Born 1960, in Wilson, NC; daughter of Charles (a tobacco farmer) and Alice Butts; married Michael Gibbons (divorced); married Frank Ward (an attorney), 1995 (divorced); children: Mary, Leslie, Louise (first marriage). Education: Attended North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Addresses: Home: Raleigh, NC. Agent: Jane Pasanen, Chelsea Forum, Inc., 377 Rector Place, Suite 12-I, New York, NY 10280.
Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and citation from Ernest Hemingway Foundation, both for Ellen Foster; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, for A Virtuous Woman; Nelson Algren Heartland Award for Fiction, Chicago Tribune, 1991, and PEN/Revson Foundation Fellowship, both for A Cure for Dreams; Critics Choice Award, Los Angeles Times, 1995, for Sights Unseen; Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (French Knighthood), for contribution to French literature, 1996.
- Ellen Foster, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1987.
- A Virtuous Woman, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1989.
- A Cure for Dreams, Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 1991.
- Charms for the Easy Life, Putnam (New York, NY), 1993.
- Sights Unseen, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
- On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.
- Divining Women, Putnam (New York, NY), 2004.
- The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2005.
Contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Her novels have been translated into French.
Completing Jeanne Braselton's posthumous novel The Other Side of Air; a biography.
Ellen Foster was adapted for audiocassette by Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996, and for the Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie, 1997; movie rights to A Virtuous Woman were bought by the Oprah Winfrey production company. Charms for the Easy Life was made into a television movie by Showtime Productions, 2001. A Virtuous Woman was recorded as an audiobook by Recorded Books, 1998, and On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon was recorded as an audiobook by Recorded Books, 1999. Sights Unseen was recorded as an audiobook by Chivers, 2001, and was developed into a movie script by the author.
Kaye Gibbons has won a number of literary awards and much praise for her body of fiction, a group of novels predominantly set in rural Southern communities not unlike Nash County, North Carolina, where Gibbons grew up. From the matriarchal folk healer to the uncompromising eleven-year-old, Gibbons's strong central characters--almost always female--possess a grounding and wisdom that transcends the often-difficult circumstances of lives. Writing in Publishers Weekly, critic Bob Summer termed them "Southern women who shoulder the burdens of their ordinary lives with extraordinary courage."
Gibbons was born and raised in North Carolina. The daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide when Kaye was ten years old, Gibbons later drew on some of her experiences in her fiction. While she did not go to live with her grandmother, as Ellen Foster does in Ellen Foster, she did live with an older brother, and she did and does value books. "Books are the most important thing in my life," she told Book writer Liz Seymour in 2002. "I grew up walking three miles to a Bookmobile--books aren't property, they're a whole separate category." Like her mother, from the age of twenty Gibbons has suffered from bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression, in which a person veers dangerously from periods of depression to periods of mania (intense activity and sleeplessness). She wrote her first novel, Ellen Foster, during a six-week manic binge and her 1998 novel On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon during three months when she would write from forty to sixty hours at a time. And though this condition has become more treatable, Gibbons is careful, for she does not want to sacrifice the creativity that has allowed her to become an award-winning novelist.
The novel Ellen Foster began life as a poem Gibbons started while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, initially in the voice of the protagonist's young African-American friend, Starletta. The author admitted to being influenced by the work of early twentieth-century African-American poet James Weldon Johnson, and his use of common speech patterns and idioms in his prose. "I wanted to see if I could have a child use her voice to talk about life, death, art, eternity--big things from a little person," Gibbons told Summer. Ellen Foster's title character is a mere eleven years of age, and the story follows her travails in the rural southern states as she bounces from relative to relative. Speaking in the first person, Gibbons's heroine refers to herself as "old Ellen," and recounts her difficulties in flashback form. Deanna D'Errico described her in Belles Lettres as "the embodiment of tenacity, surviving with the tools of intelligence, sensitivity, a strong will, and a remarkable sense of humor." In the novel, Ellen's mother was the frail scion of a well-to-do family whom she alienated by marrying beneath her, and their offspring has it rough from the start. When her mother commits suicide, Ellen is left with a parent whom she describes as "a monster." His attempt at sexual abuse one drunken night leads Ellen to the jurisdiction of the court system, and a judge sends her to live with her wealthy, but extremely resentful, maternal grandmother.
