On Wednesday, February 12, 2003, I interviewed author Ernest J. Gaines at his home in Lafayette, Louisiana, just off the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. This is the transcript of our conversation.
Are you the oldest child in your family?
I’m the oldest of twelve.
How old were you when your parents divorced?
Let’s see. I must have been quite young. I don’t know the exact age, but I know that I was quite young. Eight, I guess, or something like that.
How much later did your mother remarry?
How did your mother meet your stepfather?
Oh, I don’t know. They both lived on False River. So they could have met in New Roads or somewhere on the river. Everybody knows everybody around that place. So they probably ran into each other. I don’t know exactly how it happened.
He was a merchant marine?
No, he didn’t go into the merchant marines until he left Louisiana.
What kind of man was he?
He was Catholic, very disciplined, a hard worker. Although he isn’t the oldest of his siblings, most of them looked up to him. He’s the guy that took care of the responsibilities of the family.
What do you remember of your father? Did you have a relationship with him after your parents divorced?
Well, I was around him a couple of times and he was very kind to me, but he wasn’t around very much.
Was your stepfather more of your father figure than your father was?
Right. Oh, yes. Definitely so. It was he who took me to California, and it was he who had me educated. When I was a kid about eight or nine, I remember him being there trying to farm. He had a little place and he tried to farm there. He couldn’t raise anything around that place, not in that kind of dirt.
You’ve said before that you were raised by your Aunt Augusteen Jefferson. You said that she was unable to walk, but that she taught you the importance of standing.
What does that mean?
Being responsible for my brothers and sisters, to strive, to keep striving. That was the only way I was going to make it in the world. That was her advice to me.
Do you know why she couldn’t walk?
No, I don’t know whether she was born like that or if it happened after her birth. My mother never told us. I think that by the time my mother knew her she was already crippled. She was my great-aunt, my mother’s father’s sister. She was probably crippled when my mother knew her.
Do you remember telling some of your students about warming up the floor in the morning for your aunt?
Well, what I would do, I’d get up early and I’m the oldest. So I’d get up in the winter and start a fire. Those little wooden floors, those little cabins out there, they were just cold. So the fireplace would warm the floor.
What was your early education like?
I went to a church school. They didn’t have a school. You’d go to church. If we go down tomorrow, or whenever, I can show you this little building. It’s still there. It’s leaning. It’s just about ready to fall, but it’s still there.
There could have been 30 children, from the primer to the sixth grade. You had one teacher to teach all the children. The sixth graders could take the primer students over their lessons while the teacher taught the other grades. Then the teacher, in the afternoon, would teach the fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes.
We had a wood-burning heater in the center of the room. I put all of this stuff in A Lesson Before Dying. I think I described it pretty accurately. There was no such thing as desks. You sat on benches and you wrote out your assignments on your lap, with a book on your lap. Or you got down on your knees and put the paper on the seat of the bench and wrote out your assignments for your arithmetic or for whatever it was.
Most of those teachers were very disciplined. They would have a strap right on their desk. That strap would whip you on your hands if you didn’t perform, you didn’t get your work done or you got in a fight or something. At that time, parents expected a teacher to whip the child if the child was unruly in the classroom.
The way we got air in the classroom was by opening up the windows and the two doors – the back door and the front door – of the church. Of course in the winter, you had to close all this stuff and try to stay as warm as you possibly could, with the smaller children up near the heater and the larger children further back.
Approximately 12 or 15 families would send their children to school. There were that many on that plantation, but children would come from other places as well to come to school there. There was no nearby school for black children at that particular time, in the ‘30s and the ‘40s, in Pointe Coupee Parish. Not very many, you know. That was one of the reasons why I had to go to California.
After I finished the sixth grade on the plantation, I went to a little Catholic school for black students in New Roads for three years. Of course there was no high school in Pointe Coupee for blacks, so my folks took me to California.
What was the name of the school in New Roads?
