busy being alive

from the archives: july 28, 2010

Ellen Gilchrist‘s first book was not published until she was in her forties. In “A Reading Group Guide” at the back of Nora Jane: A Life in Stories, she is asked about this:

“I didn’t begin to write seriously and professionally until I was in my forties because I was busy being alive.”

Now she has been writing for thirty years: stories, novellas, and novels. In these books, she often writes about the same characters. In 1999, Margaret Donovan Bauer published The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. In it, she wrote:

“Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work…is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve. It is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle.”

In 2005 all the stories Gilchrist had written to that point about Nora Jane Whittington were collected into one volume and organized in chronological order of Nora Jane’s life. I had read these stories before and had copies of them. But to read them all in a row and in the “right” order felt a little like seeing that wick that Mary Gordon referred to…I did find one or two inconsistencies, but those felt more like proof that this wonderful thing–Nora Jane Whittington’s life–was real.

In the same reading guide referred to above, Ellen Gilchrist was also asked if she had planned to write about the same characters over and over again. She said that she planned her writing the same way she planned her life:

“On a day-by-day and obsession-by-obsession basis.”

Obsession-by-obsession. I like that : )

[In similar fashion, all the stories about Rhoda Manning were collected in 1995.]

~cross-posted at the Contrary Blog

10 thoughts on “busy being alive

  1. I adore her and her books are among those that will not be donated while editing my life. She was in New Orleans for a reading and book signing last year. I am still kicking myself for not making it. But I’m sure she’d understand. I was too busy being alive.


    • Good for you, and good to hear her books are staying on your shelf. I have more books by her than by anyone else–23.

      I’ll be interested to know what books make the cut–that’s a blog post for sure : )


  2. Pingback: A life in stories — Contrary Blog

  3. I really like that, “on a day by day and obsession by obsession basis”. Ever since something you wrote (I think) last spring sometime about obsessions, they’ve been on my mind… What are mine? How am I cultivating them?


  4. “Dance in the fullness of time.” My best friend and I have adored her books for years and that is a quote that Ellen sent in a letter.


    • Robin, thanks so much for sharing Ellen’s words from the letter. “Dance in the fullness of time” sounds just like her–I can see her twirling. I think The Anna Papers was the first book of Ellen’s that I ever read, sometime before 1997 when I re-read it. I have more of her books than any other author’s–23. She was one of the reasons I started writing.


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