Rosie Sultan’s historial novel Helen Keller in Love, published by Viking on May 1, has been featured in Good Housekeeping magazine, The Huffington Post, Deep South magazine, Library Journal and Booklist.
The Brookline resident won a PEN Discovery Award for a novel-in-progress, House of Teeth, nominated by historian Howard Zinn. She earned her MFA at Goddard College in Vermont and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has taught writing at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Suffolk University.
Boston Writers Review founder Stanley Dankoski interviewed Sultan about her experiences as an emerging writer in the Boston area. Read on for the interview, an excerpt of her novel, and upcoming events — including a Grub Street book club on Thursday night this week.
Describe your typical writing routine. Is it daily? weekly? whenever you get a chance?
RS: When I am working on a novel, I write seven days a week. I write on vacations, I write outside my son’s school while waiting to pick him up, I write in the grocery store parking lot. I just write.
Are you part of a writers group? How does that help you with your writing?
RS: While I’m not in a formal writers’ group, I do show my work to two trusted writer-friends; they both give invaluable feedback. I simply can’t imagine writing without them.
Do you need a quiet space, your family far, far away in order to write, or do you crank up the radio to get in the zone?
RS: I am very lucky to have a study in my house that is just for writing. I work there most days, but when my sisters visit, or my in-laws, out comes the room’s futon couch — and poof! The study is no longer mine. Then I write wherever I can — the kitchen, the front porch, or my beloved local library.
How do you balance family life with your writing life?
RS: I don’t! I’m kidding — partly. I wrote my first novel when I was a single mother with a young child, so I scrambled to write in-between running to pick him up from preschool and holding down my teaching job at Suffolk University in Boston. That experience trained me as a writer: Helen Keller In Love was written when my child was older and I had a supportive husband, but my writing cast-of-mind had been set by that earlier experience and I’m thankful for that.
Besides writing and teaching writing, what do you do to relax or be creative?
RS: I read the way other people breathe: that is one great way I relax. I have a meditation practice that is truly lovely, and I spend as much time as possible outdoors when I’m not working. A day at any body of water is truly the best thing for me.
How would you rate your experience writing/reviewing for publications?
RS: Novels and stories are my go-to forms, but I have also really enjoyed writing articles, essays, and reviews.
Describe the moment when you realized you wanted to write, to be a writer.
RS: My father was a construction worker and I am the first generation in my family to go to college, so as a child I never thought of being a writer — it wasn’t what people in our family did. When I finished college I loved literature, but watched with some envy as friends of mine trotted off to secure work in law, business, or education. But I knew in my heart those fields weren’t right for me.
So on a hot summer day, as I sat in the backyard of my rented house on Cape Cod, my boyfriend asked, “What do you want to do?”
“I want to write,” I finally said.
That fall I started graduate school in writing — and I have never looked back.
How does your reading life contribute to your writing life?
RS: Reading is the heart of writing: as I read I examine texts very closely so that they reveal their mysteries to me. I once typed out the entire text of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day to understand how that marvelous book was structured. I’ve done that in other ways with books I truly admire.
What resources in Boston do you find helpful as an emerging writer?
RS: Two words: Grub Street. Grub Street is chock-full of astonishing writers who give their time, their knowledge, and their know-how to Boston’s writers. It is a place of generosity and grace — we are blessed to have such a resource.
Becoming a novelist
What do you find interesting specifically about historical fiction?
RS: Historical fiction allows a novelist to fully explore, in a deep and almost reverent way, the life of a fellow human being in the context of the wider world. Helen Keller — the subject of Helen Keller In Love — was a political activist, a woman who worked for the rights of others while chafing against restrictions put on her own life. The historical novel allows all these elements to come alive. It is a thrilling form.
How comfortable must you be when writing historical fiction, especially of an iconic figure? How did your research on your title character help you?
RS: Some of the happiest moments in the writing of this book were the moments I spent researching the life of Helen Keller. The research gave me a solid foundation for the book.
