If you want to be a writer, you first have to be a reader.
So says Sarah Miller, who will visit Rodman Public Library at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 29 as part of Rodman Public Library’s Fogle Author Series.
“Read,” in fact, was the one-word answer Miller gave when asked what advice she would give to an aspiring writer.
Miller, who started writing her first novel when she was only 10 years old, was a big fan of Harriet the Spy and Wait Till Helen Comes as she was growing up. As a teen, she became a fan of Donna Jo Napoli’s fairy tale retellings. Nowadays, she gets excited when authors like N.K. Jemisin and Sarah Waters release a new book.
A prolific writer with both fiction and non-fiction to her credit, the Michigan resident has made a career of giving technicolor voice to peripheral women of classic literature, beginning with her portrayal of Little House on the Prairie’s Caroline “Ma” Ingalls in Caroline: Little House, Revisited. Celebrated as “a master of historical fiction,” the novel for adults is an ALA Notable Book.
Miller’s forthcoming book — Marmee: A Novel of Little Women — will be released on Oct. 25, just days before her visit to Rodman Library. The captivating and affecting narrative expands the cherished world of Little Women and creates a stunning portrait of a wife left behind, a mother pushed to the brink, and a woman with secrets. This is Margaret “Marmee” March as we have never seen her before.
Miller is also the author of two historical novels for teens, both ALA Notable Books, including Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller and The Lost Crown, A heart-wrenching, suspenseful look at the downfall of the Russian empire as told through the eyes of the four Romanov sisters.
Her nonfiction debut, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century, was hailed as "a historical version of Law & Order" by The New York Times. It was named one of Reader’s Digest's Best Biographies You Should Have Read By Now, and chosen as a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best selection.
Her other nonfiction work includes Violet and Daisy: The Story of Vaudeville’s Famous Conjoined Twins as well as The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets, which is a Junior Library Guild selection.
On November 8, she will release another nonfiction title – Hanged! Mary Surratt and the Plot to Assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The book explores the life of the first woman ever executed in the United States and whether or not she truly committed treason by aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth in killing the president or if she was she the victim of a spectacularly cruel coincidence.
Ahead of her visit to Rodman Library, Miller answered some questions about her work and the processes she uses as a writer:
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your path to becoming a published writer?
A: My path was atypical, to be perfectly blunt. I worked at a children’s independent bookstore for six years in the early 2000s, so I had a bit of an inside edge. One of the authors who came to the shop for an event recommended her agent to me. It was someone I’d never heard of, but I queried her anyway. She loved the manuscript (Miss Spitfire) and managed to sell it within about six weeks. That’s … bananas.
Q: Your fiction books are so interesting in the way they take a look at a well-known story from the perspective of a character that isn’t the main focus of those novels. What kind of research do you do for those stories and what is the process you use to weave together those stories?
A: That’s a big question. Research is my favorite part. I’ve done everything from butchering a hog to learning braille in the name of research. One of my friends calls me a “method author.” If there’s anything I can do that my characters did, I’ll do it. For the most part, though, research is a mountain of reading – combing through archives, newspaper databases, court transcripts, and whatever other resources are relevant.
As for the weaving of the stories themselves, I’ll have to talk more about that in person!
Q: How do you choose your subjects for the non-fiction work?
A: Honestly, they really just kind of … hit me. It’s like wading into the water and getting bitten by a shark. Nearly every topic I’ve tackled has started out as a casual interest that grabs on and won’t let go. The common thread, though, is discovering an unknown facet of a story – a story everyone thinks they already know.
Q: As a writer, do you have a preference between fiction or non-fiction? How about as a reader?
A: It depends on what I’m working on. With every fiction project there comes a moment when I get imagination-fatigue and wish I could fall back on some nice, simple facts. And with non-fiction, I inevitably have days where I get frustrated with the tedium that accuracy demands and wish I could just Make. Stuff. Up.
As a reader, I gravitate more toward fiction purely for pleasure. But if you actually look at my reading stats (because I’m the kind of nerd who likes stats) you’d see that because of the historical research I do, I end up reading just a little more non-fiction overall.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say about your new book?
Marmee gave me so many opportunities to do the things I love most – delving into characters and events that feel familiar to discover their hidden dimensions, and then digging around in history to unearth the political and social context that would have shaped Margaret March’s daily life. Marmee is always so busy in Little Women, and yet Louisa May Alcott hardly ever shows us what she’s up to – in the midst of a war, no less! That gave me acres of room to work (dare I say ‘play’?) with.
Q: Are there any comments in general that you would like to make?
A: I love reader Q&A! I hope folks will come with lots of questions in October so we can all have a nice meaty bookchat together.
Many of Miller’s books will be available for sale on the day of her visit and she will sign them following her remarks.