So the only option for a black student at that time who completed the sixth grade was to go to St. Augustine?
St. Augustine and there was another little middle school back there, but I forget the name of it right now.
Tell me about Reese Spooner (one of the old men from River Lake Plantation).
He was a very tall, dignified man who worked on the plantation just as everyone else did. He worked on the other side. The plantation was divided among different people there. He didn’t live on the same side as we did, but he lived across the street, across the road. I saw him all the time. He was just another person there. I always remember him being very tall and very dignified.
Was he a natural storyteller?
I don’t know that he was a storyteller as much as a person trying to recall history. He would not have just sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to tell you a story.” But he would talk about the past. A lot of time he got confused. Because I had to talk to other people, and they would disagree with him. But I was talking to him when he was an old man, see. When I was writing A Gathering of Old Men, I would talk to him about lots of things. So he had gotten things confused by then. As a small child, I just saw this tall man.
You’ve said before that you’re a horrible storyteller.
I think when I say I’m a horrible storyteller, I can’t sit around and tell stories. I tell jokes, but I can’t tell stories. I used to run bars with some of my buddies in San Francisco and whenever I would start talking, telling a story, they would always tell me, “Gaines, go home and write. You tell lousy stories.”
That’s surprising to me, that a man who has written so prolifically would make such a statement. As a writer, what’s the difference between telling a story . . .
… and writing it?
Yes, but let me be specific about this. Particularly if Reese Spooner told you a story, why doesn’t that translate directly to the page?
I’ve asked that of many friends of mine. My brother Lionel, who lives in Port Allen, is a great storyteller, but he can’t write anything. And if you try to repeat everything he told you, it doesn’t come out right on the page. You have to improvise. You have to interpret it.
I know many people who can tell you the greatest stories, but when you try to record it on the machine and then translate that to the written page, it does not sound right. You have to make the breaks. You have to make the changes. I don’t know where this change comes about. You have to leave out so much. You have to fill in some of the gaps that the person does not tell you about.Hemingway once said that one of the necessary tools for the writer is to have a good shit detector. You have to know that this guy’s telling you a story. But how do you figure this story out that this guy’s telling you? That’s what you’re going to put on your paper. Go through it, think about it and then put it down on that paper. Just like here, if you put everything that I say here in your story, it’s going to sound lousy. You have to edit this stuff and edit it and edit it. I’m always editing interviews when some people interview me. And that’s what a writer does when someone tells you their story. He has to go through it and think about it and take out what he doesn’t want and add something else. So that other person might see that story and he might say, “Well, I didn’t say that exactly.” Of course he didn’t say it exactly like that.
Do you think that the old people tell stories like they did when you were growing up and do you think that people are even listening any more?
Well, I like to listen. Anybody that tells a story, I’d listen in a minute. Maybe I can use it again, jokes or anything like that. I like jokes. I’ll listen to a joke in a minute and laugh at it. Yes, I believe in that.
Some of the old people can tell stories. Dianne’s mother just died about five years ago. She could talk about the past, could tell you some great stories. I used to love to listen to her. There’s some of them out there that can still tell those things. My brother, Lionel, there in Port Allen, he’s younger than I, one next to me, a great storyteller. He can make me laugh. He just had a leg amputated.
You’ve said before that when James Meredith entered Ole Miss in ’62, it had a profound effect on you.
Oh, yes. Definitely so. I was supposed to go to Mexico with some friends of mine in ’62. At that time, many of the people about my age, especially in California, were leaving the country. They said, “You can’t write under this oppressive condition. We have to do other things.” They were going to Europe, going to Africa. Some were going to Mexico. So two good friends were going to Mexico – a guy and his wife. I couldn’t go in the summer when they were leaving. I said, “I’ll join you guys later. I need some money. I don’t have enough money to support myself for a year in Mexico. I’ll have it by the fall, or the end of the year, and then I’ll join you guys.”
