Ernest J. Gaines’ novel “A Lesson before Dying” has been the focus of The Galveston Reads program for the last year. Several community discussion groups have formed as a result. This interview precedes a March 11 telecast with Gaines. The following is a transcript of a Friday, Feb. 15 interview with Mr. Gaines by professors Dr. Stephen Curly Curley of Texas A&M University, Dr. John Gorman of University of Houston-Clear Lake, and Dr. Dale Taylor of Galveston College. Ms. Poom Taylor, with Galveston’s Rosenberg Library, also participated in the interview.
Transcript provided by Dr. Dale Taylor.
Dr. Gorman: How important is teaching as a subtheme--Grant as a teacher—in making the novel?
Mr. Gaines: Remember, Grant wishes to do other things than teach school in a small one room school house. I’ve know teachers were very good under those conditions; I’ve known teachers who were not very good under those conditions because they wish to do other things, so Grant could be representative of a certain teacher—not, I would say, of all teachers. I went to a one-room school house. I had some good teachers there. I had some poor teachers there. So Grant is just one of the teachers.
Dr. Curley: Since we’re on the question of personal experience, I love the character of Taunt Lou. Is she modeled after anybody that you were raised by?
Mr. Gaines: I don’t know any one Taunte Lou. I’ve known thousands of Taunte Lous. I never knew one Miss Jane Pittman, but I knew thousands of Miss Jane Pittmans. I did not base it on only one character. Even Grant, or Jefferson or any of my characters there. The experience of the characters that I’ve know in my world here in Louisiana. This is experience of my characters I’ve known in my world.
Dr. Taylor: In Chapter 27, interaction between Grant and Reverend Ambrose includes a discussion about the nature of faith and a belief in an afterlife.
“‘I want him in heaven as much as you do Reverend.”
“A place you can’t believe in?”
“No, I don’t believe in it, Reverend.”
“And how can you tell him not to believe in it.”
“I’ll never tell him not to believe in it.”
“And suppose he ask you if it’s there, then what? Suppose he write on that tablet you give him, is it there? Then what?”
“I’ll tell him I don’t know.”
“You the teacher.”
“Yes. But I was taught to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Not the gospel.”
To what extent is this a commentary on the separation of church and state? Increasingly, politicians pass legislation that encroaches on the separation of church and state. Does this portion of your novel suggest that the two should not be separate or does it emphasize the quandary that educators find themselves in as they are expected to be open advocates of religion?
Mr. Gaines: The story takes place in 1948; that’s 60 years ago. And you’re dealing with two people here—one teaching on a small one-room school house in the deep south in 1948. It’s dealing with a preacher who never went to school at all—or maybe very limited education, hardly any education. He felt that his duty was to baptize, to soothe the ill, to visit the ill, to bury the dead, that was his job. The position of Grant at this time, 60 years ago at this time, a one-room school house on a plantation, was to teach his African American students the basic things that they needed to know to survive in that community at that time and that basic thing was reading, writing and arithmetic. Nobody was thinking separation of church of and state at that time. For me to make my novel realistic as I possibly could, I had to go back to that world and think as they thought in that world. As the minister felt, I had to become part of that minister. As Grant felt, I had to become part of Grant. The question of state and church today is a new thing. Neither Grant or the minister had anything like that in mind. And although I might think of the separation of church and state, I had to be part of those characters at that time. I did the best I could with those characters—the way they thought and the way they felt at that time.
Dr. Curley: Do you keep in mind what effect it has on the reader? Do you always have an audience in mind? Do you keep in mind what effect it’s going to have on the reader or do you write to please yourself? Do you think, oh they’re going to laugh at this or they’re going to cry at that? Or do you say, I’m going to write what I’m going to write because that’s what sounds right to me?
Mr. Gaines: I would not publish anything that does not sound right to me. I don’t have an audience in mind. I’ve been asked, Do I see a black audience in mind or a southern audience in mind? When I lived in California, I was accused of being a California writer who wrote about the South. I try to write as well as I possibly can. I’ve had books translated into 12 or 15 foreign languages—Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese and several other foreign languages. I try to write as truly—as well—as I possibly can. Most of us in this world have more in common than we have differences. If I write truly as I possibly can, others other people will relate to my characters. What I do when I’m writing is I try to put you in a jungle, in a swamp with a good machete. I try to let you strive and get out of there the best way you can. I try to write so that anybody can read my work. A 12-year-old child can read and understand my work or a professor, as you are, can understand my work. I try to make it as simple as I possibly can.
Dr. Gorman: One of the community discussions I was in went pretty heavily into a capital punishment theme, and I was very impressed with the power of that novel to remind us of what we’re doing when we consent to take another person’s life by public process. Is that a theme that you’re glad to have circulated when people talk about the book?
Mr. Gaines: I was trying to write a novel about two men growing up—two men who were not fully grown up—Jefferson and Grant—how to get Jefferson, not this boy, but to become this man in those five and a half months. I tried to do the same thing for Grant. Jefferson is to die in five and a half months and Grant is going to live another 40 years. I was not thinking about the death penalty or anything like that. I’ve been asked about that many times. I’ve received manuscripts where people want me to comment on the death penalty. That was not my intention when I wrote this book.
