Ernest J. Gaines
Author of 'A Lesson Before Dying'
May 13, 1999
The following is an edited transcript of a chat with Ernest J. Gaines, author of 'A Lesson Before Dying,' held on Tuesday, May 11, 1999.
Chat Moderator: Welcome to our chat room Mr. Gaines!
Ernest J. Gaines: Thank you
Chat Participant <AnnD>: Mr. Gaines, what inspired this novel?
Ernest J. Gaines: I suppose I've been having nightmares about someone knowing the day and hour to die and what might be going through their minds. I lived in San Francisco most of my life and I remember the executions across the bay where I live. I did not wish to know time, know the hour of time, or want to see anything on television or radio during this time of execution. This haunted me for years and I figured the best way to rid myself of this is to write about it. Later, I would think of the next character, a teacher, who approaches this young man who is about to die. Both men teach each other something about life. That's one of the things I hope the viewer would get from the film. There were things I had to deal with.
Chat Participant <Ron_M>: When you turn over a book to be made into a movie, do you worry about creative control? Do you worry about changes that might occur when one of your books becomes a screenplay?
Ernest J. Gaines: My answer to that is this: since they did not tell me how to write my novel, I never tell them how to make their film. I hope that they are faithful to the book. In the case of the novel "A Lesson before Dying," the film I think is similar. I was lucky to be on the set a couple of times and see the filming, and I also have seen the complete version of the film and I think they've done a wonderful job. It's not my job or my duty to put my 10 cents worth on who should be actor or how the film should be made. Once my agent has agreed to the company, which is HBO, then that is it and I have nothing to do with it. In this case, I think we have a wonderful film.
Chat Moderator: Duty, courage and dignity seem to be themes in your work. Do you draw those lessons from real life?
Ernest J. Gaines: Courage, yes. I was raised by a lady that was crippled all her life but she did everything for me and she raised me. She washed our clothes, cooked our food, she did everything for us. I don't think I ever heard her complain a day in her life. She taught me responsibility towards my brother and sisters and the community. These are the characters that I draw from, especially my Aunt and people who were like her.
Chat Participant <AnnD>: Looking back on that era, Mr. Gaines, have we made great strides since then with regard to races, in you opinion?
Ernest J. Gaines: Well you know the French saying that says the more things change the more things stay the same. Many things have changed since the last 40 - 50 years in Louisiana. Today I'm writer in residence and professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Forty years ago I could have not gone to that University at all except as a janitor after the white children left the school. This is the only way I would have attended. At the same time in Louisiana, we had someone running for governor and senator who had been a member of the KKK and the state of Louisiana voted for him. We still have people who still think the same way, but things change and sometimes remain the same.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: Why are you working at a small school (I went to a small school, so no slight intended) instead of a major university?
Ernest J. Gaines: That's a very good question. I didn't choose that school, it chose me. I teach as many classes as I wish, in the order that I wish. I teach once a week and I choose my students. This particular school is 50 miles where I grew up as a child, where all of my ancestors lived during slavery. Going back to that school brought me closer because it's were I grew up and my family lived for several generations. I'd rather be there than any other University. It gives me a chance to return to this land that my people cultivated and worked for so many years.
Chat Moderator: Did you have any qualms about returning to Louisiana?
Ernest J. Gaines: No, I had no qualms about returning. They offered me a contract and I said Yes, I'll return. Although I lived in San Francisco most of my life, I was always going back to Louisiana at least twice a year. I was always coming back. In 1981, I was offered a position in Louisiana and given tenure and I made Lafayette, Louisiana my home. There are problems, we all have problems, but I think I lived in Lafayette as I would live any place else.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: So, how much time do you devote each day to writing?
Ernest J. Gaines: Well when I'm writing I try to put five to six hours. I try to get to work about 9:00 and try to stay there and sometimes it's well and not so well but you still have to work at it and workout the problems. Whether I'm working well or not I still try to put in appropriate hours at least 5 - 6 hours a week.
Chat Participant <Jeremy>: Have you always considered yourself a storyteller.