Helen Keller wrote over 12 books, hundreds of letters, and innumerable articles: she gave speeches across the country and around the world; she was photographed more than almost any other woman of her day: in a word, she is a boon for novelists. Her papers are held by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, and I spent many, many hours there.
How has the publication of Helen Keller in Love affected you personally?
Why do you believe Helen Keller and her story have stayed with you throughout your life?
RS: I have been fascinated by Helen Keller since I was seven years old and got my first book about her. I’ve read most everything about her since. A few years ago I read a new biography about her called Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann. Toward the end of the book was a short chapter that told the story of how, at age 37, Helen had a secret love affair with Peter Fagan. I put the book down and said, “There’s a big story here.”
I wrote about — and was fascinated by — Helen Keller and this period in her life because once I knew she had a love affair I saw her as more than an icon: I saw her as a woman with vulnerabilities and conflicting desires. I wrote about Helen Keller as an investigation into the complexities of her very human heart.
What do you think have contributed to your success at becoming a debut novelist?
RS: Persistence, a love of writing, and a very stubborn heart. I decided at a certain point in the writing of this book that, whether it was ever published or not, I would write it anyway. That act of freeing myself from the desire to be published was the best thing I did. It freed me to write. And then, in a lovely twist, it was published.
How did you find an agent?
RS: I was at a barbecue for scientist friends of my husband and, not being a scientist myself, I cornered the one other writer there. When I told this writer about my book he said, “Hey, why don’t you send that to my agent?” So I did. Stuart Bernstein has been the best of agents since then.
The moral of this story? Talk about your project. You never know who may be willing to extend a generous hand.
How long did it take the manuscript to get to its final form?
RS: A friend calls my novel “the longest pregnancy on human record,” and we laugh. The book took years — and it was worth it.
Would you recommend having an MFA? How important was your MFA background in shaping your manuscript?
RS: An MFA is a chance to study writing deeply. That is a chance every writer should have. Having an MFA helped me get a teaching job which supported my writing, and that is invaluable. So in that sense the MFA shaped the book, indeed.
How are you finding the use of social media to get the word out about your book?
RS: Social media has helped me connect with writers, readers, bookstore owners, and others to get the word out about this book. I love it. Now if only I could stop using it and start writing again! It’s a bit addictive. …
How involved are you in the publicity of the book?
RS: My fabulous publicist at Viking has helped enormously. At the same time, I am very involved, and I always will be.
RS: Writers sometimes think that to be ‘real’ writers we must be picked for publication by a great publishing house, or have a stellar agent. Both of these things are fabulous, and I am thankful to have had them. They are the foundations for many great things.
But it’s a mistake to wait for those things. The marketer Seth Godin said something that really sticks with me. “Don’t wait to be picked,” he said. “Pick
Pick yourself as a writer whose work is worthwhile. You won’t regret it.
Listen to an excerpt
Rosie Sultan read an excerpt from Helen Keller in Love for The Drum magazine.
Upcoming events with Rosie Sultan
Grub Street Book Club discusses Helen Keller in Love
Thursday, August 16, 6:30pm to 8:30pm
Grub Street, 162 Boylston St., fifth floor, Boston, MA
The Grub Book Club offers a chance to read and discuss great books with a focus on reading from a writer’s perspective. The book club’s next pick is the novel Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. The club will discuss Helen Keller in Love for the first hour and will then be joined by author Rosie Sultan for an informal Q&A about her novel. The Washington Post said “Helen Keller in Love is touching and fun to read. … Sultan has given the adult Helen Keller a new voice and reminds us of both her brilliance and her humanity.” Must be a current Grub Street member to attend, and members are invited to bring friends. For more information or to join the Grub Street book club please contact email@example.com.
Reading at RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, NH
Wednesday, September 19th, 7:00 p.m.
142 Fleet Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801
Reading at Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, Colo.
Friday, September 28, 7:30 p.m.
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Writing workshop with Page Lambert
Mount Vernon Country Club, Golden, Colo.
Saturday, September 29, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Register: (303) 842-7360 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Denver Women’s Press Club
Sunday, September 30, 3-5:00 pm
Reading, discussion, book signing, wine and refreshments
See complete details.