Sarah Miller is the fabulous author of Miss Spitfire. She keeps a blog at Sarah Miller Books. I am very lucky to have the chance to interview her on Miss Spitfire and her current Work In Progress about the last Romanov princesses. Thanks, Sarah!
How much did you know about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan as a child? Did you find them interesting then?
I think I first learned about Helen Keller from a book in the Value Tales series. As best I can remember, their explanation of Helen’s attitude and behavior before Annie’s arrival was simplistic to the point of being a factual nightmare but I had to start somewhere. (Snarky aside: How, pray tell, did Helen’s little cartoon sidekick communicate with her?)
Mostly the idea of being both deaf and blind fascinated me. I was astounded by the thought that nobody could communicate with me if I were deaf-blind. I’m sure I understood there was no way into Helen’s head, but I didn’t quite grasp the concept that there was also no way *out.* It wasn’t until I saw The Miracle Worker onstage that I understood the most crippling effect of Helen’s condition: she couldn’t even speak to herself in her own mind – literally and figuratively, Helen had no voice.
How many drafts did you write of Miss Spitfire? How did the book change?
I think I’d done two or three drafts on my own before Atheneum accepted the manuscript. Then my editor and I went through two rounds of revisions.
We made some minor cuts here and there, but the changes were almost entirely a matter of deepening Annie’s memories, motivations, and character. I have an odd ability to make a first person narrator sound like a third-person bystander, so I had to sharpen the focus on Annie and beef up her internal reactions.
Part of the trouble I have is that after immersing myself in months or years of research, I end up carrying a lot of emotional and historical context around in my head. Once all that information becomes common knowledge to me, I don’t always realize when I haven’t actually transferred enough of that context from my mind to the page.
What are your goals as a writer?
To finish the next book, and make it better than the last.
Was the title always Miss Spitfire? Did you have other titles?
Yes. We did some haggling over the subtitle, but the main title was always Miss Spitfire.
How did Annie Sullivan get from the almshouse to Perkins school for the blind?
That is a good question. The whole issue is a little sketchy in the sources I’ve read. It’s clear that Annie was a charity case, and I think it’s pretty safe to assume that her encounter with Frank Sanborn prompted him to arrange for her education, but I don’t know precisely who funded her tuition and board at Perkins. Just as in Miss Spitfire, there’s a gap in Annie’s recorded memories – one minute she’s pleading to go to school, and the next she’s on her way to Perkins. I’m not sure Annie herself knew exactly how that came to pass.
What was your favorite subject in high school? Least favorite?
Least favorite: Math (Sorry, Mrs. Morr.)
Do you have any “Guilty Pleasure” books?
At the moment, I don’t think I do. I have a feeling I’m willfully suppressing something, though…
I’ll readily admit that as a kid I had a hearty appetite for the BSC, Christopher Pike, and Sunfire Romances.
How is research for your WIP going?
Research is in many ways the easy part. It’s also a terrific form of procrastination. That said, the research this time around is a lot more complicated than it was for Annie and Helen.
As popular as Helen Keller is, when it comes to the Romanovs, there are probably tens of thousands more pages of information out there. Right now my working bibliography lists about 80 items, and that doesn’t include books I looked at but ruled out as irrelevant or unreliable. In general I’ve had to be much more critical of the sources I chose for this project. Many of the available resources are blatantly biased or shot through with Romanov-mythology. As you can imagine, there’s a huge range of viewpoints between the memoirs of friends and courtiers and the propaganda-like chronicles of the Bolsheviks and Soviets. In addition to that, a frustrating number of primary sources – diaries, letters, and so forth – haven’t been translated from the original Russian. To top it all off, heaps of the stuff is out of print, in short supply, and/or insanely expensive. (Check out the cover price on this humdinger!)
But I really do love it. I can fritter away HOURS at a time browsing through books, photographs, or websites like www.alexanderpalace.org
Do you have any books planned other than the one about the last Russian imperial family? Do you plan on writing any other genres?
I have a handful of premises knocking around in my head, and at the moment all but one possibility is historical.
What were your favorite books that you read in school?
I’m going to interpret that literally and only mention books associated with school.
In first grade my entire class was hogwild for Where the Sidewalk Ends. I can still recite most of “Us,” “Sick,” and “Sara Cynthia Sylvia Stout.”
From 6th grade to 8th grade I had to read Hatchet three times and didn’t mind a bit.
I also have very clear memories of hearing Number the Stars and the Ramona Quimby series in class.
Where did you do most of your research for Miss Spitfire? Did you visit Ivy Green?
Although I did make an invaluable visit to Ivy Green, the vast majority of my research was possible through my local library. I’ve since tracked down and purchased copies of nearly all my Spitfire sources, but borrowing items first through the interlibrary loan system has saved me oodles of time and money over the years. (There are also substantial archives at Perkins and the American Foundation for the Blind, but fortunately for my travel budget, most of the information pertaining to Annie’s first month with Helen is readily available in biographies and memoirs. Even so, I’d still love to rifle through those archives!)
If you couldn’t have been an author, what would you be?
Gosh, I don’t know. Probably a librarian or a bookseller. When I was little I used to say I wanted to be a baker, an acrobat, or a clown. 😉
The bookstore that you worked at recently closed (I loved the video that you created. It made me cry). Do you miss working at Halfway Down the Stairs? Would you work at another independent bookstore if you had the chance?
Is being an author what you imagined it would be like?
And then some.