Ernest J. Gaines is a Literary National Treasure and this year in New Orleans for our 25th Anniversary Go On Girl! Book Club bestowed upon him our Literary Legend award to recognize and honor him for the body of work he has created. Freelance writer and author Sharon Pendana caught up with him via phone and spent time getting to know Mr. Gaines and learning about his writing life.
In a bayou baritone, Dr. Ernest J. Gaines describes the accoutrements of his home office a stash of ballpoint pens and reams of yellow paper on which to write the first drafts of his literary treasures. He uses only “unlined, canary colored paypuh,”
says the esteemed author/educator via telephone, the warm timbre and languid cadence of his voice evoking the rural Louisiana of his boyhood that he so succinctly renders in his fiction. He's a stickler for his preferred paper. Unlined for the flexibility to write large or small, conducive to his mood. Writing longhand is key,
an entirely different creative process from the brain onto the page than is pecking away on a keyboard. Why the sunny hue? "Neuroses. We all have them," he shares with an easy laugh. "I must use the canary paypuh."
Those yellow pages are the genesis of nine books both novels and short stories with
a tenth on the way later this year in France (and possibly the US, if his publisher Knopf signs on.) Dr. Gaines has published in every decade since the 1960's? his literary canon assumes its rightful place in the best of not only Southern literature but also American literature. Though he writes with the specificity of what he knows intimately, South Louisiana, his themes of the human condition resonate universally. His works have been translated into 18 languages including French, Spanish, German, Russian and Chinese. His books have become part of the core curricula for
schools across the country? his works analyzed in many a dissertation. Three books have been adapted for television, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (CBS, 1974), A Gathering of Old Men (CBS, 1987) and A Lesson before Dying (HBO, 1999) as well as a short story, The Sky Is Gray (PBS, 1980).
Recipient of numerous prestigious awards from the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973? the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction (for A Lesson Before Dying) and a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1993? his 1996 induction as "Chevalier" into France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres? to the National Humanities Medal in 2000, he realizes the power of professional accolades to further a writer's career. Of the then $355,000, no strings attached, MacArthur Fellowship, he says, "It really changed my life. It gave me time to work? that was the great thing about it. I could write and didn’t have to go to a part-time job anymore. Just like winning a fellowship (Wallace Stegner, in 1958) to Stanford University, it gave me a year to concentrate on my work." Remembering this boon to his writing life, he lends his name to the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, an annual cash award of $10,000 presented by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to emerging African-American fiction writers who demonstrate literary merit. The elegant Mrs. Gaines hosts and prepares a meal in their Oscar, Louisiana home for the winner and guests.
Dr. and Mrs. Gaines have entrusted the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with the “Collection of Ernest J. Gaines,” his papers, awards and memorabilia for scholarly research and the Ernest J. Gaines Center of the university opened In October 2010.
From his writing desk, as his cat Thomas mewed his demands for attention, Dr. Gaines graciously phone chatted with me, acknowledging the breadth of GOG's reach and his gratitude for the award. We spoke, of course, about his work? his upbringing on the banks of the False River? music? marriage? and the deeply moving, full circle experience he's had in returning to live in his ancestral home.
The eldest of seven children of sharecroppers, Manuel and Adrean Gaines, (five more siblings would come with his mother's remarriage) he grew up on the River Lake Plantation, in Pointe Coupee Parish wherein five generations of his kinfolk lived and toiled both in slavery and freedom. He lived in the former slave quarters, known colloquially as "The Quarters." An early divorce sent his mother away in search of work, leaving her children in the care of her disabled aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, a "cripple," as she was known in her day. "You know, my aunt who
raised me never walked a day in her life. She'd crawl across the floor winter and summer. And she'd get up early in the morning and make breakfast for us? wash clothes with the washboard and never once complain." She is the most profound influence on his life. As he gradually cobbled together what has become a respected, successful career, he had moments of doubt, questioned his choices. "It really took a long time to make enough money to support myself." When he found himself wanting to call it quits, he remembered his beloved auntie. "I thought if she had to go through all that and didn't stop, I can't possibly stop, no matter what."
1948 was a pivotal year. No high school existed for black students in Pointe Coupee Parish, so he joined his mother and her new husband, Merchant Marine, Ralph Colar in California, where many Louisiana blacks sought opportunity during the Southern exodus that came to be known as the "Great Migration." He spent hours in the Andrew Carnegie Library. Though he had written letters for the elders back home and plays that he put on at the church, it was amid the shelves of the library, packed with books penned by white men that he decided to write a book. Since there were no books in the library in Vallejo by or about blacks, he would write one, tapping into his roots, and his Southern Louisiana culture for inspiration. "Going into the fields with a BB gun and shooting birds? picking berries on a dishrag? going fishing right there 'cause you can catch your evening meal," all things he missed.
