Kimberly Elkins’s debut novel “What Is Visible” centers on the real-life story of Laura Bridgman, who spent most of her life in 19th Century Boston without the use of four out of five senses, and whose education at Perkins Institution for the Blind prefigured Helen Keller’s. Kimberly took time to speak with Dead Darlings recently about her project.
Can you talk about your personal background, and how that drew you into this material?
I first read about Laura Bridgman in The New Yorker. There was a picture of her looking emaciated, but dignified, reading from a huge, raised-letter book. I felt a profound connection to her immediately. Her story resonated with me deeply, although she had lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever at the age of two. That night, based on information in the article, I stayed up until dawn and wrote a short story that appeared in The Atlantic, and that’s how the project got started.
Since I have suffered from bouts of severe depression on and off throughout my life, I identified with that feeling of separation, of not being understood by the world that Laura projected in that photograph. After so many years of trying, I finally found the right medication four years ago, and it worked a miracle. Before that, I had been trying to write the book for four years, but only wrote about a quarter of it. Within six months of going on this medication, I wrote the other three-quarters of the book.
What accounts for the 19th Century obsession with Laura Bridgman? Conversely, why do you think she faded into obscurity?
Until then people who were disabled were kept out of the public eye, unless they were specifically exhibited as freaks like the Elephant Man and the African Venus. Laura, when she was younger, was charming enough and cute enough that she attracted positive attention. America was also just beginning to embark on its cult of celebrities, including curiosities. P.T. Barnum came of age then.
During the height of her fame, on one day, 1,100 people came out to see Laura Bridgman, but she was “put away” at the age of 20. Her teacher Dr. Howe, because of his obsession with Unitarianism, and because of Laura’s desire to pursue her own religious practices, disparaged her in the press worldwide. After years of trumpeting her virtues, he claimed he had discovered that she had a “small brain,” that she was “deranged.” She stayed at Perkins the rest of her life, but she was not visible.
The main reason she didn’t develop further was that she no longer had a teacher and companion; Dr. Howe took even that away from her, having someone at her side to interpret the world for her. Annie Sullivan, who ended up as Helen Keller’s teacher, lived with Laura in her cottage for a couple of years, and Laura taught her the finger spelling which Annie then taught Helen. Annie later said that she believed that Laura was “intellectually superior” to Helen, even though Helen had only lost two of her senses. And Helen herself said that if Laura had had her Annie Sullivan, she would have “far outshone her.”
A passage half-way through the book from the perspective of Sarah Wight, one of Laura’s teachers, nicely captures the challenge of engaging the senses of a protagonist who is missing four out of five. “Sarah knew that the only thing Laura would be able to completely understand was the weather – how something felt – so she took great care to detail the warm and gentle play of the breeze inland…” Can you comment on this?
It’s the kind of thing that, if I had set myself the challenge of writing with such extreme sensory constraints, I would have bolted screaming from the room! I was told by many published novelists that it couldn’t be done. “You’re going to bore the reader to death,” that kind of thing. So it was that initial aspect of somehow immediately connecting to her as a character that allowed me to get it right. At this point, I could write another 400 pages from Laura’s voice. It comes naturally.
When I did research at Perkins School for the Blind, I found a letter that says, “this is the last letter known to have been written by Laura Bridgman.” But two years earlier, I had gone to an antiquarian fair, and asked whether they had anything written by Laura, and I bought a letter she had written to a writer whose book she had enjoyed. It felt like it was written to me. Beyond that, the letter was composed on my birthday! And that, it turns out, was actually her last letter, written two days after the letter Perkins claims was her last letter. I like to think that it was her writing to me across the years.
The book opens with vivid first-person narration from Laura’s perspective, then diversifies to include multiple points of view in both first and third-person. Can you talk about the narrative choices you made along the way?
Originally, the whole book was planned to be written solely from Laura’s point of view. The first third was written that way, but from feedback and gut instinct, I felt it was going to be claustrophobic for both the writer and reader. When I realized that Laura needed to be seen from both the outside and the inside, I decided also to develop Doctor Howe and Sarah Wight, her last beloved teacher, as narrators.
When it was bought by Grand Central and transferred to Twelve, a Hachette imprint, my editor, Deb Futter, asked me to write some chapters from the perspective of Doctor Howe’s wife, Julia Ward Howe, the poet and suffragist who’s most famous for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” At first I didn’t feel comfortable with Julia. I had done all the research on her life already, but didn’t identify with her at all. Eventually I made myself do it. I wrote five chapters from Julia’s PoV, and was happy with the outcome. As for switching between the present tense for Laura and the past tense for the other narrators, I kept the faith in the old adage that, “a writer tells the reader how to read the work.” If you do that authoritatively enough, the reader doesn’t notice such discrepancies, or if they do, they accept them.
