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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,
B.B. King,
John R. Lewis,
N. Scott Momaday,
Carol Shields,
Wole Soyinka,
Rosa Parks,
Suzan-Lori Parks
and Oprah Winfrey

Ernest Gaines's recommended reading:
Fathers and Sons

Related Links:
U. of Louisisana
Gaines Center
Gaines Award

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Ernest Gaines
Ernest Gaines
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Ernest Gaines Interview (page: 3 / 7)

A Lesson Before Dying

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  Ernest Gaines

You mentioned some authors you enjoyed. Were there particular books that had a big influence on you when you were starting out?

Ernest J. Gaines: I read Turgenev, Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and that book had a tremendous impact on me. It was about a young man who came back to the old village to visit the old people after he had graduated from his university, and he used to be a doctor, and falls in love with a beautiful woman and all that sort of thing. They lived out in the country. When I was writing my first novel, Catherine Carmier -- I started writing it in '58, I think, '58, '59 -- I knew nothing about writing a novel, and I used that Fathers and Sons as sort of my Bible, my guide. My first novel was about a young man who had been away from the old place, and then returning, and falls in love with a beautiful girl, and he loses her. I was really very much impressed by -- influenced by -- Turgenev's Fathers and Sons at that time, but then I started reading other books, of course. I was reading other books at the same time, but that was the book that had the earliest influence on my structure -- structuring a novel. It was small, and it was tightly written. It was about the country and older people and a young educated man who was a nihilist. So I thought at that time I was a nihilist, too.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
Ernest Gaines Interview Photo

You've gone back to Louisiana so often in your books. One might think you would want to escape what you experienced and endured as a young person, but you keep returning through your fiction.

Ernest J. Gaines: Yeah. I've written seven books -- eight with a children's book, but the children's book was one of the short stories -- and my Bloodline stories. All of them have been about Louisiana.

Although I lived in San Francisco during that time, all of the books have been about Louisiana. The body had gone to California to be educated, but the soul was still there in Louisiana, and it was only that place that I really wanted to write about, from the beginning and even to this day. Friends have suggested -- and editors and publishers and agents too -- that I should maybe write about something else, but I can't. I know, yes, it was pretty hard, tough, living in the South as a small black child during that time, but I had a lot of fun too. There were some happy, happy days. We could fish. We could hunt. We played a lot. We could walk some distances without anybody caring about your walking across properties. We could collect the different fruit that grew in the fields and trees along the road. Those are some wonderful moments, and the people whom I loved the most, including my aunt, and many of the older people were still there.

Because my aunt could not travel, many of the old people used to visit her, come there and visit and talk all the time, really talked day and night. These people had never gone to school, so I'd write letters for them. I wrote their letters. I'd help create their letters, because they'd have two or three lines, and that was all they had to say, and then I'd have to help create the letters. So those are the kind of things that I wanted to put into my writing, about these people, and the younger people as well, my brothers and friends and the stories I'd heard. Some of them were very horrible stories, but some are wonderful stories, all of that. And I think the artist is very much -- by the time he's 15, 15-and-a-half -- the direction which he'll travel has already been established by that time. I don't know how much you change after that, whether you're a singer or a poet or a writer or a novelist. I mean a fiction writer or whatever. I don't know how much you change after 15-and-a-half years, as far as your art is concerned.

In a work of yours, such as A Gathering of Old Men, the voice of the South is there. It's almost like a transcription. You have such a tremendous ear for voices.

Ernest J. Gaines: I tried to write that novel from the first person point of view, and that was from the Lou Dimes point of view. Lou Dimes is Candy's boyfriend, and he's a newspaper guy, and I wanted someone like that, I thought, to tell the story. But then I realized after writing maybe six months or a year -- well, I went through an entire draft, so it must have been more than a year -- from his point of view, I realized that this book was not -- I mean, his voice was not telling the story I wanted to tell. His voice could only tell what had happened, this guy had been killed, but he couldn't tell it from the point of view of the characters, whose voices I wanted to hear, and that is why I chose to write the story over from that multiple point of view, starting out with an innocent little boy who does not know what is going on, and then gradually going to older people and people who knew what had happened and why it had happened.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
We've read that you can almost hear these voices. I don't mean in a parapsychological way, but just that you hear them in your imagination.