Meredith went into Ole Miss, and that was felt all over the world, especially for a young black who wants to write and who’s writing about the South and staying away from the South and saying “I can’t put up with this stuff.” I just decided that the only way I was going to save my writing – because I couldn’t get done what I was trying to write about, I didn’t want to get involved with it – I just wrote my friends Jim and Carol and told them I wouldn’t be able to join them.
I wrote an uncle and an aunt in Baton Rouge and asked them if I could live with them for about six months. They said sure. They had a bunch of guys in the place, but they made some of the guys sleep together so I could have a room to myself, a little small room about half the size of this porch. But it was big enough for me. All I needed was a little place to sleep. I did my writing after everybody had gone to work. I’d get out my little typewriter, and I’d write. I only needed that little room just to sleep in.
But it was James Meredith going into Ole Miss that I’m sure saved my life, as well as my writing. I didn’t know whether I would succeed as a writer, had I not come to Louisiana in January of ’63. I left California on the third of January and got to Baton Rouge on the fifth of January. If I had not come back to Louisiana at that time, I don’t know that I ever would have completed Catherine Carmier. If I had not completed Catherine Carmier, I don’t know what I would have done with my life.
Was that the heart of darkness for you? Having to return to Louisiana and to tackle it head-on?
When I came back, I came back to be and to see. I joined a couple of little demonstration protests in Baton Rouge at the time. Nothing significant. Nothing big. Nothing grand. No cops coming up and beating people in the head or anything like that. The cops stayed back and sort of looked at what you were doing over there. But there were no physical engagements with the cops. We didn’t have that.
I just felt that whatever happens has to happen. I’d been back in Louisiana twice before. I had been back here in ’52 and ’58 to visit family. So I had been back, but I had to come back. I didn’t want to come back when all of this violence was going on, but I wanted to be back here. I didn’t want to be caught up with it, but I wanted to be back here. It wasn’t too hard to come back, once I got back here. I settled down, and I found that I could visit places that I was trying to write about. I saw the kind of people I was trying to write about.
It was tremendously segregated in the early ’60s here, to the point where you ate in a separate little place there in Baton Rouge and New Roads. I had done that before when I was here. I think in ’65 they began to slightly whitewash those ‘Black’ and ‘Colored’ and ‘White’ off of benches and doors and places like that, but not completely. The people could still see beneath that little smear of white paint where they had sat and eaten years before. They still went there.
I remember in ’63 when I was going back to California, I was sitting in what had formerly been the white waiting room at the train station, but most of the blacks would not come in there at that time. They still went to the place they had gone to for so many years. I wasn’t trying to break any laws. Maybe I went into that side to show them that, you know, you can come here. The whites could not say you can’t come in here. Things had begun to gradually change. Not completely because we were still eating in separate places. It may not have been ’63. Maybe it was ’65. I can’t remember it right now. I would have to go back to friends in Baton Rouge to give me dates.
You’ve said before that if you were forced to say who you are writing for, it would first be the black youth of the South and secondly the white youth of the South.
When I said that, Wallace Stegner, my teacher at Stanford, had asked me, “Who do you write for?” I said, “Wally, I’ve learned so much from so many great writers of nationalities all over the world. I learned from War and Peace, Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. I’m sure those great Russian writers, those aristocrats, were not writing for me, but they’ve helped me so much by their work, by the way they draw characters, their themes and their description of nature. They bring in the smallest detail to the largest details that make it so simple for you to understand. It goes so deep into the psyche. They try to understand that peasant as well as they try to understand that count or that duke over there. Those great writers can write about these things. I’ve learned from that. I’ve learned from Shakespeare. I like his fools as well as I like those great kings and princes. I learn from everybody.”
