Friday, September 5, 2014

Kimberly Elkins talks about What is Visible, her extraordinary novel about Helen Keller's predecessor, isolation, fame and so much more

Every once in a while, a novel is so powerful that you feel you inhabit it. I walked around in a trance while reading What is Visible, the astonishing debut from Kimberly Elkins. The novel reveals the haunting story of Laura Bridgman, Helen Keller's predecessor, a woman who lost four of her five senses as a child, became celebrated and then vanished into history. Gorgeously written, the book was launched with rave reviews from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and more. But What is Visible is also a casualty of the Amazon/Hachette battle. I want to personally urge everyone to go out to your favorite bookstore and buy or order this book, not just to support a deserving author, but to also support bookstores, and finally, and most importantly, because the book is just tremendous. 

Kimberly’s 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. She was a finalist for the 2004 National Magazine Award and has received fellowships from the Edward Albee and William Randolph Hearst foundations and the American Antiquarian Society, the SLS fellowship in Nonfiction to St. Petersburg, Russia, the St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award, and a joint research fellowship from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and the Massachusetts Historical Society for research on her novel. Residencies include the Millay Colony and Blue Mountain Center, and she was also the 2009 Kerouac Writer in Residence. Kimberly is the 2012 runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award and has also won a New York Moth Slam.

I'm thrilled to have Kimberly here. My thanks are huge.

 I always want to know what sparked a particular book and why it haunts the author. Why Laura Bridgman? How did the subject matter personally speak to you?

I first read about Laura Bridgman in the New Yorker in 2001, and was astounded that I’d never heard of her.  The mid-nineteenth century’s second most famous woman and Helen Keller’s predecessor, and yet she’d seemingly vanished from history!  But it was the photograph of Laura that really got me: an ethereal, almost emaciated, and yet somehow fierce-looking young woman with a ribboned shade tied round her eyes, balancing an enormous, raised-letter book on her lap. She sat absolutely erect with a stubborn dignity and vulnerability that both opened and broke my heart, posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for a photograph she’d never see, and with a face and body that she’d never know except through touch. That very night, I stayed up until dawn writing a story about her that would appear shortly thereafter in The Atlantic. That’s how quickly and completely I got into her head and heart, and she in mine.

And yet for many years, even while writing the novel, I had no plausible idea why I had been so irrevocably drawn to this woman who’d lost four of her five senses--what could I possibly have in common with her, and how could I possibly know her voice so well? Finally, it hit me, just shy of the book’s publication, that I had immediately and subconsciously identified with her sense of profound isolation, her inability to communicate her deepest thoughts and desires to anyone she thought would truly understand her.  These feelings I knew from a lifetime of battling severe depression, and though our disabilities were far from the same, it was a terrible bridge that we shared across the centuries.  Four years ago, I finally found the right medication, and it’s been a bright and gorgeous new life since then; frankly, if I hadn’t gotten the right meds, the book would never have been written.

What surprised you about the research? And what was the whole research process like for you?

The thing that surprised me most about the research was finding that Laura had not merely slipped into obscurity--she was booted there, and by the very same man who had rescued her and taught her language, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of Perkins Institute.  As Laura grew from the pliant and exhibition-worthy child who’d made them both famous into a brilliant and prickly woman with desires and opinions of her own, she thwarted the plans of her autocratic mentor until he turned on her in the worldwide press with a vengeance that was heartrending.

The other surprises were the discovery of all the affairs 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 deeper I delved, 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.  This is a novel that investigates the sexual tensions and politics of that time even as it tells Laura’s story.

Researching WHAT IS VISIBLE was such a joy for me; I could have gone on forever, and really had to rein myself in. I was lucky enough to get several fellowships, including one at Harvard’s Houghton Library and one at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, and so spent a solid two years devouring the letters and journals of not just Laura, but also of Dr. Howe; his wife, the famous poet and suffragette Julia Ward Howe; all of Laura’s teachers, and myriad other real-life figures, such as Longfellow, Dickens, John Brown and Dorothea Dix, who also appear in the novel as they did in Laura’s life. 

By the end of those two years, I had an entire enormous red suitcase stuffed with notes and papers, and I dreaded having to sort through all the material.  But then a strange thing happened as I actually began to write the book:  I found that I didn’t feel the need to refer to any of the research except to google a date or some other small detail, and so I went with it.  I had apparently decided, at first subconsciously and then later consciously, to allow my mind to function as a sieve for the endless stream of facts I’d poured into it, and so I let whatever stuck in the sieve make its way into the book.  Whatever hadn’t stuck, I figured simply wasn’t meant to. To this day, the red suitcase has never been opened, although I’m superstitious about throwing away its contents for fear of jinxing something, I don’t know what. 

