In Memory: Famed Fiction Writer Ernest Gaines Passes at 86

Bobby Burns: Do you think slave narrative play a role in your writing?

Gaines: I think it can. I have gotten a lot of my ideas from slave narratives for the interviews during the WPA in the 1930’s. I think they’re a source for literature. I don’t know how others feel about it. Having not read slave narratives, I don’t know how I could’ve written The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. So, I think the important thing today is that they are important depending on what the writer wishes to write about.

Bobby Burns:  Your major themes in your work seem to anchor on the relationship between fathers and sons, especially as it relates to a definition of manhood. Did you purposely start out writing this way?

Gaines: Well, it depends on the story. This is a major theme in my work, and I think it’s a big problem in this country between black fathers and sons. In most cases the African American fathers have such limited powers to do anything; job wise or position in government that he can’t make a definite decision to pass down to his son. If a son gets into trouble, it is usually a white policeman who finally arrests him, a white judge and jury who judge him. So, there are probably times the father may be there but he is still absent, because of the position that he’s in. Not all of us are, but most of us are and this is the problem I think the son has with seeing his father. I think this is one of the reasons so many younger African American men cannot respect authority and in order to respect authority they must respect the father. More often, the father is not there and if he is the son sees how powerless he is and so, he does not respect any authority, he does not respect the police or anyone else and he ends up in prison or dead or crippled or whatever, you know.

Bobby Burns: You once said, novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were not influences on you as a writer, because they were simply not on the curriculum of your college. Do you still feel this way about both writers?

Gaines: Well I don’t know why I said that at that time and I probably would not say the same thing again if that same question was asked of me. I just think you lose a lot when you leave, any place. Richard Wright could have left Mississippi, Chicago, or California and he would’ve experienced racial prejudice. I think when you go someplace to avoid these types of problems; I think you lose a lot on what you write about. And, yet, this is Richard Wright. He did not lose that realistic, naturalistic novel kind of writing. He wrote from a philosophical, existential approach. 

I don’t know, I suppose I’m a realist when it comes to writing and I look at other writers in that same way. If they can’t write that way, I can’t write the other way; forgetting home, in fact. You have to be at home in order to criticize home to see the good things and the bad things at home. I think he gave that up for his ideas for writing.

Bobby Burns: Why is it important for writers to know about the place or region in which they write about?

Gaines: Well, no one writes out of the void. I think he should know his town which allows him to see, feel, and hear. I write better about South Louisiana than Northern Louisiana, because I don‘t know Northern Louisiana. I can’t write about Texas or even New Orleans. I don’t know the depth in New Orleans, whereas here in the country I know the bayous, rivers, the trees, the crop, the people, the way people speak, the religion, the clothes, and the food. I’m aware of all that. I’m aware of the different accents, the educated group, and the average working day guy speaks out there, the Cajun dialects, people with thick Creole dialects. I’ve heard it, and I’m around it all the time. I try to capture that in my writing; but in order to do that you have to live it to be a part of it.  Even when I was living in San Francisco I was always coming back. I’d come back and back and to hear it and see it. I would visit the restaurants, cafes, and bars, walk across the fields and talk to people. But I have to be a part of it in order to write about it. I don’t think any writer can just write out of the void; you know. Take, for example, Faulkner.     He could only write about a place like Mississippi, because that’s all he wanted to write about. He showed what the world was about in Mississippi and I try to do the same thing here. I must know these characters very well. If I know them very well, others will see themselves and react among each other.

Bobby Burns:   When you attended college, you began writing for a tiny publication called Transfer. What was that experience like for you?

Gaines: [Smiles] I was taking a class called Expository Writing 110 and you had to write essays and I had the most difficult time trying to write a decent essay. I was getting B’s, C-’s, and D’s. So, I approached my teacher one day and said, “Mr. Anderson, I’m interested in fiction, do you mind if I try to write a story.” He said, “this is not a short-story class, but if you think you can do better than what you’ve been doing go ahead and write a story.” So, I wrote a short story about Turtles, in fact someone brought us some turtles the other day. I love those turtles [Laughs]. She came to interview me from Florida. 

And she brought me a framed copy inscription celebrating the 50th year anniversary of the Transfer publication. The professor showed the story around to different people at that time who were organizing a little literary magazine on campus at San Francisco State. They liked the story so much and chose it number one for their magazine. It was published. A literary agent [Dorothea Oppenheimer] had just come down from New York to San Francisco to start a new literary agency, and she read it and got in touch with my teacher and told him she would like to meet me and see my other writings. She liked it. This was 1956. She was my agent for 31 years before she died in 1987.

