Agent: Gail Hochman
Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents
You can contact Kimberly Elkins directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact for book clubs to schedule an in-person, phone or Skype author visit for your group.
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. 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 was a finalist for the 2015 Library of Virginia Award in Fiction, the runner-up for the 2012 Nelson Algren Award, and has also won a New York Moth Slam. She has taught at Florida State University and Boston University, and is currently a Visiting Lecturer and Advisor for the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong, the first MFA in Asia. Previous jobs include executive assistant to Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, and assistant to Elia Kazan at the Actors’ Studio Playwrights’ Unit. She has a B.A. from Duke University, an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State, and an MFA in Fiction from Boston University. Kimberly Elkins grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, and currently lives in New York City.
"The Letter," a chapter from the novel, a version of which was the Nelson Algren Award finalist, and was published in The Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Supplement, now anthologized in Short Stories from Printers Row, Volume 1.
My inspiration to write the novel:
When I first read about Laura Bridgman in a 2001 New Yorker article, I was astounded that I’d never heard of her, given that in the mid-nineteenth century, she was considered the most famous woman in the world after Queen Victoria. Why had she been virtually erased from history, leaving us to believe that Helen Keller, fifty years later, was the first deafblind person to learn language? While the idea of a deafblind woman who also couldn’t taste or smell probably conjures for many the narrow cell of a cruelly limited existence, my first thought was that Laura Bridgman must have possessed a most fascinating and complex inner life. The article featured a photograph of her, her eyes covered with a shade, but her attitude somehow one of stubborn dignity. Looking at that picture, she broke my heart.
I also felt, in some strange and unfathomable way, that on some level, I already knew her. I felt her isolation, her pride, her precocity: it was there in the straightness of her spine, the way her hands caressed the raised-letter book, the slightly odd and rigid way she held her head. She was posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for an image she’d never see, and with a face and body she’d never know except through touch.
That night, I stayed up until dawn writing the story which would become the germ of the novel, and which was published shortly thereafter in The Atlantic with practically no revisions. That’s how deeply and instantly I got inside her head and heart, and she in mine.
Over the course of two years of research, including fellowships at Harvard and Radcliffe, I really did begin to know and to understand her in historical context. The more I learned, the more questions I had about this woman who became the nineteenth century’s preeminent educational, philosophical and theological experiment.
The difficult balance of writing a novel based on real people:
In writing WHAT IS VISIBLE, I tried 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.”
The novel opens in 1889, the last year of Laura’s life, with her meeting the seven-year-old Helen Keller, a meeting which really transpired. Though the press was there, no one knows what the two discussed, but in my version, Helen begs Laura to tell her about her celebrated life, and the role Helen is being groomed to play, that of “the second Laura Bridgman.” The story unfolds mainly from Laura’s first-person perspective, though other chapters focus on the founder of Perkins Institute, Samuel Gridley Howe with whom she was in love; his glamorous wife, Julia Ward Howe, a renowned writer, abolitionist and suffragist; Laura’s beloved teacher, who married a missionary and died insane from syphilis; an Irish orphan with whom Laura had a tumultuous affair; Annie Sullivan, and even Helen Keller.
What I’d like readers to take away from WHAT IS VISIBLE:
Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, this book illuminates the challenges of living in a completely unique inner world. Laura Bridgman is one of history’s greatest examples that one can indeed enjoy a full, and even outstanding, life with the severest of handicaps. It’s not that hers is a fairytale with a happy ending, but the fact that she remained true to herself—emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and even sexually—is what elevates her to the status of a heroine, in her own inimitable way.
In her 1929 biography, Helen Keller wrote that had Laura Bridgman been blessed with a lifelong teacher and companion like Annie Sullivan, “she would have far outshone me.” Taking a cue from Helen, WHAT IS VISIBLE will set the record straight.
Kimberly Elkins, 2014