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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: 7 / 7)

A Lesson Before Dying

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  Ernest Gaines

How did you manage to write and do the research for your book, A Lesson Before Dying? You said that in San Francisco, you couldn't write on a day when you knew somebody was being executed across the Bay.

Ernest J. Gaines: No, I can't. I just couldn't think. I was numb. I had to get away.

When I was doing research for A Lesson Before Dying, I met a fellow, an attorney there in Lafayette, and he described an execution to me. Up until 1952, execution in the State of Louisiana would take place in the parish in which the crime was committed -- not at the State prison, as it is done today, with lethal injection. But at that time, the electric chair went from one place to another, one parish to another. And then it would be set up in the jail, in a little small room about the size of some closet, you know, just to put the chair in there, and the generator could be out on the truck, and run the wires through the window and connect it, and all that sort of thing. And the witnesses standing back and watching this stuff, not sitting or anything, but standing there and watching it. And this man told me this story. The case he's talking about, the execution he's talking about was in '47, I think -- '46 or '47 -- and he must have told me that story in '85, when I was doing research and working on A Lesson Before Dying. He told me that he could hear that sound of that generator for about two blocks away, and that so could the prisoner that's right there, and everybody in that area within two blocks of the jail could hear this thing going on like this. And he just broke down, remembering this thing, so vividly remembering it. He broke down right there on my porch and started crying. A student of mine had brought him over there to talk to me, and she took him in her arms and just held him while he wept. I suppose this is the kind of feeling I had whenever these things were going on in San Quentin at that time.

You also said you were struck with the idea of knowing the hour of your death.

Ernest J. Gaines: Knowing the hour. To know exactly, when the guy tells you, 12 o'clock tomorrow, whatever time, and then to hear this motor thing out there, it's...

What's next for you as a writer? What are you working on now?

Ernest J. Gaines: It's been a long time since I've written anything that's publishable. My latest novel is seven years ago now, almost eight years ago. I have something in mind. It's Louisiana again. I suppose by now, I could have written something about California. I've tried to write about California. I tried to write a ghost story. I tell people that it was so vivid that I scared myself, but that's not really true. It was just bad stuff. I tried to write Bohemian life, about my Bohemian life in San Francisco, but I was not very good at that because I couldn't take the sandwiches and the wine all the time. I've tried to write about my Army experience. I was stationed on Guam for a year, but I found that I was writing too much, or I was repeating Mr. Roberts or something like that. So I had to come back to Louisiana, and it's been sort of difficult to get a novel about Louisiana, but I think I have something in mind now that might eventually turn into a novel. It's about time. I know my agent is asking me, and some of my fans are asking me, and I know my editor is asking me, "When is the next one coming out?" I don't know when. I should hope that within the next couple of years at least. That would be exactly ten years since A Lesson Before Dying came out, but A Lesson Before Dying came out ten years after A Gathering of Old Men. So maybe I'm one of these every-ten-years publishing writers. There was a time when I wrote four books in ten years, but now it's much harder to do.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Do you think it hard for some writers to handle success?

Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
Ernest J. Gaines: I don't know. Someone was asking me the same thing today, "Why aren't you writing?" I said I'm not writing because I'm at places like this. I do a lot of traveling now. When I was poor and nobody knew who I was, I had nothing but time to write. Now my books are out there and being taught in high schools, universities, colleges all over the country, and I'm always being invited to come to these places and talk to students, because they're studying my books, and I go. When no one knew my name, I wrote, and now that they know my name, I'm visiting. So maybe that's success. Maybe that's what success does to some people.

We all look forward to your next novel. Thank you so much for this interview. It was really great talking to you.

Ernest J. Gaines: Thank you.

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