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
Back to Top
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!"
Back to Top
In the winter of 2006, Kaye Gibbons took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and inspirations:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. There's a staggering density to the novel as well as an ethereal, magical lightness, and I'm constantly studying passages to divine how García Márquez was able to do both with such uncompromising intellectual conviction.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Ulysses by James Joyce -- The invention of a language for the purpose of re-creating life in a novel and then the mastery of it, the unrelenting power of imagery, everything about the book shouts the arrival of a new era of modern literature. Reading Joyce's work is to be present at a creation of something very true and very large.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh -- Language is always most important to me as both a writer and reader, and this novel expresses the power of colloquial dialect and explores the capacity of voice in ways that normally frighten writers out of attempting. It's written by someone who stays in love with language and glories in its uses.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert -- Flaubert mastered the art of using an intensely locally flavored palette of textures to convey absolutely universal truths, a rare trick and the first test of true literature.
The Hamlet by William Faulkner – The novel continually fascinates me with its looped sentences, piled-on clauses, invented words, raw truth, and the dare I like to imagine Faulkner making -- to readers, to understand him without flinching when his rendition of human speech seems too imposing; and to writers, to write one hundred of one of his pages half as miraculously as he can.
The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor -- Her correspondence contains such truth about how a woman writer has to balance the responsibilities of her domestic and professional life. She admits to a life touched by her vision of grace and her version of God, orderly but ironic, and her refusal to compromise or feel threatened by urban sophisticates offers instruction to anyone who wants to write but believes their voice somehow unworthy.
Eleven Blue Men and Other Mysteries of Medical Detection by Berton Rouche -- Writing for the New Yorker in the 1940s and '50s, Rouche combined a distanced, clinical eye and the generous compassion of a true novelist in perfectly written, lyrical tales I reread every time I need to be reminded of the sheer joy possible in language and character. I like to think of him as the progenitor of CSI and give his books to friends whenever I find them in print. He's the first writer I search for when I go to a good used bookstore.
Perry Miller's Intellectual History of America -- My favorite historian's last work, and though he died before he finished the opus he'd envisioned, this is still an important study of the development of the American mind from our first urgent religious concerns to our secular ones.
The Cycles of American History -- Arthur Schlesinger's ability to cast history as a series of causal revelations rather than as the chaotic blur I often fear it may be helped me to understand the symbiotic relationship of politics and population, art, and economics, and to see the consequences of past leaders' decisions and how significant our voices are in influencing their direction.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo -- Although I read only a tattered half page, in the seventh grade, on the playground, for the nickel charged by the boy passing it around, this may have been the most important, overly handled, sweaty piece of writing I would ever read because it was my first encounter with brilliant, true imagery. The pure and total sensory overload caused by the sound and touch of the bridesmaid's dress as it came up as she was pressed against the door, by James Caan in the film, is a lesson in how to create those physical attributes in fiction and a scene I recall every time I need to convey the feel of a fabric, sounds, smells, difficult things to express successfully.
Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care -- The edition I used continually was reprinted in paperback in 1984, the year my first daughter was born, when I would've been terrified and clueless had it not been for this book that went in her diaper bag everywhere. If we were in the grocery store and I was unsure whether children were supposed to be fed directly off the shelves, as she longed to, I'd whip out Dr. Spock. Three daughters and twenty-one years later, my copy still has the odor of baby powder inside it -- not a sensory experience in the same category of what Mario Puzo offered, but it brings a rush of exquisite memories all the same.
The King James Version of the Bible -- The only book I owned until I was fourteen, given to me by myself on Christmas Day, 1970, the year my mother died, when I "gifted" myself with items from the town stores, as Ellen does in Ellen Foster. Although my parents didn't attend church, I was always taken by my aunts, who detected an early ironic sensibility in me and were not at all pleased, but what's important is that I kept going with them and committing many and long passages to memory, enough to win repeated trips to camp. The lyricism of the Psalms, the gravitas of Revelations, and the generosity of the Proverbs became so deeply ingrained into me that, separate and apart from religious issues, the sheer literary value of this edition has become a constant I still notice in all the work I do.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Pulp Fiction -- Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta's dialogue is perfect.
The Usual Suspects -- The surprise ending always amazes me even though I've watched it fifty times!
Boogie Nights -- I loved the picture of a time and place examined through the eyes of the people involved.
Joe Dirt -- My daughters and I love fireworks and frequently quote David Spade's catalog of them -- also we watch anything with Christopher Walken in it.
Full Metal Jacket -- The view of Vietnam and the young lives affected by it are just as important today as ever.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I keep the television on to have something to imaginatively push against, but I love Green Day, Van Morrison, rappers like Run-DMC, Jay-Z, and especially Eminem -- there's a picture of him in my office. What he, Run-DMC, and Jay-Z have done with language is seriously and unquestionably literature.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber -- because of the daring, dense, unrelentingly excellent language.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give—and get—as gifts?
I like to give anything by Dr. Phil, and get any of the old Modern Library editions of the classics, which I collect. I don't need to get the Dr. Phil books -- as I already have them all!
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Because of a back injury, I have to work with my feet up, so I don't write at a desk, but from where I write, I make sure I can always see pictures of my kids and a large, homemade sign that says, "Sit Down and Don't Get Up Until It's Done."
What are you working on now?
The third installment of the Ellen Foster series.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Mercifully, my literature professor was also a publisher, so when I asked him to read the first pages of Ellen Foster, he offered to publish it. I'm extremely grateful for that life-changing event, but since then, there have been plenty of manuscripts that have come back to me for repeated rewrites -- it's all a part of a process, and each step along the way is important in working toward a final product I'm proud to have out in the world.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Although he's not a new writer and also passed away last year, Larry Brown's work deserves the widest possible audience. He was incapable of writing a weak sentence.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Learn to be self-critical, which is not always pleasant and not a gift someone's born with, but it comes from reading excellent literature, obliterating clichés, and being willing to understand that editing your own work is just as important as the original writing. By the time I show my editor a page, I've gone over it a hundred times, or more.
Back to Top