He said, “Yeah, but those people were writing for somebody. If I put a gun to your head and I asked you who you write for…” I said, “Well, then, I’ll come up with something. If there was a gun to my head, I would tell you I write for the black youth of the South, to help him find himself, to find out who he is and the meaning of his life.” And he said, “OK, suppose the gun was still at your head.” I said, “Then I would say I write for the white youth of the South to let him know that if he does not know his neighbor of the last 300 years, he knows only half of his own history. He doesn’t know anything. He has to know the guy next door to him. He’s been around him those 300 years, and they share the same culture in a way – the food, the music and they wear the same clothes. They speak the same language, and they do all of these sorts of things, but they have no communication. Unless he knows his neighbor, the white or the black, you know only a little of your history.” And that’s what I was trying to say to Wally at that time.
In 1972, you published the first chapter of a book titled The House and The Field in the Iowa Review, but you abandoned the book to write In My Father’s House. What ever happened to The House and Field?
I thought the book was going in the direction of Miss Jane Pittman in a way. I just thought, I can’t continue with this. I had just published Miss Jane Pittman in ’71 and I was dealing with slavery again. It was a different story in that it showed the difference of how the slaves in the big house were treated as compared to how the slaves in the fields were treated.
One of the slaves in the big house, his mother was a slave and he was the son of the white owner and his mother had to be quite fair herself. But he was so fair he could easily pass for white. Although he was a slave, he was given better treatment than the blacks, than the ones in the fields were given.
So one day he decides, “I’m going to run away.” He had a brother who looked just like him. I think he was about a month older than his brother. He had a white brother by the white owner and his wife. He was mulatto, with his mother and the same father. But they looked so much alike that they could almost pass for twins. So he decided to dress with his brother’s clothes and he was going to run away with those slaves. He had planned all of this stuff out. I did not get this far. He goes far with them, and then they just stop one day.
I’m telling you something I haven’t told anyone else. He just stopped at this one place, and it was raining and storming. A guy let him come into his farm and his barn to settle down. Because this fellow thinks he’s white, he invites him to the house. They’re sitting, talking and drinking while the blacks are in the barn. He starts gambling with this guy. He’s drinking. He’s gambling. He’s losing. The guy tells him, “I’ll take some of these (slaves) off of your hand to pay for your debt.”
That was not his plan, but then he realized, hey, I can get some money here. He leaves them. He pays his gambling debt, has some money in his pocket, and he gets away. That’s what the story’s supposed to be. One of the guys (slaves) eventually gets away to look for him. The others are sold to other people. But one guy gets away to look for him and find him some way. Someone must find him and kill him.
That was the story of The House and The Field, but I got as far as the first or second chapter, and I quit. I said, “I don’t want to deal with slavery any more. I’ll deal with something else.” Even at that time I was writing that, I had In My Father’s House in mind.
One critic of your work has suggested that the tragedy in your writing is less about the confinement and the aspirations of the people in the quarter as it is the disappearance of the quarters and that community. How do you respond to that?
No. I think my stories are all about the people. It’s all about how they confront life. The disappearance of the quarter doesn’t come about until my later novels, beginning with In My Father’s House and then A Gathering of Old Men. The tragedies are about the people. For example, in Catherine Carmier, the big tragedy is that, well, at that time, yes, the land is beginning to shift. Certain people are taking over the land, and the blacks are not involved as much. But in Of Love and Dust, it’s about a conflict between Marcus and Marcus himself, him saying, “I will not be a slave on this plantation.”
Later, in the writing, the disappearing of the structure of the plantation as it was plays a part in the lives of some of the people, but that’s not the major theme theory of my writing.
Yeah, I wouldn’t think that the disappearance of the remnants of a slave system would be tragic.
No. I think of a community where people held together, that, yes. But not of a plantation system.
Recently, I’ve run across some criticism of white writers who portray blacks in their work. Some of the criticism has gone so far as to say that white writers have no right to even attempt to portray blacks. How do you see that, particularly as a black man who has written about Cajuns?
I think the writer should write about whatever he wishes to write about, and I think he should know what he’s writing about. If you can write about Dracula, and you can write about Frankenstein’s monster, and Shakespeare can write about a ghost, and other people can write about whales and things like that, I think I can write about man. I think we’re closer to man than I would be to a whale.
