What triggered your interest in Helen Keller’s life, particularly her private life?
I’ve always been fascinated by Helen Keller. I read my first book about her when I was in the third grade, and I’ve read almost everything about her since. A few years ago I read a new biography of Helen: toward the book’s end a short chapter—maybe six pages long—said she had a love affair at age thirty-seven with a twenty-nine year old journalist from Boston. I couldn’t believe that Helen Keller had a secret love affair; I couldn’t believe she had defied her family and tried to run away with him; and I couldn’t believe the chapter that told that story was six pages long! I put the book down and said, “There’s a story here. I’m going to tell it.”
Do you think it’s possible that, because Helen was blind and deaf, most people—even those closest to her—believed she couldn’t develop romantic and carnal desires?
That’s right. This was 1916, and Helen’s family and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, knew Helen had normal desires, but they did not want her to act on them. But from the time Helen was young, she preferred men to women. Even as a child, if a man came to the house Helen would ask, “Do I look pretty?” When she was a young woman, at school in New York City and later at Radcliffe College, other girls went out with their boyfriends, while Helen studied or socialized with Annie. During that time Helen secretly read romance novels, and if Annie caught her she’d tell Helen to put the novel away and read something to improve her mind. Another way Helen’s family tried to keep her from having normal romantic desires? They wouldn’t let her be alone with a man. One time, at Radcliffe, a handsome young man was assigned to proctor Helen’s exam. Her mother had him replaced. So handicapped people had normal desires, but couldn’t fulfil them. Helen tried anyway.
In conducting your research on Helen Keller, her family, and inner circle, did you come across any places or documents that were particularly noteworthy? Or, say . . . shocking?
Yes, absolutely. I found some articles in the New York Times that surprised me because in them Helen protested the United States entering World War One. In biographies I found that the public who attended her speeches against the war revered her courage. They mobbed her after her speeches and even took the flowers off her hat. Other surprises were that at the turn of the century Helen supported Margaret Sanger and the use of birth control and she gave her support to the NAACP. Her southern family was scandalized.
Helen had a very close relationship with her instructor, Annie Sullivan. How would you characterize their relationship and how did that manifest itself in Helen in Love?
It was complex. It was not an ordinary mentor-student relationship. Annie taught Helen language and was Helen’s doorway to the outside world. When Annie was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1916, they needed to hire Peter Fagan. This is where intense conflicts developed because Annie didn’t want Helen getting close to Peter. She was threatened by Helen’s interest in him, and her growing need for his company.
Helen is a very independent thinker yet, based on her disabilities, she’s very dependent on those around her. What was it like writing a character with such a complex dynamic?
What was it like to write about her? It was thrilling. I discovered that she’s not the person we all thought we knew. I got to bring to life her many dimensions: Helen was a public figure, an author, a daughter, a sister, an activist. And I got to bring alive her secret desire for love.
What’s next for you? Do you have plans to continue writing historical fiction?
Absolutely. In researching this book I found there is a lot of untapped historical material about the characters I explored. So to answer your question, I have many more stories to tell, and they’ll be in my next novel.