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Monday, February 18, 2008

Author Interview ~ Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller first saw The Miracle Worker on stage in 1998. That same night she watched both versions of the film back-to-back, learned the manual alphabet, and began reading Helen Keller's The Story of My Life. She later changed her major from English to linguistics, and learned Braille from a library book so she could read in the dark under the covers. She also took two semesters of American Sign Language, in which she was the undisputed finger-spelling champ. Miss Spitfire is her first published novel.

Tell us about your book, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller.

Miss Spitfire is a children's/YA novel told from the point of view of Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan.

What are the highlights of your journey to publication?

I'd been submitting on my own for about two years before I got an agent. Then Wendy the Wonder-agent managed to sell Miss Spitfire in under two months. When she called to say Atheneum had accepted the manuscript, I thought very seriously about throwing up.

Why do you write for young people?

That's a loaded question. I think a lot of children's authors secretly feel like we're really being asked why we don't write for adults when that question comes up. Here's the thing: there's an assumption out there that if you can write, then you can write anything. For the most part, that's just not true. Some people can write in many genres for many audiences, but most people can't. Just because you can draw in charcoal doesn't mean you can also paint in oil, you know?

Personally, adult books intimidate me. The size, the complexity, and so forth. On the other hand, picture books are equally intimidating to me for exactly the opposite reasons.

That said, If I did have the skill to write anything, I'd still write for children. Why? It's what I love. I read much, much more children's and YA lit than adult. Always have. The one exception is non-fiction -- I have a taste for quirky adult non-fiction.

Many aspiring writers are told to write novels that will sell, not novels they will enjoy writing. You, on the other hand, were obsessed with Anne Sullivan, and wrote a novel about Anne Sullivan. Comments?

Ugh. If anyone told me to just write what will sell, I'd...well, I don't know what exactly, but I'd get really cranky. If I didn't love what I write, I wouldn't be writing -- it's a hard enough job even when I am loving the subject.

Besides, anything written well and with heart has the potential to sell well, so I don't know how anyone can pre-judge a book's saleability before it's even written. I'm sure there were folks out there who didn't think the world needed another Helen Keller book, and now look at me.

What fiction most influenced your childhood, and, consequently, your writing?

My favorite books as a kid were:
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop
Magic Elizabeth, by Norma Kassirer
Wait Til Helen Comes, by Mary Downing Hahn

I don't think any of them directly influenced my writing, though. That credit goes to later discoveries like Robert Fulghum and Donna Jo Napoli.

What are a few of your favorite books?

Favorites are so fickle and hard to nail down. How about a couple books I wish I'd written:

The Giver, by Lois Lowry
The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson

Who is your hero author and why?

Donna Jo Napoli. She writes books I love and doesn't flinch when it comes to making her characters' feelings real and honest. Plus, she's been really nice to me!

Do you have a favorite quote related to writing?

Not exactly. I'm not a traditional quote collector, but I do like to spit out random movie lines at appropriate moments. In point of fact, how's this, from A League of Their Own :"If it was easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it good."

What's the best advice you've heard on writing for children?

Don't preach at them. Ever. A good story will have something to say for itself, so don't set out to build your writing around a so-called "message." Instead, let the message grow out of the story. In short, start with a question, not an answer.

You were recently employed at an independent children's bookstore. What marketing techniques have you learned that have helped you in promoting your own book?

Be polite, don't nag, and let your work speak for itself whenever possible.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I don't really have a source -- ideas so far have more or less bumped into me in the course of everyday life. It's more a matter of wondering, "What if...?" or "How would that look from this angle?"

What aspect of writing is the most difficult for you to conquer? How do you overcome it?

I loathe rough drafts. Unfortunately I haven't come up with any reliable tricks for getting through them. I whine and fuss and if I'm lucky I eventually get mad and just sit down to tackle the bugger.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Gosh, you'd think that'd be an easy one. Well, least favorite is easy: public speaking. Isolating a favorite is tough -- just getting this far is something!

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

Oh me oh my. That would involve a lot of procrastinating, guilt, and then a frantic rush to get something, anything, done before the whole day goes down the tubes. Occasionally I'm a good girl and put my time in before noon -- then I'm invariably amazed by the "freedom" that gives me for the rest of the day. That doesn't happen nearly enough, though.

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?

No one in particular comes to mind, but I'd LOVE to be able to fastdraft.

What piece of writing have you done that you're particularly proud of, and why?

Seeing as Miss Spitfire is the only work I've got in print at the moment, that's pretty tough to top!

How often do you dust your house? (So fans know how much longer they must wait for your next novel.)

Oh gads. I hate dusting -- I have too much bric-a-brack. My rooms are always neat and tidy, but I could probably write in the dust on my dresser if my laptop ever broke down. However, if my birdcages and bathtub are spic 'n span, you know it's been a rough day on the writing front.

What are you working on now?

I've made a pact with myself not to talk about my WIP anymore, but if you poke around on my
website you'll find it easily enough...

Do you have a dream, something you'd love to achieve with your writing?

Making it into print IS the dream. Beyond that? Well, I'd like to not need a day job someday.

Parting words?

I think a simple "thank you" will suffice. :)


  1. this is so cool! my girls and i just watched Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. They showed a guy who was an artist- a blind and deaf, 75-year-old man who makes quilts. They hung one of his quilts in the new house. my girls were impressed and i told them that i would read them a book about a lady named Helen Keller. i just tucked them in, and clicked on Novel Journey. I'll be ordering my copy of your book!

  2. Thanks so much for a great interview, Sarah!

  3. Great interview ladies. Be polite, don't nag, and let your work speak for itself whenever possible.
    Great advice. (Oh and what a beautiful author picture.) The book looks very interesting! (Great questions, Noel)

  4. Wonderful interview. Thanks, Sarah and Noel.

  5. Thanks Sarah and Noel for the fun interview. I like the advice of starting with a question and not an answer. Often you can tell, in a book, if it has been done in the reverse.

  6. Thanks for the interview. And what a beautiful photo!

  7. Thanks Noel!

    Gosh, I'm halfway tempted to post a photo of what I REALLY look like. Nah.....

    Janet: I saw that show, too. It's funny how we forget Helen Keller wasn't the only deaf-blind person in the world, isn't it?


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