It was a cold day in February and I was stalled. The writing of my novel, Helen In Love—which fictionalizes the story of Helen Keller’s secret love affair—wasn’t working. I’d done years of research: files littered my desk, photographs of Keller hung on my study walls, newspaper clippings from 1916—the year of the novel—blared their headlines of how Keller spoke out against the United States entering into World War I.
I had so many letters, photos, and books about my subject that I should have been able to write the novel in—what? A month? Two at most?
Well, it wasn’t happening. My characters felt stiff on the page—bloodless. I pushed them around like cardboard cutouts and after more time than I want to say—okay, after four years of writing—I finally did what any novelist worth her salt does in moments of frustration. I quit.
The next day, during a blustery snowstorm, I walked into my study. Instead of opening my computer, I left it shut. Then I ran my eyes over the bookshelves lining my walls. Please, I prayed to the writing Gods. Let me find a book to jump-start my writing.
And then I saw it. Way down on the bottom shelf, a flare of red caught my eye. The red cover of a novel I’d picked up years earlier but had never read now grabbed me. No, that cover didn’t grab me: it dragged me in. Blood red, this cover, with a Klimt-like female figure in a red dress, her black hair flowing, her dress enfolding her like a shroud.
And who was this figure on the book’s cover?
I moved to the couch in my study and opened the pages of Anchee Min’s mesmerizing novel, Becoming Madame Mao (Mariner Books).
All that week I walked in to my study at noon and stayed on the corner couch with Min’s novel until the sun went down. I was completely engrossed in the story of Madame Mao: her early years of desperation, then her love affairs, and a kind of heat rose up off of the page as I read. Min’s portrait of a woman I’d only known as the wife of Mao Tse-tung, Former Chairman of Communist Party of China, defied all of my expectations.
Gone was my image of Madame Mao as the tiny, grey-clad figure I’d seen on TV when she and her cohorts were charged with being the “Gang of Four.” No, this Madame Mao, told with Min’s careful shifts from first and third person, sizzled with life, lust, desperation, and greed.
She was human. She was fierce. She was very flawed.
And loved her.
When I finished the book later that week, I knew that fiery, flawed Madame Mao had freed my writing.
I flipped open my computer ready to do something different. The story I wrote, of another icon, might do something similar. Helen Keller, too, was not just her public image: a demure, school-teacherish, icon–preachy and dull. Rather, she was a suffragette, a supporter of civil rights as early as 1916, a firebrand socialist whose outspoken opinions offended many. And she was a woman who craved love.
As I wrote I felt—no, I was—alive to the story of the real Helen Keller. The one who wanted to “wear high heels and drink gin.” The woman who, despite worldwide fame and good works, said with great bitterness at her life’s end, “Had I been sighted, I would have married first of all.”
Several months later my novel was finished. The red copy of Anchee Min’s book was creased and worn on my desk. But my characters were alive.
And so I say thank you to the person I least expected would renew my writing.
Thank you, Madame Mao.