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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:
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 (page: 5 / 7)

A Lesson Before Dying

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  Ernest Gaines

What's the connection between Miss Jane and your aunt?

Ernest J. Gaines: I know some people have said that Miss Jane Pittman is my aunt. No, she is not, but Miss Jane has my aunt's spirit and courage. My aunt wasn't too feisty. She was just strong, courageous. Most courageous person I've ever met, I suppose ever lived on earth as far as I'm concerned, because what she had to go through would discourage most people.

What an epic Miss Jane Pittman is! How did you formulate that idea to take somebody through an entire century of history?

Ernest J. Gaines: I left the South in 1948, and in 1968 the idea came up to write a story like that.


What I was trying to do in the beginning was to write from a multiple point of view. A multiple point of view, after some little old lady had died, a group of people gather at the home of -- someone's home -- and after a funeral, they'd gather there for a repast, to eat and to talk and whatever, drink and whatever. And so I'd thought I would write a novel like that, because I had heard the old people who used to visit my aunt, because my aunt could not travel. They used to come there, and they used to talk all the time. They'd talk out on the porch during the day -- or if it's cold, around the fireplace at night -- they were always talking, and I knew they talked about all kinds of things. They talked about what they had heard -- knew -- about slavery, vicariously, of course. About religion or politics. They were always talking.


So in 1968, when I came down from San Francisco to Baton Rouge, I had a friend over at Southern University, and he and I sat around one day talking, and I said, "Al" -- I said, "What do you think those old people were talking about all the time?" He said, "I don't know. They talked like that all the time around me, too."


I said, "Well, I have this idea about this. I want someone that lived from slavery to now. But to make it real, I have to bring in different things about history or whatever," and I said, "Let's start with 12 national things." Of course, they did not experience these things, but they may have heard about these things. So we talked about things like slavery. We talked about the Reconstruction period. We talked about, oh, the Depression era, many things. So after we dealt with 12 things nationally, about 12 things nationally, then I dealt with 12 things statewide. This is what could have happened in the State between 1862, say, until 1962. What could have happened in the State that they could have heard about from someone else, from other sources? They didn't know anything about it, really. They couldn't read. So they did not know anything about it directly. So let's deal with that. So we must have come up with ten, 12 things there. Then we dealt with the parish, need something here. She knows more about -- she has to know something about the parish. So we dealt with the parish. Then we came to the plantation. So the circle becomes smaller and smaller, and there are four books there in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. After I had gotten all this information, then I tried to put it into the voices of these different people who are going to tell the story about this little old lady, but they talked so much about her that I fell in love with her, and it was then that I decided to write the book from her point of view.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


The original idea was something like "Sketches of a Plantation," because I loved this piece of work, "Pictures at an Exhibition." Yeah. I really loved that piece of work. So what I wanted was a series of pictures, pictures, pictures, and I just called them sketches, and then that didn't sound right.


Then I retitled it A Short Biography of Miss Jane Pittman, when we were talking about it, and I worked on it about a year, and my editor -- who was Bill Decker, he was at the Dial Press at the time -- Bill called me one day and he says -- because I sent him drafts of it -- he called me one day and he said, "Listen, Ernie, I think this book has to be told from the first-person point of view. She has to tell the story. These people are not telling the story right." I told him, "Well, forget it. I'm going to go and continue to do what I'm doing," and I must have done that for another month or so. And then I realized he was right. So I started in chapter one. "It was a day something like right now," she says. "Hot, hot, and dusty, dusty" were my first lines in it, and then she talks about how the Secessionist army came in, and then the Northern army behind them, chasing them and so on, and it just started there, and things began to move to move to move. I continued to read and read and read about the Civil War, and then I read about the Reconstruction period, and then I kept reading. I would write in the morning from -- oh, I'd say from about 9:00 to about 2:00, and I had to go to work. I had part-time work, and then I'd work about four hours. Then I'd come back home, and I'd read. I was always a few years ahead of the time I was writing about. If I was writing about the Civil War, I was already reading about the Reconstruction period. If I was writing about that, I was reading about some other period in time. So I'd keep reading and reading and reading. So by the time my little character would get here, I have already gotten all the information or most of it.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Other writers we've talked to want to do all the research first, get it out of the way, and then start writing, but you like to stagger it.

Ernest J. Gaines: It was the best way that I thought I could do it, because once I was ready to write the book now, I was ready to write that book, and many of the books that I needed, I did not have. I didn't know how to get them, and so I was making constant trips from San Francisco back to Louisiana, going to the library at LSU, or going to the library at Southern, or going to the State Library in Baton Rouge to get this information. So while I'm in San Francisco, I have to do something. So I'm writing, writing and writing.

What was your part-time job that you had?

Ernest J. Gaines: I worked for an insurance company as a mail clerk. I worked in the post office, and I worked as a printer's helper. They call it a "printer's devil." I had to pick up type with a tweezer, some of the type was so small, and then set it up for printing. I did all those little things like that.

What do you say to your own students now, about writing and about how much time they need to put in, how hard they have to work?


Ernest J. Gaines: The first thing I tell my students when they ask me -- well, anyone who asks me what do you say to an aspiring writer, I said, "I have six words of advice, and I have eight words of advice. The six words of advice are read, read, read, write, write, write, and the eight words of advice is read, read, read, read, write, write, write, write." I said you have to read in order to be a writer. Oh, I have students who -- I teach creative writing at the university there, advanced creative writing, and I have students who write a draft, and they think they need an agent already, and I tell them, "No. It doesn't work that way." I graduated in '57 from San Francisco State, and I gave myself 10 years to prove that I could do it, and it was exactly what I -- my first book was published seven years later in '64. That would be Catherine Carmier, but hardly anybody read the book. I think 3,500 copies were printed, and 2,500 copies were sold. Then I went back to writing short stories, my Bloodline stories. I sent that to Dial, but my editor told me that he could not publish the stories by an unknown writer. I said, "But those stories will make me famous." He said, "Well, you're not famous yet. You have to get that novel out." So I decided to write a novel for him, and the novel was published in 1967, Of Love and Dust, and it was from that book I began to get recognition by the critics and others.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
When you started getting recognition, was your routine still to write all morning and then stop for a while and then write more? Do you generally have a set routine?

Ernest J. Gaines: Yeah. I still do the same thing, because although I was getting recognition, I wasn't getting any money. So I was going to have to work for a living. Well, I was getting some money. I got a Rockefeller grant, Guggenheims, I began to get some in. National Endowment for the Arts. I was getting some money, but not enough to support me. So I stuck to the routine of writing in the morning. I still like writing in the morning, start writing about 9:00 and go to -- 9:00-to-2:00-type stuff -- and working in the afternoon, I had to do it, but the last 25 years or, I suppose, 30 years now, I've been able to go to college and universities, given honorariums to come work. I'm teaching now, and I'm tenured at my university there in Louisiana now, but before I was tenured there, I would pick up little jobs at different universities. I went back to Stanford for a couple of quarters there, and several other universities where I would teach for two or three weeks, or whatever amount of time they would keep me there. So I'd make enough there for a while, about the routine of writing was always in the mornings. The teaching -- the classes -- were always in the afternoon, and the writing was always in the morning.

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