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
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
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
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
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
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
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.