Writing has been an earthly salvation. "Oh yes, definitely, it’s been my life since I was a teenager. I suppose I was very, very sensitive,” he says. “If I hadn’t left from the south when I did, I probably would have ended up dead or in jail? bitter." Though he had little encouragement, "My teacher was telling me very few people make it as writers, few white people make it as writers and hardly any blacks make it as writers,” not writing simply wasn’t an option. “I couldn’t imagine anything, anything in the world else I wanted to do."
He had the good fortune to go college without amassing debt: first junior college, which in California at the time was tuition free. Then after a two year stint typing in the Army between wars, (Korea and Vietnam) the GI bill paid his tuition at San Francisco State University (where his short story, The Turtles , was the first published in their literary magazine in 1956) and as a Stegner fellow his graduate study in creative writing was fully subsidized.
He tried to write about army life and the late fifties bohemia of the city by the bay." But nothing really worked," he says. One thing in San Francisco, however, left an indelible mark executions of death row inmates across the bay at San Quentin a
germ of an idea for what would become his most acclaimed book, the Pulitzer Prize nominated A Lesson Before Dying . His patch of Louisiana was and remains his muse. And it is in his fictional town, Bayonne that he set the events of the eloquent treatise on dignity.
"I have nothing to write about, if not here," says the regionalist. Yes, he's found his milieu in the Louisiana landscape, but his short story, Christ Walked Down Market Street , set in San Francisco is a solid piece of writing I mention. “Oh yeah," he laughs "that’s the only story I’ve ever had published that’s not about Louisiana! And, it’s my favorite story." Why? "It’s a guy looking for God in all the wrong places, [chuckling still] looking everywhere, in the street? in a bar." It appears in the 2005 book, Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays in which he contends there is parity in the brows, high and low. He may listen to "classical music, soft and low, mainly chamber music" as he writes, but it is Leadbelly and the blues that reveals content to him.
"I love jazz and blues, especially the rural blues, you know Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters and Big Boy and Billie Holliday." Bassist Ron Carter's score for the small screen adaptation of A Gathering of Old Men was the only thing he liked about the film. He laughs heartily, "That was the best part of the movie!" His record collection numbers in the 1500 album range. "I definitely have everything from Bach to Coltrane."
During his most prolific writing period, he adhered to a writing discipline of at least five hours a day, often more, five days a week. His commitment to his craft superseded all else. "One of the reasons I didn’t get married when I was young was because of the writing? nothing could get in the way of it." That changed when he met Miami attorney Dianne Saulney at a book festival in 1988. She too was a native Louisianan and avid reader. They married in 1993, another stellar year. She manages things for him? she is the gracious gatekeeper, a savvy helpmeet. Though
he has been lauded for his nuanced, realistic depiction of the life of centenarian, Miss Jane Pittman, he feels that he has, through his wife "learned a little bit more about women. I may not be quite as naive about writing descriptions of women," he chuckles. "It goes a lot deeper. They're not all bad, but they're not all good. Before the only ones I wanted in my books were wonderful people. I've known some beautiful women."
Including, of course, Aunt Augusteen, who passed away in 1953, thirty years before he would return "home" to teach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (as writer-in-residence for the next 22). Forty years before he published A Lesson Before Dying , the book that would afford him to buy the land of his forbears, a six-acre
parcel where he and Mrs. Gaines now make their home. "We have a guest house? we have a camp down on the river? we’re comfortable here." He could never have dreamed of this reality. "I was a child who had nothing? like everyone else on the plantation at the time, working the fields. I never thought I’d own anything like this now.
I’m happier here than I’ve ever been anywhere else. I spent half of my life in San Francisco, but I’ve never, never felt the way that I feel being here on this land. The river’s in the front, where we were all baptized? we have the church and the cemetery. So I’m right back to my roots really. Di and I saw this property and decided to buy it." They built a "nice, big" Acadian style home on the very spot where he picked cotton as a child. His view from his writing desk -- the 1930’s
tin roofed schoolhouse/church built by his grandfather that he restored and moved 100 feet back from the house. Further beyond, nestled in an oak grove, a sacred acre that holds the bones of family, many in unmarked graves, their wooden markers lost to the ravages of weather and time. Separated from the encroaching cane fields only by the old growth trees, the Mt. Zion River Lake Cemetery is jointly owned by a group of descendants who formed a nonprofit to ensure its care. They gather annually, on the Saturday before All Saints’ Day to tend to graves and fellowship with each other. The Gaines’s' plan to be buried there. Dr. Gaines has written
his epitaph, "To lie with those who have no marks."
And does he feel the presence of the ancestors? "Oh definitely so, definitely so. Whenever I go back to the cemetery or sit in the church? I can feel their spirit. Yes." It has been a remarkable journey from the bayou to the bay and back again? a testament to the strength and resilience of a people, particularly the woman who never once stood yet taught him to stand tall. His success honors her.
Submitted by Lynda M. Johnson an abridged version of this article appears in the Go On Girl! Book Club 25th Anniversary “magajournal”.