Reading Matters

Kaye Gibbons: Recycling the pain

Thirty years ago this coming April – in 1987 – I drove to Raleigh to interview Kaye Gibbons, who had just published her debut novel, the wildly successful and poignant, “Ellen Foster.”

Gibbons was barely pregnant with her second daughter, and she was able to eat only a bite of her lunch when we went out after the interview. But she was very agreeable and her words, to me, were memorable. I believed that as novelists go, I was talking to the real deal.

She told me that since writing “Ellen Foster,” she had felt relaxed for the first time in her life. I asked if writing the book had helped her change her attitude about her past. Here’s what she said:

“I’ve spent a lot of time hiding from the past and not wanting to think about it or deal with what I had come from. And feeling ashamed of it. And when I started writing ‘Ellen,’ I said, ‘I can use this stuff. I can use those feelings. They don’t have to swirl around anymore unorganized. I can set those feelings down.’

“It’s not that any of the details in the book are true. But all the feelings are. And the book is a girl’s search for order. She likes the hedge bushes square. She likes everything neat and in a row. And in a way, that’s what I was doing with my history. I was ordering everything I’d ever thought about and read. It was like all the books I had ever eaten came up while I was writing her.”

From “Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers.”