Sunday, March 09, 2008

One Writer's Process: Sarah Miller

The author of the highly acclaimed Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Sarah Miller is the kind of writer who tries to write six days a week, having "figured out that even writing badly feels better than being mad at myself for skipping a day."

When writing, she likes to explore the lives of real people ... "people I'm fascinated with and become quite fond of by the time I'm done."

"It's rather a presumptuous thing to write someone else's story--even more so to try to write it in her own voice," Miller writes, explaining her effort to bring the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller to life.

"The best any author of this sort of book can hope to do is present the truth as they see it. I am grateful that Annie herself knew this, and said so to Nella Braddy Henney: 'The truth of a matter is not what I tell you about it, but what you divine in regard to it.'

"I have kept this thought in my mind during the whole writing of this book. What you have read is what I have divined, and what I believe to be emotionally true. In her own way, I believe Annie would approve."

Already, Miller's work has attracted the attention of writers like Richard Peck, who describes Miss Spitfire as “high drama about how language unlocks the world.” Other accolades have come from ALA (Best Book for Young Adults), Booklist (Editor's Choice and Top 10 First Novels for Youth), Book Links (Lasting Connections of 2007 title), and the Cybils (finalist for the 2007 Middle Grade Fiction Award).

Currently at work on a novel about the final years of Russia's last imperial family, Miller was kind enough to take a moment to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Miller: Kicking and screaming, mostly. Or at least one toe at a time. I'm much more likely to dangle from the diving board for a while than to jump right in and start paddling.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat... for short work? For longer work?

Miller: I'm not exactly sure. A lot of writers talk about how they just can't not write -- it gnaws or claws at them. For me it's not quite that intense, but something does always sort of nibble persistently at me if I haven't been writing for a few days. When things get tough, I wonder, "Why am I making myself do this?" and I can't even answer my own question. I just keep doing it. I think it's because I feel an obligation to my characters -- to see them through once I've started. It's not nice to leave them stranded in the open sea....

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Miller: I read a LOT. That keeps me immersed even if I'm not actually swimming myself.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Miller: Rough drafts. I always feel like I'm drowning, or at least flailing around a whole lot. I'm not very good at at letting my first attempt at a story be messy.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Miller: That is a very timely question, as it so happens.

In many ways, I wrote Miss Spitfire in a vacuum. I had some smart, well-read folks I could bounce stuff off of from time to time, but in essence I was a rookie on my own. Now that I've been through the editing process and know what it's like to have a pro involved, I find myself fighting the urge to run crying to my editor at every little choppy patch in my path.

In reality, though, I definitely prefer to work alone. I'm awfully reluctant to share what I'm working on until it's in pretty decent shape, so that makes it hard for me to ask for help or input in the first place. Besides, when someone does read for me and has no suggestions for improvement, I don't believe them. On the other hand, if they do have suggestions I'm secretly irritated. So clearly it's just best for me to keep to myself and muddle along as best I can!

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Miller: Revising is my favorite -- I love to tinker. But in the meantime, I love it when I can look back on yesterday's or last week's work and discover it's not half so crummy as I thought after all.

For more information about Sarah Miller, you can visit her website:

And to read more interviews with Sarah, visit:

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