Sarah Miller’s novel Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller has been showing up on some early mock Newberry lists,
and for good reason. If you read my review of this book last week, you know how much I loved it (I would have loved it even if its title wasn’t similar to mine!). I was thrilled when Sarah agreed to stop by my blog for an interview.
So often, a work of historical fiction starts with that spark of interest in a particular topic. Anyone who has read your book or visited your website or blog knows about your fascination with Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. What sparked that interest, and when did you decide to take the leap and write a book about Annie?
Miss Spitfire got started when I saw The Miracle Worker on stage at MeadowBrook Theatre in October of 1998. We came to that famous scene at the water pump and when the audience stood up to applaud, I realized I was crying. I don’t do that. And it’s not like the climax of the play was a surprise – I’d seen the movie, and I knew the story – but bam! there it was, and I got it. When I saw Helen’s mind fill with words, I understood for the first time what it was like to be empty of language, and the notion fascinated me. It still does, in fact – nine years later, I still have the ticket stub, and the movie still makes me cry.
It’s probably hard to believe, but I really don’t remember when I figured out I could write a book about Annie. I certainly didn’t leave the theater with that thought in my head. I just knew that I wanted to know more about Annie and Helen. At some point in the next few years, my not-so-casual interest turned into truly focused research with a purpose.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
So far, I’ve spent my time writing about real people – people I’m fascinated with and become quite fond of by the time I’m done. I love the idea of spreading that fascination, and of maybe even forming a sort of vicarious friendship between my characters and my readers.
As a writer and a middle school English teacher, I’m a bit of a revision nut. What are some of your favorite strategies for revising a manuscript?
I don’t think I have any solid strategies. I just love to tinker – I can fool endlessly with everything right down to commas and semicolons. Mostly, I like to revise as I write. I take a step forward and lay down some new territory, then take a couple steps back and smooth out what’s already there. Revision is way more fun for me than drafting, so I like to spread it out over the whole process. It’s important for me to see improvement as I go.
What did the first draft of Miss Spitfire look like?
It was actually fairly similar to the finished product, mostly because I do that simultaneous write/revise thing, and also because I do almost all of my writing on the computer. There were changes, of course: Donna Jo Napoli read my second draft and took me to task on a couple important linguistic issues in the climax. When my editor got his hands on the manuscript, he pointed out a number of places I needed to bulk up and expand on Annie’s emotions – I have a strange ability to make even a first-person narrator sound like a third-person observer in my initial drafts. He also helped me smooth out Annie’s emotions somewhat. She was very volatile in real life, but a novel requires a more gradual, even development of the characters’ feelings to engage and satisfy the reader.
What do you think Annie Sullivan would say if she could read the words you wrote for her?
Holy Ned, what a question! I know what I’d like her to say, but the strange truth of it is this: after all my years of reading and research I feel like I know Annie, but I can’t – not really. It’s impossible to know someone completely in a vicarious sense, so I’m reluctant to predict her reaction.
My best guess is that she’d feel rather exposed by some of my words – she was very proud, and very private – but I think she’d understand and accept what I’ve written. As Annie herself said, “The truth of a matter is not what I tell you about it, but what you divine in regard to it.” That’s exactly how I approached Miss Spitfire – it’s my reflection and interpretation of the information Annie left behind.
You’ve posted some hints about your next project on your website – another work of historical fiction, set this time in the last years of Russia’s last imperial family. How’s that project coming along?
Heh. Today I hate it. 😉 I like the beginning very much though, so there’s hope. I think….
Name a few books — for kids or adults — that you’ve read recently and loved.
My hands-down new favorite for adults:
Lottery, by Patricia Wood.
The kids’ and YA books I love/wish I’d written this year:
Aurora County All-Stars, by Deborah Wiles
Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale
Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, by Robin Brande
Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
In addition to your writing life, you also blog often about your work in an independent bookstore. What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you there?
That honor goes to the lady who came in and asked for an abridged copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for her three-year-old. Apparently the toddler was “really enjoying” Moby Dick.
What’s one question that I didn’t ask that you’d like to answer here?
Here’s one I don’t seem to get tired of answering: What do you hope people will learn from Miss Spitfire that they might not from another Helen Keller book?
There are a lot of fine things to take from the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller: determination, courage, loyalty, and so on. So these two things I’m about to say may seem trivial in comparison, but I think they’re essential to understanding Annie:
1. Annie did not travel to Alabama on some lofty mission to free the mind of a child from its dark and silent prison. She needed a job and a place to live, and she took quite a risk when she accepted the Kellers’ proposal. Annie had no training as a teacher, and nobody knew if she could do it.
2. Annie didn’t sacrifice her life for Helen – she needed Helen every bit as much as Helen needed her. Helen’s friendship was probably as life-changing for Annie as the “miracle” at the pump was for Helen. In a sense each saved the other from her own form of darkness. Even so, just as Annie couldn’t cure Helen’s blindness, Helen couldn’t completely erase the scars on Annie’s heart. But in the end, I think their bond to each other brought them father than they could have dared hope for in the beginning.
Sarah, thanks so much for joining us, and best wishes with your new project (even if today wasn’t the greatest writing day!). I know I’m not the only one looking forward to your next book.