Interviews | December 01, 1999
Interviewer: You’ve been writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana since 1984. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a teacher of creative writing?
Gaines: I approach the teaching of creative writing—if you can possibly teach creative writing—from the Socratic method. The students have their material ready on Tuesdays, and they will have read and written critiques of the material by the next time we meet. I write a critique as well. Each Tuesday night, we discuss two students’ work. The students who have stories being discussed that night read aloud for five or ten minutes so we can feel the rhythm. After the student reads, I open it up for discussion. I don’t lecture. I sit back and direct the discussion; if it slows down, I speed it up, or if no one has anything to say, I raise a question. This is my approach to “teaching” writing. I set requirements. I believe the students should all write critiques of each other’s work, and they must also discuss the stories in class. I feel students usually learn as much about writing from discussion among their peers as they do from me. I don’t assign books for them to read because they should read everything. I always recommend books—the Bible, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. My six words of advice to writers are: “Read, read, read, write, write, write.” Writing is a lonely job; you have to read, and then you must sit down at the desk and write. There’s no one there to tell you when to write, what to write, or how to write. I tell students if they are going to be writers, they must sit down at a desk and write every day.
Interviewer: The students read from their own work for the first few minutes of class so readers can get the sound of the rhythm. You’ve also said you write your stories to be read aloud.
Gaines: When people hear stories, they identify more closely with the characters. When I read aloud, people always come up to me and say, “I understand it much better now that I’ve heard you read it. I can hear the characters’ voices much clearer.” Many of the students use dialects or words and phrases we are not familiar with, but once we hear it, we tend to understand it much better.
Interviewer: Dialogue is something you’ve said you are proud of in your work.
Gaines: In dialogue, I’m dealing with the sounds I’ve heard. One of the reasons I often write from first person or multiple points of view is to hear the voices of different characters. Omniscient narration becomes a problem because, for me, the omniscient is my own voice narrating the story and then bringing in characters for dialogue.
Interviewer: There is a strength in the many voices in your work, a weight you give to each character’s voice no matter how small a role he or she plays. One very minor character, a drunk in In My Father’s House, gives Reverend Martin directions. When he speaks, his voice is as strong as any in the novel.
Gaines: My ear is pretty good. As a small child, I listened to radio a lot. During that time—this was back in the late ’40s—there were always great dramas and actors on radio. I liked listening to them because I had to follow the story through dialogue. I like reading plays, and I like listening to the ways people speak.
Interviewer: Does this oral approach help when you are editing your work?
Gaines: What I usually do is record my work on a tape recorder. If it sounds good, then it is. I never read my work to anyone else and say, “Okay, what do you think?” Editors recommend certain things, but usually, at this point in the game, I can stick to my guns and say, “This is how it’s written, and this is how it sounds.” I write about south Louisiana, and I feel my ear is pretty good for the dialects of that region, at least better than the people in New York who have never been here.
Interviewer: In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, it is Miss Jane the reader sees and hears. How did you find Miss Jane’s voice?
Gaines: I did a lot of research to get the historical facts right and read quite a few slave narratives to see how the slaves expressed themselves and how they used their vocabularies. I grew up on a plantation on False River, Louisiana, and I was around older people—my aunt, who raised me, and the older people who visited her because she was crippled and couldn’t walk. Those were the voices I had in mind while creating Miss Jane Pittman. She was not based on any one person or any two people but on the kind of experience someone who lived during that time might have gone through. Her voice came fairly easily. I had read enough, and could recall the dialects and the limited vocabularies of the older people on the plantation where I lived, to create an authentic voice for Miss Jane. The first draft was told from multiple points of view, with people talking about her after she had died. I did that for more than a year and then realized it was not exactly right. I needed to get her to tell the story, so I concentrated on one voice rather than several.
Interviewer: Have there been some characters’ voices that were easier to get into than others?
