Monday, November 05, 2007

Becky interviews Sarah Miller!

I am very happy to be bringing you an interview with Sarah Miller. She is the author of Miss Spitfire, a historical fiction novel that was released this past July. It is doing very well, in fact, I just learned that it is the Readergirlz's December selection! Sarah blogs regularly, and I especially appreciate her latest postings about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books. In her latest posting, she is offering a hardback copy of Little House in the Big Woods to the first person who sends in a picture of him/herself eating a slice of head cheese. Read about it here. Her official site is here. (What I love about it most? She does monthly listings/reviews of what she's been reading!!!) Sarah Miller has done a few interviews, I read several before I wrote my questions, and I tried not to repeat. (In case you're wondering why I didn't ask a few *obvious* questions.) (Little Willow, Miss Erin, Laura Bowers, etc.)

Here is a snippet of my review of Miss Spitfire.
What did I think of Miss Spitfire? I loved it. Absolutely loved it. True, I was already interested in the story. Already compelled to love it based on my prior history, but Sarah Miller's writing was remarkable. I not only fell in love with the story. I fell in love with how she told the story.

"I'm not sure I can do this job. Yet a part of me understands Helen better than she does herself. I'm no stranger to frustration, anger, isolation. I wonder, though, how Helen can be content to deprive herself of my affection? The thought of her indifference makes my throat sting, yet I can't help feeling drawn to her. If I could only touch her heart, I know I could reach her mind. But she won't even let me hold her hand." (43)

"It seems nothing I do comes out right. But in my heart I know what's right for Helen: obedience, love, and language. Come what may and hell to pay, I'll find a way to give her all three." (64)

Annie Sullivan is a young woman on a mission. Her job? To teach a child--a six year old child--who is blind, deaf, and dumb. It won't be easy. There has only been one successful case in the past to base their hopes and dreams on: Laura Bridgman. But Annie is strong-minded and determined. She'll need every ounce of stubborness she has if she's going to master the willfullness of Helen. Used to getting her own way, Helen runs wild. And as Annie soon points out, the family expects better behavior from the dogs than they do their young daughter. Helen has never been disciplined a day in her life--at least since an illness left her blind and deaf. This journey from despair to hope, from chaos to communication, is an important one. It is full of emotion--as day by day Annie struggles to teach and love a child who fails to comprehend the meaning of words altogether. Anger. Frustration. Rage. Joy. Happiness. Fear. Hope. Despair. It's all here. Annie and Helen. This is their story.

And for the record, I loved, loved, loved the ending. It was oh-so-magical.
What did you learn about language and communication during your research and writing of Miss Spitfire?

I picked up a lot in my linguistics classes before I actually started Miss Spitfire, but one important thing I wanted to emphasize is that it doesn't matter what form language takes. Spoken and signed language are equally valid ways to communicate. I also came to the conclusion -- somewhat reluctantly -- that thought is indeed possible without language. That said, the idea that fascinated me most was the realization that Helen couldn't even speak to herself in her own mind. She had no inner voice at all.

Has language always been something that intrigued you?

Probably not in the way you'd expect -- not in the sense of an interest in other languages, anyhow. I completely avoided taking a foreign language in high school. I took Russian in college mostly to be perverse. I didn't really discover the linguistics side of things until after I saw The Miracle Worker. But I have always been into books and words.

You write historical fiction, was history always your favorite subject? Or is this interest something that came later?

My favorite subject throughout school was English, but I've always had these little passions for particular historical events. I can remember saving up a small fortune (probably $60) for a book on the Titanic when I was 11 or 12 years old.

Does award-season (best-of lists, awards, etc) make you nervous or excited as a writer?

Yep - both. I'm probably supposed to pretend like I'm completely oblivious, but not a chance. I vacillate between "What are the odds?" and " never know!" It's surreal to know that I'm even eligible.

How excited are you to be part of the Cybils?

Oh, that's really cool. I so like the idea of getting to meld both quality and mass appeal. There's a whole lot of good stuff between ground chuck and filet mignon, if you know what I mean.

What do you love about being a writer?

I love spreading my own fascinations on to other people. If someone comes to a better understanding of Annie Sullivan or wants to learn more about her because of Miss Spitfire, that's a greater compliment to me even than a reviewer saying the book is well written. I like to think that by the end of Miss Spitfire, my readers and I might have a mutual friend in Annie.

What do you love about being a blogger?
I love that I can blather about bookish things and people (apparently) pay attention. I also get a big charge out of spreading buzz for books I'm excited about.

What do you love about selling books?

Getting my greedy paws on advance copies of upcoming books! It's also fun to feel like you've picked out the exact right book to match with an individual kid. Plus, I've been able to meet a load of authors in the last five years.

