Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor co-authored Traveling With Pomegranates. It’s a mother/daughter memoir about re-discovering themselves and each other during a series of trips to Greece and France. At the time, Ann was 22 years old and struggling with the next step in her life after her college graduation. Sue, who was about to turn 50, had to come to terms with aging and the next step in her career. It’s a wonderful journey of love, spirituality, and friendship, set against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Sue Monk Kidd is also the author of the best-selling novel The Secret Life of Bees. This is the first book for Ann Kidd Taylor.
Interview by: Augusta Matthews
SoR: Sue, what were your thoughts when Ann asked you to collaborate on the book?
Sue: Well, I was thrilled. Secretly thrilled. I say secretly because I had wanted to be able to write about my own experiences during those trips and about the transition I was going through and our relationship. Somewhere in the far reaches of my mind I wanted to do that, but it was Ann’s project and I was so, so happy she was doing it. When she asked me, I leaped so quickly to say yes that I realized how much I wanted to participate in it and write my own stories.
SoR: How did the two of you start the process?
Ann: Well after I asked my mom if she wanted to write this book with me it took actually another three years before we began writing it. My mom was about to begin The Mermaid Chair and I was pregnant with my son, so there were some things that had to be done first. When we finally got to the writing of it, the first thing we did was to gather all our materials that we had saved while we were traveling, like our journals. We also gathered our photographs and any tape recordings that my mom did on the trips. We gathered all that material and got very large sheets of paper and started mapping out different places that we went to build a very loose outline. We worked with that outline for a while to hone it down to the places that we felt really resonated with us, as far as the experiences that we were having there. We ended up having to cut an entire trip that we went on in 2001. We just realized that this book could go on forever. It’s the trip I believe my mom mentions in the afterword that we actually took with my grandmother back to France.
SoR: How did you divide the sections of the trip and decide who would write about which experience? Did it come naturally through talking together or was it more of a technical process?
Sue: I think that it was structurally a very complicated book, and we were basically trying to write three different stories. Ann referred to the big papers that we drew out and worked with for an outline. We got a big sheet of butcher paper and divided it into the three trips we determined we would write about. We left off the last trip simply because we were really focusing on the story, on our stories, the narrative. It wasn’t so much about the trips. It was about the story and the transition that took place in the trips. The places we went were backdrops for that, so that’s how we viewed it. Once we did that, we understood that the fourth trip was really not necessary, and that the story ended on the third trip. So we had these three trips and they fell naturally into three parts of the book, and we decided who would write what by the same process. It was examining the significant aspects of our stories that really need to be told, and we propelled the narrative along by doing that. There were several chapters where we wrote about the same place at the same time, and we didn’t do that every time, but it happened occasionally simply because what was happening in those places was really core for both of us. It also gave the reader a moment to glimpse into the same place and the same experience through two different eyes and two different individual stories. I guess the answer to the question is that it was simply a matter of telling the essence of each of our stories and going to those places where that happened.
SoR: What were your reactions to reading about the same experiences, but from the other person’s point of view?
Ann: It’s always eye opening when you’re together and you’re going to the same places. We would write in our homes and then after we completed our chapters we would meet, we’d swap, we’d read. Particularly in that first part of the book, we write about our experiences at Eleusis and you have these little revelations where you go, “Oh, I knew that was going on, but now I’m really getting the whole range of emotion and feeling and the complexity of that experience.” In the moment you get hints of it - this general sense. I would say it felt at times very eye opening but also I felt like I was starting to understand, really understand, even more, parts of my mom’s story and what she was feeling then.
SoR: How has co-authoring this book together affected your relationship?
Sue: I think it has deepened it in a lot of ways. There’s no doubt about it, collaborating on a book is a very difficult experience. It doubles everything. It doubles the authors, and it doubles the time it takes. People would say, “Oh it must be easy, it cuts in half what you have to do because she’s writing half the book and you’re writing half the book,” but actually it took us almost three years to write this book. It doubled what we thought it would take because we were trying to weave these stories together in a fluid way and have those threads flow, so I think it just made it a little more complex. It doubled the difficulty, but it also doubled the satisfaction. We really did find that true, and so it opened up places for us to learn about each other. Not only were we in the same room and talking a lot about very profound experiences we had together, but also I think we were also growing together. Something solidified through the writing that hadn’t even happened when we were on the trips. There must be something about experiencing it and then growing closer when you begin to try to articulate it. Not to say that there weren’t challenges, but overall I would say it was very deepening.
SoR: Ann, having really reflected on such a crossroads in your life after graduation, deciding whether or not to go to graduate school, what advice do you have for recent college graduates who struggle with the next step in their lives?
Ann: I think now, particularly in this economic climate, there’s a whole other set of pressures that graduates are facing that I didn’t have when I graduated in 1998. I think there’s this whole other element of “Wow, I’ve graduated, I’ve got my whole life ahead of me, what am I going to do?” Maybe not all the options that you would have hoped for are there, particularly in a job market right now. I actually spoke to some college graduates back in May, and my advice to them was to really listen to that voice inside of you. I first started listening to that voice inside of myself when I got that rejection letter from graduate school, and suddenly I was kind of in that boat of “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life,” and my plan had exploded. I think that there are some similarities there for graduates now who are starting out there and they’re kind of in this boat of “I did all this and now I can’t get a job, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” So I know what I did, and that was to really start asking myself those big questions and really start listening to what was in my heart. It’s that voice that won’t lie to you and it knows, maybe when on the surface you don’t know. Something inside of you knows and it’s like that compass that points true north. I think there’s a lot to be said for asking that question my mom and I each ask in part three of the book that the myrtle tree in the convent in Crete: what lies in the bottom of your heart? I think a lot of good can come when you’re looking for direction in your life to try to stay connected to that passion that lies at the bottom of your heart. Maybe that can be a guiding point for young people who are just starting off and having a tough time right now.
