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
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
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
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 Keller 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.
A captivating novel that explores the little-known romance of a beloved American iconHelen Keller has long been a towering figure in the pantheon of world heroines. Yet the enduring portrait of her in the popular imagination is The Miracle Worker, which ends when Helen is seven years old.
Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines a part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke of or wrote about: the man she once loved. When Helen is in her thirties and Annie Sullivan is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as a private secretary. Peter Fagan opens a new world to Helen, and their sensual interactions—signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers—quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair. It’s not long before Helen’s secret is discovered and met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. As pressure mounts, the lovers plot to elope, and Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires.
Richly textured and deeply sympathetic, Sultan’s highly inventive telling of a story Keller herself would not tell is both a captivating romance and a rare glimpse into the mind and heart of an inspirational figure.
Thanks to the publisher, I have one (1) copy of Helen Keller In Love to give away.
Giveaway open to residents of the US & Canada only
Giveaway ends May 14th
Winner will have 48 hours, from the time of notification, to confirm their win or another winner will be chosen.
Rosie Sultan won a PEN Discovery Award for fiction. She earned her MFA at Goddard College 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. She lives with her husband and son outside of Boston, Massachusetts.