In a letter to readers, Wiley Cash describes what it was like working with the inspirational Ernest J. Gaines at a fiction workshop in Lafayette, Louisiana. He writes:
I began writing A Land More Kind Than Home while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Louisiana, where I spent five long years sweating, celebrating Mardi Gras, and missing the mountains of North Carolina. While living in Lafayette, I took a fiction workshop with Ernest J. Gaines, who taught me that by writing about home I could recreate that place no matter where I lived. Gaines made this clear to me one afternoon while we were visiting an old cemetery near the plantation where he was born. He pointed to a grave marker and said, "You remember Snookum from A Gathering of Old Men? He's buried right over there." While none of the characters in A Land More Kind Than Home are based on people who actually existed, they're all amalgams of the types of people I knew growing up. In creating these people and the place they live I got to watch the sun split the mist on the ridges above the French Broad River. From my desk in Louisiana I pondered the silence of snow covered fields. While living in a place that experiences only summer and fall, I watched the green buds sprout on the red maples, and I was there when their leaves began to shrivel before giving way to the wind. I lived in two places at once, and it was wonderful.
Ernest J. Gaines's inspirational advice was a long time in the making. He was born on January 15, 1933 in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, on the River Lake Plantation. According to The Academy of Achievement, "His ancestors had lived on the same plantation since slavery, remaining after emancipation to work the land as sharecroppers. Gaines and his family lived in the houses, much expanded, that had once served as slave quarters. His parents separated when he was eight; the strongest adult influence in his childhood was a great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, crippled from birth, who crawled from kitchen to the family's garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters."
He grew up in a story-telling family, and attended classes in a single room of the local black church. However, the school was only open for half the year, and Gaines and the other children were called upon to work in the fields harvesting crops. As he got older, "Pointe Coupee Parish offered no public high school to its black citizens. For three years, Gaines attended St. Augustine's School, a segregated Catholic school in the parish seat at New Roads, Louisiana." He quickly came to love literature, 19th century Russian writers in particular, and - "finding no literature that directly portrayed the life of African Americans in the rural South" - he soon began writing his own stories.
His work earned him admission to Stanford, and in 1964 he published his first novel, Catherine Carmier. Later, in 1967 he published his second novel, Of Love and Dust, which was warmly received. In 1968 he penned a collection of stories, Bloodline, and in it his distinct literary style began to show. In 1971 he wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a "first-person narrative of a fictional 110-year-old woman, born in slavery, who lives to see the stirrings of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Her story led readers through a century of African American life." It was made into an Emmy-winning television show in 1974, and Gaines's fame skyrocketed.
Soon after, he received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and in 1993 he was selected for a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." All the while, he continued to write and published numerous books, including A Gathering of Old Men. His most famous novel, A Lesson Before Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and was made into an Emmy-winning television show in 1999. As reported by the Academy of Achievement, "In addition to his other honors, Ernest Gaines has been awarded the National Humanities Medal of the United States, and is a Chevalier of France's Order of Arts and Letters. In 2007, the Baton Rouge Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to recognize new fiction by African American authors." He is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
Click on the video below to hear Ernest J. Gaines talk about his background and personal history as well as his critically acclaimed novel, A Lesson Before Dying.
This article was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the
January 2013 paperback release.
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