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Kaye Gibbons: Award Winning Southern Novelist

Jo is an avid reader, especially of Southern Literature, and enjoys sharing information about this subject with her readers.

In the 1980's Kaye Gibbons enrolled in a creative writing class at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill taught by Louis Rubin, the renowned teacher whose former students included such noted writers as Clyde Edgerton, Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and John Barth. When the aspiring writer turned in the first thirty pages of a novel she was working on, Louis Rubin liked the writing so much that he reportedly ran up and down the halls of the university singing its praises. As a distinguished novelist, editor, essayist, and publisher himself, this was no faint praise. He then sent the pages to esteemed Southern writer Eudora Welty who, along with other noted writers, praised the work of this unknown writer.

Those thirty pages became the beginning of Ellen Foster, a novel published in 1987. Famed Southern writer Walker Percy called Ellen Foster "a breathtaking first novel".

Ellen Foster, a Reflection of the Early Life of Kaye Gibbons

If you have read Ellen Foster, you may know that it is in part autobiographical. Born Bertha Kaye Batts in 1960 on Bend of the River Road in Nash County, North Carolina, Gibbons, like Ellen Foster, had a troubled childhood. Her father was an alcoholic and abusive father, and her mother was manic depressive and committed suicide when she was just 10 years old. Her father died 3 years after her mother. Subsequently, she was passed around from relatives and foster homes before coming to live in relative stability with her brother and his wife in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Accolades and Honors for Kaye Gibbons' Novels

In addition to being lauded by esteemed writers, Kaye Gibbons has won numerous awards through the years for her novels:

  • In 1997 Ellen Foster won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
  • A special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation
  • The Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize Creative from UNC-CH
  • The Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Heartland Award for fiction
  • The Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction
  • 1990 PEN Revson Award for Fiction
  • Inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in Chattanooga, Tennessee

The following video is delightful to listen to, not only for the information conveyed, but also because you get to listen to the genuine Southern accent the writer uses when talking about her work. It all fits together.

Life Happens

For about 30 years, I called Chattanooga, Tennessee home. In the 1980's while Kaye Gibbons was writing a new novel about every two years, I was raising two beautiful daughters, getting a divorce, and making a living. In 1981, the local university, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, sponsored an event called The Conference on Southern Literature. I attended that first conference, and all subsequent ones, until I left Chattanooga. The guest speakers at that first conference were Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, and Cleanth Brooks. How amazing is that?

The Conference became a biennial event in Chattanooga. I was already an English major and a Southerner, but attending this conference on a regular basis enhanced my love of good writing and Southern Literature. In addition to the well known, esteemed southern writers like Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, attendees at these conferences were able to hear many new comers through the years, like Kaye Gibbons.

When the Fellowship of Southern Writers was founded in 1987 it became allied with The Conference on Southern Literature. So having renowned writers in town for both the Conference and the meeting of the Fellowship was an exciting time for devotees of Southern writing. Kaye Gibbons, along with many other of the new writers introduced at these Conferences, were inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers through the years.

As my daughters became teenagers, I began exposing them to this experience also. My older daughter was with me the first time Larry Brown came to the conference. She was so excited to get him to sign his first book for her. And my younger daughter was with me the night we heard Kaye Gibbons hold the large crowd spellbound as she talked about her experience with mental illness, growing up with a manic/depressive parent and then being diagnosed with the same ailment.

Kaye Gibbons' Books

Ellen Foster, 1987

A Virtuous Woman, 1989

A Cure for Dreams, 1991

Charms for the Easy Life, 1993

Sights Unseen, 1995, 1998

On the Occasion of My Last Afternnon, 1998

Divining Women, 2004

The Life All Around Me, 2005

Strong Women Prevail in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons

Two of Gibbons' Novels, Ellen Foster and Charms for the Easy Life, were made into movies. In 1997 CBS produced Ellen Foster as a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, and Charms for the Easy Life was adapted as a movie by Showtime Network in 2002. By the way, Charms for the Easy Life is my personal favorite of all of Gibbons' work, primarily because of the strong woman who is the leading character in this book. The quote I remember from this strong character is, "I've read a book a week for the last 30 years, so I know everything there is to know."

Many of the strong women in Gibbons' books are strong because they have pulled themselves through very trying times. They are strong because their problems have not defeated them. Since they are fictional characters, the idea for their strength must come from the person who created them, Kaye Gibbons.

Ms. Gibbons has endured some trying times in her life also: her childhood which formed the basis of the book Ellen Foster; her diagnosis of Manic Depression and subsequent problems that ensued; and most recently a run-in with authorities.

Tough Times Continue for Kaye Gibbons

Kaye Gibbons' last book, The Life All Around Me, was published in 2005. Her online bio says she has written two more novels, The Lunatics' Ball and The Secret Life of Mary Magdalene, that have yet to be published.

ON November 2, 2008, Kaye Gibbons was arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina when she posed as a doctor and attempted to pick up prescriptions at a local pharmacy. She had been convinced by an associate that she no longer needed her medication for bipolar disorder and was using these illegally obtained medications as a substitute for the medication she should have been taking. When she appeared in court she pled guilty to five misdemeanor charges, received a 90 day suspended sentence, two years of supervised probation, and a $300 fine.

I could find no reliable information online about where and how Ms. Gibbons is living now. As a big fan of her work, I hope those two novels she reportedly has written will be published, and that she is still writing. But most of all, I hope she has found peace and joy in her life, maybe sitting on a front porch someplace in the South telling stories to her grand kids, bless her heart.

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Strong women do usually prevail.

Sources: Gibbons, Kaye | NCpedia, Kaye Gibbons - Wikipedia, Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (, Gibbons, Kaye |, Gibbons, Kaye |

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jo Miller


Jo Miller (author) from Tennessee on October 06, 2021:

Thank you for reading and commenting, Pamela. Kaye Gibbons was very successful for a number of years, and I hope she survives her latest problems and lives to write again.

Hope you get to read something she's written. I would recommend you start with Ellen Foster.

Jo Miller (author) from Tennessee on October 05, 2021:

Thank you, John, for reading and commenting. I do hope she has continued to write.

Jo Miller (author) from Tennessee on October 05, 2021:

Flourish, thanks for reading and commenting. I do hope you get to read some of her work, and hope you fall in love with her writing as much as my daughters and I did. If you haven't read Ellen Foster, I'd probably recommend that one first. But my favorite is Charms for the Easy Life. My daughter says that one reminds her of our family.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 05, 2021:

This is such an interesting article. I will get some books by her since she sounds like such a good author. She did have a horrible childhood, but at least she made something of her life.

John Murphree from Tennessee on October 04, 2021:

This is a lovely discussion of an obviously tragic life. I am happy for her great early success, but deeply saddened by Gibbon's situation today.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 04, 2021:

What an interesting author and tragic life. I’d really like to read her work. I hope she is doing ok.

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