|Sarah Miller||Interview with Sarah Miller, October 1, 2007|
Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller
Ages 12 and Up
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Annie Sullivan was little more than a half-blind orphan with a fiery tongue when she arrived at Ivy Green in 1887. Desperate for work, she'd taken on a seemingly impossible job -- teaching a child who was deaf, blind, and as ferocious as any wild animal. But Helen Keller needed more than a teacher. She needed someone daring enough to work a miracle. And if anyone was a match for Helen, it was the girl they used to call Miss Spitfire.
For Annie, reaching Helen's mind meant losing teeth as raging fists flew. It meant standing up when everyone else had given up. It meant shedding tears at the frustrations and at the triumphs. By telling this inspiring story from Annie Sullivan's point of view, Sarah Miller's debut novel brings an amazing figure to sharp new life. Annie's past, her brazen determination, and her connection to the girl who would call her Teacher have never been clearer.
ETC: What exactly is Miss Spitfire: fiction, nonfiction, biography?
MILLER: Miss Spitfire is historical fiction, a story told from Annie Sullivan's point of view. It's biographical, but not a biography. I ran across the term "fictional memoir" the other day, and I like that a lot.
ETC: Can you explain the difference between biography and biographical fiction?
MILLER: A biography is strictly facts - no invention. Unfortunately, many children's biographies are a muddy mix of facts and invented conversations. Some authors believe that kids won't read a book that doesn't have the feel of a story, so they make up scenes and dialogue to get the facts across in a more "entertaining" way. That really bugs me.
Historical fiction on the other hand is a story based on facts. I believe good historical fiction requires just as much research as non-fiction. The difference is that writing fiction allows you to use your imagination to fill the gaps between the facts. But even though Miss Spitfire is fiction, I couldn't just make stuff up.
ETC: Why not? Isn't that what fiction is?
MILLER: Well, yes and no.
Fiction is by definition a made-up story. The catch with Miss Spitfire is that I was writing about a real person, even going so far as to put words in her mouth. So I needed to be very careful to stay true to the real Annie Sullivan's personality and history. I owe her (and all my other real characters, from the Kellers to Beefy) that courtesy and respect.
I also have a responsibility to my readers. If Miss Spitfire is a kid's first encounter with the Annie Sullivan/Helen Keller story, I want it to be accurate. In other words, I don't want anyone to have to "unlearn" anything after reading my book.
Sure, some alterations may be necessary from time to time - maybe condensing the timeline or combining some scenes - but the way I see things, those changes shouldn't alter the fabric of history or the personality of the characters.
ETC: So how do you reconcile the facts with the fiction?
MILLER: For me, it all comes back to research. In a biography, everything should be verifiable. In historical fiction, everything should be possible, and possible not just for the time and place but for the person you're writing about.
ETC: How do you do that, particularly if the people you're writing about are no longer living?
MILLER: If you put in the time to learn about a person, you can get a sense of them. By reading Annie's letters and recollections I learned how she thought and expressed herself. But there was plenty more to learn about the context of Annie's life, such as what was important to her, what her surroundings were like. For example, when I found out what plays and poems Annie liked best, I read them. When I discovered the Sullivan family was from County Limerick in Ireland, I listened to Frank McCourt's recordings of his books to get a feel for the phrasing and cadence of the Limerick accent. After learning that Annie's father drank too much but also told her stories and recited poetry from the old country, I read up on Irish mythology and listened to Gaelic music. I researched Irish folk and pub songs. After reading Annie's recollections of her years in the poorhouse, I read the reports filed by the inspectors of the Tewksbury almshouse in the 1800's. And so onů.
Once you've learned the patterns of a person's life and personality, you have the tools to imagine how that person might react emotionally in a situation that isn't documented. That's the key to historical fiction.
ETC: Why the pet peeve about children's biographies, especially if they don't contain any false information?
MILLER: In my opinion, making up subjects' thoughts and conversations is misleading, even if the basic facts are in order. Non-fiction should be just that: non-fiction. Any time you see quotation marks in a biography - be it for children or adults - the words inside the quotes should be nothing but words actually spoken or written by a real person. Some children's authors are very reliable about this, such as Jean Fritz, James Cross Giblin, and Russell Freedman.
ETC: You've obviously done your homework for Miss Spitfire; why this topic/person/subject?
MILLER: Short version: I saw The Miracle Worker onstage in 1998. (For the long version, click here .) That said, it's one thing to get excited for a little while about a subject, but it's something else entirely to stay that way for close to 10 years. So why the holding power? The more I looked into the story of Annie and Helen, the more fascinated I became with their relationship. Think about it: they literally began with fists flying, and yet in the end they stayed together nearly 50 years. How did that happen? How did they go from biting, kicking, scratching brawls on the dining room floor to an indelible bond that outshone Helen's love for her parents as well as Annie's relationship with her husband? That's the question I've tried to answer in Miss Spitfire.