Five questions for Sarah Miller

No stranger to well-rounded depictions of complex and notorious women from history, nonfiction author Sarah Miller, whose previous books include The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & the Trial of the Century and The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets, explores the lives of Violet and Daisy: The Story of Vaudeville’s Famous Conjoined Twins (12 years and up; Schwartz & Wade/Random). (Photo by Chris Martin)

1. What was the progression between writing about Lizzie Borden, the Dionne quintuplets, and now the Hilton sisters?  

Sarah Miller: The progression feels arbitrary to me on the surface — I mean, axe murder to a vaudeville sister act? —  but when I think about it, that’s an illusion. Researching Lizzie Borden generated an intense interest in people who are in a sense victimized by public perception. The contrast between what we think we know about these folks and what their lives were actually like fascinates me to no end. How do such wide chasms between image and reality form? 

2. How much did you know about Violet and Daisy going into the project?  

SM: I thought I knew plenty. I was wrong. When I started delving deep into newspapers and trade journals of the era, I found out how much of their life story was deliberately manufactured — by their manager/guardian, biographers, and even the Hilton sisters themselves. That was a significant reversal for me. With my previous projects the media had been loaded with misinformation, but here the news reports were actually what was showing me the reality of Violet and Daisy's career arc, through performance schedules, reviews, and so on. It also demonstrated just how shockingly free you could be about manipulating the truth in an era before online fact checking. In those days, what happened in Vegas (or anywhere else) actually stayed in Vegas for the most part. 

3. As a nonfiction author, was it daunting (or exciting) to research people who were intentionally crafting their own narratives? 

SM: It was terrifying. It was irritating. And then it became intriguing. Tracing Violet and Daisy’s path through Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania was especially thrilling because I had the feeling I was looking at information nobody had paid attention to since 1915. And when I discovered that concerns about their welfare had been brought before parliament in the state of Victoria? I almost fell over. I’d never heard a whisper of any attempted intervention on Violet and Daisy’s behalf, and there it was, right in the official records of the legislative assembly. 

4. What does the sisters’ story mean for readers today?  

SM: Violet and Daisy knew exactly who they were, and wanted to be nothing but themselves. They were simultaneously individuals, and part of an indivisible unit. Both of those things were intrinsic to their identity. Today, when so many marginalized identities are coming under scrutiny, Violet and Daisy make it clear that you are who you are, no matter how unconventional or unimaginable your identity may appear to anyone else. 

5. Do you know about—or have you seen—the musical Side Show based on their lives?

SM: I’m aware of it but have largely shied away. What little I did learn struck me as falling back on conventional assumptions about conjoined twins. I never found an instance of Violet and Daisy expressing a desire to be “Like Everyone Else,” for example. They wanted to be treated like everyone else, but that’s very different from a longing to be quote-unquote “normal.” And any whiff of the idea that they needed romantic love to be truly happy makes me bonkers. Violet and Daisy’s love and devotion to each other sustained them to their very last moments together — and beyond.

From the July 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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