Gaines: Jim’s in Of Love and Dust because I was thirty-three years old when I started writing that book, and I created him to be the same age. He’s uneducated, but he’s thirty-three years old. He uses the language I grew up around living in Louisiana. Also, it wasn’t too difficult to find Jefferson’s diary voice in A Lesson Before Dying because I wrote the diary after working on the novel for five years. I knew his character and what he would say, how he would express himself. Sometimes I have to rewrite and rewrite to get the exact phrases I want. I stick with south Louisiana, not places with unfamiliar accents.
Interviewer: How do you approach a novel like A Gathering of Old Men, with its distinct multiple points of view?
Gaines: I try to concentrate on voices of different people I knew as a child. I left Louisiana at fifteen but always came back. While writing A Gathering of Old Men, I could recall that different people spoke differently and they would never describe the same thing the same way; they never used the same expressions. So when I went from one of the characters in that novel to another, I had to concentrate entirely on that character and how he would express himself. Then when I went to another character, I would concentrate on another person’s voice and give it to that particular character.
Interviewer: You’ve said before that you were influenced by Japanese films, including Rashomon, the story of a murder told from several points of view.
Gaines: I saw Rashomon many years ago, and it has had some effect on me, as have Faulkner, Joyce and whoever else’s work I’ve read. They say if you steal from one person you are plagiarizing, but if you steal from a hundred people you are a genius. You don’t pick entirely from Faulkner, entirely from Rashomon, or entirely from Hemingway. You learn from all of them, just as all writers have done. You learn from people you read.
Interviewer: What are some other important influences on your work?
Gaines: I’ve been influenced by the great French filmmakers of the ’50s—Truffaut, for example, particularly The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player. When I was writing A Lesson Before Dying, I saw a film on television with Danny Glover, and it had a tremendous effect on me. Danny Glover plays a social worker who visits prisons. There is one prisoner who will do anything to annoy him. The little things he would do to irritate Danny Glover made me think, “Hey, that’s good!” I’ve never been to visit anybody in prison repeatedly. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with some kids in a jail in Orlando, Florida. These were murderers, dope peddlers. They were sixteen and seventeen years old. But I’ve never gone back and forth like Grant does in A Lesson Before Dying. Watching this film with Danny Glover, I thought, “This is what happens when you keep going back to a prison to visit one guy. He will always do something to irritate you.” That’s how I decided to have Jefferson not speak, or say something to annoy Grant. What I’m saying is that you learn from all these things. You learn from music, from watching great athletes at work—how disciplined they are, how they move. You learn these things by watching a shortstop at work, how he concentrates on one thing at a time. You learn from classic music, from the blues and jazz, from bluegrass. From all this, you learn how to sustain a great line without bringing in unnecessary words. I advise my students to keep their antennae out so they can pick things up from all these sources, everything life has to offer, but books especially, which is the main tool they have to work with. They should not close their ears or eyes to anything that surrounds them.
Interviewer: One book you’ve recommended is Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. How do you feel about the hands-on style of editing, exemplified by Perkins, that doesn’t seem to be as present in the publishing world today?
Gaines: I really like Maxwell Perkins because of all the great writers who were around him. A. Scott Berg did a wonderful job with that book. He did a lot of research and brought out the different characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. I knew some good critics and editors. Malcolm Cowley, who had the sense to rediscover Faulkner, was a teacher of mine at Stanford. Wallace Stegner was my mentor at Stanford. He was the person who brought me there. Ed (E.L.) Doctorow, who later became famous as a writer himself, was my editor at Dial Press. He was a very good editor. I have a good editor at Knopf now, Ash Green. These people are wonderful. They are not as famous as Max Perkins, and not all writers are fortunate enough to get great editors, but I’ve been lucky. You need a good editor because every writer thinks he can write a War and Peace, but by the time he gets it on paper, it’s not War and Peace anymore; it’s comic-book stuff. If you have an honest editor who knows what literature and writing are about, he can give you good advice. You don’t necessarily have to follow it all. It’s good to get the material away from you after you’ve finished something, to send it out and let another person comment on it. I had a wonderful agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer, and she saw everything of mine for thirty-one years. We had our fights. When she criticized me, I would say, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m the writer.” But I apologized later. I think those editors and agents are necessary. I didn’t get along with all my editors, though.
