Rediscovering Ellen Foster
Kaye Gibbons returns to a beloved character
Kaye Gibbons' voice sounds much as one might expect from a North Carolina born-and-raised girl. There's a lilt unique to that area of the South, the elongated vowels and the tendency to turn one-syllable words into two. It's a beautiful voice, mellifluous and made for storytelling.
She stops our conversation before it starts, saying something about a flight being late, needing to take her shoes off and settle in a bit before continuing. When she returns to the phone she admits to lying about the brief delay, but promises not to lie again during our interview (words an interviewer is always heartened to hear). Gibbons then confesses the reason for excusing herself: to tape Dr. Phil. Turns out, Dr. Phil's advice can come in handy when on a book tour, what with his straight talk on boundaries and learning how to say no without guilt, lessons sometimes hard for a gracious Southern woman to learn.
At the moment, Gibbons is in her New York apartment, many a mile from her other home in North Carolina. In Raleigh, I do laundry, and here I do literature. Among her many accomplishments is a lesser-known honor: receiving a knighthood from the French, a shocking experience (FYI: Sharon Stone was knighted in the same year). The knighthood certificate, along with some Southern folk art, adorns the walls of Gibbons' apartment, her very own writers' retreat. Here, she can indulge her Diet Coke addiction and Dr. Phil habit, and also get down to the business of writing.
"Crafting the best literature I can" is an all-consuming occupation for Gibbons, who burst onto the literary scene in 1987 with the publication of Ellen Foster, an astonishing little novel about a spunky, unloved 11-year-old that earned her legions of fans and became a modern-day classic (not to mention an Oprah pick). Gibbons was only 26 years old at the time, in college and the mother of a small child. Oh, yes, and she wrote the novel in just six weeks. Whether you've known Ellen from the beginning or haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting her, you will find that Gibbons' long-awaited follow-up, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, is a rare gem of a book, one that marks the return of one of the South's scrappiest, most endearing heroines.
In the original novel, Ellen pours out the harrowing story of a home life so horrible she is forced to find her own foster family. When we meet Ellen again in The Life, she's 15, that pivotal age in adolescence. Though now part of a happy home, she still must sift through the wreckage of her past and come to terms with the death of her mother. While there are heart-wrenching moments, there is a generous dose of humor, too. The book opens with a letter from Ellen to the president of Harvard University, requesting early admittance. She writes, in typical Ellen fashion, " One of my mottoes is that nothing you think, feel, or do should be watered down, so when I decided to try out for college, Harvard sounded like the only place to be." She continues her story in the first person, addressing the reader directly, as if picking up the thread of a conversation she began long ago. Gibbons also introduces new characters and fleshes out those near and dear; there is the devoted Stuart, a tender-hearted boy smitten with Ellen, and, of course, there is Starletta, Ellen's old neighbor and a constant in her life.
So what was it like for Gibbons to revisit her debut novel? Had the seeds of a second book been germinating all these years? Gibbons tells us it took time to rediscover Ellen's voice, but when she did, the voice was loud and clear. Ellen is still trying to find her place in the world, and she says at one point, I didn't know how to feel at home out in the world or at home either. "That comes from my heart so directly," says Gibbons. "Ellen's task is what mine was, which was to learn how to be comfortable inside. That's what you carry around with you." She doesn't consider The Life a sequel, but rather the next book in a series, something akin to checking in with an old friend from time to time. Eventually, she intends to write six or more books about Ellen's life, to grow her up in fiction. As writer and character evolve over time, they will find new themes to explore and challenges to meet.
GIbbons has already begun the third book, in which Ellen "attends a prestigious Ivy League college and runs into hard-core prejudice and [has] to discover how hard she's going to work to prove herself." One of the reasons Gibbons enjoys writing from Ellen's point of view is that she gets to go back in time and say things I wasn't able to say. "I get to live twice in some ways or correct mistakes, and she can do things I was too timid to do. I just felt like I needed that girl in my life." A particularly poignant scene in the The Life shows Ellen sorting through a box of her mother's things, touching the artifacts of her former life. Gibbons conveys this scene with a tenderness untarnished by sentimentality. Coming to terms with losing a parent through suicide is something Gibbons knows well. "Before I started it, I knew I needed closure on my mother's suicide. I wondered if writing this book would help, and it has . . . it's not a constant in my life anymore." For a while, Gibbons thought about trying to write a book about her mother, but it was just too close. Though she didn't expect to at the outset, Gibbons began to heal through writing in Ellen's voice. "Ellen did it for me," she says. "I'd be a fool not to keep revisiting her. It is, above all, Ellen's distinct voice that will make readers want to return to her story. I'd like for her voice to be recognizable when she and Starletta are 80 and roaming around Bali or Tahiti somewhere," Gibbons says with a laugh. Now that, we've got to stick around to see.
Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.