23rd Annual Literary Festival
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Mace and Crown, October 11, 2000
Gaines brings greatness to lecture series, lit fest
Staff Writer

The great thing about renowned author Ernest J.Gaines is the simplicity of his stories. This was apparent on Thursday, Oct. 5, when he presented the second of The President's Lecture Series, in conjunction with Old Dominion University's 23rd Annual Literary Festival. The auditorium in the Mills Godwin Jr. Life Sciences Building was filled to capacity, with people spilling into overflow theatre and even the lobby. "Gaines on Gaines" was a major attraction.

During the lecture introduction, Gaines was described as a southern author who focuses on the undeniable links between place and identity. However, the many accolades and honors, articles and web pages that enthuse about this man cannot compary with the sheer pleasure of hearing him tell his story.

Ernest Gaines spoke at ODU on Thursday, Oct. 5 as a part of the 23rd Annual Literary Festival and the President's Lecture Series.

"I started writing not knowing it, when I was 12 or 13 years old on this plantation where I lived,"he said in his low southern drawl. "I used to write for the old people there who could not write or read because they'd not gone to school; there was no school for them. They would say, dear so-and-so, how are you, I am well, hope you're the same and then they wanted to stop there. So I'd say, do you want to say something about the garden? Say something about the church? But they would never know what to say. Sometimes I had to create letters. Without realizing it, that was my first attempt at really creating."

Gaine's anecdotes leave you thirsting for more. Each fact of his life is a story in itself, especially the way he describes it.

He tells of his moving to California to further his education and his first formal attempt at being published.

"In the summer of 1950, it was my job to look after my baby brother, Michael, while my mother worked. I thought I was quite well read, may be a dozen novels, some short stories and some plays. I thought it was time that I should write a novel. It could not have been too difficult for me because there were lots of novels in the library. But in order to do that, I had to keep Michael asleep. So I would lie on the floor with him, I would put my fingers over his eyes and once he got tired of that he would go asleep."

"I wrote a book. I wrote in long hand and then I got my mother to rent me a typewriter. I cut the paper in half because that's the size of a book. I typed single space because that's how books were printed and I typed on both sides of the pages because that's how the books looked, [all this] to make it easy for people to print my book. I sent it to New York and of course, they sent it back. I burned[that book] in the incinerator out in the yard."

Gaines' innocence caputres an audience and his wit makes them laugh, but each tale hammers home his point.

During his lecture, Gaines spoke specifically about his most recent novel "A Lesson Before Dying" (1993), which was adapted for film. At present, he divides his time between San Francisco and Lafayette Louisiana, where he is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. There, he explained, colleagues often assist him with his writing projects.

"Being write-in-residence on any university campus, you are constantly being asked how is the writing coming along?" he said. "One fellow there, who considered himself a writer too, had an idea on how to pressure the sheriff into letting someone visit (in "A Prayer Before Dying"). Find something on the sheriff that the sheriff did not want me to know about. I told him that

sounded like blackmail and that I didn't want to have anything to do with that. He told me he had another idea. The sheriff's wife had an abortion in the past and you know how these southerners feel about that! I told him that I didn't care for that idear either. He said, let's say the sheriff's wife could have had a relationship with a black man and your character threatened to expose him. By God, that would light his fire. It would more than likely get my character killed before he was out of the jail- no thanks, I said."

So much has been said and written about Gaines, about his novels and about his short stories. However, the man explains his fundamental truth quite simply.

"Writing for me is discovery. If I knew everything when I began a novel, I'm afraid that it would be boring to write. I do not know everything that is going to happen. I do not want to know everything. I want to discover, as the reader wants to discover, what it's all about. Those little unknown things that happen keep me writing and the reader turning the page. Oprah Winfrey asked what I try to reach for in my writing and I said something to this efect. I try to create characters with character, to help develop my own character and may be the character of the reader who might read."