Interviewer: You began work on what later became your first novel, Catherine Carmier, when you were sixteen years old. It went through many rewrites and titles. What type of learning process was this?
Gaines: I tried to write a novel around 1949, which later became Catherine Carmier. Of course, I sent it to New York, to a publisher, and they sent it back. We had an incinerator in the back yard, and I burned it. I was falling back in my class work, so I started concentrating on school. When I was twenty, I went into the army. I wrote a little bit. I came out when I was twenty-two and I went to San Francisco State to study literature and theater writing. Then I went to Stanford. I was writing short stories during that time. Someone gave a lecture, and he told us that young writers without a name would have a hard time publishing a collection of stories. So that day, I put the short stories aside and said, “No more short stories. I’ve got to write something I can publish.” I didn’t have anything else for a novel but that one story I’d tried to write about ten years earlier. I started rewriting it, and I wrote about fifty pages and won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, which was a local award given to residents of California. That helped me get through 1959. I got jobs at the post office, a print shop, a bank. I would write in the morning and get these little part-time jobs in the afternoon. From ’59 to ’64, I wrote that novel over and over. I must have written it more than ten times. Each time I rewrote it, I came up with a different title. I was always changing things: somebody would die in one draft, and another person would die in the next. Malcolm Cowley and several other editors saw it, but no one was ready to publish it. It is a simple story about a guy coming back to the old place and visiting the old people, and he has changed so much that he doesn’t fit in anymore. The model I used was Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I was reading something from it every day. It’s about a young doctor who has just finished university and comes back to the old place and falls in love with a beautiful woman. He loses her and dies. My character does the same thing, but he doesn’t die. He has to go away again. I was using Turgenev’s novel as a model for how to write a novel.
Interviewer: In that novel, you explore a situation—a young man who leaves Louisiana to receive an education, then returns—that you examine again in your most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying.
Gaines: My characters seem like they can’t get away. Miss Jane tries to walk to Ohio, but she never gets out of Louisiana. Charlie, in A Gathering of Old Men, tries to run away, but he has to come back. All my characters are like that; they go so far, and then they return. They must face up to their responsibilities.
Interviewer: They know they must accept responsibility and go on because it is the graceful thing to do.
Gaines: Yes. They have to make the effort to go on, and sometimes it brings death. But they must make that effort before the moment of death. In A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson must stand before he will be executed. Marcus, in Of Love and Dust, can’t escape, but he rises before he dies and becomes a better human being. In A Gathering of Old Men, Charlie must come back, and he dies when he does. There are certain lines they have to cross to prove their humanity. I could not write about a character who did not have these qualities—a person who struggles and falls but gets up, who will go to a certain point, even though he knows he might get killed. That’s a common theme in all my work: those who cannot escape by running away, and those who go to a certain point, even if it means death. For example, in A Lesson Before Dying, Grant will not try to run away anymore. Vivian is going to keep him in Louisiana.
Interviewer: In A Gathering of Old Men, you give the reader both points of view—black and white—to show what each side is going through and how they are living.
Gaines: That’s what writing should be about: presenting as many facets as you possibly can. I’m not interested in seeing one side of anything. One of the reasons I make both Grant and Jefferson tragic figures in A Lesson Before Dying is because I wanted this to be a story about more than just a young black man sitting on death row. I needed someone to go to the prison and teach Jefferson, but also someone who would learn while teaching because he is also in a prison; Grant is in a prison of being unable to live the way he would like to live. I had to discover how he could break out of that. Jefferson, of course, finds release in death, and Grant must take on the responsibility of becoming a better person, a better teacher. I did not want a simple story about someone being executed; we have had lots of them, too many. I wanted something else, another added component to that novel.