Ellen's grandmother vents her grief at her daughter's suicide on her granddaughter, forcing her to work the family cotton fields and inflicting verbal and emotional abuse upon her. Over the course of Gibbons's novel, Ellen faces her problems with a good nature and determination: she learns to hoard money in a small box that contains all of her other vital belongings. She also befriends the aforementioned Starletta, who is mute. "Gibbons, unlike so many writers of the New South, doesn't evade the racism of Southern life," wrote Pearl K. Bell in a review of Ellen Foster for the New Republic. Growing up hearing the racial prejudices of her family, Ellen also feels such biases, and reminds herself that no matter how bad her own situation is, it would be worse to be "colored."
When Ellen's grandmother dies, she is sent to live with an aunt, and the aunt and Ellen's cousin also heap abuse upon her--at one point, ridiculing the picture she has drawn for them for a Christmas present as "cheap-looking." When the aunt sends her away, Ellen spends a night at Starletta's home, which eventually leads to the protagonist's realization that "now I know it is not the germs you cannot see . . . that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is the people you knew and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch." In the end, Ellen discovers that her small town contains a "foster" family--a single woman who takes in children. She shows up on their doorstep and offers the $160 contents of her box in exchange for a home.
In the New Republic review, Bell praised Gibbons's evocation of Ellen's unique personality through her narrative, as did many other reviewers. "The voice of this resourceful child is mesmerizing because we are right inside her head," she noted. Alice Hoffman reviewed Ellen Foster for the New York Times Book Review and asserted that the first-time author "is so adept at drawing her characters that we know Ellen, and, yes, trust her from the start." Hoffman further noted that "in many ways this is an old-fashioned novel about traditional values and inherited prejudices. . . . What might have been grim, melodramatic material in the hands of a less talented author is instead filled with lively humor . . . , compassion and intimacy." Sunday Times critic Linda Taylor termed Gibbons's debut "fresh, instant and enchanting . . . a first novel that does not put a foot wrong in its sureness of style, tone and characterisation."
In her second novel, A Virtuous Woman, Gibbons again sets her characters in the rural South and allows them to speak in the idiomatic, direct language of her own upbringing. The 1989 work opens as Jack Stokes laments the loss of Ruby, his wife of many years, from lung cancer. "She hasn't been dead four months and I've already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze," the farmer thinks to himself; despite her illness, Ruby had prepared months worth of meals ahead of time for Jack. Such details pointing to the ordinary, yet loving familiarities of the institution of marriage are what Gibbons attempts to call forth in the story. A Virtuous Woman is told in alternating first-person flashbacks for most of its course--Jack looking back after she is gone, alternating with Ruby's ruminations on their life together in the months before her death. The reader learns how Ruby's disastrous first marriage ultimately resulted in her inoperable tumors, and why her marriage to Jack was less vivid than her first, but over time, ultimately more satisfying.
As both characters in A Virtuous Woman come to grips with their impending tragedy, the interior monologues that Gibbons has Jack and Ruby voice in the novel propel it forward. Toward the end, Gibbons switches to a third-person perspective as the motivations and actions of other characters involved in Jack and Ruby's life come into play. "Too often, lacking a conflict of its own, the story wanders off to peek in at the neighbors," remarked Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Susan Heeger of this literary construction. "Pages are spent on the meanness of peripheral folk, whose main raison d'etre is to show up Jack's and Ruby's saintliness and to raise the question of why bad things happen to good people." The critic D'Errico, writing again for Belles Lettres, also found this switch disconcerting. "Technique suddenly looms over the tale," she lamented, "and it is difficult to view the scene without fretting over the strings that are showing."
In 1997 Oprah Winfrey chose Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman for her television book club, exposure that launched the books onto the best-seller lists and thrust their author into the limelight. Gibbons found the publicity both a blessing and a curse: blessing for the sale of books she believes in, but a curse in terms of the distractions of fan mail and telephone calls. Ellen Foster has come to be read in many high schools along with such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ellen Foster was made into a Hallmark television movie that premiered in December, 1997.
