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AN INTERVIEW WITH ERNEST J. GAINES Ernest J. Gaines Ernest J. Garnes is the author ofsix novels, including OfLove and Dust, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Gathering of Old Men, and one collection of stories, Bloodline. His most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. He has received a Uterary award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Gaines was born on a plantation near New Roads, Louisiana. He now divides his time between Lafayette, Louisiana, and San Francisco. This interview was conducted by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais on the University of Southwestern Louisiana campus in Lafayette on August 26, 1998. An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines/ Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais Interviewer: You've been writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana since 1984. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a teacher of creative writing? Gaines: I approach the teaching of creative writing—if you can possibly teach creative writing—from the Socratic method. The students have their material ready on Tuesdays, and they will have read and written critiques of the material by the next time we meet. I write a critique as well. Each Tuesday night, we discuss two students' work. The students who have stories being discussed that night read aloud for five or ten minutes so we can feel the rhythm. After the student reads, I open it up for discussion. I don't lecture. I sit back and direct the discussion; if it slows down, I speed it up, or if no one has anything to say, I raise a question. This is my approach to "teaching" writing. I set requirements. I believe the students should all write critiques of each other's work, and they must also discuss the stories in class. I feel students usually learn as much about writing from discussion among their peers as they do from me. I don't assign books for them to read because they should read everything. I always recommend books— the Bible, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. My six words of advice to writers are: "Read, read, read, write, write, write." Writing is a lonely job; you have to read, and then you must sit down at the desk and write. There's no one there to tell you when to write, what to write, or how to write. I tell students if they are going to be writers, they must sit down at a desk and write every day. The Missouri Review · 97 Interviewer: The students read from their own work for the first few minutes of class so readers can get the sound of the rhythm. You've also said you write your stories to be read aloud. Gaines: When people hear stories, they identify more closely with the characters. When I read aloud, people always come up to me and say, "I understand it much better now that I've heard you read it. I can hear the characters' voices much clearer." Many of the students use dialects or words and phrases we are not familiar with, but once we hear it, we tend to understand it much better. Interviewer: Dialogue is something you've said you are proud of in your work. Gaines: In dialogue, I'm dealing with the sounds I've heard. One of the reasons I often write from first person or multiple points of view is to hear the voices of different characters. Omniscient narration becomes a problem because, for me, the omniscient is my own voice narrating the story and then bringing in characters for dialogue. Interviewer: There is a strength in the many voices in your work, a weight you give to each character's voice no matter how small a role he or she plays. One very minor character, a drunk in In My Father's House, gives Reverend Martin directions. When he speaks, his voice is as strong as any in the novel. Gaines: My ear is pretty good. As a smaU chUd, I listened to radio a lot. During that time—this was...


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