Bobby Burns:   Another one of your trademarks is your ability to suggest complex moral dilemmas with the barest physical description. Do you think this is a major reason why this succinctness has appealed to visual media?

Gaines: I write as well as I can and I learned from reading people like Hemingway, and others, that writing less is better. If I can say something in five words, instead of seven words, I’ll use five words to say that. Sometimes it’s a little difficult for some people to understand it if they don’t read very much. I think if you read and know something about the history of this place or southern literature or contemporary literature, I should hope, you’ll see how to get in the spaces, you know. I’m not one of those people who have a large wide brush for canvas. I can’t use words, words, words. I try to get as few words as I possibly can to express myself. I believe in telling a story when I’m writing. I’m not just giving a philosophy or an ideology or social writing. I think this is what movie people see in my work, a story and dialogue. Although the description of place is limited, they get a feeling of it. I’ve had four movies made from my work: “The Sky is Gray,” The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying and I think all these stories have a plot to them and, I should hope, strong identifiable characters, both white and black characters, female and male characters, young, old. I try to be honest with all my characters whether they’re good or bad, cowardly or brave.

Bobby Burns: The southern dialect used in “The Sky is Gray” is sharp and bright as a blade of sunlight. The story is about life in a segregated south. You witness, as a kid, the horrible conditions blacks endured during that time. How did the “The Sky is Gray” come about?

Gaines: I had a toothache as a child and my mother took me to a dentist. I don’t think I could have written that story if I hadn’t read Eudora Welty’s “A Warm Path.” It’s a great story about an old lady going to town to get something for her little boy. She walks and walks to the drug store and then comes back home and I did a lot of walking like that as a child and so, combining that story from Eudora Welty’s “A Warm Path” with my experiences going to the dentist and walking all over town where you couldn’t get a drink of water or something to eat and that’s how I came out with the story.

Bobby Burns: You have an article coming out soon in National Geographic about Hurricane Katrina. What can readers expect to see?

Gaines: It’s a six-hundred-word essay and they just wanted me to say something about Katrina. They’ll have pictures. I think they just wanted to use my name because I’m a pretty well-known writer from Louisiana and he must know something about New Orleans which I don’t, as far as trying to write about New Orleans; but I came up with something about how I feel, and what’s going to happen after Katrina. My wife was born and raised in New Orleans, and she knows New Orleans very well, and I’ve talked to friends and to my son and his wife who live in New Orleans and so, with all that together, I’ve put an article together.

Bobby Burns: Would you agree the essence of great fiction writing is intellect, skill, imagination, and originality?

Gaines: [Laughs] yeah, all of it. And lots of hard work, work, work, work, work, work. Intellect, I guess. I don’t know what it means; I guess it plays its part in writing something intelligible. It takes skill and it comes from working and working. You must have imagination in order to create something, because it’s almost impossible to create something just about your own experience.

Bobby Burns:  When did you learn that you proudly drew on “blackened English” to let our histories speak in the richness of our tongue?

Gaines: I used to write letters for the old people because they could not write and I wrote in their voice as if they would’ve said it. I wasn’t trying to use anything called “black” English. I was just using the voices of the people to tell a true story. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman I wanted to use that voice of an ex-slave who lived to be 110 and I could not think of any other voice. I let her tell her own story. It’s a natural thing. You know, others have done the same thing. Mark Twain did it with Huckleberry Finn in the first-person narrative.

 I just use my own people, their dialect to tell the story. But you have to be careful, because you can’t go overboard with dialect; you have to be very, very careful there. Uh, I taught advanced creative writing for many years (20 plus years) and I always emphasized to my students that you can use and misuse syntax, but be careful of misspellings because it can become really annoying to readers.

Bobby Burns: The rules to writing are endless. How do you go about evaluating good verse?

Gaines: I suppose it depends on how disciplined and how much the writer knows, how skillful the writer is, how truthful he or she is. Does the writer capture description well? Does he use dialogue well? Are things believable? Is the writer prejudice when describing blacks or whites, or males or females? I think a reader looks through all these things and then draws their own conclusions. You know, readers see things their way. You might have a good story and you don’t know how to write it. You can have a bad story and not have a thing in the world to say, but you can write so well and I ‘ve had those kinds of students. They have nothing to say, but they’re good at writing.

