By Kelly Foster
Speaking to themes found in his Oprah Book Club bestseller, A Lesson Before Dying (Vintage 1994), Ernest J. Gaines headlined events Sept. 28 at the 2015 Fall for the Book festival. In an event at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena, Gaines joined Professor of English and African American Studies, Keith Clark, where the two men discussed the seedlings for Gaines’ novel, and its significance in bringing awareness to racial understanding.
“Everyone learns something,” Gaines said of the characters in his novel, though he could easily have been referring to himself and the audience. Gaines received a 1993 Macarthur Foundation Fellowship “Genius Grant,” which he won for brilliantly illustrating racism in his novels, drawing from his own history of dealing with prejudice. Due to segregation laws in the south, Gaines had never stepped inside a library until he left Louisiana. When he eventually moved to California, where he was finally able to visit a library for the first time, he “had never seen so many beautiful things,” he said. “I found I could sit there all day long and dream.” This dreaming led him further into his career, creating characters who resonate with readers.
Gaines also talked about the effect his characters—most of whom are uneducated, and largely inspired by his neighbors in Louisiana—have had on his own life. “All of them,” Gaines said, when asked if his characters surprised or represented him in any way. “My characters are a part of me—if I did not love my character, I could not write about him.”
He chuckled warmly when asked what advice he would give to aspiring writers. “Read, read, write, write. A writer is going to be a writer. Write about experience; write while under conditions,” Gaines declared in his characteristic raspy voice. “This world has never helped the artist—this isn’t new. But a writer is going to write.”
Gaines concluded with a reflection on his character, Jefferson’s death in the electric chair. “As a writer, I am going to write it so well, you’ll feel it,” he told Clark and the audience. Not unlike the powerful resolution to A Lesson Before Dying, it was a powerful ending to the conversation, the effect of his words clearly palpable within the audience. He said, for each person, he or she will gain an understanding of something in their life. For Gaines, it was creating characters, even as he was only just growing into a man himself. He advised younger audience members to keep pursuing their individual gifts until their own words become powerful too.