Gibbons's third novel, A Cure for Dreams, won the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Heartland award for fiction that same year. In it, Gibbons recounts the multigenerational family saga of a trio of three women: Lottie, her daughter Betty, and granddaughter Marjorie. The novel begins as Marjorie introduces her recently deceased mother Betty to the reader, and relates how much her mother loved to talk. "Talking was my mother's life," she says, and the story is soon overtaken by Betty's own narrative voice. Betty describes her indomitable Irish immigrant grandmother--Lottie's mother--and the harsh life Lottie suffered in rural Kentucky during the early years of the twentieth century. Lottie escapes by marriage, but her workaholic husband isolates her emotionally until Betty arrives as a newborn in 1920.
As some reviewers noted, most of the male characters in A Cure for Dreams seem unsympathetic figures, absorbed in their own world of nonverbal communication, while the women ultimately triumph over adversity by virtue of their need to communicate with one another, resulting in strong bonds. In coming together, they manage to overcome both petty and grievous abuses inflicted upon them by the men of their families. Throughout the course of A Cure for Dreams, Gibbons lets Betty continue the decades-long tale of her family, recalling how her mother, Lottie, became the de facto community leader of the women around North Carolina's Milk Farm Road in the 1920s. She organized card parties, passed along useful gossip and wisdom, and at one point even protected a friend who may or may not have shot her abusive husband. Betty's own saga of coming of age in the South of the 1930s is also recounted, and the novel ends with the birth of her daughter Marjorie during World War II.
The overwhelming successes of Gibbons's literary career were also accompanied by periods of personal strife during the early 1990s. She went through a divorce, relocated to New York City but returned to North Carolina, and changed publishers. In 1993, her fourth novel, Charms for the Easy Life, was published. Like A Cure for Dreams, the story follows the exploits of a family of strong women, and develops through the recollections of its youngest member. Set over a forty-year span that ends during World War II, the novel begins with narrator Margaret recounting the courtship of her grandparents in Pasquotank County, North Carolina. Her grandmother, Charlie (Clarissa) Kate, becomes the central figure in the novel through her work as a local midwife and faith healer. Gibbons had originally modeled the character on an African-American midwife who served as the best friend of Lottie in her previous novel, but reconsidered doing a sequel after she began, and instead made Charlie into a completely separate entity.
Like Lottie in A Cure for Dreams, Charlie becomes a vital and important force in her rural community. When she saves an African-American man from a lynching, he gives her a rabbit's foot, her "easy-life charm." A folk healer who reads the New England Journal of Medicine, Charlie promotes sex education and manages to put a halt to the damaging medical treatment meted out by the charlatan local "trained" doctor. She is also the first person in the community to own a toilet. "She's an implacable force of nature, a pillar of intellect, with insight and powers of intuition so acute as to seem nearly supernatural," remarked Stephen McCauley of Gibbons's creation in the New York Times Book Review. As in previous works, the author allowed few compassionate male characters into the story of the three women. "The men in their lives are largely ineffectual," observed McCauley. "They can be relied upon only to disappoint, disappear and die." Charlie's husband simply does not return home one evening, an act which has little impact upon her young daughter, Sophie. Like her mother, Sophie later enters into a marriage with the wrong man, who passes away in the middle of the night; the two then move in with Charlie. Now all three women are free to pursue their ambitions and lend support to one another. They debate literature, Sophie and Margaret act as assistants to Charlie's unofficial doctor/dentist/midwife practice, and Charlie meddles in the affairs of her granddaughter, who in turn finds inspiration from the older woman.
Published in 1995, Gibbons's Sights Unseen tells the story, from the perspective of twelve-year-old daughter Hattie, of a mother's struggle with mental illness and its pervasive influence on her family's life. This novel was part of Gibbons's efforts to come to grips with the mental illness that had cost her mother her life and has plagued the author for decades. She struggled in its production, writing five drafts before she was satisfied. Her efforts paid off, for it garnered praised from critics. Comparing Sights Unseen to Gibbons's first novel, Ellen Foster, New Yorker critic James Wolcott noted that the narrator in each novel portrays "an avid need for normality and acceptance in a world of precarious well-being." A Publishers Weekly reviewer cited Gibbons's "restrained prose of unflinching clarity" and praised the novel, declaring it "a haunting story that begs to be read in one sitting." As Donna Seaman noted in Booklist, "Gibbons writes seamless and resonant novels, the sort of fiction that wins hearts as well as awards." Indeed, Sights Unseen won the Los Angeles Times Critics Choice Award for that year.
