Meeting Ernest J. Gaines

By Ruth Laney

Ruth Laney shares how an impromptu interview inspired a love of storytelling and led to a decades-long friendship with one of Louisiana’s most celebrated writers.

Ernest J. Gaines and Ruth Laney at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, February 1977
Ernest J. Gaines and Ruth Laney at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, February 1977. Gaines read from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series. Photo courtesy of Tom Whitehead.

In late October 1972, I was a copy editor at Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge. As I worked at my desk on the second floor of Hill Memorial Library on the LSU campus, poring over a manuscript, Charles East, the director of the press, rapped on the doorjamb.

Accompanying him was a tall, shy man in a brown suit who held a brown beret in his hand. Charles introduced the stranger as Ernest J. Gaines, who was in town from San Francisco to help select sites for the filming of the screenplay of his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

I had never heard of Gaines, but my life would be entwined with his from that day forward.

Gaines, then thirty-nine years old, was giving a reading that afternoon on campus. If we wanted to attend, Charles said, we were welcome to leave work to do so. At the appointed hour, editor-in-chief Beverly Jarrett and I strolled over to Lockett Hall and took our seats among the small audience of creative-writing students and English professors.

Professor Warren Eyster introduced Gaines, who seemed a bit ill at ease as he stood in front of those gathered. Eyster informed the crowd that Gaines had written three novels and a book of short stories. Then Gaines read his story “Just Like a Tree.”

He was not a showy or dramatic reader of his own work, but his quiet voice underscored both the humor and the pathos of his characters, who ranged from a young boy to an old woman. He didn’t need pyrotechnics; his words were enough. I think everyone in the room that day knew we were in the presence of a master storyteller.

Like most of Gaines’s fiction, the story he told us that day is set in a plantation quarter. It focuses on Aunt Fe, an African American woman who has lived in the community all her life but must now leave because growing racial tensions have made it dangerous for her to stay.

Just as interesting was Gaines’s own story, which he recounted for us. He had grown up in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana, leaving at fifteen to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California. He had stood out on the highway near False River, and when the Trailways bus appeared, he flagged it down by waving a handkerchief. The bus driver pulled over, and Gaines climbed aboard and rode it to New Orleans. From there, he caught a train to California.

I was so intrigued by his saga that I turned to Beverly and said, “I’m going to try to interview him for Gulfstream,” a little magazine recently started by graduate students in LSU’s Department of English. I asked him for an interview, although I had no idea whether Gulfstream or any other outlet might publish it. But he agreed to talk to me, and we made a date to meet a few days later at the LSU Student Union.

I had never interviewed anyone, but now I had to get ready to meet that challenge. At the Union bookstore I found a Bantam paperback of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which had been published a few months earlier. I read it as quickly as I could and made copious notes.

That Saturday morning, I met Gaines in front of the Union. We went inside and sat at a table in the Tiger Lair food court. Armed with a pen, a notebook, and a borrowed tape recorder, I asked him about his book and his life.We spent two or three hours drinking coffee and talking. He told me about his disabled great-aunt who had raised him, about his childhood on the plantation, and about his life in California. And he described to me the graveyard where generations of his ancestors were buried. “I just hope that the place where I was born and raised, that I can still be buried there,” he confided.

The following week, I told Charles East about the interview, which I had transcribed longhand into an examination blue book. Charles told his friend Lewis Simpson, coeditor of LSU’s literary quarterly The Southern Review, and Simpson asked to look at it. I typed up the interview and submitted it.

The Southern Review published “A Conversation with Ernest Gaines” as the lead article in its winter 1974 issue. I concluded my brief introduction with the following words: “In conversation, Ernest Gaines’s simplicity and humanity shine steadily; he considers his words carefully, and beside him more facile talkers sound shallow. It is this quality—his essential human-ness—which I hope is conveyed here.”

That Saturday over coffee was the first of many discussions I shared with Gaines, the beginning of an association that lasted until his death in November 2019. Publishing that first interview encouraged me to later embark on a career as a writer and reporter. It was not always a smooth road, and the need to earn a living took me down a variety of paths. For a while I pursued poetry, attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and working as a poet in the schools in Louisiana’s rural Avoyelles Parish. I even tried novel-writing, taking classes with Walker Percy and Ellen Douglas. I veered off into covering sports for newspapers and magazines, specializing in track and field events. But I felt most at home in feature-writing. I enjoyed hearing people’s stories and relating them to readers, and I recognized the importance of oral history. These interests culminated in my work on a television documentary about Gaines and ultimately in my book, Cherie Quarters: The Place and the People That Inspired Ernest J. Gaines.

Ruth Laney

Ruth Laney is a journalist who has written about Ernest J. Gaines for The Southern Review, Louisiana Life, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Country Roads, Emerge, The Root, and other publications. She wrote and coproduced the television documentary Ernest J. Gaines: Louisiana Stories.

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Cherie Quarters

Cherie Quarters combines personal interviews, biography, and social history to tell the story of a plantation quarter and its most famous resident, renowned Louisiana writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee Ernest J. Gaines. In clear and vivid prose, this original and vital book illuminates the birthplace of a preeminent Black author and the lives of the people who inspired his work.

Before he became an award-winning writer, Gaines was the son of sharecroppers in Cherie Quarters, a small Black community in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana. Drawing on decades of interviews and archival research, Ruth Laney explores the lives and histories of the families, both kin and not, who lived in a place where “everybody was everybody’s child.”

Engaging and rich in detail, Cherie Quarters highlights the voices of those who called this special place home and shares the story of a lost way of life in South Louisiana.

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