I think we’re all prejudiced and I think we all see certain things from our own point of view. I’m not saying that I’m fair in what I write and say about whites. I’m as fair as I possibly can be. I can’t say that I’m fair when I write about Creoles or even my own blacks. I say things that others may not see my way.
I know a lot of the militant writers disagree with me on everything because they didn’t see that I was, quote, participating as I should be doing in the ’60s. I was not writing their kind of writing. I wasn’t doing that kind of writing. They’re saying, “You’re not writing truthfully about black people.”
Since A Lesson Before Dying, quite a few people have come up to me and complimented me on my depiction of Paul in the book. I suppose that out of all of my books, he’s probably the most sympathetic of a white character in the books, although there have been white characters in all of my books. Some of them are decent, and others of them are not.
I remember I got a letter from a teacher in Mississippi, and she said, “I cannot teach The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to my students. My black students don’t want to read or study the book because you use the n-word too much, and the white kids don’t want to read the book because you make all the white people devils and the black people good.” (Laughs) So I couldn’t please either one of them. No matter who it is, I couldn’t please either one of them. (Laughs)
It was taken off of the bookshelves in Houston, Texas, about three or four years ago because of the n-word. That was done by a group of blacks, but it was put back on the shelf because the word got out. The New York Times ran a story on it, and several other papers wrote about it.
How does that make you feel?
Well, I feel the way that Rhett Butler felt at the end of Gone With The Wind. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I’ve written the book. The book is out there. I’m sorry if I insulted you but I cannot rewrite the book. This is what I felt at the time.
I remember I was at Lewis & Clark about 15 or 20 years ago. A group of students got onto me about the book, the African students, because one of the characters in the book says, “We’re not Africans. We’re Americans. We’re not anything else but Americans.” And these guys said, “What do you mean you’re not an African? You are an African.” I said, “Well, I think I’m an American.” They kept arguing. I said, “You can go to hell. This is what I am, and this how I feel.”
So they told this friend of mine who had invited me to Lewis & Clark that I had to apologize to the African students there. John Callahan was so great. I saw John last weekend. I told him that I would not apologize. He said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with those people. They’ve taken this to the president.” I said, “It’s too damn bad, John. I’m not going to apologize. I am an American. I’m not an African. I’ll repeat it, and I’ll tell it to the president if he invites me to his office. They can go to hell. This is what I am, and this is what I wrote.”John and I were talking about this last week. I was in Portland. John is still at Lewis & Clark. John said, “Ernie, you remember those guys you had the argument with?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Did you ever go to Africa?” I said, “Hell, no. One of those guys could be a ruler of one of those countries. I’m not going there!” (Laughs)
You just said words to the effect of “I’m sorry that I insulted you. I wrote the book. It’s over with.” You also said earlier that you can only write what you know. What is the writer’s obligation?
The writer’s obligation is, first, to entertain. The writer is supposed to tell a story. We started out by me being unable to tell stories. But I think the writer’s duty is to tell a story. Somewhere, Mark Twain once said, that in comedy, you should not aim to preach and teach, but the end result of your book should do both. I still feel that about the novel or the short story.
It is not there to get up there and to espouse all kinds of political and social ideas in page after page after page. But through those characters, those things must come through. They must happen if the story is worth reading. Something has to come through.
Many years ago, you said you had no intentions of getting married. You said the laws of marriage were antiquated and yet, now, you’re a married man.
Did I saw the laws of marriage were antiquated?
That’s what I have here. What changed your mind?
I got old and got more intelligent.
I once said that you should never say anything that can be quoted. I really mean that. Use the simplest words and answer the simplest questions, but don’t ever use a word or phrase. Don’t ever say anything.
How did you meet Mrs. Gaines (Dianne Saulney)?
