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Little Willow

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Interview: Sarah Miller

They say that one good turn deserves another. In Sarah Miller's case, one good story inspired another. Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, her debut novel, retells the true story of one of America's most beloved teacher-student relationships: that of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. ( Read my book review. )

With Sarah's background in bookselling and fascination with communication, this story suits her well, and her compassion for the real people involved comes through in her writing.

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller is targeted towards readers in upper elementary and middle school. How old were you when you first heard about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan?

I think I must have been in first grade the first time I heard about Helen Keller. I have a pretty clear memory of Mrs. Sanborn trying to help us understand what it's like to think without words. I was sure I could do it, and I remember trying to picture a bicycle without actually saying or seeing the word "bicycle" in my head. It's not easy. I also remember that we got to poke Braille messages into the back of styrofoam meat trays in class.

What was the spark that started Miss Spitfire?

That's an easy one. I saw The Miracle Worker on stage at MeadowBrook Theatre in October of 1998. We came to the end, that famous scene with 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. It was what I'd been trying to wrap my head around way back in first grade. And even though I still couldn't mimic that languagelessness in my own mind, I finally understood it, and the notion fascinated me. It still does – nine years later, I still have the ticket stub, and the movie still makes me cry.

That night I went home, broke into the public library (okay, fine, I worked there at the time, so I just let myself in the front door) and picked up Helen's autobiography and both film versions of The Miracle Worker, which I promptly watched back-to-back. And bingo, I was hooked in my utterly obsessive way. I read all the books I could get my hands on, took all the sign language classes my university offered, taught myself Braille, and changed my major to linguistics.

How does Miss Spitfire differ from The Miracle Worker?

There are a lot of similarities. William Gibson was very faithful to the historical record, and so was I. There's no way around that. The difference is in the point of view. With a novel, unlike most plays, you can tell a story with just one voice. By filtering this story through Annie's eyes, I've tried very hard to shift the focus from Helen to Annie herself, and to show why she was able to succeed with Helen where the Kellers had failed. Annie's past is a big key to that. Her early life is every bit as tragic and fascinating as Helen's, and the bulk of it is still relatively unknown, so I incorporated that into my story as much as I could. Most people are aware that she was a poorhouse orphan, but I don't think they realize how intensely that affected Annie's work and relationship with Helen. I've also made an effort to show not just how, but why Annie and Helen were able to forge such an indelible bond. Again, that's linked to Annie's past. In her own ways, Annie was every bit as needy as Helen, and I don't think the depth and intensity of Annie's emotions comes through in most renditions of the Helen Keller/Annie Sullivan story.

How long did it take from conception to manuscript, from manuscript to sale, and from sale to publication?

Let's see . . . I saw The Miracle Worker in October of 1998, and I didn't start writing until April 6th of 2002. I'm very sure of that date because I took a trip to the Keller homestead, and it just so happened that the day of my visit was the 115th anniversary of Helen's famous breakthrough at the water pump! I'd written only a few pages before then – I'd decided I didn't want to write any of the parts set in Alabama until I'd actually seen the Keller home.

Sarah Miller at the Keller homestead

I finished the first draft of the manuscript on May 29, 2003, and Donna Jo Napoli, who'd sort of taken me under her wing, read and commented on my second draft in August. After I'd incorporated her suggestions, I began submitting to editors and agents.

Thanks to authors Kelly DiPucchio and Sue Stauffacher, my agent took me on in late August of 2005, and by mid-October, Atheneum had accepted the manuscript. Miss Spitfire will hit bookstores on July 10 of this year.

Tell us about your background in linguistics, and how and why you learned Braille.

Well, I don't really have any official on-the-job sort of background in linguistics, but I do have a bachelor's degree. I switched my major from English to linguistics, again because of that fascination with language I'd discovered from seeing The Miracle Worker. I was frustrated with my lit classes because I wanted to learn how an author makes you feel a certain way when you read a book, and instead I was learning about symbolism and style and all that jazz. Nobody was talking about how to evoke an emotional response in a reader. I guess I thought maybe the key was in the nuts and bolts of language itself, so I went for linguistics. Linguistics didn't answer my question either, but I found out it was really neat stuff, anyway. One of my favorite classes was about how children acquire language, which was a big help in understanding both Helen's linguistic development, and the brilliance of Annie Sullivan's teaching methods.

The Braille thing is kind of a funny story. It started with an old documentary on Helen Keller I got for Christmas a few years ago called Helen Keller in Her Story. Right at the end, Helen's companion/caretaker catches her reading in bed late at night. The thing that grabbed my attention was that Helen was lying there in the dark (of course) with her book tucked right under the covers as she read. I thought that was pretty slick, being able to read in the dark AND keep your hands toasty at the same time. So I marched myself down to the library and picked up a crash course in Braille – Braille in Brief, by Bernard Krebs. Honestly, I'm not terribly good at it. It took me most of a summer to read Ramona Quimby, Age Eight, but that's because I'm stubborn about reading by touch, without "cheating" with my eyes.