I wanted to put them under the extreme tensions to become a man or become a true human being. I was not pro or con as far as the death penalty goes.
Dr. Taylor: Does the exchange between Rev. Ambrose and Grant represent any experience of your own?
Mr. Gaines: I’ve known preachers who were uneducated, and they believed in sending you to heaven rather than proving your condition here. People in my family—older people—were constantly telling me to be good, to be good, to be good, because you have trouble being good all the time. He represents an older conscience, an older idea of what one should do. Grant of course was educated and had different ideas for what people were to do—life was for people to stand up, people to think, to speak. The minister felt that you have to be good, to attend the church; this is the way to live. I think we all—if you’re old enough. I’m 75 years old—if you’re old enough—when I was a child—I knew people who thought like this minister—30 years ago, 40 years ago, and I in some way disagreed with them but I can understand them.
Dr. Curley: To what extent did you believe you had to leave and then later return to Louisiana to write about it? Or do you think it could have worked out if you had stayed in Louisiana?
Mr. Gaines: If I stayed in Louisiana I doubt that I had become the writer that I am today because I didn’t have anyway to go to school. I wouldn’t have received the kind of teaching that I got at San Francisco State and Stanford. I wouldn’t I have been exposed to those kinds of books or the critics or the writers if I had stayed there. However, had I gone to California and never returned to Louisiana, I doubt that I would have been the writer that I am today. I’ve said quite often that two of the biggest moves that I made in my life were when my family took me to California at the age of 15 to be educated. When I returned 15 years later, I didn’t want to come back to Louisiana because of problems in the civil rights demonstrations and the violence that was going on. After Jim Meredith came back into Mississippi in 1962, I decided I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to write. I had to come back—I tried to write in San Francisco—many things—ghost stories, interracial love affairs, all the experience of a bohemian life in San Francisco, all that sort of thing. But the soul was not there, everything was here in Louisiana. I knew that if Jim Meredith had to go through all the things he went through, I had to come back to Louisiana to become the writer that I wanted to be. My friends were going to Africa, Asia—they were leaving San Francisco, and I wanted to go too. But I was tied to Louisiana. Meredith went to University of Mississippi. I realized I had to come back here and go through whatever pressures I had to go through to write about Louisiana. I couldn’t think about anything more worthwhile to write about.
Dr. Gorman: If Grant were a real person, I would ask him why he didn’t stay in California. According to the chronology of the book, he went out there when he was older than 15 and would have had more scope. Vivian tells him why he came back and why he’s going to stay. He never explains why he has done this.
Mr. Gaines: If you read the rest of my books, you can’t stay away; if you’re born in Louisiana, you can’t stay away. The food, the color, the culture[change the period . to a comma], music, our jazz, our blues, just everything. You can’t stay away. In “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she tried to walk to Ohio, but she couldn’t get out of the swamps of Louisiana. . . . Robert X comes back from California and he dies in Louisiana. Grant is one of those characters. Lillian could not leave. Many of my characters can’t leave. They won’t be away long if they left.
Dr. Taylor: Jefferson observes in his journal: “It look like the lord just work for wite folks cause ever sens I wasn nothing but a little boy I been on my on haulin water to the fiel on that ol water cart.” Does this reflect the feeling of a number of young African-Americans you think that—God is for white people? Jefferson’s feelings reflect a sense of hopelessness. How much is this a reflection of not only Jefferson’s realization that he is stuck in a class and caste that offer no escape, but others who are failed by the educational system of our country?
Mr. Gaines: Jefferson is uneducated, and he always did what he was told to do with his life. Although his aunt knows about God, and the minister tells him about God, he doesn’t see that God is working for him. I grew up around quite a few young men who believed that—felt there was no hope. Not only in Louisiana but when I was in San Francisco—that there was no hope—but at the same time Jefferson is one of a kind. He does not represent all young black African Americans at ’48 or 2008 but he does represent a number of them.
Dr. Curley: What do you read for pleasure? Do you read any genre fiction like mystery, romance, westerns? You mentioned ghost stories. Do you have a favorite kind of fiction when you go to B. Dalton or Barnes and Noble? Do you find yourself going to the mystery section? What do you like to read when you read?
Mr. Gaines: I don’t go to B.Dalton. I have a large library of my own with thousands of books. I walk around in my library. I can stop at the shelf and pull down a novel of Tolstoy or Hemingway or maybe some poetry or Mark Twain or Shakespeare. I read all of this. I like a good mystery on television, but I don’t particularly like mystery novels or western novels. Although I love westerns, I’m a great western fan. I watch “Shane” and “High Noon” and those kinds of movies—I love them. I don’t read novels anymore. I read parts of novels; I read chapters, maybe an act of a play, a bit of poetry, a bit of philosophy. I don’t have any certain genre. Wherever I stop—I just look around and read a little bit of it.
Dr. Gorman: Are there younger writers—writers who are in midstream--you’re interested in?
