Kathryn Stockett's 'The Help' Turned Down 60 Times Before Becoming a Best Seller

How do you keep going when it seems the world, not to mention 60 literary agents, wants you to fail? Kathryn Stockett, author of the best seller "The Help", started keeping secrets, even from her husband: “It was as if I were having an affair.”

by Kathryn Stockett
kathryn Stockett the help photograph
Photograph: Ben Hoffman

If you ask my husband my best trait, he’ll smile and say, “She never gives up.” But if you ask him my worst trait, he’ll get a funny tic in his cheek, narrow his eyes and hiss, “She. Never. Gives. Up.”

It took me a year and a half to write my earliest version of The Help. I’d told most of my friends and family what I was working on. Why not? We are compelled to talk about our passions. When I’d polished my story, I announced it was done and mailed it to a literary agent.

Six weeks later, I received a rejection letter from the agent, stating, “Story did not sustain my interest.” I was thrilled! I called my friends and told them I’d gotten my first rejection! Right away, I went back to editing. I was sure I could make the story tenser, more riveting, better.

A few months later, I sent it to a few more agents. And received a few more rejections. Well, more like 15. I was a little less giddy this time, but I kept my chin up. “Maybe the next book will be the one,” a friend said. Next book? I wasn’t about to move on to the next one just because of a few stupid letters. I wanted to write this book.

A year and a half later, I opened my 40th rejection: “There is no market for this kind of tiring writing.” That one finally made me cry. “You have so much resolve, Kathryn,” a friend said to me. “How do you keep yourself from feeling like this has been just a huge waste of your time?”
That was a hard weekend. I spent it in pajamas, slothing around that racetrack of self-pity—you know the one, from sofa to chair to bed to refrigerator, starting over again on the sofa. But I couldn’t let go of The Help. Call it tenacity, call it resolve or call it what my husband calls it: stubbornness.

After rejection number 40, I started lying to my friends about what I did on the weekends. They were amazed by how many times a person could repaint her apartment. The truth was, I was embarrassed for my friends and family to know I was still working on the same story, the one nobody apparently wanted to read.

Sometimes I’d go to literary conferences, just to be around other writers trying to get published. I’d inevitably meet some successful writer who’d tell me, “Just keep at it. I received 14 rejections before I finally got an agent. Fourteen. How many have you gotten?”

By rejection number 45, I was truly neurotic. It was all I could think about—revising the book, making it better, getting an agent, getting it published. I insisted on rewriting the last chapter an hour before I was due at the hospital to give birth to my daughter. I would not go to the hospital until I’d typed The End. I was still poring over my research in my hospital room when the nurse looked at me like I wasn’t human and said in a New Jersey accent, “Put the book down, you nut job—you’re crowning.”

It got worse. I started lying to my husband. It was as if I were having an affair—with 10 black maids and a skinny white girl. After my daughter was born, I began sneaking off to hotels on the weekends to get in a few hours of writing. I’m off to the Poconos! Off on a girls’ weekend! I’d say. Meanwhile, I’d be at the Comfort Inn around the corner. It was an awful way to act, but—for God’s sake—I could not make myself give up.

In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.

The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.

And if your friends make fun of you for chasing your dream, remember—just lie.

First Published May 7, 2011

What’s your reaction?

Comments

Ella Lydon02.11.2014

Hi, My name is Ella, and I'm 11. My aunts ex husband's brothers wife wrote The Help. I've only met Kathryn once, I was around 5. I have hung around her daughter 3 or 4 times, I haven't seen her since before my aunt and uncle divorced. Kathryn, if you are reading this, tell Lila that Ella said hello, and that I hope sometime we can meet again. Im reading the book now, and I love it.

Betsy 05.21.2011

Check out our cheeky hommage to the Stockett style!
http://lesbellesdames.com/lesbellesdames/Books_%26_web/Entries/2011/5/6_...

Patty Palmer05.18.2011

I can't tell you how much this story resonates with me. I've been writing my story for seven years and received about 25 rejections. Each rejection letter makes me realize I can make the story better. But I've begun to lie about pursuing the same story, the same dream, especially to other writers.Thanks for the boost.
I loved The Help. I still think about the characters. I'm so glad you didn't give up!


Just when I entertain the word 'quit' in my thinking... a story like yours, Kathryn, appears on my path. OK, one more GREAT reason to carry on! Thank you for sharing your story.

Lesley Booth05.16.2011

Thanks for sharing your story. Unbelievable.So glad you are so persistent. I LOVED this book. It is up there with one of my all time favorites. I love your writing style.I am hoping you are going to write another book.I loved how you would be writing about a serious event and you would throw some humor in to it! Very clever.

05.16.2011

LOVE, LOVE this! What an inspiration to me at this time!! I have worked for 6 yrs to get my company (www.suttongourmetpaper.com) off the ground and though, I finally made it happen, there are and will continue to be "bumps in the road" that need me to stay the course!
LOVE your book - can not wait for the movie! Thank you for this encouragement ;)

Jill Boehler05.10.2011

I loved reading your story and l loved reading your book!

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