As someone who grew up in the long shadow of Helen Keller, I found it incredibly refreshing to move beyond Keller’s quasi-sainthood toward a more complex, three-dimensional portrayal of a disabled character. Can you discuss how Laura’s character took shape during the revision process?
If I had set myself the challenge of developing Laura from the age of 12 to 59, and thought about the changes in her voice, it would have been overwhelming. I didn’t write the book chronologically, although it is chronological in its final form, with the exception of the Prologue. It took some revision, and I adjusted some time aspects by filling in pieces I had missed the first time around, but basically it was the sheer act of my experiencing her life along with her that shaped her as a character and made her credible.
Another thing that helped make her “my Laura” was giving her an invented experience. For example, although she was known to have had a couple of crushes, there’s no documentation that she ever had a romantic relationship. My fictional adaptation includes a love interest, the Irish servant girl Kate. By letting her have that love, it changed her. I was criticized in one advance review for taking “audacious liberties,” but they had to be taken. E.L. Doctorow once said, in the context of his novel, Ragtime, “Did Henry Ford really meet and scheme with J.P. Morgan?” And he replied, “They have now!”
Laura’s educator and benefactor Samuel Gridley Howe sits at the center of a “love quadrangle” that includes Laura, his wife Julia Ward Howe, and Howe’s close friend Charles Sumner. Yet Howe’s character is hard to pin down – he is by turns loving and cruel. What accounts for the strong attraction he holds for those orbiting around him?
He really was dedicated to his work in helping the blind, and he was amazingly charismatic. He was also known far and wide as the most handsome man in Boston. Given that he was good-looking, charismatic, and well-educated, he seemed to have quite the hold over people, even though he fought with them. When he dies in the book, his last thoughts are of Laura. In his letters and journals, you see a romanticization of Laura, enough to make you a little uncomfortable. His infidelities are well-known.
I’m also interested in Howe’s wife Julia. She is portrayed as pretty self-centered at the start, but matures quite a bit. What challenges did you encounter in rendering her character?
I ended up being happy with Julia, and feel like she rounded out the novel. The reason I didn’t want to write her POV originally was that she was smarter than I am, and so I found the prospect very intimidating! The reason Laura is in the first person and present tense is simply because that’s the way she came to me. I wanted to keep Laura at the center. Others I kept in a very close third-person, but in the past tense. I thought initially that would be a problem, but the chapter transitions seemed to have worked O.K.
Given the weight of nineteenth century U.S. history, how did you negotiate the trade-off between sweep and focus?
When you write, you have to make a decision about every word, in terms of what to include and what to leave out. The John Brown material, for example, I had tons of that. I ended up with a suitcase full of research, but when I started writing the book, I didn’t look at the material. I just thought of my brain as a sieve: Whatever was going to stick would stick. Also I was much more focused on the characters’ inner landscapes, especially Laura’s, and how historical and cultural events affected them, as opposed to an accumulation of historical facts.
While researching and writing the book, I learned so much. I was intimidated by all that historical detail at first, but eventually decided to ignore my fears and just forge ahead. Because I’m a perfectionist and knew I’d probably find a million things I’d want to change, I intentionally didn’t read the whole narrative until the proofing stage.
Thinking back on the process of writing this novel, has your conception of 19th Century America changed relative to when you started?
It came alive for me. I ceased thinking of it as “long ago and far away.” You can’t write a historical novel, you have to feel it. When the characters are speaking in an overly anachronistic way, it doesn’t read well. If you’re going to write something historical, you should always read from the period, not about the period. That’s the best thing you can do.
Reflecting on the process of bringing What Is Visible to market, what do you think you’ve learned along the way about the business side of writing fiction?
The Amazon situation with Hachette is a tough pill to swallow. It’s happening at a bad time for my book and others’ books. It’s pretty shocking. But in terms of other corporate realities, everything went much more smoothly than I expected. While at first I encountered some resistance – a couple of the editors my agent sent it to said that the book was just too freak-centered – eventually we found a home for it, and the pieces fell into place. My editor has been terrific all the way through. Grand Central and I both wanted to pave the way for a long-term relationship, and as that became clear on both sides, it really helped with the process a lot.
Are you likely to take on another historical novel again? Where can we expect your interests to turn now?
I’m not yet committed to something specific, but working on a couple of projects. I have enough material for a short story collection, but we’ll see. I’ve also begun writing another historical novel about two real-life sisters who were famous mediums, and grew up to be founders of the Spiritualism movement. My other major project is a variation on the classic memoir, in which I sort of explode that form. The idea is to write about different incidents, including some violent events, from my life in three different forms: what really happened, and then the worst-case and best-case scenarios. I think everyone wants a chance to rewrite one’s life, to see how things might have turned out differently with different choices. And I wouldn’t let the reader know which of the three scenarios in each case is the true one.