Ernest J. Gaines: I believe that the writer should tell a story. I believe in plot. I believe in creating characters and suspense. I try to write something that would interest anybody and keep them turning the page. You must have a plot and good storyline.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: Did you become a writer or were you born a storyteller? Many writers will say they learned to tell stories by listening to their parents and grandparents; an oral tradition, as it were.
Ernest J. Gaines: Oh yes, definitely. See, as a child I had no television only a radio. Most times we didn't listen to the radio. They couldn't read or write. My Aunt taught me how to write, her name was Augustine Jefferson, and she told me I should write for the old people. I think that might be my initiation to writing and listening to the old people talk. My Aunt was crippled so they came to visit and writing for these old people really was my initiation to writing. I didn't know and they didn't know either.
Chat Moderator: Which came first, teaching or writing for a living?
Ernest J. Gaines: Writing! I suppose I started writing seriously at 16 years old. I thought I wrote a novel at 16 and sent it to New York! They sent it back because it wasn't novel. I went to college and graduated in 1957, and I started teaching later on. I only started teaching because the writing wasn't supporting me. So I would not have started teaching if it wasn't for the income.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: You thought...hmmmm..a lesson before publishing?
Ernest J. Gaines: I have several people in the room with me laughing at that one!
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: Are you familiar at all with the work of Raymond Andrews? His last novel 'The Last Radio Baby' is perhaps his best...
Ernest J. Gaines: I'm afraid I don't know his work, Sorry!
Chat Participant <Jeremy>: Which authors do you enjoy reading?
Ernest J. Gaines: I'm in Atlanta promoting "A Lesson Before Dying," the HBO film. I was reading 19th Century Russian writers before I arrived to Atlanta. Today when I arrived in Atlanta, I was reading short stories Ralph Ellison, who wrote "invisible Man".
Chat Participant <John_S>: Is working with HBO been a positive experience?
Ernest J. Gaines: Well, yes because they are wonderful people to work with and we go first-class here and it's been wonderful working with the people. We've been together in Louisiana, California, and Atlanta, Georgia. It's wonderful working with them.
Chat Participant <Carl_L> What do you feel is the most difficult part of the writing process (besides getting published)?
Ernest J. Gaines: Getting up every morning and writing! The writer, although he is driven to write, he must write and be able to do it all the time, everyday it is very hard. That is what I would recommend anyone who wants to be a writer that he should write everyday.
Chat Participant <jonathan>: Do you consider yourself a Southern Writer?
Ernest J. Gaines: Well you know I have been categorized for so many years. I lived in California most of my life, and according to critics and newspapers there, I was a California writer writing about the South. Since I'm African-American, I'm considered an African-American writer and since I'm in the South I'm know as a Southern writer. I don't claim any of them, I just try to write and do my work.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: How do you feel, knowing your books are used as teaching material in high schools?
Ernest J. Gaines: I like the idea that High School students, especially them, read my book. A professor of my Wallace Stegner, he asked me who do I writer for? Well I don't writer for any particular group, however if I had to write for any group it would be the black youth of the south. That would be the most positive people to write about. He asked who would I pick the second time? I would write for the white youth. White youth are reading my books all over the country, I feel I'm reaching both black and white audiences.
Chat Participant <John_S>: Do you believe that writers should write only what they know? How much of your writing is based on personal experience or memories...
Ernest J. Gaines: Writing is both direct experience as well as vicarious. A writer draws from his own experience of what he see and reads about and from other sources. I cannot only write from my own direct experience, so I write from both ideas of my own and from other people, newspapers, and music. These are things where any writer gets their ideas. No one writes fiction only from his own person experiences.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing black youth today?
Ernest J. Gaines: That's a tough question and I really don't know at this particular moment how to answer that question. We're agreeing in this room it is education and opportunity along with family support.
Chat Participant <Jeremy>: What is the major difference between African-American writers and Anglo-American Writers in a more than contextual way?
Ernest J. Gaines: We draw primarily from our experiences. I cannot write from an Anglo experience, and neither can he from mine. No matter how we write we must write from the tools we are given such as our background, the people we're around and recognize. I think that the main difference also our environment plays a big part in it as well.
