I had the pleasure of making Kaye Gibbons’ acquaintance via email, and I have very quickly become a big fan. Aspiring writers and precocious readers could learn a lot from her. One of the more noteworthy events of Gibbons’ distinguished career was the selection of two of her books, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club. I asked Gibbons how she looks back on this experience as a writer, and she was kind enough to send us the following reply:
You’d asked how I felt about having two novels of mine on the Oprah Book Club. There’s so much to say about it that I’ll talk about it chronologically. Before the Oprah call, I was doing fine, amazing fine. But it didn’t start out that way. My advance for Ellen Foster was 1500. But I’ve always had a strong work ethic, and as I worked, as rights were sold and awards won, the money began to catch up to the blood and time I was putting into it. Unfortunately, being a rather eccentric, free-thinking woman in the South led others and eventually me to conclude that there had to be something pathological about me, and it wasn’t until two years ago that a twenty-year old diagnosis of bi-polar disorder was eradicated. Doctors made me feel forced to take drugs that took the edge off my creativity, but I’ve taken nothing in two years and haven’t ever felt and written better.
My theory is that I want to write the best literature possible and have it read by as many people as possible. Living in NC, now half-time in NY, there’s a long tradition of writers helping one another, reading manuscripts, finding agents. Lee Smith introduced me to my agent, and then in 1997 I was able to pass that along when I read the first pages of Cold Mountain. Chuck [Charles Frazier] and I had had children at the same Montessori school for years and had been close friends. Things like that happen here all the time.
But there’s still a great deal of intellectual isolation here–and that’s probably why I write and read as much as I do. The other day in the grocery store, an acquaintance asked me what’d I’d been writing since I finished Divining Women. When I told her I’d been reviewing books for Atlanta and Chicago, she asked, “They let you review your own books?” This is a strange occupation to have in Raleigh, not so much in Chapel Hill, where Alan Gurganus, Reynolds Price, and others live. But sometimes 20 miles feels very far away.
So, with regard to Oprah, one thing her call did was to give what I do for a living a certain amount of validation. I’d been knighted by the French, won awards galore, sold about a million books, had a movie made, done 12 thirty-city book tours, but dealing with the perception that I was a local writer was often frustrating. I’d have an audience of 2000 in Michigan and then 30 in Raleigh, for example.
What it took to manage it was self-esteem, and that generally comes from having a firm grasp of reality and what’s important, my children. A digression, because I anticipate someone mouthing about the Oprah money: I have a hard time tolerating the starving artist in the garret whining about how a writer writes a brilliant book that the publisher won’t promote and that no one is reading. It’s easier to be a victim than take action, write a better book, listen to an editor’s input, find a new publisher. I truly believe, because I’ve seen it, that if a brilliant manuscript exists, that if that writer has had enough gall, brains, energy, etc. to write it that he or she can get it to the right people. When a person sends me something that deserves publishing, I see it through the process. But ninety-nine percent of what I’m sent just isn’t good. A writer has to be a superb editor, and wishing a book good doesn’t make it so. When someone sends me something drowning in cliches, I tell them that language is to use, not to take easy advantage of. When Oprah called and said she wanted to put the two novels on her show, I was nervous about it diminishing my literary reputation, which sounds pompous to say. When she held A Virtuous Woman up and said, “America, you’ve wanted a love story, well, here it is,” I thought, Well, here we go.
But, you see, her selling, what now, about three million books that month, didn’t change the basic nature of the novels or me. When Jonathan Franzen started running his mouth about the maudlin trash or whatever he said about her choices, I smiled and remembered that the first novel, Ellen Foster, is taught all over the world beside The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was finished, in 1986, it was sent to and read by Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Gordon Lish, John Barth, and other people who, over the years, became dear to me. The whole Franzen thing got sort of tedious, and I didn’t have the time to get dragged into it.
What someone like a Franzen doesn’t see was how poor I was growing up, a surreal state of poverty, and then that small advance, and how I worked my way up to financial security. I’m finally making now what many, many first, very young writers are getting, and I think it damages the soul. I finally have a house that doesn’t have something hanging off in disrepair. There’s the whole attitude now in music and writing of, I’m 21, Where’s my Big Deal? So, even though the Oprah thing seemed to come out of the blue, it had been earned. I think I’d have felt a little ridiculous if it hadn’t been. I used a lot of the money establishing a library at a local children’s home, which my daughters and I still maintain. We sat down and wrote checks, making decisions together about where the money went. Anything I put away personally was completely eradicated, gone, during a horrible divorce two years later. So, I found myself back at the beginning financially, having been reamed. But I’ve got this work ethic, and I’ve got the post-Oprah, broadened visibility. It’ll be okay. My daughter wasn’t able to go to college in NY, stayed here because of the financial drain of the divorce, but it remains, we will all be okay.
I admire Oprah, enormously. As for the book club, she’s getting it done, getting people in bookstores. If there’s the criticism that the books she selects have taken on a certain sameness, well, so what? She’s not picked Danielle Steele, for crying out loud. I know for a fact, given the hundreds of letters, that people are reading, because of her, who haven’t read before.Let me tell you that when I got a letter from a mother who said her daughter’s impression of her totally changed when she saw her mother sitting down, reading a book at night in bed, how very proud this woman was, it is hard to say anything critical about the Oprah Book Club.
The problem is that it is hard, to impossible, for people who live around books, who read them, own them, who have, like me, about 4000 books in the bedroom, to even process the notion that houses exist where there are no books except the ones the kids bring home from school. That’s a deplorable, elitist attitude. When I was house-shopping, I looked at about fifty upper middle-class houses, and only in a couple did I see more than a handful of books. I started asking the real estate agent if the sellers had hidden the books, thinking they were clutter.
I have two younger teenagers, and I can tell you that seeing them reading anything is a blessing. I don’t go over and demand that they upgrade. And for those 350 kids who use the library Oprah made possible day in and day out because the public library in their town will not trust them to check out and bring back books, they’d wonder what all the snobbish hoopla was about. They’re able to do their homework better, their grades have improved, and that money was funneled directly from Oprah.
I felt nothing but honored by the whole process, and only wish that I’d been in better emotional and physical shape at the time. I was 75 pounds heavier, weight that drugs I didn’t need had put on me, and I felt run down and a little thick in the head. But that was then. This is now. I’m the person I used to be before my marriage went to hell, and I’m nothing but glad that the Oprah thing is a part of my experience. If nothing else, local ladies who stop me in the grocery store don’t talk to me like I’m having to sell books out of the back of my car.
I think anybody who wants to be successful at this whole ordeal of publishing has to take a certain amount of responsibility that I see so many people abdicating in favor of bitter comparisons. Language is a gift, and to be able to use language to make a living is one of the most joyful enterprises I can imagine. I try to take that joy and make what I’m writing a better book every time I edit it. I work 18-hour days. It is a long, lonely, spiritually hazardous occupation. But the joy I feel in putting even two words together in something of an original way has nothing to do with money or movies, nothing external. I think that people buy and read my books, regardless of Oprah, because I’ve always studied everything I’ve read, even packaging on the mascara I just bought, and tried to figure out why a particular word was chosen. You can get in a habit of alert, concentrated reading that comes back when the writing begins. I’ve learned to be honest with myself and cut what sucks.
Kaye Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her books include Charms for Easy Life, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, A Cure for Dreams, and Sights Unseen, as well as the titles mentioned above. Her latest novel, Divining Women will come out April 14th. And make sure to check out her cool new website, kayegibbons.com.
Thanks to Will Femia for allowing my self-promotion to extend to MSNBC’s Weblog Central. For those that are blog-fans, it is always a must-read.