Interviewer: In your body of work there are examples of almost every point of view.
Gaines: I change point of view when one does not work for me. A Gathering of Old Men was originally told from one point of view, that of the newspaperman, Lou Dimes. Then I realized he could not tell the story. He could not see Snookum running and striking his butt the way you would if you were trying to make a horse run faster. He could not see Janie going to that house, and so many other small things that could make the story better. He never would have known the thoughts of these people. So much of the story is internal. There is very little action. You don’t see Beau being shot. What you see is Beau lying there and all these other people talking and thinking. I knew I had to write itfrom multiple points of view rather than omniscient. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, as I have said, began as a multiple-point-of view narrative, but it did not work. I rewrote it as a first-person narrative. I recommend taking the easiest route in writing, not making things harder than they really are. If you can tell a story better from the omniscient point of view, then tell it that way. If you can tell it better from first person, tell it that way. I never say, “Well, I’m going to tell some first-person stories and some omniscient ones.” I think, “What’s the easiest way to tell my story without cheating?” I cannot cheat myself in writing.
Interviewer: Earlier, you mentioned that you were warned off trying to publish short-story collections when you began writing. The same warning is given to young writers today.
Gaines: Thirty-five hundred copies of Catherine Carmier were printed. Only about 2,500 were sold. The rest were remaindered. I had written the short stories that later appeared in Bloodline by the time I wrote Catherine Carmier. There are only five, so I may have been writing the fourth. I then wrote another one, the title story, which is the last in that collection. I sent it to Bill Decker at Dial Press, and I said, “Those stories are good; they will make my name.” Bill said, “Yes, we know the stories are good, but you need to be a name in order for us to publish them.” It’s a catch-22. They might make your name, but you need a name before you can publish them. Who’s going to pay attention to an unknown young writer? It was then that I wrote Of Love and Dust. I wrote the first draft in three months and sent it to Bill Decker. He said, “I like the first part of your novel, and I like the second part, but they don’t have anything in common. You need to make it either a farce or a tragedy.” I rewrote it in three months and sent it back to him. He said, “You’ve improved it ninety percent. Now I want you to run it through the typewriter one more time and do anything you want to do because I think you know where you want to go with the novel.” I did that and sent it back to him within two months. He told me, “I’ll publish it, then I will publish your stories.” The novel was published in ’64, and the stories were published in the spring of ’68. That’s how I got my stories published.
Interviewer: You have not published a story collection since Bloodline. Have you written stories since then?
Gaines: I’ve thought about it, but I never came up with any that were in the same class as those. Also, whenever I finished one novel, I was
always ready to start another one. I don’t have one in mind now, but in the past I’ve always had a novel in mind while working on another one.
Interviewer: The first story in Bloodline, “A Long Day in November,” was later revised and published as a children’s book with the same title.
Gaines: Yes, we cut out some sexual terms and then added illustrations to make it a children’s book. But it’s not a children’s book. My wife tells me it’s still an adult book told by a six-year-old child.
Interviewer: Whose idea was it to turn that story into a children’s book?
Gaines: The people at Dial Press recognized that I had two stories in Bloodline narrated by children, so they said, “Can you write a children’s story?” I said, “I can write a story from a child’s point of view, but I don’t know anything about writing children’s books.” Someone at Dial said, “Well, maybe we can take one of these stories.” I wish they had taken “The Sky Is Gray.” It would have made a much better children’s book than “A Long Day in November.”
Interviewer: Was writing something you always thought you would do?
