Kaye Gibbons shot to literary stardom with the 1987 publication of Ellen Foster, her debut novel in which she introduced the tough, love-starved little girl who earned her legions of fans (Oprah among them). A big fan herself of everything from Diet Coke to rap music, Gibbons continues to enchant readers with The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster.
In 1987, a novel detailing the hardships and heartbreaks of a tough, witty, and resolute 11-year-old girl from North Carolina found its way into the hearts of readers all over the country. Ellen Foster was the story of its namesake, who had suffered years of tough luck and cruelty until finding her way into the home of a kind foster mother. Now, some nineteen years later, author Kaye Gibbons is finally bestowing the ultimate gift on her fans -- a continuation of Ellen's story.
As The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster begins, Ellen is now fifteen and living in a permanent household with her new adoptive mother. However, Ellen still feels unsettled an incomplete. Due to "the surplus of living" she had "jammed" into the years leading up to this point in her life, Ellen feels as though she is deserving of early admission into Harvard University. However, when this dream does not come to be, she re-embarks on her soul-searching journey, drawing her back to those she left behind in North Carolina.
While it took Gibbons nearly two decades to return to her most-beloved character, she never truly let go of Ellen Foster, even as she was penning bestsellers and critical favorites such as A Cure For Dreams and Charms For the Easy Life. "She is like a fourth child in my house," Gibbons said in an audio interview with Barnes&Noble.com. "Ellen is really like the kid who came to spend the weekend and stayed for twenty years."
Perhaps Gibbons's close association with the little orphan is the result of her own personal connection to the character. She claims that the Ellen Foster books were "emotionally" autobiographical and helped her to come to terms with the most painful experience of her life. When Gibbons was a child, her ailing mother committed suicide -- an event that placed her on the same pathless quest for love and belonging as Ellen. The untimely death of Gibbons's mother provided much of the impetus for her to revisit Ellen in a sequel. "Before I wrote The Life All Around Me," she confides, "I wasn't obsessed by my mother's suicide, but I was angry about it... and it's something that I thought about every few minutes of the day, and I always wondered what my life would have been like had she stayed. She had extremely awful medical problems and had just had open-heart surgery, and back then we didn't know what we know now about the hormonal changes after heart surgery and the depression that's so typical after it. After I wrote The Life All Around Me, I was amazed that I didn't think about it as much as I did, and I found that I'd forgiven her and understood it."
Now that she has set some of her old demons to rest with a novel that Booklist has called "compelling and unique," Gibbons has vowed not to allow another nineteen years to pass before completing the next chapter in Ellen's story. She ensures that Ellen's adventures are just beginning and ultimately intends to tell the tale of her entire life. "I decided to recreate the life of a woman in literature," Gibbons says. "I always liked to have a big job to do... and I thought about how marvelous it would be at the end of my life to have created a free-standing woman; a walking, talking all-but-breathing person on paper." Ambitious as this project may sound, a woman who has faced the challenges that Gibbons has shall surely prove herself to be up to the task.
Good To Know
Some fun facts from our interview with Gibbons:
"I wrote A Virtuous Woman while nursing two babies simultaneously, typing with my arms wrapped around them. I turned in stained pages but never called them to anyone's attention for fear they'd be horrified."
"I got a C on an Ellen Foster paper I rewrote for a daughter's tenth-grade English class."
"Writing serious work one wants to be read and to last isn't like a hobby that can be picked up and put down, it's a lovely obsession and a very demanding joy."
"Getting involved with things that don't matter in life will get in the way of it, as they will with anything, like family and home, that do matter."
"To unwind, I watch movies and do collages with old photographs from flea markets or make jewelry with my daughter, and the best way to clear my mind is to walk around New York, where I write most of the time in a tiny studio apartment with random mice I've named Willard and Ben, though I can't tell any of those guys apart!"
"My writing is powered by Diet Coke, very cold and in a can. If Diet Coke was taken off the market, I'm afraid I'd never write again!"