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If you like Ernest J. Gaines's story, you might also like:
Edward Albee,
Maya Angelou,
Rita Dove,
Shelby Foote,
Carlos Fuentes,
Nadine Gordimer,
James Earl Jones,
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and Oprah Winfrey

Ernest Gaines's recommended reading:
Fathers and Sons

Related Links:
Tanya Bickley Enterprises
University of Louisiana
Ernest J. Gaines Award

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Ernest Gaines
Ernest Gaines
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Ernest Gaines Interview

A Lesson Before Dying

May 4, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  Ernest Gaines

Could you tell us a little bit about the environment in Louisiana that shaped you?

Ernest J. Gaines: I was born on a sugar cane plantation in South Louisiana, 1933. So that makes -- I'm 68 years old today -- I mean 68 years old now, and at that time, we lived in cabins, of course, and those cabins had been built during the time of slavery. Additions had been added to the cabins, but they had been built, the frame -- the main part of the cabin -- had been there since the time of slavery. And my folks had lived there on that plantation at least three or four generations before I came along. So we lived in that one plantation, about six generations of us. Yes.

I had folks there who had been slaves on that plantation. This in Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana. I went to school. We did not have a school. We had a church, and we attended the church, the same church where my folks worshiped on Sundays and where my ancestors had worshiped. There were grades from primer to the sixth grade, and classes were about five and a half months a year. Because the people had to go into the fields, children who were old enough to go to school were already heading for the fields at seven, eight years old, already going to the fields, and so we went to school between the crop seasons, between the planting of the crops and the harvesting of the crops, whatever it was, cotton or Irish potatoes or onions or whatever small children could do at that time. I attended that school for six years, my first six years, through the sixth grade.

So, when you were a very small child, you were already working on the plantation.

Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
Ernest J. Gaines: Yeah. When I was eight years old, I was already going into the fields to work, and we'd work eight hours a day, ten hours a day, whatever. I remember being paid 50 cents for that day's work, but I was not the only one doing that. The average child at that age at that time was doing the same thing.

What were you picking?

Ernest J. Gaines: They could have been potatoes, Irish potatoes or onions or picking cotton. There was a lot of cotton at that time there.

Where did you get your love of literature and books? When did that come?

Ernest J. Gaines: My folks went to California during the war in the early '40s, my mother and my stepfather, since there was no high school in the area that I could attend -- the high schools were for whites only -- when I graduated from the ninth grade. I went to the sixth grade on this plantation, and then I went to three extra years of school in a small town, the small town of New Roads, which was about ten miles from that plantation where I lived. Sometimes I got a ride, sometimes I had to hitchhike a ride. Sometimes I caught the bus to get to school and had to do the same thing to get back, because they had no school buses to take me there and back. When I graduated from the ninth grade -- yeah, ninth grade -- my folks sent for me to come to California to go to school, because there were no high schools for me in that parish, and there I ended up in the library, the public library, Andrew Carnegie Library there in Vallejo, California. Vallejo is about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. We were living in Vallejo at that time, and it was there that I went to high school and also discovered the library there, their public library, and I started reading. There were no books there by or about blacks, but I read the books that were there. There were lots of books there, but none by and about blacks.

I fell in love with literature. I read plays. I read poetry. I read novels. I especially liked the 19th century Russian novelist, Turgenev, the stories of Tolstoy and Chekhov stories, and I read that. I began to read them because they -- I suppose because the relationship between those landowners and their peasants, their serfs, were so much like -- and not like -- the ones that I had come from. Those serfs and those peasants could become, probably, landowners themselves, or they can improve themselves. Whereas, where I had come from, it was impossible. So I read those books. I liked reading those books.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I began to read French novels, without knowing the meaning of things, I was just reading for the storylines, for the characters. I discovered American writing as well about that time. Then after graduating from high school, I attended two years of junior college there in Vallejo. It was free, and I did not have money to go to a four-year college. So I enlisted in the Army.

When I was discharged from the Army, I enrolled at San Francisco State to study literature, and it was there that I really got seriously into the writing. I had some wonderful teachers there on the campus at that time who were writers as well, and they encouraged me to write, and I wrote short stories. At about that same time, they were organizing a literary group on the campus, and a little magazine called Transfer -- Transfer magazine -- and I had the very first short story published in Transfer, and I also had -- in the next issue -- a second story of mine was published in Transfer. I think the magazine came out -- a little quarterly that came out. It must have been a quarterly. So I had two stories, and then I wrote another story. I was writing stories at that time, and these three I submitted to Stanford University, and I won a fellowship there to study. After graduating from San Francisco State, I submitted those stories to Stanford, and I won a fellowship at Stanford to study there (with) Wally Stegner, who was the founder and director of the program at Stanford.

He was a great writer himself.

Ernest J. Gaines: A great writer, and a wonderful, wonderful person.

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This page last revised on Mar 26, 2008 20:43 EDT