Bobby Burns: Should fiction writers aim for a high degree of plausibility?

Gaines: They should be able to convince their readers that a piece of work is worth reading. I see so many books on the best sellers list on the New York Times– mystery novels and that sort of thing. 

I can’t read that stuff. Some have done very well, but most of them are impossible for me to read. I still go back to the great novels, great short stories and great plays. I have a large personal library and so, I’m constantly reading those writers of the past, every so often I read a contemporary book, but I don’t read best sellers. On the other hand, one should read a bad book if there is no other book or a poorly written newspaper. But if I have a choice of reading a good book, I’m going to read a good book or a well written essay. You know I get a lot of my news from the Internet. 

Of course, the Internet is faster. I don’t know who edits these newspapers, but it’s not done to my satisfaction. I’m always reading something. I read every day. I’m constantly reading. I’m always receiving books from publishing houses to write blurbs. Some of the books are well written and some are not.

Bobby Burns: What do your books say to you to when you enter your study? Do they say welcome, Ernest? 

Gaines: [Laughs] I don’t pay too much attention to my books in my library. I don’t know, I just walk in and see a book and take it down off the shelf. They’re not talking to me. Everywhere I sit there are books around.  As you can see, I have books all over the place. I just pick a book and start reading it.

Bobby Burns: How would you describe your reaction to winning the McArthur “Genius” Award and of all the awards you’ve won, of which one are you most proud?

Gaines: I don’t know, but the McArthur Grant was more money than all the other grants combined. So as far as money, yes. As far as Oprah selecting my book A Lesson Before Dying I’ve gotten so much publicity from it, and the book shot up to number one on best-sellers list in paperback on the New York Times for six weeks. The book had been out for four years and sold more copies in the previous four years and has been constantly selling ever since then, because of Oprah, really. But all my awards have been great depending on when I received them. In the 1960’s I won an Endowment of the Arts Award and a Guggenheim Award and needed those grants at the time.

Bobby Burns:  A man’s feet are his destiny: they lead him to where he is wanted. How did Oprah discover Ernest Gaines?

Gaines: We were in Miami Beach, Florida at an event and I was introduced to her and A Lesson Before Dying had just come out and she had read it and put it away for several years and she was in her library and read it again and then she called me with the news.

Bobby Burns: A University is a place of instruction where universal knowledge is professed. What do you miss most about teaching?

Gaines: [Laughs] I don’t miss teaching. It’s hard for me to get around now. If I were able to move around as I’d like to. I would visit the university [University of Lafayette] more. I’d visit ex-colleagues, and students. I still have an office there. I’m writer emeritus there. I taught there for 23 years, and I was a little tired. The new students coming in were writing things that I couldn’t understand anymore. They were writing things I didn’t know what was going on, so I felt some of the younger writing teachers should take over.

Bobby Burns: Teaching is really like learning twice. When you were teaching, did you find that teaching helped you as a writer?

Gaines: Yes. I learned things from my students. I don’t know if I’ve had to put their ideas in my writing yet, but I have learned things from different students. For example, I had more white female students in my classes than any other group. I would learn from them how to describe different things from a woman’s point of view; the color of drapes or the color of rugs or the texture of things. And I’d say, yeah, right! And I’d think I was not paying particular attention to those things. Male students would come in and write about hunting or fishing and things like that. I can learn certain things from you. I can learn certain things from a bartender. I’m always open to learning things from people around me. I hope I’m a lifelong learner. 

Bobby Burns: How did you become attracted to track and field as a young man?

Gaines: When I went to California there were track teams, you know. I wasn’t good at baseball or football. I didn’t know anything about basketball, but I could always run. One day I went out and joined the track team. The first time I did it, I pulled a groin muscle because I didn’t know anything about warming up and that sort of thing. After I got better, I tried to run the 440 as fast as you can run the 100-yard dash and about a third of the way around the track I ran out of gas and the other runner passed me by. Over a period of months and years I began to develop as a runner. At Vallejo, High School and Vallejo Junior College I became the most valuable runner for three years. I also ran in the Army and later at San Francisco State University.

Bobby Burns: How would you compare writing a novel? Is it like running a short distance race or long-distance race?

