In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing author and they choose their own interview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Kimberly Elkins is the author of What is Visible, a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bridgman—the blind and deaf woman who first learned sign language, paving the way for Helen Keller. Here is what Kimberly had to say about reading, writing, and the books that gave her the courage and inspiration to write her own novel.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Hi there, I’m Kimberly Elkins, a writer and professor living in Cambridge, MA, although I spend part of the year as a Visiting Lecturer in the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong, the first program of its kind in Asia. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, then got a degree in English at Duke University, followed by an MA in Creative Writing from Florida State, and an MFA in Fiction from Boston University. Too much school!
I write literary fiction and nonfiction, including short stories and personal essays. My work has been published in the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, the Iowa Review, the Chicago Tribune, and Glamour, among others. My first novel, What is Visible, just came out in June 2014. It’s based on the real-life historical figure of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind person to learn language, fifty years before Helen Keller. Laura also couldn’t taste or smell, having lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever at age two. In the nineteenth century, she was considered the second most famous woman in the world, second only to Queen Victoria. Thousands flocked to Perkins Institute to visit her; Darwin and Dickens wrote about her, and there were even Laura dolls worldwide with their eyes poked out and covered with her trademark green ribboned shade. The book explores the complex reasons why Laura has been virtually erased from history, which include debates about religion, ideas of female beauty and sexuality, and the exploitation of the disabled. We remember only Helen Keller as the first deaf-blind person to learn language, and with What is Visible, I aim to set the record straight.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
When I’m writing, I usually stay up very late, until about 4:00 a.m. That’s my best writing time. Then I get up around 8:00 or 9:00. That leaves only four or five hours of sleep, so I make it up by luxuriating in usually two naps a day, one in the early afternoon, and one in the evening. Research indicates that napping is a great boon to creative thinking, especially problem-solving, and I always wake feeling revitalized creatively.
The other main thing I do is to keep a huge poster board I’ve made on the wall above my desk that is specific to the project I’m working on. For my novel, What is Visible, it was decorated with pictures of the real-life historical characters to keep them always in my sight. The board was also divided into small boxes for days, month by month, as many boxes as the board allowed, and for every day that I wrote (which was every single day for the last two-thirds of the novel), I stuck a lovely little flower sticker in the box, the equivalent of giving myself a gold star. I also noted the word counts at the end of every week in gold ink with many encouraging exclamation points. As silly as it might sound, having that board above the desk, with all its pictures, reminders, goal-setting and encouragement really did help psychologically as I sat down each day to work.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I first read about Laura Bridgman in a 2001 New Yorker article, and was amazed that I’d never heard of this remarkable American icon. But more than the article, it was the photograph accompanying it that cut right through to my heart: a frail, almost emaciated, and yet somehow fierce-looking young woman with a ribboned shade tied around her eyes, sitting ramrod straight with a stubborn dignity, and balancing an enormous, raised-letter book on her lap. As someone who has suffered on and off from severe depression all my life, I immediately identified with that profound sense of separateness and isolation, and knew immediately that I had to find out why she had been virtually lost to history.
Although Laura and I would seem to be wildly different to the naked eye, in writing her story, I was able to let go and share a piece of myself through this book. I am also very proud to have brought this incredible woman back into the public eye to reclaim her rightful place in history.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
Yes, I keep books that relate in some way, either in terms of research or theme, close by, and dip into them randomly when I feel the need for inspiration. For example, with What is Visible, I kept on my desk biographies of all the main characters, plus the fantastic historical novels that inspired me and gave me the courage and vision to write my own: Property by Valerie Martin; Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian, and A Brief History of Women by Kate Walbert. And for general good artistic and spiritual advice, I often refer to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, especially the inspiring quotes from master artists, writers and philosophers on the side of every page. Other than those and more research materials, I’m really not able to read much for pleasure when I’m deep in the throes of writing.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
I always knew the title; it was the same title I gave the short story, published in the Atlantic in 2003, which begot the novel of the same name. No one else ever had any say in it. What is Visible most literally refers to the narrative itself: at the end of “telling” her story to the young Helen Keller, who is being groomed to be “the second Laura Bridgman,” Laura says that while she will not be able to read what she has written, she prays that “what is invisible to man may be visible to God.” The idea of what is visible versus what is invisible, or below the surface, and also what it means to be truly visible to others–emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually–has always fascinated me. So the phrase “what is visible” is all-encompassing; it’s not just about Laura’s handicap, but about the myriad ways in which we all perceive and misperceive the world and each other.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I generally research fairly exhaustively first, and then write. For What is Visible, I spent two years immersing myself in the letters, journals and enormous historical coverage of Laura and my three other narrators: Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the founder of Perkins, who took Laura in at age seven and taught her language; Julia Ward Howe, his famous poet and suffragist wife; and Sarah Wight, Laura’s beloved last teacher. Besides the archives at Perkins School for the Blind, I was fortunate to get fellowships at Harvard, Radcliffe, the Massachusetts and Maine Historical Societies and the American Antiquarian Society, the last of which was most useful in simply acclimating myself to the 19th-century sensibility. I learned quickly that it was better to read from the period than about the period, a strategy I strongly suggest for anyone writing historical fiction.
About the Author: Kimberly Elkins’ fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, Best New American Voices, The Iowa Review, The Village Voice,The Chicago Tribune, Maisonneuve, Glamour, Prevention and McGraw-Hill’s college textbook, Arguing Through Literature, and Slice, among others.