Earlier this week I got to talk to Ernest Gaines, the author of A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. He has a new collection of stories and essays coming out this fall: Mozart and Leadbelly.
I haven't even begun to transcribe the interview, so I won't offer any direct quotes, but the man is a genius. I'm particularly in awe of Bloodline, his only collection of stories. The stories, and his novels, all take place in the same old plantation where Gaines was actually raised, and the characters still live in the old slave quarters, because they even though they are free, they don't have the means to get anywhere else. Gaines himself recently moved back to Oscar, Louisiana, where he was raised by an aunt to never walked a day in her life. Instead, she crawled on her hands and still managed work all day long. When the children needed to be punished, she would send them to get the switch themselves, since she couldn't reach it. He has built a house on six acres and moved the church were he went to school as a child into his new backyard.
But he is possibly best known for Jane Pittman, in which he tells the "oral history" of a 110-year old woman whose life stretches from slavery through the civil rights movement. I was a little shocked at a group of graduate students who recently criticized the book for the fact that a man can't possibly capture a woman's point of view. They said that any southern woman has a female network of friends, an element that was missing from Miss Jane's narrative. What surprised me was the notion that this fictional character should represent all southern woman, rather than just representing herself.
I asked Gaines what he said and he replied, "Well, I am man."
Actually he went on a bit more, but I'm saving that.