself I was busy. The truth is I was nervous. I finally began reading it one night, thinking I would only peruse the opening scene. By 2:00 A.M., I had finished it all. I was a little bowled over by how good it was.
Gina Prince- Bythewood, the director and screenwriter, went on sending me the script as it evolved through various drafts, and I sent back copious notes for each one. The two of us had long, involved conversations about the characters and the story, brainstorming and conferring. I came to intimately appreciate how difficult it is to take a 302- page novel and turn it into a 106- page script.
An adaptation is not meant to be a clone of the novel; it’s the story rendered in a different artistic medium, and in order to translate it from one medium into another, changes are always needed. The changes to Bees seemed few and wise, and in Gina’s note that accompanied that first draft of the script, she had written: “Your novel was my bible.”
Early in 2008, I traveled to the movie set in tiny Watha, North Carolina, where most of the shooting took place. It was February, and it was freezing cold. The day I arrived, the rain puddles were edged in ice, and the world was winter- brown. In the movie, it was supposed to be July.
Everywhere I looked there were purposeful- looking people in headsets, a morass of lights, cameras, video monitors, sound equipment , propane heaters, and director’s chairs. I was escorted to the pinkest house I’ve ever seen and told it took three tries to get the house that particular Pepto Bismol shade. The grass had been dyed bright summer green. Gorgeous faux flowers bloomed by the front steps. The trees were wired with fake leaves. Counterfeit tomatoes ripened in the garden. As I stood outside and watched the filming of Scene 36— Lily and Rosaleen arriving at the pink house— I noticed Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning wore thin cotton and short sleeves despite subfreezing temperatures. They popped ice into their mouths to keep their breaths from fogging when they said their lines. Summer had come in February.
Inside the pink house, August’s blue room existed just as I’d written it, as did the parlor— from the statue of black Mary in the corner to the crocheted doilies on the back of the sofa. The kitchen table had its bowl of bananas, the back porch its swing and wringer washer, and out back, the honey house was filled with honey- making contraptions, circa 1964. May’s wailing wall curved through the backyard, drifting off toward the woods. It was like stumbling into my imagination as a real place.
For the next several days, I watched scene after scene, beautifully filmed and acted, yet in spite of everything I have just mentioned, when I sat in the theater about to watch the movie for the first time, I felt quietly, reservedly nervous. I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way.
The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth. As I told the woman who’d wanted it straight from the so- called horse’s mouth, it was a good film, and actually a lot of folks seemed to think so, judging by its People’s Choice Award for Best Drama. But I have to say, the tribute to the film about which I felt happiest was the Image Award it received from the NAACP for Most Outstanding Picture.
Lest, though, my perspective ever get upended by the movie glitz, I have this gem of a memory, which occurred at the Los Angeles premiere. While waiting backstage with the actors and director to participate in a press conference, I heard someone loudly summon: “Get the talent. And get Sue, too.” It was still only February.
Not long ago, after almost thirty- five years in South Carolina, my husband Sandy and I moved to a small island off the coast of Florida. It was bittersweet to leave Charleston, which had been something of a muse to me, as well as to leave the region of the country that had inspired Bees, and it would probably take a small book to reflect on the reason. The abridged version is that we wanted to distill and simplify life. In the course of moving, I came face- to- face with the stuff in our closets, drawers, cabinets, and dormers, and in particular with the contents of numerous plastic boxes that held all things Bees. I spent a week sorting through half- forgotten documents, letters, journals, and ephemerae related to the novel, reliving ten years’ worth of memories, from the strange to the wondrous. More than any other, this experience helped me answer another question that has been posed to me repeatedly over the last decade: How has your life changed as a result of The Secret Life of Bees?
Among the boxes’ contents was this from a twelve- year- old girl who’d read the novel:
Dear Ms. Kidd,
I didn’t know I could have so many feelings at once. My mother left, too. All I wanted was her to be there. Lily found a family in the last place anybody would think. That gives me hope. Thank you.
I found a proclamation making me an honorary citizen of Rhode Island, issued after Bees was chosen for the state’s read. A playbill from the stage production of Bees by American Place Theatre. A list of “Twenty- five Books to Read Before You Are Twenty- five,” compiled by First Librarian, Laura Bush, and guess what novel about insects was on there? Included in the boxes were pictures of art objects the book had inspired— whimsical sculptures of the pink house and breathtaking paintings of Black Mary, a letter from a perfect stranger asking me to visit her mother’s grave, and dozens of flyers and programs from places where I had spoken— Lincoln Center to Sam’s Club.