Ernest J. Gaines: Yeah. Right. Well, you know, I hate saying, "I hear voices." I was interviewed in Fresno, California, about ten or 15 years ago, and the newspaper guy asked me how did I get my stories told. I said, "Well, I like writing from the first person point of view, but I have to get that voice down. I have to get that voice. I have to hear that voice." So the next morning, I read the newspaper, and the newspaper headline was, "Writer Hears Voices." So I thought that was not what I was telling him. I had to hear the voice of my characters, and that I had to concentrate so well on the area that I could distinguish one voice from the other.

I have about 15 different characters who speak, narrate in A Gathering of Old Men. I think there are 15 of them, and I had to get -- some way I had to distinguish 15 different voices. I had to give each one of those voices different little characteristics, little nuances, each one needed to have, whether it was a small boy, Snookum, who was about -- I suppose Snookum must be about eight years old or nine -- to people who were 80 years old. I had several 80- or 70-year-old men in there. I have two educated white women, Candy as well as Miss Merle. How would I distinguish those two voices, difference in those two voices? I have a sheriff, a big sheriff in there. How'd I get his voice down? Then I have a little skinny deputy, his little deputy, I had to get his voice down. Then I had a minister who used a lot of religious terms, and another older lady who used a lot of religious terms. How do I distinguish those two voices? So I think it's only through having lived in Louisiana and coming from such a place, because there we have so many different -- we have several different dialects in my part of Louisiana. I come from Cajun, Creole, and of course both Creole black (and) Creole white there in Louisiana. I attended a Catholic school there for a little while. I knew the Baptist religion. My folks are Baptist. So you know, I draw from these experiences.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What impact did your teacher Wallace Stegner have on your decision to pursue a writing career?

Ernest J. Gaines: Well, I submitted the work, and he liked what I had done, and he gave me the scholarship to come there for a year. I was writing short stories. He is a wonderful critic, not only a writer himself, but just a wonderful critic and a wonderful teacher, and he saw one of my stories. He saw the three that I submitted to get to Stanford. Then he saw another one that was quite long. It must have been about 150 pages, I suppose, and he thought it was too long to be published as a short story, and not long enough for a novel, He edited it down, and I learned a lot from his editing. He also brought other potential writers into that classroom.

I was there with Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I was in there with a fellow named Wendell Berry, who is from Kentucky, a wonderful writer, novelist and poet. I was there with a guy named Louis Haas; I think Louis was from Argentina. I was there with some guy named Waterhouse, and he was from England. So there were all of these people there, and we were all pretty much on the same level as writers go. Somebody had published maybe a little story somewhere, but we were all about the same level in the writing, and he (Wallace Stegner) worked with us all. We would have to meet. I think it was twice a week, and the rest of the time, he'd expect you to write. You know, at that time, I was writing eight hours a day. I had nothing else to do, other than meeting my class twice a week; I could write eight hours a day. So I was writing eight hours a day, he encouraged that. He wanted that.

Then he also wanted us to hang together. After leaving the class, he didn't want us to just separate and go in different ways. He wanted you to sort of stay around Stanford. So we would go to a little bar and drink beer and talk and things like that. There was always a party going on, and he was giving parties or someone in the department giving a party. So we were always invited, and he was always there. He was always bringing critics there. Malcolm Cowley was there, and other critics came in.

Was it unusual at that time for a major university to have a writing program, with a major novelist leading it?

Ernest J. Gaines: With a major novelist, yeah, but there were people leading those programs at that time. Cal (Berkeley) had a famous critic over there at the time, and there was the Iowa writers workshop. There were programs.

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