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5/7/2009

The Arts

Another writer’s residence
Fellowship winner finds Kerouac House full of inspiration and bees
Kimberly Elkins with legendary composer and Kerouac friend David Amram

 

Kimberly Elkins Farewell Reading
8 p.m. Saturday
Kerouac House, 1418 Clouser Ave.
www.kerouacproject.org
free

One can imagine there’s a lot to be gained for a writer who lands a three-month stint in Jack Kerouac’s old College Park abode. Writers who compete for the seasonal residencies offered by the Kerouac Project of Orlando are probably hoping to tap into Jack’s righteous and manic spirit, the same energy that compelled him to hammer out The Dharma Bums in 11 days in this house. Others might be looking to harvest his keen observations that they too might rail against what he called the “middle-class non-identity.”

On the other hand, regardless of the inspirational residue from the mad Beat, the Kerouac House offers writers something in many ways more important than its chi.

“I’m just looking for people to pay me to write my own book,” says Kimberly Elkins, the latest guest hosted by the Kerouac Project.

For Elkins and many of the dozens of writers who have been fortunate and talented enough to score this honor, the property nestled in the suburban forest on Clouser Avenue is first and foremost a house. Residency momentarily relieves the financial (and spatial) burden of completing a novel off an emerging author’s shoulders.

Elkins has become a hermit crab of such programs. She’s spent the last year banging around from one institution to the next, being accepted to research fellowships at the Houghton Library at Harvard and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, as well as other residencies at the Millay Colony and the Blue Mountain Center in New York. Before this, Elkins had managed to support herself with her writing for the last three years. “It hasn’t been a lot of money,” she clarifies, “but it has been rent and expenses.”

Yet her current project is more intensive than what she calls her “women’s magazine crap.” Her novel-in-progress, What Is Visible, has grown from her short story of the same name published in the Atlantic Monthly in 2003 (not, one assumes, part of the aforementioned “crap”). The story fictionalizes the life of Laura Bridgman, the 19th-century deaf and blind woman who was the first with both these disabilities to learn language.

“I have one whole suitcase just for research materials,” Elkins says.

She was originally hoping to leave the Kerouac House with a first draft. “That won’t happen,” she says. However, this doesn’t mean the experience has been a loss. Stop for one second and imagine the observations of a person who has only the sense of touch (Bridgman couldn’t taste or smell either). It is, to say the least, one of the more challenging voices a writer could take on.

Elkins says she’s found her way in. “I have made such discoveries about the character here,” she says.

But how has the house satisfied its most basic premise – that of shelter and security?

“It’s a lovely little house,” says Elkins, who says she’s greatly enjoyed reading in the yard. And it’s safe too. She’s thankful that the Kerouac Project installed an alarm system – “It’s good, now that Orlando is the sixth most dangerous city in the country,” she laughs – though the alarm hasn’t stopped every intruder. “I’ve been woken up Sunday morning by people who want a tour of the house,” she says. “It usually depends how awake I am; what state of dress. I’ve given tours in my bathrobe.”

By far the most exciting moment came from a surreal siege of bees. While sitting at the dining room table, “which is where I do my fun writing,” she says, she noticed a honeybee on the curtains. And then another. Eventually she came to realize the house was filling with them.

“I would leave the doors open to let the breeze in,” she says, but this turned out not to be their point of entry. “They were coming from the chimney.”

Stranger still, there was no hive in the chimney. For the entire day (pest control couldn’t get there immediately), bees continued to swarm inside only to die. The next morning found the house littered with their tiny corpses.

“I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something great,” she acknowledges, “but I don’t know what yet.”

Her residency ends June 1. Like Kerouac before her, she’s come to “dig the crazy Florida scene of spotlessly clean highways and fantastic supermarkets.”

“I love Publix,” she confesses.

Her friends were skeptical. “I told friends I was going to stay in Kerouac’s house, and they’d all say how great that was,” says Elkins, who traveled here from New York City. “They’d ask where it was and I’d say, ‘It’s in Orlando,’ and they’d all say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ But I haven’t found it to be that way at all.”

Though she says she “could see living here,” she probably will take up life in some as yet undetermined location. Before that, we will be graced by her “farewell reading” this Saturday (May 9). “Each writer has to do one [reading] at the house, so they call it the farewell,” she explains. On top of that, she’s also leading a workshop the following week with Mary Ann Stefano of Mad About Words on the topic of “‘Truth’ vs. ‘Fiction.’”

For the reading, she hasn’t yet determined the selection. She worries about reading untested material, but she’s also tepid to the idea of rehashing old stuff. “But then I think, I’ve seen very established writers read works from 20 years ago,” she says. Either way, whatever comes out in her soft Southern accent is sure to be a delight.

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