Gaines: I did not know I wanted to be a writer as a child in Louisiana. It wasn’t until I went to California and ended up in the library and began reading a lot that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I read many great novels and stories and did not see myself or my people in any of them. It was then that I tried to write. There were very few people on the plantation who had any education at all, especially the old people my aunt’s age and my grandmother’s age. They had never gone to school, and they didn’t have any books. I used to write letters for them. I had to listen very carefully to what they had to say and how they said it. I put their stories down on paper, and they would give me teacakes. If I wanted to play ball or shoot marbles, I had to finish writing fast. So I began to create. I wrote about their gardens, the weather, cooking, preserving, anything. I’ve been asked many times when I started writing. I used to say it was in the small Andrew Carnegie Library in Vallejo, California, but I realize now that it was on the plantation.
Interviewer: What impact have your many years of teaching had on your writing and reading?
Gaines: My students keep me aware of things around me, but I don’t know that my “style”— and I hate using words like that—has changed in any way, or that my views on life have changed in any way from teaching. I do learn things from certain students. Most of my students are middle-class white females. I learn about their ways of thinking and describing things, their backgrounds and social lives. So when I come to write something of my own, that knowledge is there to use, if necessary. For example, when I was writing A Gathering of Old Men, I had someone in mind just like Candy. In fact, she’s still on that plantation, and she knows I was writing about her in some ways. I am always getting information from the things and people around me, the sounds, the sights, the weather. I do learn from my students, but I don’t know how they have changed my view of writing.
Interviewer: In the past, you’ve said if you had a student come to you who had the potential and desire to create a great work, you would put the student’s work in front of your own. Do you feel being a mentor would be as fulfilling as working on your own writing?
Gaines: I can’t say that, but I would say the objective of teaching is passing on what you know. I am slowing down now as a writer. Most American writers slow down in their fifties, though some people say I wrote my best book, A Lesson Before Dying, at sixty. But I’m not as aggressive now. I’m not writing for five or six hours a day anymore. It’s possible to devote more time to a student, to a young writer, and not feel cheated at all. I think I was given a talent to be a writer, and I should use that talent. I don’t know that the student’s work would be more important than mine—that I would be able to quit writing and devote all my time to him or her-but I would give a heck of a lot of time to that work.
Interviewer: Were there goals you set at the beginning of your career?
Gaines: Well, I thought I would win the Nobel Prize. I thought I would make a lot of money and be able to send it back to my aunt who raised me, but she died many years before any of my work had been published. I told myself I would write for five, six hours a day every day and try to have enough money to support myself to write. I wanted to have enough money to write as much as I wanted to write, but I never set any goals to be rich or travel the world.
Interviewer: Your novels are all close in length, but The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman spans more than one hundred years, while A Gathering of Old Men follows characters through one day.
Gaines: I am proud to have accomplished this, to have concentrated on one day with flashbacks, and also to have written something as broad as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The novels are all about the same number of pages, and the time span in most of them is the same. In A Lesson Before Dying, I had to stretch the time to what would be equivalent to the semester of school blacks were getting in the rural South; at that time, we were getting less than six months. I knew exactly the kind of time I had to put into that novel as far as story line, when it would begin and when it would end. But the other novels are all about the same size. I never decided beforehand how long a book would be. It just so happens I learned more from Turgenev than I thought I did in the beginning. His novels were very short compared to Dostoyevsky’s or Tolstoy’s. I feel after writing so many pages, maybe at most four hundred, there is nothing else to say, so it is time to close it down. I knew The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman would cover a hundred years and that it would be a longer novel than my earlier ones. I have been influenced by so many different forms of writing. I studied Greek tragedy at San Francisco State, and I’ve always thought the idea of having things in a single setting and limited to twenty-four hours was the ideal way of telling stories. For example, “A Long Day in November” takes place within less than twenty-four hours, as do “Bloodline” and “The Sky Is Gray.” “Just Like a Tree” takes place in three hours. It’s all concentrated. The Autobiography of Miss Jane was a different thing altogether.
Interviewer: Jefferson’s notebook is one of the most moving parts of A Lesson Before Dying. You get inside his head, but as readers, we know Grant doesn’t get the notebook until the end. It is powerful not only because of its content, but also because the reader sees the diary before Grant receives it. How did you decide on the placement of the diary?