Will the book be available in Braille or on audio?

I would love that. Audio in particular intrigues me, because I'm terribly curious to hear how someone else would voice my characters. And of course a Braille edition would be so appropriate to the subject. There's a non-profit organization in my area called Seedlings, which produces Braille books for kids virtually at cost. Also, Georgina Kleege, a blind author and professor who wrote a terrific grown-up book about Helen Keller, told me about Bookshare, an online service that allows members with print disabilities to download text files of books to read using text-to-speech or refreshable Braille technology. They also make Braille versions of any text in their database. I think that's downright nifty, so I need to get in touch with them (as well as my editor and agent!) and find out how to make that happen.

Do you work at an independent or a retail bookstore?

I love where I work. It's a fine little independent children's bookshop called Halfway Down the Stairs. Loads of people walk in the door and say, "This reminds me of You've Got Mail!"

How long have you worked there?

I've been there about five years now, and for the past year or so, I've been in charge of ordering frontlist from half of the major publishers we deal with. There's not much better than getting my paws on all those new books and catalogs before anyone else. I also write the book reviews for our newsletter and website.

Will you stay there full-time now that you are a published author?

I will definitely keep working at the shop now that I'm published. I may be single and skinny, but my income as a writer will only buy so much store-brand canned soup! ;) Really though, it's a huge benefit to be on the frontlines, so to speak, of children's lit, and have access to all those books, authors, librarians, and readers.

Are you working on another novel?

I am working on another novel – very, very slowly. It's about the daughters of the last tsar of Russia.

From one bookseller to another, what is the craziest request you've ever had to accommodate?

Heh. This one made the Cuffies in Publsiher's Weekly a couple years ago: A lady came in and asked if we had an abridged version of To Kill a Mockingbird, because her three-year-old was "really enjoying Moby Dick." Sure she is, lady . . .

As a reader, what is your favorite section of the bookstore?

Middle school, hands down. There's plenty of stuff I like in the upper el and high school range, but middle school is the best.

If a new version of The Miracle Worker were to appear on television or in theatres, who would you cast as Annie and Helen?  

Oh gosh, that's a hard one for me! I love the original Anne Bancroft/Patty Duke version so much. This is probably a cheat, since I think I read somewhere that Hilary Swank did perform the role of Annie on stage, but I do think she's got the oomph to pull it off.

As for Helen? That's harder yet. I'd want it to be somebody young – Helen was only about six-and-a-half when she met Annie – and I'm not very familiar at all with child actors. Patty Duke was so great (even though she was over twice Helen's age in the film version) because she wasn't afraid to be fierce and to let herself go.

That's my gripe with the later versions of The Miracle Worker: the actors playing Helen all have this vague sense of inhibition, as if they're afraid somehow of going too far. But Helen herself had no boundaries whatsoever, and Patty Duke managed to portray that in a very genuine way, right down to the way she moved and the sounds she made.

What are your top ten favorite books?

Holy cow. I'm going to limit myself to children's & YA novels, just so I won't go bonkers choosing only ten!

As a kid, I loved:

Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (I still have my spy notebook from 5th and 6th grade)

Magic Elizabeth, by Norma Kassirer

Wait Till Helen Comes, by Mary Downing Hahn

All-time favorites:

Song of the Magdalene, by Donna Jo Napoli

The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg

Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli (okay, *anything* by Donna Jo Napoli – I adore her stuff.)

The books I'm most in awe of/wish I'd written:

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson

And the children's book that's most recently knocked my socks off:

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

Now it's time for trivia!

10 Things You Probably Don't Know about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller by Sarah Miller

10. The illness that cost Helen Keller her sight and hearing has never been identified. Doctors today believe it may have been scarlet fever or meningitis.

9. Although Annie is nearly always portrayed in movies and illustrations wearing a pair of round, dark glasses, no photos are known to exist of Annie wearing glasses - although she did own a pair!

8. Helen began speaking at just six months old. She remembered how to say "wah-wah" even after she lost her hearing.

7. When Annie entered school at age 14, she couldn't spell her name, didn't know her birthday, and had never heard of the Civil War. Six years later, she graduated at the top of her class.

6. On the same day she learned "water," Helen also learned a total of 30 different words.

5. Annie had no training, no known aptitude, no experience, and no desire to be a teacher when she took the position as Helen's governess.

4. No photographs of Helen Keller are known to exist before August of 1887 - it was a full five months after Annie Sullivan arrived that Helen's first picture seems to have been taken.

3. Just days before she left for her job at the Keller home, Annie had an operation to correct a mild case of cross-eye.

2. Helen's eyes were removed around 1910 for medical and cosmetic reasons and replaced with glass ones.

1. Annie Sullivan's given name was Johanna.

Visit Sarah Miller's official website -

View my review of Miss Spitfire.

Read Chapter One of Miss Spitfire.

Also visit her blog, AmazonConnect profile, and MySpace page.

Tags: books, cybils, interviews, readergirlz

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