 You also explore the whole notion of what it means to be famous, how you might see yourself differently and what it does to you. Can you also talk about that please?

Laura went from being the second most famous woman in the world, second only to Queen Victoria, to being a virtual shut-in, tied to her many storied friends mainly by correspondence, a doubly cruel position for one who longed so desperately to communicate, to touch and to be touched by others.  Her sense of self ballooned between extraordinary aggrandizement and complete debasement, and it is a testament to her great strength of character that she was able to handle the situation. Imagine having dolls of yourself made and sold all over the world with their eyes poked out and wearing your trademark green ribbon shade!

I also explore briefly delve into the life and soul of her famous successor, Helen Keller, who during the nineteenth century was known merely as “the second Laura Bridgman.”  The great difference between them was that Helen was acutely aware of what fame meant, and how to leverage it. In her own words, she   set out to be “the best damn poster child the world has ever seen.”  She got the blue glass eyes that Laura had been denied, a secret that was kept from her adoring public until after her death; she learned to speak, which Laura also had been denied, but which was agonizing for Helen, as the movement against orality has shown it to be for the majority of the deaf.  But most of all, Helen had Annie Sullivan, who had lived for two years at Perkins in Laura’s cottage and been taught by her the handspelling that Annie then used to teach Helen. 

Although Helen’s fame greatly eclipsed Laura’s, Helen herself attributed this disparity to the fact that she had Annie for most of her life to interpret the world for her, while Laura’s last beloved teacher was tragically parted from her when she was only twenty, and Dr. Howe forbid her ever having another teacher or companion.  Helen wrote in her autobiography that if Laura had continued to have someone like Annie, Laura “would have far outshone me.”  Annie Sullivan, who knew them both so well, also said that she found Laura to be “intellectually superior” to Helen.

 So much of this extraordinary novel, for me, was about how we truly live in the world, how we inhabit our bodies, and how we deal with what life has given us. Can you talk about that please?

Laura chose to inhabit her body with the one sense left to her--touch--as fully as humanly possible.  She pushed this sense to its extreme: constantly touching other women (she didn’t like men except for Dr. Howe, for whom she retained a deep and complex attachment); masturbating, even when she was punished for it; cutting herself to feel the most extreme sensations her body could offer; and in her one relationship, becoming fixated on a sadomasochistic dynamic, which she would have had no idea was taboo. She was simply determined to push her one sense to its limits, wherever that led. 

On the other side of that dynamic, she almost starved herself to death by not eating, since she had no sense of taste or smell, and was anorexic for most of her life, another thing that ultimately repulsed Dr. Howe. 

In terms of dealing with what life gave her--which was so little--she responded by waging an off- and on-again war with her God, challenging the whys and hows of her condition and her fate. And yet her God was also her only constant companion, because, at the end of the day, who else did she have to talk to?

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m beginning the research for an historical novel about the Fox sisters, America’s most famous nineteenth-century mediums--as children!  They initiated the Spiritualist movement that swept not only the country, but the world; however, the sisters’ paths diverged wildly as adults, with tragic results.  Apparently, I’m still in full-on nineteenth-century mode.

The other project is a new ode to the classic memoir.  I’ve long been gripped by the possibilities of best- and worst-case scenarios for certain dramatic, even violent, events in my past; I think that probably most people would love a chance to, in effect, rewrite certain parts of their lives.  So I plan to write the truth as close as I can get it, and then the other two totally different versions of the event.  What I’m discovering as I begin the process is that choosing what really would have been the best and worst things to possibly happen is vastly more psychologically complex, and even painful, than it would first appear.  It will also be a great challenge to make certain that all three pieces read with equal verisimilitude, because the reader will never be told which version is the true one.

 What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What does the title of the book, WHAT IS VISIBLE, mean to you?

It’s funny--I knew with absolute certainty the title from the get-go; it was the same title I gave the short story, published in the Atlantic in 2003, which then begot the novel.  WHAT IS VISIBLE most literally refers to the narrative itself:  at the end of “telling” the story of her life 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, even spiritually--has always fascinated me.  So the phrase “what is visible” is all-encompassing; it’s not only about Laura’s handicaps, but about the various complicated ways in which we all perceive and misperceive the world and each other.

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