I came upon countless communiqués from book clubs, recounting their experiences of reading the book. There had been “Mary Day” parties galore. I gazed at photo after photo of smiling women in gargantuan Daughters of Mary hats. A mother- daughter group wrote movingly of the bonds they had rediscovered while reading the book. An all- male group visited an apiary. In Massachusetts, a group contributed bees and hives to impoverished families on the other side of the world. Quite a few book clubs re- created the food in the book, everything from honey cakes to Lily’s favorite dessert— peanuts in a bottle of Coca Cola.
A journal notation in one of the boxes recorded an encounter I’d had in Tulsa, when a group from a women’s shelter came to hear me speak. Afterward, one of the women opened her copy of the book and showed me certain sentences she’d underlined:
All those times your father treated you mean, Our Lady was the voice in you that said, “No, I will not bow down to this, I will not bow down.” . . . When you’re unsure of yourself, when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside saying, “Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.”
The woman tried to tell me something particular about this passage, or perhaps about herself, but she kept choking up. In the end, she could only point to the lines.
I discovered a stack of academic papers written about the novel and sent to me. “The Symbolism of the River in The Secret Life of Bees.” Also, “The Symbolism of the Moon in The Secret Life of Bees”; “Gender Relations in . . .”; “The Politics of Race in . . .”; “The Journey to Womanhood in . . .” And these titles: “A Psycho- Social Analysis of Lily Owens”; “Sue Monk Kidd’s Black Madonna as a Raced and Gendered Image of the Divine.” You cannot imagine the things I learned. Apparently, Lily was involved in an Oedipal conflict. Furthermore, the beekeeping sisters were three different aspects of Lily, the same way the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow were all aspects of Dorothy. I wish I could take credit for it, but I suspect it was some happy accident.
Over the years, I’ve heard of numerous accounts of organizations re- creating May’s “wailing wall” in the novel. They’ve been installed in therapists’ offices, schools, a hospital, a gallery, and on a farm for adults with disabilities. I plucked a letter from the box that described one such wall built by a community of homeless youth. The letter described how they brought their grief and worries to the wall and tucked them among the stones, just as May had done. And as I write this, plans are underway to build a wall like May’s on my family’s two hundred- year- old farm in Georgia in honor of my parents’ ninetieth birthdays.
As I rummaged through the decade of memorabilia, I reread a booklet created by a group of thirteen students in Botswana, aged seventeen to nineteen. Most came from impoverished backgrounds and were orphans from the ravages of HIV. They called themselves the “Bee Girls.” The booklet was sent to me by a U.S. Peace Corp volunteer, who formed the Bee Girls as part of her mission “to empower the girls of this country.” She wrote, “They get Lily. And they are the richer for it.” The booklet’s pages contained a picture of the girls, followed by their personal essays and poems about reading Bees.
The myriad reminiscences I’ve described merely skim the surface of the archival material in the plastic boxes. After delving into them, something coalesced for me— Bees had not changed me so much as its readers had.
Some years ago in Chicago, I met an executive from a well- to- do New England family who told me that initially he had not wanted to read The Secret Life of Bees, but his wife had “made him.” Curious, I asked why he had been reluctant to read the novel, to which he said, “Your character, Lily, is a girl from a small Southern town who has a rough time of it— my world could not have been more different from hers. I suppose I thought I couldn’t relate to her story.”
He then went on to say that surprisingly enough, Lily and the women in the pink house had gotten under his skin. As he put it, “I now feel more disposed to the South, to African American women, and little girls who need their mothers.”
I chose Tolstoy’s quotation as inspiration for The Secret Life of Bees because I am drawn to its assertion that a novel’s true and lasting worth is found in its ability to open the human heart. My desire will always be to write a novel that evokes empathy. I want readers to experience my story intellectually, but even more, I want them to participate emotionally in the character’s sufferings, ecstasies, yearnings, and struggles, in all the ways the characters’ lives are shattered and put together again. I want them to feel, for instance, what it’s like to be a motherless girl adrift in the world or a person facing terrible racial cruelties. The particular power of fiction is to cause readers to feel truth.
Perhaps the real story takes place not on the page, but within the readers’ minds and hearts. As Tolstoy said, for that, I would still devote all my own life and all my energies.