When Kaye Gibbons showed her professor of Southern literature at UNC the first seven pages of her debut novel in 1986, he immediately pulled out his checkbook and paid her $1,500 for the rights. It was more money than she had ever seen in her life.
That now-famous novel, based on her childhood experiences, introduces Ellen, a little girl with nothing to rely on in the world but her own gumption. After her mother’s suicide, she lived with her alcoholic father in abject poverty until his death left her with no one except her slow-witted best friend, Starletta. She bounces from homes of resentful relatives to foster families so many times that she eventually comes to believe that her last name is Foster, since she was always referred to as “that foster girl.”
Ellen Foster earned Gibbons international fame. In response to pleading fans who fell in love with Ellen, 20 years later Gibbons presents a 15-year-old Ellen in the sequel, The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster.
Gibbons welcomed me into her Raleigh home to take a peek at her creative process. She shifted seamlessly between poetic revelations and a priceless candor, punctuating the interview with thoughts about life, quitting smoking, VH1 and her search for round-toed shoes.
Independent: You wrote your first novel, Ellen Foster, when you were 26. How does it feel reacquainting yourself with Ellen? Was it difficult to write from her point of view again?
Kaye Gibbons: Ellen has become such a presence, and I feel best when I’m writing from her point of view. Ellen feels ancient, like she’s been alive since the dawn of man. Looking back at my childhood now, I see her. I think having created her as a character gives me a chance to look back at those years of my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s suicide and the poverty–no heat, no lights. I spent two Christmases in a cold dark house with a drunk father.
The reason I write is because I love language. I never consciously think about writing as healing–that is journal work. To write literature to heal is sort of a dicey proposition. But, every day I thought about my mother’s suicide all during the day. After I finished The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster, I thought about it only three or four times a week. It began to feel like an appropriate amount of attention to give my mother’s suicide. Thirty-five years later, and writing Ellen’s reaction to the revelation that from her mother’s point of view, there was no other choice–that was extremely healing.
I remember waiting on you once at Hayes Barton Café, and you had all these notebooks with scribbled notes tucked in everywhere. Is that part of your writing process?
I’m so forgetful, and I’m going through menopause, so I’m learning not to trust myself to remember a great image because it can be gone for good, like car keys. I have the kind of memory that once the door closes on something like a kitchen cabinet, it’s gone–I don’t remember it’s there. Some people are like that–they just need to see it, and once I accepted that about myself, I used it in my writing. Instead of testing and torturing myself, I decided to work with it. If I’m out somewhere and I think of something, I’ll write it down on the back of an envelope or napkin. I’ll rough-outline story ideas and then I’ll brainstorm. If I can see or imagine an image that wouldn’t occur until page 200, I’ll just put it where I can see it. I tape up little scraps of ideas, and as I use something, I’ll just mark it out.
You say Ellen Foster is autobiographical. I want to know if you had a “Starletta” of your own growing up? And did you experience negative opinions for associating with an impoverished black family during those tumultuous times?
Yes, I did have a Starletta. We called her “Coot.” Where we grew up was seven miles outside of Rocky Mount on the Tar River on Bend of the River Road. It was so mixed-race, and actually more heavily weighted African American. But unless I cut on the TV in 1968 and saw the race riots in Montgomery or Birmingham or Chicago, I didn’t know that racism existed. It was just as exotic to me as, say–anti-Semitism. It was accepted that I would go to Coot’s house and play.
But there was endemic societal discrimination, because on that road, the white people didn’t have much money, but they had more than the black people. But when the school was integrated I was in the fourth grade, and like they say on Saturday Night Live, we all folded in like butter.
In 1997 you were awarded a knighthood from the French Minister of Culture for your contributions to literature. Ellen Foster was recently honored in London as one of the Twenty Greatest Novels of the Twentieth Century. Here in the United States, it’s commonly taught in high schools and universities alongside Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. Do you feel responsible for representing Southern literature?
It bothers me when I talk to college students who are intensely snobbish about it. I try to show them the distinction between Southern literature and regional writing. Regional writing is formulaic and it depends on what the poet James Lyndon Johnson defined at the turn of the century as symbols from without, rather than symbols from within. I don’t read or write books that say “sweet tea,” “magnolia blossoms” or “beauty shop.”