For her next novel, Gibbons delved into the history of the twentieth-century South that had been the setting of her previous works. On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, so titled because first-person narrator, Emma Lowell, is recalling her life as she prepares to die, follows the narrator's life as the daughter of a Southern slaveowner who follows her own path. In the Winston-Salem Journal, Anne Barnhill remarked how well Gibbons's research into the era served her: "It's evident that Gibbons has done a great deal of research for this book. The language has the authentic sound of yesteryear, and interesting details are peppered throughout the novel." Library Journal's Joanna M. Burkhardt likewise praised the novel for its "crystal clarity and brilliant realism." However, while America reviewer Jane Fisher found the novel "lively and readable," she questioned Gibbons's characterization of Emma, who, she complained, "seems almost too good to be true." Another reviewer found the novel to be too didactic at times: "Gibbons has wrought a balanced and highly accessible novel which, although well constructed and provocative, descends into cliched and tiresome tirades," wrote London Times critic Victoria Fletcher. Because of its fictional memoir structure, the reader knows that the narrator survives any perils, thus eliminating some of the possible suspense. Nevertheless, Dennis Love of the San Francisco Chronicle maintained that Gibbons overcomes any difficulties the structure might pose: "We see everything coming from miles away, yet it doesn't matter; this is a master storyteller who, like some arrogant, gifted athlete, telegraphs her every move but still scores at will." Despite any shortcomings, Fisher suggested that Gibbons's "major appeal as a novelist lies in her linking of unrelenting truth with the transformative power of unconditional love" and that she succeeds again in linking the two in On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.
Despite the praise bestowed by critics and the numerous awards she has received, Gibbons admits that the writer's life is a strenuous one. "Nobody ever told me it was going to be easy," she noted in the interview with Bob Summer for Publishers Weekly. "If I weren't a writer, I'd probably be a lawyer or an architect. I wouldn't want to do anything easy, and I chose to be a writer." The author reflected that, "as a writer, it's my job to come up with three hundred pages or so every two years. Each time I begin, I know it's going to happen, but I'm scared it won't. It's working with that element of fear that keeps a book going," a process she also likened to "looking over an abyss and knowing I have to jump."
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
- Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
- DeMarr, Mary Jean, Kaye Gibbons: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 2003.
- Lewis, Nancy, "Kaye Gibbons: Her Full-Time Women," in Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 112-122.
- Munafo, Giavanna, "'Colored Biscuits': Reconstructing Whiteness and the Boundaries of 'Home' in Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster," pp. 38-61.
- Watkins, James, editor, Southern Selves, from Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing, Vintage (New York, NY), 1998.
- America, January 2, 1999, Jane Fisher, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 16.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 2, 1998, "In Search of a Novel: Author Kay Gibbons Talks about Her New Civil War Book, the 'Oprah Hoopla' and Why She Tossed out 900 Pages," p. D1.
- Belles Lettres, summer, 1987, Deanna D'Errico, review of Ellen Foster, p. 9; summer, 1989, Deanna D'Errico, "Two Timers," p. 7; winter 1993-94, Gale Harris, "Beyond the Scarlett Image: Women Writing about the South," pp. 16-18.
- Book, November-December, 2002, Liz Seymour, "Oh, Kaye!," pp. 24-26.
- Booklist, September 1, 1987, Brad Hooper, review of Ellen Foster, p. 27; June 1, 1999, reviews of Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman, pp. 1796-1797; August, 1999, review of Charms for the Easy Life, p. 2024; February 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 1078; September 15, 2001, Karen Harris, review of Sights Unseen (audio version), p. 241.
- Christian Century, September 23, Ralph C. Wood, "Gumption and Grace in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons," pp. 842-846.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 1995, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of Sights Unseen, p. 53.
- Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 12, 1999, reviews of A Virtuous Woman and Ellen Foster, p. D4.
- Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), April 14, 2002, Ann Byle, "Easter Story Inspires Gibbons' Latest Novel," p. 16.
- Journal of American Studies, April, 1999, Sharon Monteith, "Between Girls: Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster and Friendship As a Monologic Formulation," pp. 45-46.
- Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1987, review of Ellen Foster, p. 404; January 15, 2004, review of Divining Women, p. 52.
- Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, September, 1997, p. 4; September, 1998, pp. 4, 61; July, 1999, review of A Virtuous Woman (audio version), p. 56.
- Library Journal, June 1, 1998, p. 150; September, 1998, pp. 4, 61; February 15, 1999, review of Ellen Foster (audio version), p. 126; April 15, 1999, Joanna M. Burkhardt, review of A Virtuous Woman (audio version), p. 165; September 15, 1999, Joanna M. Burkhardt, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (audio version), p. 130.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 11, 1989, Susan Heeger, review of A Virtuous Woman, p. 15; May 19, 1991, Josephine Humphreys, review of A Cure for Dreams, p. 13.
- New Republic, February 29, 1998, Pearl K. Bell, "Southern Discomfort," pp. 38-41.
- New York, April 1, 1991, Rhoda Koenig, "Southern Comfort," p. 63.
- New Yorker, June 21, 1993, p. 101; August 21 1995, James Wolcott, "Crazy for You," pp. 115-16.
- New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, Alice Hoffman, "Shopping for a New Family," review of Ellen Foster, p. 13; April 12, 1989, pp. 12-13; April 30, 1989, Padgett Powell, "As Ruby Lay Dying," pp. 12-13; May 12, 1991, James Wilcox, review of A Cure for Dreams, pp. 13-14; April 11, 1993, Stephen McCauley, "He's Gone, Go Start the Coffee," pp. 9-10; September 24, 1995, Jacqueline Carey, "Mommy Direst," p. 30.
- Observer (London, England), June 2, 1996, Kate Kellaway, review of Sights Unseen, p. 16.
- People, June 15, 1998, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 49.
- Publishers Weekly, March 20, 1987, review of Ellen Foster, p. 70; February 8, 1993, Kaye Gibbons, with Bob Summer, "Kaye Gibbons," pp. 60-61; June 5, 1995, p. 48; April 20, 1998, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 43.
- San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 1998, Dennis Love, "Home Is No Refuge for Southern Women in the Civil War," review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 3.
- San Francisco Review of Books, spring, 1991, Benedict Cosgrove, review of A Cure for Dreams, pp. 31-32.
- School Library Journal, September, 1993, p. 260; December, 1993, p. 29; September, 1998, Molly Connally, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 229.
- Southern Literary Journal, spring, 1994, Tonita Branan, "Women and 'The Gift for Gab': Revisionary Strategies in A Cure for Dreams," pp. 91-101.
- Southern Quarterly, winter, 1992, Veronica Makowsky, "'The Only Hard Part Was the Food:' Recipes for Self-Nurture in Kaye Gibbons's Novels," pp. 103-112; summer, 1997, Kathryn McKee, "Simply Talking: Women and Language in Kaye Gibbons's A Cure for Dreams," pp. 97-106.
- Southern Studies, summer, 1992, Stephen Souris, "Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman," 99-115.
- Time, April 12, 1993, Amelia Weiss, "Medicine Woman," pp. 77-78.
- Times (London, England), May 22, 1999, Victoria Fletcher, "Slave to the Soapbox," review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 22.
- Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1988, Andrew Rosenheim, "Voices of the New South," p. 1306; September 15, 1989, Roz Kavaney, "Making Themselves Over," p. 998; July 2, 1999, review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 22.
- Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 15, 1991, p. 7.
- Washington Post Book World, July 12, 1998, Susan Dodd, "A Sentimental Education," On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. 9.
- Winston-Salen Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), July 12, 1998, Anne Barnhill, "Broken Promise: Gibbons' Memoir-Like Tale Lacks Drama," review of On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, p. A22.
- Women's Review of Books, July, 1989, Marilyn Chandler, review of A Virtuous Woman, p. 21; October, 1993, Judith Beth Cohen, "Daughters of the South," p. 24.
- Chelsea Forum, http:/ / www.chelseaforum.com/ (August 17, 2003), "Kaye Gibbons."
- Kaye Gibbons Home Page, http://www.kayegibbons.com/ (February 19, 2004).
- Syracuse Online, http: //syracuse.com/ (August 17, 2003), Laura T. Ryan, "Gibbons Says Manic Depression Fuels Her Art."
- Womankind Educational and Resource Center, http://www.womankindflp.org/ (1993), Steve Moore, "Conversation with Kay Gibbons."*