Why do the black characters in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" speak in dialect, while the white characters don't?
The bestselling author took on that question and others Tuesday during a sold-out talk at Queens University.
The Atlanta author's debut novel explores relationships between African-American maids and their white employers in Jim Crow Mississippi.
Speaking to more than 450 people attending Queens' Book & Author luncheon, Stockett said she never expected her novel to be published. A year after publication, copies in print top 1.7 million.
Some readers have objected to the black dialect Stockett uses and questioned why her white characters don't speak in Southern dialect.
Stockett, who grew up in Mississippi, said she "wrote it like I remember hearing it." And she happened to grow up in a family, she said, that "spoke the King's English."
She based the voices of some black characters on the voice of Demetrie, the African-American maid who worked for her family for years.
Stockett also addressed criticism that she was white, writing about black women.
"Part of me thinks, 'How dare I presume to known what Demetrie felt and what she thought about us?'" she said. But isn't it the job of writers, she asked, "to wonder what it's like to be in someone else's shoes?"
Like a true daughter of Mississippi, Stockett, a slight, soft-spoken woman, called on questioners with a "yes, ma'am?"
She informed them that Stephen Spielberg bought the screenplay for "The Help" last week, and one of her closest childhood friends, Tate Taylor, wrote it.
She's now at work on her second novel, set during the Depression, a period she finds fascinating: "I am just sick I missed the Depression."
When one woman asked why so many great writers hail from Mississippi, she replied: "There's nothing else to do."