An Interview with Kimberly Elkins, Author of What Is Visible

On Monday I reviewed Kimberly Elkins’s fascinating debut novel, What Is Visible. Ms. Elkins graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of What Is Visible? I understand that at one point it was a shorter piece; how did you go about expanding it into a novel?

Kimberly Elkins Author photo (c) Sarah Shatz

Kimberly Elkins
Author photo (c) Sarah Shatz

KE: Originally, I wrote the eponymous short story after first reading about, and being dazzled by, Laura Bridgman in the New Yorker in 2001. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this remarkable woman who learned language fifty years before Helen Keller, and was considered the nineteenth-century’s most famous woman after Queen Victoria. The story was published shortly thereafter in the Atlantic.

To expand the short piece into a novel, I first had to do approximately two years of research, not only on Laura, but also on the other major real-life figures in her life. The story had taken place on one of the most important days of her life, when she was twenty, but the novel turned out to span almost fifty years, as I tried to fit together the pieces of both her life and how and why she had been, in effect, erased from history. The short story basically had to be deconstructed, with bits of it appearing in appropriate places throughout the novel.

Given the two recent biographies of Laura, and the wealth of archival material related to the characters in What Is Visible, how did you choose which episodes in Laura’s life to feature in the novel?

photo (92)KE: Actually, the two biographies came out almost fifteen years ago; however, you’re absolutely correct in that there was an enormous amount of archival material, especially letters, journals, and newspaper and magazine articles. I chose to bookend the novel with Laura’s historic meeting with the nine-year-old Helen Keller in the last year of Laura’s life, and then to skip to her at age twelve, after she’d been at Perkins for five years. That was the year Charles Dickens visited her, and was astounded by her progress, devoting an entire chapter of his book, American Notes, to Laura. Subsequently, her fame then exploded worldwide. As for the rest of the novel, I wrote about not only the milestones in Laura’s life, but also those of the other three narrators–Dr. Howe, her mentor and founder of Perkins: his wife, Julia Ward Howe, the famous poet and abolitionist who penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and Sarah Wight, Laura’s beloved last teacher.

What surprised you most as you were conducting research for What Is Visible?

KE: The biggest surprise was always Laura: her fierce intelligence, her unwillingness to bend to the rules of society and convention, even as she desperately sought human connection. Her letters and journals display a large and imaginative vocabulary, and she was even learning French and Latin when she was tragically parted from her last teacher.

What’s one question you hope readers will ask themselves after they’ve finished the novel?

KE: Could I survive and thrive as Laura Bridgman did with only one sense? My hope is that the novel amply shows that one can live a rich and full life with even the severest of handicaps.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

KE: I’m working on another historical novel, the true-life story of two 19th-century sisters who were famous mediums as children, with one going on to found the Spiritualism movement, while the other attempted to debunk all that they had accomplished together. My other project is a wildly divergent take on the classic memoir, in which I revisit events from my life, including violent ones, and write the truth sandwiched between the best- and worst-case scenarios I can imagine, with the reader not being told which narrative is the true one. I think everyone would like the chance to revise their lives, and consider not only the paths left untrod, but also the deep, dark woods or the sunlit meadows through which those paths might have traveled.

My thanks again to Ms. Elkins for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Elkins, and What Is Visible, on Ms. Elkins’s website,

Bostonians: You can hear Kimberly Elkins read from What Is Visible at Harvard Bookstore on Tuesday, July 8 at 7:30. 

Recommended Reading: What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins

photo (92)What Is Visible*, Kimberly Elkins’s debut novel, begins with a meeting. Helen Keller, just eight years old, is introduced to the woman whose fame was legendary in the nineteenth century, a woman whose incredible story will be eclipsed by Helen Keller, fifty years her junior. The woman’s name is Laura Bridgman, and she’s the subject of What Is Visible, a fascinating novel.

At the age of two, Laura Bridgman lost not only her sight and hearing, but also her senses of taste and smell to scarlet fever. Brought to the Perkins Institute in Boston, she becomes a star pupil, learning to read and write, communicating through hand spelling. Crowds came to see her, and dignitaries requested private meetings; Charles Dickens wrote a chapter about her in American Notes. At one point, it’s said, she and Queen Victoria were the most famous women in the world.

What Is Visible traces the story of Laura’s life, interspersing her narration with that of the people closest to her; they fill in the gaps with parts of the story Laura could not know. The novel includes a striking number of nineteenth-century celebrity cameos, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to John Brown to Dickens and (in absentia) Emily Dickinson.

What’s more remarkable, however, is Ms. Elkins’s skill in bringing Laura’s world — a world dominated by the sense of touch — to brilliant life. In her rendering, Laura is immensely perceptive and inquisitive; she could tell if someone enters a room by the change in the air currents, and loves the textures of fabrics especially. She’s also very sensitive, and devoted to her teachers, in particular Sarah Wight and Dr. Samuel Howe, the head of the Perkins Institute (then in South Boston, now in Watertown). Until his marriage, he and Laura act more like father and daughter than teacher and pupil; when he meets the lovely Julia Ward, however, everything changes.

The Howes’ marriage is the first great disruption of Laura’s life that we read about in the novel, though others follow. Julia Ward Howe — yes, the poet behind “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — is the novel’s second fixation. Prone to depression, sometimes repulsed by her husband’s pupils, chafing under her husband’s edict that she cease to write and publish, and very uncomfortable with Laura’s attentions, Julia is often unsympathetic, but endlessly interesting. Laura and Julia’s dynamic relationship is expertly rendered here.

The brilliance of What Is Visible lies in the way it explore’s Laura’s inner world, the vast richness of her emotions, opinions, and perceptions — and the way it explores the outside world’s fascination with her, a fascination that reveals a determination to view her as a social experiment. Laura’s education, her religion, even her body are subjects of controversy and concern. Dr. Howe, who helped her to acquire language, is also the person who denies her glass eyes, a Bible, a lock on her door, all in the name of her best interests, her moral upbringing. Laura’s fits of temper are completely understandable given the lack of control she’s awarded over her own life; her aching desire to be loved, to be seen, is heart-wrenching.

It’s astounding that such a witty, intelligent, accomplished figure has virtually disappeared from our collective memory. Here’s hoping What Is Visible will bring Laura Bridgman back to the spotlight she deserves.

Wednesday: An interview with Kimberly Elkins, author of What Is Visible

*I received a review copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Readers interested in nonfiction accounts of Laura Bridgman’s life have two recent (historically speaking) biographies to choose from: The Imprisoned Guest, by Elisabeth Gitter, and The Education of Laura Bridgman, by Ernest Freeberg.

What Is Visible is published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, which, if you haven’t heard, is having a, shall we say, disagreement with Amazon at the moment. If you’re considering buying What Is Visible, I highly recommend shopping your local independent bookstore.