Mr. Gaines: We just had the Ernest J. Gaines literary award recently. A young lady, Olympia Brennan, won for her book, “A Killing in This Town.” She’s very, very talented. There are others out there who are good writers.
Dr. Taylor: Is your representation of the mixed-race or mulatto male characters a reflection of the animosity that existed in the community in which you lived? Or is this a sort of ranking or hegemonic fictional device that polarizes and categorizes white and black in the novel? Do these characters serve to polarize white and black—was that your purpose? Or are they a natural part of your novel?
Mr. Gaines: I know characters like that in my book and in my community. I grew up with these types of people who have those kind of attitudes. Those attitudes are still around in Louisiana or you can go to Los Angeles or other parts of this country and you’ll find those attitudes. I’ve been around it—even in my own family where there’s a distinction between fair and darker people so it’s just one of those things. Writing a book is like building a house; you need extra boards and bricks—whatever it takes to make the novel more representative of your land, your area, your place—this is what you use. If I wrote only about dark skinned African Americans, I wouldn’t be true to my work and my area. If I did not bring conflict between the Creoles—the darker skinned Creoles and the lighter skinned Creoles—I would not be true to my work. If I didn’t write about conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, I would not be true to my work. So I bring all of these things into to develop my work. I’ve known characters like this.
Dr. Curley: Since this is a Galveston Reads Program, a number of people have been interested in whether you’ve ever visited Galveston
Mr. Gaines: Yes, we’ve been to Galveston. I’ve been all over the place.
Dr. Gorman: We wish you had been able to come to the Island so we can show you around. Everybody is looking forward to the webcast. I have read “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Gathering of Old Men,” and I very much enjoy following that community from decade to decade as the political things and the cultural things change.
Do you mind being compared to Faulkner . . .?
Mr. Gaines: I’ve been compared to Faulkner, because I write about a central place just as he did, but so did Joyce, and so did Balzac and many other writers have written about a certain area. I never compare myself to anybody. If that’s what people want, that’s O.K. with me. I just want my agent to get as much money from my books as he possibly can.
Dr. Gorman: All right. A beautiful motive and one that many of us envy if we don’t have agents. Thank you very much.
Dr. Taylor: Vivian also serves to demonstrate the internalization of colorism. In this exchange, Jefferson is speaking about how pretty she is. “I see how pretty she is an im sorry how I talk that day when I was mad at you an say them nasty thing bout her caus she so pretty an smil so pretty. . . Vivian also she so pretty an im so ugly”(232). We see this theme, this sort of colorism running through texts such as Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith and yours—a sort of internalization and acceptance of hegemony—the sort of ranking of worth based on skin color. What do you think is the cure for this?
Mr. Gaines: I think Jefferson doesn’t feel this way because of color. She’s a beautiful woman. No one has probably spoken to him or kissed him [except] Nanan, his godmother, the elderly lady who cares for him. The scent about her body. He’s been locked up in a jail cell and treated like an animal, and he knows he might die soon. He regrets what he said; it’s not because of color.
Dr. Curley: When I first read the novel, I thought how simple it was—it’s so simple people aren’t going to have anything to talk about. It’s certainly obvious. You can’t put it down emotionally. As you close the covers—it’s a parable of a story that refuses to die and go away. Do you do this on purpose?
Mr. Gaines: The Bible is simple that way too. I receive more letters from white students— middle grade on up all over the place—they say the same thing—we can understand this book. Many people from attorneys to children, after reading the opening chapter of “A Lesson Before Dying,” say how much they liked it. If I can get that reaction from 10th, 11th, 12th grade students and attorneys in their 40s and 50s I’ve reached a public out there.
Dr. Curley: When you revise do you try to keep in mind the effect a certain turn of phrase or action will have on your readers? Or do you write entirely to please your own sensibilities?
Mr. Gaines: I write rewrite, and rewrite. I want to get it so well that you can understand it. It’s like the machete in the jungle. A friend of Flaubert asked, “What did you do yesterday?” He said, “That comma we were talking about yesterday, I took it out. What did you do this afternoon? The friend asked. “I put it back in there.” Whichever makes it easier to read.
Dr. Gorman: Can you comment on Jefferson’s diary?
Mr. Gaines: I think Jefferson’s diary is a great uplift. He’s very sad, but it shows he’s growing.
Dr. Taylor: The development that Jefferson and Grant go though is representative or a metaphor of the growth that many African American men find themselves going through in this country.
Mr. Gaines: Right, I wanted the teacher to teach the student and the student to teach the teacher to help both develop.
Ms. Poom Taylor: Why did you select the names Jefferson and Grant?
Mr. Gaines: Jefferson and Grant those presidential names—I just came up with a name—had nothing to do what the presidents.
Dr. Curley: I think this has been a wonderful conversation. I had a college class read it and one student said, “You know I never read a book before, but this is my favorite book ever.”
Mr. Gaines: A guy told me the same thing. He said, “Mr. Gaines, “A Lesson Before Dying” is my favorite book and the “Sky is Grey,” the short story.” I said, “How many novels have you read?” He said, “one.” I asked him how many short stories he’s read. He said, “one.”