Gaines's father left the family early, and his mother moved to New Orleans to find work. This left the boy in the care of his disabled aunt, whose strength returns in Tante Lou and several of Gaines's other female characters. Barely into his teens, Gaines began to write and stage steadily more ambitious plays at the local church.
In 1948 Gaines rejoined his mother in Vallejo, California, where she had found work in California's great post-World War II economic boom. He discovered the downtown Carnegie Library and plundered it for books with two necessary qualities: "Number one, they had to be about the South, and two, they had to be fiction."
The 1950s ushered Gaines from high school to junior college, to an Army tour in Guam, to college back in California, and finally into the writer Wallace Stegner's prestigious creative writing program at Stanford, where classmates included Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey. He soon won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for a novel in progress.
That novel developed into 1964's Catherine Carmier, followed three years later by Of Love and Dust, which coincided with a fellowship for Gaines from the National Endowment for the Arts. He broke through to a wider public with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
More well-received novels followed, including A Gathering of Old Men in 1983, shortly after the start of his years teaching writing at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. There he conceived the idea for his sixth novel, A Lesson Before Dying—though a decade would pass before it saw print.
A Lesson Before Dying (1993) surpassed even the rapturous reception accorded Miss Jane Pittman. The Pulitzer jury shortlisted Gaines again. He walked off with the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. A MacArthur Fellowship finally gave him some financial security, and he married Dianne Saulney, a Miami attorney who grew up in—where else?—Louisiana.
On August 16, 2007, Dan Stone of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Ernest J. Gaines at his home in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. An excerpt from their conversation follows.
Dan Stone: When did books first become important to you?
Ernest J. Gaines: As a child in Louisiana, there was no library that I could go to. But when I went to California, I found myself in the library. And at 16, I started reading and reading. I especially read anybody who wrote about the land. I'd look at the dust jacket, and if there was a tree or lake or field on it, I'd flip through. I especially liked to read the 19th-century Russian writers—Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev—because they wrote about the land and peasant life.
DS: What experiences from your own life did you work into A Lesson Before Dying?
EG: The first six years of my education were in my plantation's church, and I used that as Grant's school. We worked and picked pecans to buy our clothes, and we went to school about five and a half months of the year because we had to begin to work in the field at age eight, from mid-March until about mid-September.
DS: It's assumed that Jefferson is innocent, but in the beginning, this is never stated. Did you intentionally give two sides?
EG: I don't know whether he's innocent or guilty. The point of the story is how two men would grow to become real men. Jefferson, with only a few months to live; Grant with another 40 years or more to live—what will they do with that time? Neither one is going anywhere in life. Grant wants to get away. Jefferson is just there, doing whatever people want him to do. He never argues, he never questions anything. I wanted the story to be about how both men develop.
DS: Grant gives Jefferson a radio. How is music able to break down those barriers?
EG: Music is very important to me. When I was growing up, there were maybe one or two radios on the quarters here. We'd listen to the music at my grandmother's house, especially late at night when you could hear the blues. It is the blues that reaches Jefferson spiritually. The minister tried to reach him, but I think he was closer to those old blues. So the purpose of the radio was to get Jefferson to open up.
DS: Why is Grant so unable to help Jefferson at the beginning of the novel? What is his deepest struggle?
EG: Grant is struggling with the South at that time. This man was terribly angry. He didn't know who he was—and that's the worst thing in the world that can happen to a man. He hated where he was, but at the same time, he can't leave. I don't know what would have happened to me, had I stayed here. I probably would have ended up teaching in a little school and angry the rest of my life. So the two best moves I've ever made in life were the day I went to California and the day I came back here. My folks took me away from here in 1948 and then in 1963 I came back here.
DS: The California poet Robinson Jeffers wrote about something he called "the inevitable place"—that some people are tied to a place where they inevitably have to return. They can go anywhere in the world, but that's the spot for them. It seems Louisiana is that place for you.
EG: Definitely so. I tried to write about the Army and the year I spent in Guam. I tried to write ghost stories about San Francisco. I can't write about San Francisco! But I can write about that little postage stamp of land in Louisiana. In my case, the body went to California. The soul remained here with my aunt and my brothers and sisters and friends and the old shack we lived in.