What do you think independent bookstores have to offer the customer that the big chain stores do not?

When I'm feeling like a smarty-pants I tell people, "We read the pages, not just the covers." That makes a huge difference. Kids are all different, and by knowing the books we can adapt to individual needs. For example, if you've got a 4th grader who's reading at an 8th grade level but obviously isn't ready to digest junior high issues and content, we can find a "safe" book for you. You won't get that in a big-box store -- mostly you can just barely get someone to point you toward the general vicinity of the children's books. We also hand-pick our books, so if they've made it to our shelves you can be assured they're good stuff.

Do you have a book or two (or three) that you would recommend that everyone read? What handful of books are must-reads in your opinion?

That's hard. I have my personal favorites, of course, but everything's not for everybody. A true across the board must-read is a rarity. If pressed, I think I'd say Speak , by Laurie Halse Anderson.

What are some of your favorite books of 2007?

That's easy!

Aurora County All-Stars, by Deborah Wiles
Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale
Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature , by Robin Brande
Lottery, by Patricia Wood (grown-up)

What books are you most looking forward to in 2008?

At the moment I'm itching to get my hands on Mary Leaves Little House/Mary Ingalls on Her Own (not sure yet which is the final title). I'm also eager to read Peeled , by Joan Bauer. I'm lucky that I've already been able to read some of next year's goodies -- A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce and Trouble, by Gary D. Schmidt, for example.

Who are some of your favorite authors? Have you met any of your ‘favorites’?

Favorites I've met: Donna Jo Napoli, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Richard Peck, Laurie Halse Anderson

Favorites I haven't met (yet): E.L. Konigsburg, Anne Lamott, Robert Fulghum, Frank McCourt, Maya Angelou

I've also met a few authors that I ended up loving even *more* than their books: Brian Selznick, and the duo of David Small & Sarah Stewart.

This one is for both you as a reader and an author. Do you write fan letters to authors you admire? And have you received any fan letters from readers? How important do you think it is for readers and authors to connect with one another?

Very occasionally. I've got a list of folks I intend to write to, but I rarely get it done. (I was partway through a letter to Trina Schart Hyman when she died.) I do enjoy connecting with authors on MySpace, where I can leave a quick "I liked your book a bunch" sort of message; even though every book doesn't change your life it's still nice to let people know you enjoy their work.

I've had a bit of fan mail so far. Mostly my feedback's been face-to-face at the bookshop. I tend to get awfully squirmy about taking compliments, and I have an inkling that no matter how genuinely I mean it, people are hoping for more than a "thank you" and a smile when they tell me nice things about Miss Spitfire. (I know I would.) Gotta work on that....

Of course, making author-reader connections is super, but here's the thing: if you connect with the characters, it's pretty safe to assume that you've connected with the author on some level even if you don't track them down to tell them so.

How much time do you spend reading? How much time do you spend writing? How do you balance the two?

I definitely spend more time reading than writing. (Think of it this way -- eating is a whole lot easier than cooking.) I've just lately come up with a new balancing act: On days I work at the bookshop, I don't *have to* write. On my days off, I do. That way I guarantee myself a few guilt-free reading days a week, as well as some get-down-to-business days.

Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress?

It's a novel about the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, the grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia.

Do you have a reading hero? Someone who inspired you? Someone you love, respect, and admire? A mentor who made a great impact on you?

My family always encouraged me, and Donna Jo Napoli has been very kind to me in the last few years, but other than that, no single person stands out.

Growing up, what were your favorite books? Which ones have stayed with you and made a lasting impression? Which ones still give you warm fuzzies?

Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
Magic Elizabeth, by Norma Kassirer
Wait Till Helen Comes, by Mary Downing Hahn

They've all stayed with me pretty well, but considering the plots and characters I think only Magic Elizabeth qualifies as a "warm fuzzy" book. ;)

Did you have a favorite time and place to read?

Nope. Anytime, anywhere was good enough for me. Nowadays, I'm partial to the wicker lounge on the front porch.

In your opinion, what makes a book a classic?

Endurance and devotion. I'm pretty old school in my classics definition -- 20 years isn't long enough to qualify for me.

Are there any out-of-print books that you wish would make a come back?

Magic Elizabeth, by Norma Kassirer
Anne Sullivan Macy, by Nella Braddy

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

Heh. I’d probably run around spying on a lot of famous dead people to make sure I get/got them “right.”


Little Willow said...

Great author, great book, great interview! I especially liked this:

[ For example, if you've got a 4th grader who's reading at an 8th grade level but obviously isn't ready to digest junior high issues and content, we can find a "safe" book for you. ]

I also love doing that for customers, because I was that kid too! :)

Thanks for the link.

Erin said...

Fantastic interview, Sarah and Becky! Great stuff.