An Interview with Kimberly Elkins, by Celia Johnson

In 2001, Kimberly Elkins picked up a copy of the New Yorker and became engrossed in an article about Laura Bridgman, a woman few people know, despite world-wide renown in the Nineteenth Century. Laura was deaf and blind and had no sense of taste or smell. As a young girl, she amazed others by learning to communicate. She was a true pioneer (before Helen Keller). Elkins first wrote a story about Laura and then, over many years, produced a novel. What Is Visible was recently released and it is a mesmerizing tale. In a review for the New York Times, Barbara Kingsolver observed, “A novel’s extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another. This one provides entree to a nearly unthinkable life, and while no one would want to live there, it’s a fascinating place to visit.” I spoke with Elkins about her fierce protagonist, the challenges of writing historic fiction, and, as a debut novelist, what advice she’d give to her former self.

what is visible

What inspired you to write Laura Bridgman’s story?

When I first read about Laura in a 2001 New Yorker article, I was astounded that I’d never heard of her, an icon so celebrated that Laura dolls proliferated worldwide, with their eyes poked out and covered by her trademark green ribbons.  While the idea of a deaf-blind person who also can’t taste or smell likely evokes for many the prison of a cruelly limited existence, my first impulse was that Laura Bridgman must have possessed a wildly complex and unique inner life.  The accompanying photograph of a frighteningly thin young woman sitting ramrod straight, her eyes covered with a shade, hands caressing a raised-letter book, both opened and broke my heart. She posed with stubborn dignity for an image she’d never see, and with a face and body she’d never experience except through touch.  I knew immediately that I had to find out why the nineteenth century’s most renowned educational, philosophical, and theological “experiment” had been lost to history.

So deeply did I feel this connection with her that I stayed up that night until dawn writing the story that was published shortly thereafter in the Atlantic, and which begot the novel.

What are a few of the historic gems that you unearthed during your research for this novel?

There were a lot of them, but I think that probably the most startling revelation was that Dr. Howe, the founder of Perkins and Laura’s mentor, and one of the century’s greatest philanthropists, was one of the Secret Six, the Northerners who financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Reading the letters between Howe and Brown was especially fascinating.  The Secret Six came within a hair of being tried along with Brown, but the government didn’t want to be forced to execute such sterling members of the New England elite.

The other surprises were the affairs, oh, the dalliances of every stripe–heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual.  At the start of my research, I’d been afraid that a novel about a deaf-blind woman in the nineteenth century might be rather dry, but the more covers I lifted, the juicier it got, from Dr. Howe’s relationship with the famous abolitionist, Senator Charles Sumner, to the great love between Julia Ward Howe and a suicidal novelist in Rome.

Beyond archives, where else did you search for details to help capture Laura so vividly? Did you do anything less conventional, like blindfolding yourself, to understand her disabilities?

Honestly, I didn’t do anything unusual, besides immersing myself in her letters and journals and everything written about her to understand her in a historical context. As someone who has suffered from severe depression all my life–though not for the last several years, thank heaven; that’s the only way the book got written!–I instantly identified with that sense of profound separateness and isolation that defined Laura, even as she yearned desperately for human connection.  Call it psychic, call it the mating call of the depressed, but whatever it was, I knew this woman instantly.  It might sound odd or even arrogant, but there was no need for blindfolding or stuffing my ears with cotton;  I was already fully inside her head from the get-go.  I’ve heard it said that a writer usually only gets one of these miracles in a lifetime–a character bursting forth fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus–so I thanked my stars and started writing Laura immediately.

Which characters did you feel closest to (or, perhaps most distant from) as the story progressed?

I definitely always felt, and still feel, closest to Laura; the novel was originally intended to be all from her first-person point of view.  But as I closed in on the first third of it, I realized that not only would the narrative likely become claustrophobic for the reader given that Laura can communicate through only one sense, but also that one needed to be able to see and understand her from the outside in, not just the inside out.