Gaines: I did it so it would work chronologically with the rest of the novel. That book has been translated into German, and they moved the notebook chapter to the end. I thought it should be before the end, so you would still see Jefferson after he dies, after Grant is given the notebook. I’ve sold the rights to HBO. They are supposed to start shooting it in October of ’98. I have no idea what they are going to do with it or where they are going to film it. It has also been adapted as a play for the Alabama Shakespeare Company.
Interviewer: The novel is cinematic in the same way Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is. The reader sees every movement of the characters as if they are on a stage.
Gaines: One of the things I learned from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is that something is always happening in one setting, then you move on to something else. If you look at the chapters in that novel, I don’t think any one is longer or shorter than the others. I wrote a rough draft every week and then went over it. They would always end up the same number of pages. I had to write that book over a period of seven years, writing only half the year because I was teaching at USL. I would go back to San Francisco at the end of December and start in late January, writing until the end of July, when I was ready to come back to Lafayette and teach. A Lesson Before Dying is the only novel I’ve ever written that way, and it really scared me because I didn’t know how I would go back to it the first time I put it aside for six months. I was afraid the reader would see those breaks, so I worked on smoothing them out. It may have been good because if the novel had been written in three years, I might not have had as many different elements coming into the story. I don’t know if I would have had the notebook in the story. But because I was thinking about it over a period of seven years, those things just came into it.
Interviewer: You received a lot of publicity when Oprah Winfrey chose A Lesson Before Dying for her book club. How did you feel when you learned this?
Gaines: She called me personally, and I didn’t believe it was her. I had met her when the book first came out. She said, “We’ve chosen A Lesson Before Dying for the Oprah Book Club. This is all hush-hush until I announce it on my show.” I said, “It’s okay with me, just as long as I can tell my wife.” She came to Louisiana, to the plantation at False River. We spent two days together.
Interviewer: The novel had already drawn attention when it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. Did you feel a rush of new readership because of Oprah’s influence?
Gaines: Oh, yes. Before, the book was selling well, but it was selling to high schools and libraries. With Oprah, it sold to the general public. There were between 800,000 and a million copies printed as soon as she announced it. Everybody knew The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but they never knew who wrote it. Now they know Ernest Gaines wrote A Lesson Before Dying because they saw me on the show. I receive many letters from people all over the country and different parts of the world, and most of them are coming from white, probably middle-aged males. It’s the first time I’ve received letters from this particular group. Bill Gates said A Lesson Before Dying was one of his favorite books, along with The Catcher in the Rye. That’s good to hear, but he never sent me any computer stuff. I’ve always received many letters from students, but it seems A Lesson Before Dying has touched a lot of people.
Interviewer: How do you feel about all the attention?
Gaines: I’m happy people are reading the book, but other than that, I just do the same thing. I teach. My wife and I still go to the same restaurants. We still visit our friends, things like that.
Interviewer: Many people believe The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is an autobiography with an introduction by Ernest J. Gaines.
Gaines: Several people reviewed it as an autobiography, and many bookstores keep it on the autobiography shelf. There was a very famous magazine in New York that called me for a picture of Miss Jane because they were reviewing the book. I said, “You know, that is a fictitious character.” They said, “Oh, my God!” They had already written the review, and they wanted a picture to go with it. Once I was in Orlando, Florida, talking to some people, and a guy said, “Mr. Gaines, may I ask you a question? How long did you have to interview that old lady before you had enough material to write the book?”
Interviewer: What do you feel is your responsibility as a novelist?
Gaines: You try to not answer things but to perk the interest or the intellect of the reader and let him ask questions. Once the reader begins to ask these questions, he will get some answers that will lead him to other things so he can discuss it with other people. I don’t know how to give answers, and I tell my students that. I try to create characters who develop through the course of the novel, characters who will learn and grow before they die, and from whom the reader can learn and grow.
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