Late bloomers can take heart from novelist Sue Monk Kidd. Having followed a traditional path of wife and mother, the Southerner didn’t write her first novel, the mega-bestseller “The Secret Live of Bees” until she was in her 50s. “The Invention of Wings,” her newest, is inspired by the lives of abolitionist Sarah Grimké and her young slave.
BOOKS: Did you read a lot for your new novel?
MONK KIDD: It seemed like all I did for a year. This novel required so much research, more than any other of my books.
BOOKS: Anything you’d recommend?
MONK KIDD: Gerda Lerner’s biography “Grimké Sisters from South Carolina” about Sarah and her sister, Angelina. I read a lot of wonderful books about slavery. The book I read more of than any other was “Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery” by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and a WGBH research team. There is a book by Julius Lester, called “To Be a Slave,” which is written for children to introduce them to slavery. I also read 19th-century slave narratives, such as “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup, which I read years ago. For this book I read Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which is even more harrowing than Northup’s story.
BOOKS: What have you read recently for pleasure that stuck with you?
MONK KIDD: I read Edith Wharton’s “Three Novels of New York,” which includes “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “The Custom of the Country.”
BOOKS: How do you pick books?
MONK KIDD: I always look for my favorite authors’ newest books: Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, Marilynne Robinson, and Alice Hoffman. I also liked Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic.”
BOOKS: Do you still read spiritual books?
MONK KIDD: Not as much as I used to. They used to comprise a huge amount of my reading. My spiritual reading now is literary fiction. The term spiritual has widened out for me and includes just the human search for eminence and transcendence. Still I have spiritual books that have been crucial to me on my desk. They are comforting just to see.
BOOKS: What is in that pile?
MONK KIDD: “Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” by C.G. Jung, and “An Interrupted Life” by Etty Hillesum. That is an incredibly important book for me. It’s like an Anne Frank story for grownups. As a young woman, she wrote these amazing, wise diaries before she died in Auschwitz. I’ve read it many times. A novel that had a profound affect on me was “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. I keep that one on my desk too.
BOOKS: When were you reading these books?
MONK KIDD: I really began reading contemplative spiritual works when I was 30. I was coming to terms with this desire to be a writer. In conjunction with this compelling need to get in touch with my creative life someone happened to give me Merton’s autobiography. It was the first time that I understood that we have this interior life.
BOOKS: What nonfiction do you read now?
MONK KIDD: I like memoir. I just picked up “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett. I recently read “What is God?” by the philosopher Jacob Needleman, which was the most fascinating book. It’s a series of chapters that try to understand what God is and what God means.
BOOKS: Were you a serious reader early on?
MONK KIDD: Yes. My mother took me to the library all the time. In our small town in Georgia we had a tiny library. I was always worried that they’d run out of books I hadn’t read. It was in a defunct Presbyterian church. I use to beg to go to church, and my mother always joked that she was impressed with my piety until she realized I was talking about the library.
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story had an incorrect portion of a quote and was incorrectly attributed to Sue Monk Kidd. Monk Kidd did not identify Julius Lester as the author of “Uncle Remus.’’ That material was intended as a parenthetical editorial addition. The original stories about Uncle Remus were written by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century. Lester adapted and modernized the tales in his book, “Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales.’’