So then I added several chapters narrated by Dr. Howe, Laura’s mentor, and also by Sarah Wight, her last beloved teacher.  But when the book was bought, my editor at Grand Central/Twelve, Deb Futter, felt strongly that the voice of Dr. Howe’s wife, the famous poet and suffragist, Julia Ward Howe, was needed to round out the work.  At first, I couldn’t conceive of writing Julia, although I’d done plenty of research on her as she she already a major character in the book. Finally, I realized that I was just plain intimidated by her; unlike the other characters, Julia was, I surmised, far smarter than I was, and I was stumped: how do you write a character who’s smarter than you are?  And if that weren’t enough, she also wasn’t particularly likable, especially in regard to the condescension with which she treated Laura and the blind in general.  So in a distinctly opposite process from writing Laura, I had to write my way into Julia, feel my way through her, and get to know her on her own terms.  By the time I’d written five chapters from her perspective, I’d even grown to like, admire and respect her.  It was a real learning experience as a writer; there was no way to go except through her.

What were some of your biggest challenges writing a historic novel?

The most difficult thing by far was trying to maintain my balance on what the writer Thomas Mallon has called the “sliding scale of historical fiction,” adhering to the “what might have happened as well” model as opposed to the “what might have happened instead.”  And since WHAT IS VISIBLE is not only an historic novel, but one based on real people, I had to be extremely careful with my facts, my projections, my own fiction writer’s agenda.  But in the end, of course, it is a novel, and where I felt creative license was warranted, I took it, even inventing one character entirely; however, I knew that some readers ache to know exactly what’s factual and what isn’t, and so I wrote a five-page Afterward detailing wherever I swerved from the documented “facts,” and why I made the choice to do so in those instances. In the end, it was most important to stay true to the internal landscapes of my characters rather than embarking on a point-by-point history of their lives and times over the fifty-year period covered by the novel.  After all, as E.L. Doctorow said, “A historian will tell you what happened.  A novelist will tell you how it felt.”

The other major challenge was deciding what to put in and what to leave out. After two years of just research, no writing, I literally had an enormous red suitcase full of notes and documents.  But when I finally started writing, a very strange thing happened:  I didn’t feel the need to consult my notes at all.  And so I went with it, chapter after chapter, the suitcase in the corner still unopened, but reassuringly present.  I realized that I had unconsciously decided to let my mind function as a kind of sieve for all that information, and that I would trust that whatever stuck in that sieve was what was meant to stick, and what was meant to be in the book.  To this day, the red suitcase remains unopened, but I can’t bear to throw it away, even now with the novel published. Just in case…

As a debut author, is there any advice you’d just love to give your earlier self?

Trust, trust, trust, and do not judge, judge, judge. It’s very hard to do that starting out, but once it finally sinks in, you’re golden.  The picking things apart, the questioning, are the stuff of revision, and that is where they firmly belong.

What’s next? Another novel? And, if so, is it already in the works?

I’m juggling a couple of projects at the moment. First is an historical novel about the Fox sisters, who were America’s most famous nineteenth-century mediums–as children!  They actually began the Spiritualist movement that swept not only the country, but the world; however, the sisters’ paths diverged wildly as adults, with tragic results.  I guess I’m still in nineteenth-century mode.

The other project is a new take on the classic memoir, as I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities of  best- and worst-case scenarios for certain dramatic, even violent, events in my past, based on the idea that everyone would like a chance to, in effect, rewrite parts of their lives.  So I’ll write the truth as close as I can get it, and then the other two versions of the event.  What I’m discovering is that choosing what really would have been the best and worst things to possibly happen is much more psychologically complex than it would first appear.  It’s also a great challenge to make all three pieces read with equal verisimilitude, because the reader will never be told which version is the true one.

Author photo by Sarah Shatz

Kimberly Elkins‘ fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, The Chicago Tribune, Best New American Voices, Glamour and Slice, among others.  She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in fiction, and fellowships include Harvard, Radcliffe and the Kerouac Project for her novel, “What Is Visible,” released by Twelve/Grand Central in June 2014. Kimberly teaches at BU and in the MFA program at The University of Hong Kong, and lives in Cambridge, MA.

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also the author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.