We met in Miami at a book fair, the Miami International Book Fair. She was in the audience. She had read a couple of my books. I was there for a panel discussion on the black male in contemporary American literature. After the panel discussion, there was a group of people talking, and she was one of those people. I found out that she was from Louisiana, and we just started talking. She said that one of her sons was attending Hampton University in Virginia, and at that time they were studying A Gathering of Old Men and she asked me would I mind autographing a book for him. I said, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to Hampton.” She said, “Yes, I know.” I think he had told her. I autographed her book for her.
I saw her again that evening. She and I and a couple of other people went out to a jazz place. The party that the people who had invited us there for this discussion, that was the dullest party in the world. We had to find someplace else to go. This buddy of mine was sitting there talking at a bar. Dianne and a friend of hers came by, and they recognized us. They were on their way to the party. I said, “That’s one of the dullest parties you could ever go to. That’s the worst party you can go to. Is there anything else going on in Miami?” They said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?” I said, “I love jazz.” She and her friend looked at each other and said, “Well, we know a jazz place.” They discussed it, and we went to this jazz place. I said, “I’m sure you’ll appreciate it much more than that party over there.”
So we went to this place and just sat there and talked and talked and talked. Talking about New Orleans, where she had gone to school and just general talk. We didn’t see each other again for about 18 months. That was in November ’88 and I didn’t see her again until May.
When did y’all marry?
May 15, 1993. This May will be ten years.
We met again in 1990. Her daughter had just graduated from Notre Dame, and they were coming back. They were going to be driving through Louisiana on their way to Florida. A buddy of mine was getting married in New Orleans. We had exchanged letters, and I told her that I was going to be in New Orleans at the same time. She was coming through New Orleans to visit her mother and her sisters. So we got a chance to sit and talk. From then on, we exchanged letters just about every week, and we courted for a couple of years.
Do you still have homes in Miami and San Francisco?
Are you building a house out on False River?
We’re going to start maybe later this month or next month.
How long should that take?
I don’t know. The guy said he could give us a window of about 10 months or something like that. He might be able to go faster maybe, depending on that Louisiana weather. You can never tell what the hell’s going to happen around here.
How did having A Lesson Before Dying selected as part of Oprah’s Book Club affect the sale of the book? And what was it like being in that spotlight?
Well, it shot the book up to the New York Times best sellers list.
How many years after publication?
Published in 1993 and this was in 1997. It wasn’t anywhere near there before Oprah. Then we had the film. The film came out around ’98 or ’99. All of that kept the book selling. Now, so many cities are reading the book. As a matter of fact, we got a call this morning from a guy in New York who called to tell us that the city of Miami has just chosen the book A Lesson Before Dying as the book to read sometime in the future. The entire city of Miami. This is the thing that’s really keeping that book out there.
Who’s behind that? The National Writing Project?
No, no, no. There’s different cities. It started in Seattle about three years ago. The library got together with colleges and high schools and book clubs and with city hall. All of these people came together to promote one book to read this one year for the entire city. Seattle started it. We’ve had now about eight cities. Rochester did it. Syracuse did it. Grand Rapids. Cincinnati. Peoria, Illinois. Houston. Lafayette here did it. Richmond, Virginia. I’m sure I’ve missed some of them. Portland just recently, last week.
So that’s also kept the book selling?
Yes, and the book is being read by freshmen going into college all over the country. It’s required reading for freshmen.
The writing life is a solitary confinement, with hours spent alone, living inside of another reality. Is it difficult for you to adjust when you’re in the spotlight or when you’re receiving a medal from the president of the United States? Does the attention bother you or not?
It gets to me in that it keeps me from writing. It gets in the way of writing. But other than that, if I were a younger man, I would love it because I could get around much better. Now this arthritis keeps slowing me down. I wish I didn’t have to move around as much.
But whenever they take that book for the city to read, they expect you to be there with them. They would easily substitute it for another if you did not show up. They want this book, but they want you there… That gets in the way of writing.