Gaines: I would think a long-distance race, because it takes a long time to write a novel. A short story could be a short distance race. That novel is never a short dash. No way! You have to run and run and run. You have to write and write and write, and write over and over and over.  A decent novel worth anything, I suppose you have to spend some time at it. At least I have to do it.

Bobby Burns: Is the object of writing saying something about a time and place?

Gaines: We can only write about our time. We write about a time that we have not necessarily experienced directly, but vicariously experienced. Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy have written everything, but they have not written about your moment.  You cannot write a greater love story than Romeo and Juliet or War and Peace or Shakespeare’s tragedies. You can’t write greater books than those stories. You can write about your period of time. Shakespeare wrote King Lear, but he could not write a Death of a Salesman because that’s a different time. You can only write about your time. You try to.

Bobby Burns: Ernest Hemingway once said, “They can’t yank a novelist like they can a pitcher. A novelist has to go the full nine, even if it kills him.” Do you find this analogy to be true and how so?

Gaines: I think it depends on the novelist. The writer has to make that decision. If you’re going to be a writer you can’t just let editors yank you out anytime they want to because they can do it to your first book and you’ll never pitch again. The writer has to be his harshest critic. He has to say, “I’m through or I’m not through. I still have some strength in this right arm. I can still throw a curve ball. I don’t know when Hemingway said it, but he could have said it after the critics attacked him so much for Across the River and Trees, a very bad book, it was a bad book. And then he came back of course with the Old Man and the Sea.

Bobby Burns: When do you know a title fits the contents of what has been written?

Gaines: I don’t know what makes a good title. I just happen to come up with titles I like.  A Lesson Before Dying is just that. A Gathering of Old Men was originally tilted The Revenge of Old Men, and then I thought these guys aren’t thinking about revenge, these are guys just gathering to stand one day. Can these old men be gathered for one time in their lives? They’re determined to stand today. I remember talking to someone about the original title and said, “Where have you been, where have you been, so I just got out of it and I didn‘t want to talk about it.”

Bobby Burns: Writers and readers see things differently. Describe your method of developing imagery in your writing about Louisiana?

Gaines:  I live in the country; my surroundings are very rural. My surroundings include trees, crops, grass, flowers, the sound of birds, dogs barking, and cows mooing. Yes. I need all these things to put into my work when I’m writing. Of course, it depends on what I’m writing. 

Bobby Burns: The art of writing something that will be read twice is a writer ‘s dream. What’s your personal definition of fiction writing?

Gaines: My definition is trying to write a good story. A story that no one has ever heard before, but it’s been done many times before. I think fiction is truer than fact most times. In my novels, I presume I’m writing fiction. Art is lying to tell the truth. I think fiction is lying, but it’s telling the truth. That’s what fiction is to me. 

Bobby Burns: “Pretty women swarm around everybody but writers, plain and intelligent woman somewhat swarm around writers.” How would you interpret this quote?

Gaines: I don’t think that’s true. I’ve known some beautiful woman and I’ve known some ugly writers with beautiful women. I don’t know what you mean by beautiful women, because a very beautiful woman can be a very dumb woman. Oh, what do you call these people who just don’t know anything? She’s just pretty with no brains. And then highly intelligent people want to be around writers and prefer being around writers than rock stars or actors. 

Bobby Burns: Life is a fairytale written by God’s fingers. How will Ernest Gaines be remembered on the literary canvas?

Gaines: I don’t know what people will say about me. What I’d like people to say about me is that he wrote as sincerely as he could possibly write.  He could have done more writing and that’s the way I feel about myself. I could’ve done more. I’m proud of most of what I’ve done, but I could have been better. I might have studied harder and written longer. I could’ve spent a longer time at my writing desk.

Bobby Burns: Mr. Gaines thanks for being a prophet among us.  



About the writer Bobby Burns:

Authored a non-fiction book Shelter: One Man’s Journey from Homelessness to Hope by the University of Arizona Press. He’s published in the following publications: Sonora Review, Howling Dog Press, Louisiana Review, Oasis Journal, Oxford Magazine, Sandscript Magazine and Cababi-Art and Literary Magazine, Occupied Tucson Citizen, 42 Stories Anthology, and The Chocolate Voice: Interview on Wil Haygood. Selected for Tucson Book Festival master’s class. Publishers Weekly wrote about his nine city Greyhound Bus Book Tour. He earned a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife and family. 


1 thought on “In Memory: Famed Fiction Writer Ernest Gaines Passes at 86”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top