There are many authors who are quick to rely on dense Southern stereotypes to color their novels.
It is so easy, and it bothers me when a book that is written in that formulaic way does extremely well nationally, by some fluke. It’s false and it is irritating. But Eudora Welty or William Faulkner–they never reduced themselves by getting petty, by stooping to that level.
But I’ve been really lucky, especially with this book, to be the only Southerner at Harcourt Publishing right now. This isn’t restricted to being a Southern tour.
In Raleigh, it’s amazing–so many people I’ve talked to assume that my books are just sold here, that they couldn’t be of any interest to anyone outside of the South. That is part of the sad inferiority complex. But if you write about beauty and lust and trust and death, those things are going to be universally appealing. Take a book like Madame Bovary–it doesn’t get any more regional than that. The aspirations conveyed are so petty and local, and how’s that become a classic of literature? It has become a classic because Gustave Flaubert does talk about things that matter–things like envy and longing and death and loneliness. Regional writing stops short of dealing with those issues and instead behaves as though getting a date is what matters. It treats a family reunion like it’s the potato salad that is important instead of ancient family conflicts. It is just two different schools. I don’t do the other one, you know.
You’re selling your house and planning on moving to New York permanently. What prompted that decision?
I expected the area to change more than it has. I think that part of the difficulty is that it is such a highly stratified society here, and there is such an ethnocentricity. It is hard for a writer to work where the people they talk to every day are sure that the world revolves around this little postage stamp, and it really doesn’t. Even despite war and despite Katrina, some people just seem so sure of it. So I spend half of my time in New York. I usually don’t write in Raleigh, I write up there. Here I just take care of my girls, [daughters] Louise, Mary and Leslie. In New York when I go out to get my Diet Cokes or go out walking once a day, nobody looks like me. They don’t care about my divorce. They all have their own stories and there is an understanding that their stories are just as important. In New York no one is ever going to ask me why my lights were on all night.
But I generally keep to myself. I hang out with my girls and keep life to writing and laundry and I am real happy with it.
I learned that I have been misdiagnosed for 21 years with bipolar illness.
That seems to be a very common diagnosis.
I flushed all my medication and I have felt outstanding ever since I did it. I decided to just stop and get to know myself and learned that I am eccentric. I have odd hours and odd habits, but it works.
It seems like you almost have a love/hate relationship with the South.
Faulkner describes it at the end of Absalom, Absalom as I hate it, I don’t hate it, I hate it, I don’t hate it. And I could lie about that, but I found that once I started living an authentic life and doing what I wanted to do and stopped doing what I didn’t want to do, like going to Carolina Country Club, I was happier. I don’t want to go where people are excluded. I just don’t want to go. Once I put my food down and just said, well, I don’t have to, nobody is making me, and just got real honest with how I live day to day–well, those worries about habits and eccentricities fell away because I realized it was just part of who I was.
So, you devote the time you spend in Raleigh to raising your girls. Do you feel that taking the time to be a devoted mother hinders your aspirations as a writer?
Oh, anything they throw at me, I’m content to do. They help me write just by living in the presence of all of this female energy, and they just adore one another. It is breathtaking. To realize that I’m a single parent and I got these girls to 17, 18 and 21 and they are all healthy and happy and have got bizarre senses of humor and they are not stereotypical at all. They are iconoclastic and very individual. But realizing that every day strengthens what I do, and sometimes I think that if I had botched raising them, what a horror that would be for those girls. Jackie Onassis, who is a heroine of mine, said, “If you botch raising your children, you haven’t done very much have you?” And it is the damn truth. You can win the Nobel prize but if you have a child who is violently unhappy, then what have you accomplished?
Do you worry about being able to write authentically about your life in the South while you are living so far removed in New York?
I wrote The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster up there. I learned it was perfectly transportable. It goes back to that difference between Southern literature and regionalism. If it is strong enough, it doesn’t matter where it takes place. I feel like, with the South, I just happened to have been born here. But if I had been born in Poughkeepsie, or Ames, Iowa, I would have been a writer too. I think I was just born with the urge.
Kaye Gibbons reads at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. Visit http://quailridgebooks.booksense.com or call 828-1588 for details.