I’m not writing now. I’m not writing at all right now because of this problem here (arthritis) as well as moving around so much.
In 1975, you told the San Francisco Bay Guardian “I’d like to have a home with a half acre, an acre of ground, and I could just get out there and dig, plant a row of flowers, beans. Many of your Southern writers, they always say they’re gentlemen farmers and all that kind of bull. I’d like to have a little piece of ground where I could just plant something sometime.” Thirty years after making that statement, does it still hold true?
Yes, if I could get out there and do the work. We just did an MRI yesterday at the hospital.
How did that go?
I don’t know. It takes a couple of days before the doctor reads the x-rays and all that sort of thing. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I’m able to get out there with a hoe, a shovel and a little plow, damn right I’d like to get out there and plant roses and plant little things like that. I’d love that. I’d like to do things like that.
I’m retiring at the end of this year, at the end of this fall semester, and I would like to spend a lot of time out there with my wife, my dog out there on the river and fish and work around the yard. I’d like to do that.
When you say retire, are you referring to your writer-in-residence position?
Could you ever retire from writing?
No. I can’t retire. I can have writer’s block for a while, but hell, all you want to do is to be able to get back to the writing. That’s all you want you to do, is to get back to the writing. If you’re a writer, you want to get back to your writing.
Your last novel, A Lesson Before Dying, was published in 1993. Can we expect to see another novel by you in the near future?
Why is that?
Because I haven’t written it yet. You have to write it before you can publish it.
I started writing The Man Who Whipped Children. I have five or six chapters, but the energy is not there. The creative energy is not there. The thing that should go into the book is not there. It’s not coming up right now. If it happens that I can go back to the well and bring it up again, then of course I’ll continue to write it, but I don’t know what the near future is. If you’re saying one year or two years, I cannot say yes to that.
What’s the experience of teaching at the university been like for you?
I’ve enjoyed it. I can teach one semester and write, just as I did with A Lesson Before Dying. I was teaching here in Louisiana, but going back to San Francisco because we still had our place (there) and writing during the spring semester. So it was wonderful.
I’ve had some wonderful students. I think I’ve helped some of them that have gone on to publish stories and a couple of them have published novels. They’re teaching, and they’re teaching creative writing. From what I hear, they’re teaching my method they learned from me.
I don’t feel like I’m a teacher really. I’m a writer who’s written a few more books than my students have, and I can give them some advice. I always leave it up to my students to make that final decision. I just try to help them.
But it’s been wonderful. You see where I am. I’m two blocks away from my classroom. I have a nice, beautiful house with a yard, flowers and trees. I love this kind of life.This is a wide-open question, but what’s your life been like?
You know, I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve had a lot of physical pain in my life, especially within the last ten years. But I’ve known a lot of wonderful people, right here and across this country. My wife and I do a lot of traveling. I’ve read in over half of the states in this country, major universities all over this country. We’ve met just wonderful people.
So everything balances out. I think that a lot of people here, maybe if not for my pain, would like to have my life. (Laughs) You work six months out of the year and do what you want the other six months and travel as much as we’ve traveled. We have friends all over the place. It’s been an interesting life.
Looking back at your body of work, what is that you’re wrestling with? What compels you to put the pen to paper?
As I’ve said earlier, I don’t know what I would do if I did not write. I’m not trying to write to change the world. As I said earlier, I like to entertain. Through this entertaining, I draw from experience that you, as a white, may not have experienced and many blacks have not experienced or an Asian or a Russian has not experienced. I’m telling them a story, something about this little piece of land and my time here.
I was in Portland recently, and I met three students from China. They just wanted to talk to me. The young lady had read the book – I don’t know if those guys had read anything – but the young lady had read the book, and she spoke beautiful English. But that I could reach somebody like that and talk about a book, that gives me such great satisfaction.
I get letters from people from all over the country and different parts of the world. It gives me satisfaction for what I’m doing with my life. I don’t know of any other way that I could have reached so many people had I not been a writer.
