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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: 4 / 7)

A Lesson Before Dying

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  Ernest Gaines

We were speaking of your teacher, Wallace Stegner. I understand you were both on the short list for a Pulitzer in the same year.

Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
Ernest J. Gaines: We were. That would be 1972, and both he and I knew that we were on the short list. He thought I was going to win it, and I thought I was going to win it, because a lot of people were telling me that Miss Jane Pittman has everything. And then, of course, I did not and Wally did, and I called him early that morning. I suppose he'd gotten many calls, and we talked, and I said, "Wally, you know, I thought I was going to win it." He said, "Yes, I thought you were going to win it, too." I said, "Well, if I didn't get it, you know, you're the man I wished got to receive that award." He said, "Thanks, Ernie."

What was his book that won?

Ernest J. Gaines: His book was Angle of Repose.

Did he communicate to you his pride in your being on that list?

Ernest J. Gaines: Oh yeah. He would always call, and I'd see him after I left Stanford. There were always parties going on in San Francisco. Someone was giving a party, someone was getting a book published, and he would show up, or something was going on down at Palo Alto at Stanford, and I would go down there. So he stayed in contact with his writers. I don't know that he stayed in contact with all of them, because some of them got in trouble, but most of us came through pretty well.

Didn't he ask you once who you were writing for?

Ernest J. Gaines: He asked me who was I writing for, and I said, "Well, Wally" -- he wanted us to call him "Wally," you know, because we were all informal around the place. He didn't want anyone to call him "Mr. Stegner" or anything like that. I said, "Well, Wally, I don't write for anybody in particular." I said, "I've learned from many writers." He said, "Well" -- I said, "I've read all these writers." I said, "I learned a lot from a writer like Ivan Turgenev," but I said, "He was just an aristocrat writing in the 19th -- mid 19th century -- and I know he was not writing for an Ernie Gaines on a Louisiana plantation." And I said, "Still, I learned from him because of the way he wrote that little novel. I learned about a young man coming back to the old place and how he reacted to the old place." I said, "I didn't know anything about that until I read that book," and he said, "Listen, Ernie." He said, "Suppose a gun was put at your head, and that same question was asked. Who do you write for?" I said, "Well, in that case, I'll come up with an answer." And I said, "The answer would be that, first, I'd write for the young black youth of the South, so that I could help him in some ways to find himself, his directions in life. Let him know something about where he's coming from, what he came from, and how to try to help him find his way." And then Wally said, "Well, suppose that gun was still at your head," and I said, "Well, then I'd write for the white youth of the South, to let him know that unless he knows his neighbor for the last 350 years, he knows only half of his own history, that you have to know the people around you. And his neighbor, of course, was the blacks, African Americans." So that was all the discussion on who I write for, but I don't write for any particular group. When I face that wall, when I sit at that desk and face that wall to write, looking at the blank wall, I just try to create those characters as well as I possibly can create them.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Do you create them on a computer these days?

Ernest J. Gaines: I have a computer, but I still have to write longhand first. I have to feel the words. I have to feel what I'm doing, and then after I have written longhand, then I will go to the keyboard. All the books have been written on typewriters and not computers.

Longhand and then typewriters?

Ernest J. Gaines: Longhand. Longhand on a canary-color paper. I like writing on yellow paper because -- it has to be a soft canary-color paper -- and with ballpoint pens, several. I'd get a box of them around the place, and I'd get two or three reams of paper and start writing. And once I have done that, then I'd type it on the canary-color paper, and then I'd go over it, change things around if I have to, and then I'd go to the white paper, and then I send it to New York. So I've really gone over it about three times by the time I send it to my editor and my agent. I've gone over it three times already. And as I said earlier, I went over Catherine Carmier about six or eight times. I must have gone over it 18 times or more, 20 times or more.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I also read that you have a picture of Faulkner up in that room.

Ernest J. Gaines: I have a picture of Faulkner and Hemingway in my office at the university where I teach. Yeah. They're right over the desk. I collected a lot of pictures back in my San Francisco days. I'd have pictures of writers and bullfighters and all kinds of things around the place, jazz musicians. But in my office at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, I do have Faulkner and Hemingway there. Also, I have a picture of Martin Luther King, a picture of Cicely Tyson as Miss Jane Pittman, a picture of Booker T. Washington, all kind of pictures around that place, but yes, Faulkner and Hemingway are both there.

They keep you company? They don't intimidate you?

Ernest J. Gaines: No. Their picture can't intimidate me. Maybe their writing can when I'm reading it.

I see how well they could do certain things, how well Faulkner could do certain things, or Hemingway. So I've learned a lot from them. They're like great uncles of mine. They may be intimidating, but you know, I can get along with them, because I think I know some things they don't know. If they had lived beyond 60, they would be more intimidating, but so many things have happened. But I think Shakespeare and Tolstoy would have intimidated them, you know. So I feel that it's just something like a baton that is being carried on. Shakespeare went so far, then he had to leave us, and then Tolstoy picks it up. He goes so far, and he had to leave us, and Faulkner goes so far, and we just keep going. I think it was Goethe who once said that "Everything has been done. The trouble is doing it again." So we're just doing it again. Someone mentioned last night on the panel that there are only two kinds of stories, a story about someone leaving and a story about someone coming in. They would have done the work had they been able to live. Shakespeare would have written everything that was necessary to write if he could have lived another 500 years, but since he did not, he could not, and someone had to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I did that. A Gathering of Old Men or A Lesson Before Dying, so I could do that, but we're dealing with the same sort of old subjects, I suppose.

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