Chat Participant <jonathan>: You referred to nightmares about Alcatraz. Was it out of sympathy, or fear, or what?
Ernest J. Gaines: San Quenton! Sympathy, because I've always wondered how does one feel that's going to die a specific day and time such as next Tuesday at 9:00pm. My sympathy of course was with the man or woman on death row.
Chat Participant <Candyce>: I can't imagine that kind of knowledge
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: What kind of impact did the making for the film "A Gathering of Old Men" have on your career? (And how true to your book was the movie?)
Ernest J. Gaines: A good film always makes a good book. Whenever a film is based on a writers work, they look for the book, whether in a library or a book store, and that's what happened with a Gathering of Old Men. I don't think you can possibly get any better publicity than having your book be a movie, such as my most recent book.
Chat Participant <jonathan>: Is there a societal sense of fear imposed on black men?
Ernest J. Gaines: I think all men have a fear of something, and I think quite often many do have a fear of police but Alfred Hitchcock once said there's nothing scarier than being stomped by a cop, and he was white. Some people are afraid of crowded rooms, snakes, dogs, afraid of elevators. So you can have all kinds of fears.
Chat Participant <Jeremy>: How much say did you have in the making of the movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" That was a riveting movie I saw as a youth that made a remarkable impression.
Ernest J. Gaines: I didn't have an official voice in making the film. Occasionally one of the actors or actress asked me questions at times. I knew the director of the film and he would ask questions but I wasn't officially involved unless someone asked a question. No one had to consider any of my opinions.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: For "A Lesson Before Dying," did any of the cast members talk with you about the characters?
Ernest J. Gaines: Indirectly, yes. I spoke with Don Sheatles, who plays Grant, and Cicely Tyson who plays Tante, which is French for Aunt. Other characters I spoke with in general but I didn't give any advice on how the character should be played. It was clearly up to the director but we had general conversation.
Chat Participant <jonathan>: Where will you be to watch tomorrow night's premier of your HBO movie?
Ernest J. Gaines: I'll be here in Atlanta, my wife for the premiere at the Carter Center which is hosted by Herbert Baker who is the attorney general of Atlanta, and the only African American attorney general in the U.S.
Chat Moderator: Are you currently working on a novel?
Ernest J. Gaines: No, I am not. I'm thinking, thinking and thinking. The physical thing has not started yet, and I'm not ready to commit my self to another work of art at this time.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: What do you mean by 'the physical thing hasn't started'? Does the process begin there?
Ernest J. Gaines: What I usually do is think about my work for sometimes months, even years. I would have a project in mind for years but I sit down at a desk everyday from 9:00 - 3:00 just thinking about what I would write next, but no the physical hasn't started yet.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: It must be a great feeling to see such terrific actors, like Cicely Tyson, accept roles in films based on your work.
Ernest J. Gaines: It is good. Cicely was starring in the autobiography of Jane Pittman years ago and she received that part for the film. There are other actresses in the film that don't have Cicely whole names and we'll know about the more in this film. There are people who know about them but the general public doesn't really know them like they know Cicely.
Chat Participant <Jeremy>: Did you like Southern Comfort? I mean how are the Cajuns portrayed in your work?
Ernest J. Gaines: I haven't seen the movie just yet! I don't understand the question with regard to Cajuns. I have good people of different colors in my work, so I have many different people that play a different part in my work.
Chat Participant <handke>: Do you like Ivo Andric and have you read his book about the river "Drina?"
Ernest J. Gaines: I'm afraid not.
Chat Participant <Carl_L>: Which is YOUR favorite E. J. Gaines novel?
Ernest J. Gaines: I don't have a favorite novel of mine, they are all my children and they're all mine, and some of the things you see you wish you could change but the child is here now and you deal with it. But I don't have a favorite one of my novels.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us tonight!
Ernest J. Gaines: We're going to gather with a friend of mine to watch the movie and he's cooking a whole bunch of crawfish! I had a wonderful time as well and you all had very good questions. Thank you and have a wonderful evening.
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