Bertha Kaye Batts Gibbons, born on May 5, 1960, in the rural community of Bend of the River, Nash County, North Carolina, was the third child of Charles Batts, a tobacco farmer, and Alice, a housewife. Gibbons’s childhood came to an end in March, 1970, when her mother committed suicide. The nine-year-old girl then had to find a new home, first attempting to live with her abusive, alcoholic father, then shifting from the home of one relative to another. Eventually, she found comfort with her older sibling. Many of the experiences from Gibbons’s early life fueled Ellen Foster (1987), her first novel.
In 1978, Gibbons graduated from Rocky Mount High School and enrolled at North Carolina State University. While at North Carolina State, she became familiar with the work of Louis Rubin, a well-known professor of southern literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). She later transferred to UNC, where her dream of studying with Rubin became a reality; she enrolled in one of his courses in 1985. In Rubin, Gibbons found a mentor and an active supporter of her creative writing. The previous year, Batts had married Michael Gibbons. The chronic illness of their daughter, Mary, would cause Gibbons to leave UNC without taking a degree. Around that time, her manic-depressive disorder was diagnosed.
Ellen Foster, encouraged by Rubin and published by Algonquin Books, the company Rubin had founded, was met with much critical praise. Writers Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, and Alice Hoffman commended both the novel and Gibbons’s skill as a writer. More validation came with the award of the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. The book was chosen as a selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club in 1997.
Fueled by the success of Ellen Foster, Gibbons published several novels in the following decade. In 1989 came A Virtuous Woman, which would also became an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection. Also in 1989, Gibbons won a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to write a third novel.
The 1990’s brought a mixture of success and struggle to Gibbons. Her third novel, A Cure for Dreams, was published in 1991 and heralded with the 1990 PEN/Revson Award for the best work of fiction published by a writer under the age of thirty-five and the Nelson Algren Heartland Award for fiction from The Chicago Tribune. Gibbons followed up with Charms for the Easy Life in 1994, Sights Unseen in 1995, and On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon in 1998. However, her personal life was tumultuous. She divorced Michael Gibbons, moved to New York City, and switched publishers. Compounding these changes were a second marriage, to attorney Frank Ward, two stepchildren, and a return to Raleigh, North Carolina.
In addition, Gibbons continued to battle manic-depressive illness. Her novel On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon was reportedly written in a manic stage, taking only three months to complete, with Gibbons sometimes working forty-to sixty-hour periods. She candidly discusses her battle with this disease in her 1995 autobiography, Frost and Flower: My Life with Manic Depression So Far.
Despite other personal setbacks, her divorce from Ward, and several moves, Gibbons has continued to write. In 2004, she released Divining Women. A sequel to Ellen Foster, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, was scheduled for publication in early 2006. Gibbons currently lives in Raleigh with her three daughters.
The driving force behind Gibbons’s work is voice. The characters and their stories become fully formed because they have words with which to give these notions life. Gibbons imbues her characters with a rich oral capacity; they do tell their stories because they can tell their stories. In this way, language almost becomes a theme, ranking in importance with self-reliance and community.
Kaye Gibbons was born Bertha Kaye Batts on May 5, 1960, in a rural Nash County,...
(The entire section is 2,040 words.)