During World War II, his mother and stepfather, like many African Americans of their generation, left the South to find work in the booming wartime economy. At 15, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, northeast of San Francisco. To keep him off the streets and out of trouble, his stepfather urged him to spend time in the public library. He soon became enthralled with literature, particularly the 19th century Russian masters, whose tales of a countryside steeped in feudal tradition echoed his own experience of plantation life. Finding no literature that directly portrayed the life of African Americans in the rural South, he began to write stories of his own, recreating the world of his childhood.
His first novel, Catherine Carmier, was published in 1964. A tragic love story played out against the complex caste system of rural Louisiana, the work met a favorable critical reception, but sold poorly. The next years were difficult ones for Gaines, as a succession of novels and short stories were rejected by publishers. In 1966, he was awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to continue his writing. The following year, his second novel, Of Love and Dust, appeared. Again, he told a story of life and love thwarted by the legacy of servitude and discrimination, but this book attracted greater attention than his first.
While many of his contemporaries were depicting the recent experience of African American migrants to the urban North, Gaines's work was rich in history, the accumulated experience of centuries. A collection of five stories, Bloodline, was published in 1968. In his novels and stories, Gaines created a vidily detailed imaginary community called Bayonne. Although it is clearly modeled on his own Louisiana parish, his Baynonne is full of invented characters and incidents, often shocking, but utterly convincing. Deeply grounded in a distinctive place and culture, his tales resound with universal themes of love and family, of responsibility, injustice and endurance.
Not long after the book's publication, Gaines was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and switfly completed a number of major works. In My Father's House (1978) deals with the estrangement of fathers and sons, a recurring theme in his works. A Gathering of Old Men (1983) tells a complex story through the voices of 15 different narrators -- black, white, Cajun and Creole -- with a single violent act illuminating the history of an entire community. It too was adapted for television.
In 1993, Gaines received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." The same year saw the publication of his most critically acclaimed novel to date. A Lesson Before Dying describes the belated education of a young man wrongly sentenced to death. The book created an international sensation; beyond its achievement as a work of literature, it became a touchstone in the ongoing debate over capital punishment. The work received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a 1999 television adaptation won the year's Emmy Award as Best Film for Television.
In addition to his novels and stories, Gaines is a well-regarded essayist and is much in demand as a public speaker and commentator on American life. A number of his stories and essays were gathered in the 2005 collection Mozart and Leadbelly. Today, his permanent residence in Louisiana is a house that he and his wife built on land that was once part of River Lake Plantation, where he spent his childhood, and where his ancestors labored for generations.