Kaye Gibbons was born in Nash County, North Carolina, in 1960. She graduated from Rocky Mount High School and continued her studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While studying American literature at Chapel Hill, she wrote her first novel, Ellen Foster, which reviewers and fans praised as an extraordinary debut. Eudora Welty said that "the honesty of thought and eye and feeling and word" mark the work of this talented writer, and Walker Percy said, "Ellen Foster is a southern Holden Caufield, tougher perhaps, as funny…A breathtaking first novel".
Ellen Foster went on to win the Sue Kaufman award for First Fiction from the academy of Arts and Letters, A Special Citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, and the Louis Rubin Writing Award from the University of North Carolina. The book has been widely translated and is studied as part of the canon of French literature.
Her second novel, A Virtuous Woman, was published in 1989 and also received wide praise in the United states and abroad. The San Francisco Chronicle called the book "a perfect little gem."
In 1989, Gibbons received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to write a third novel, A Cure for Dreams, which was published in 1991. This novel won the 1990/PEN Revson Award for the best work of fiction published by a writer under thirty five years of age, as well as the Heartland Prize for Fiction from The Chicago Tribune and the North Carolina Sir Walter Raleigh Award. At that time, Gibbons also won the University of North Carolina Distinguished Alumnus Award.
In March 1993, G.P. Putnam's Sons published her fourth novel, Charm for the Easy Life, which became a New York Times bestseller, and prompted a Time magazine review to say, "Some people might give up their second-born to write as well as Kaye Gibbons." In 1995, G.P. Putnam's Sons published Sights Unseen, which became a national bestseller. In 1996, Kaye Gibbons was the youngest writer ever to receive the Chevalier De L'Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres, a French Knighthood recognizing her contribution to French literature. On December 14, 1997 Hallmark Hall of Fame presented Ellen Foster, starring Julie Harris, on CBS.
Her next novel, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, was published in the summer of 1998.