SoR: Sue, what was it like to watch Ann’s struggle to find herself, and then eventually emerge with such drive and purpose to become a writer?
Sue: Well I think it’s hard for any mother to watch one of their children struggle. That was very painful to watch. I think what I had to really figure out was where and how and when do I step into this process. She was 22 years old and really holding this close to her chest, so to speak, and she wasn’t sharing it with me. I felt a little bit like I was intruding or trying to pry the lid off of her if I stepped in. I think I probably waited too long. I don’t think I did it perfectly, but at least I was trying to ask the question of honoring or respecting her independence, but realized she needed to do this in her own time and way. I think that was hard, but I had a lot of faith that she would emerge from it in time. I know that sometimes when you are asking the large questions and really dealing with depression about where your life is going, or you’re lost and you don’t know what to do – and Ann was very much in that place – that you eventually come out of that underworld. If you’re really asking the questions and holding those tensions, you really can come to a new awareness about yourself. I had faith that she was really in the thick of that process and would come out of it. Of course, it was wonderful to watch her come to the understanding that at the bottom of her heart she was a writer. She had really resisted it, as she said, in large part because I was a writer and she had a need to find her own identity that was separate from her mother. It was very confusing, doubly confusing, because there was that process operating in her that she had to forge her own way and she couldn’t be like her mom, but really what was in the bottom of her heart was writing. She had to come to terms with that and realize that she could be compared to me or that it could be a little more complicated. I was very proud to watch her take up her, what we call, her “necessary fire,” which is a John Gardener metaphor by the way. He spoke of writing that way, as a necessary fire.
SoR: This book was a lot about the two of you re-discovering each other to form a new bond and friendship– what do you think is the most rewarding part and the most challenging part of that relationship?
Ann: Well I think that the most rewarding part of having written this book together has to be the ways that it brought us closer together. I was so focused on the writing of the book that it was a great surprise to me that writing it together and collaborating this closely would actually do for our relationship in a lot of ways what the traveling did for our relationship. So that was a great surprise. As far as the most challenging part, I almost don’t have a great answer for that. We joke a lot that we’re related and so yes, we love each other, but we actually like each other a lot too. We’re very close and I think we feel an openness and a freedom to really be ourselves and be great friends. I know we challenged each other creatively, especially when we got down to the re-writing of the book, and there were great challenges there. I’d never written a book before in my life, so the writing of it was one thing - the re-writing of it was another thing. My mom really challenged me to dig in and find and hone my voice and that was a challenge. She was a great support and great co-author and mentor for me at the same time.
SoR: Both of you have such incredible insights into your dreams. When did you start examining them for signs in your waking life, and what have they been telling you lately?
Sue: I started writing my dreams down probably in my late thirties, so I was a little older than Ann is now. I think the reason was because around that time I began to read the work of the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung. There was something about the way he approached the psyche that I thought was so profound for writers. He focused in on the internal process, the imagination and the drive toward wholeness, the creative life, and what lies in the unconscious. He felt that a real portal into this inner world was through dreams, and that compelled me. I think I’m just wired that way. I think some people are wired that way and some people aren’t. It’s not for everyone, but once I began to write my dreams down, I became pretty convinced pretty quickly that there was extraordinary information in those dreams. I read a little book about dreaming for writers – Writers Dreaming I think was the title; I don’t know if it’s still around. It was about writers, some very prominent writers, their dream life and how they approached it. I think that encouraged me too because I realized that writers draw on their dreams, and probably more important than the symbolism in the dream, was that it gives us information about directions for our life. They’re very cryptic. They’re hard to understand, but if you really work with them, you sort of learn your own symbolic life and what’s going on. If you’re inclined that way, I think it can be a way to tap into your own soul. So what are they telling us lately – I still record my dreams. I don’t record them every night anymore. If I remember a dream very clearly and it has a kind of intensity for me, I will definitely write it down. Others I might just mull over for a day or two, but those that I write down are pretty significant for me. I think right now those dreams I’m writing down are probably talking to me about my next work, my next novel, and how to approach that. Not so much what it’s about; I don’t mean that. I mean about how I’m going to approach it - sort of the large questions around it. They’re often about how to make ones life more whole.
Ann: Honestly, I think after being home from the book tour, I’ve been sleeping so soundly that if I dream at all, in the morning it’s just gone. We’ve been home for just a little over a week now, and I think that when I start to feel a little more settled in my life and rested, then I will perhaps begin at least remembering my dreams and recording them.
Sue: I would say too, I don’t remember every dream I have either. I don’t know anyone who does, and so that’s why when one of them feels very vivid, it’s good to capture it because it’s gone literally within an hour
SoR: Are there any plans for future European adventures together?
Sue: Possibly, yes. We’re talking about our first trip together next spring. It will be the first trip together since the trip we took in 2001, and it will be almost nine years exactly. We’re probably going to make a literary tour of England. Ann is very into Jane Austen, so we’re researching Jane Austen sites and we’ll probably visit Shakespeare’s home, go to Oxford, and look at some of the literary tours around Tolkien and Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis. There’s just such wonderful, rich literary sites in England, so we thought we’d make that our next trip.