As I told Oprah, when she asked me what I try to do in my writing – and this is on the spur of the moment because I didn’t know what the hell else to say – I said, “I try to create characters with character to better improve my own character and maybe the character of the person who might read me.” So that’s what I try to do. But I didn’t know I was going to say that five minutes before she asked me that question. Those doggoned cameras were running, and I’m sitting there at this table. OK, say something quick.
You said you’re writing about this little piece of land, but you also maintain another little piece of land, the cemetery on the plantation where you were raised. How many people are buried out there and how many people help you every year?
I have no idea the number of people buried out there. Just as my aunt raised me, we were too poor to put a marker there when she died. I was too poor. I couldn’t even come back to the funeral because we didn’t have any money. I’m sure there are hundreds of graves there that no one can find. There are maybe 40 or 50 there that can be identified. Maybe not quite that many. Up until, I’d say, the ‘40s or the ‘50s, very few people were buried in tombs there. They were just put in these wooden boxes.
After so many years, this stuff just decayed. There are sunken graves all over the place. So I have no idea the number of people buried there. I know we’ve been burying people back there since the nineteenth century. It could have been a slave cemetery for all I know. I don’t know all the facts about all of this. Very few people had tombs of any kind. They just dug that six feet of hole and put a coffin inside it. If they put any kind of little marker there it was made of wood and, of course, that decayed.
Usually when we go out there we can have as many as 20 or 30 people show up.
Did you organize that group?
Dianne did. Dianne does all that stuff. (Laughs) She gets it all together, and she puts a notice in the Pointe Coupee Parish paper each year. We try to get people to come out the Saturday before All Saints’ Day, La Toussaint, as we used to say on False River.
A couple of my students went out there with me one year. (Laughs) Ed Gauthier and – what’s that big guy’s name? Seems like I can’t remember his name.
What does it mean to be a man?
Responsible to one’s self and to one’s world. To me, a man, a woman, whatever, is someone who loves mankind. He cares for mankind, and he respects nature. I care for people, and I must care for nature. I care for trees and the waters and the plants and the earth and the birds and the insects and everything around me. You know, you have to, at times, destroy things in order to survive, like a rattlesnake. You’ve got to get rid of the rattlesnake. And I suppose in areas you have to destroy things, but I believe in respecting nature.
I wish we could all get along, care for each other, help each other, support each other. That’s my idea of what living should be about, having the courage to do it. Most of us are such cowards that we’re afraid to stand up and believe in things. We’re afraid to go against our peers, our race or our family and to speak out.
But you know, life is made up of balance. You’re always going to have evil in the world. You’re going to have good people, and you’re going to have evil people, no matter what the hell you do. And if you concentrate only on the evil, you are going to be destroyed by it. If you try to destroy evil in the world, you will be destroyed. I think that a good example is in Moby Dick, you know, Ahab going after Moby Dick. “I’m going to destroy this thing.” Who’s destroyed? Ahab is destroyed.
So you try to control it, and you try to help develop goodness in people. The world is always going to be made of good and bad, and who’s to say what is good and what is bad? I don’t know. That’s why I said I hate saying anything that can be quoted. Goethe once said that everything has been done. The problem is doing it all over again. Goethe would say things like that, and I believe in it. But I would never say things like that.
Yeah, I just try to write. I try to write in a way that anyone can read it. The writing is simply put, but I hope that the story has some meaning to it, that you can get something out of it, to improve one’s self, and yet, that’s not the purpose of it, the main objective to writing.
A writer is nothing but a storyteller. A guy went to another little village or he’s traveling, walking across the world, the earth, with a little walking stick and enough food in his pack, and he tells a story so that somebody will give him another biscuit or a piece of cheese or something to eat. He entertained them while he was sitting there, starting out in these caves, millions of years ago. So they would start out and go from one village to another, one cave to another, tell a little story and move on.
That’s all we are, just storytellers.