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Ernest Gaines’ latest book derailed by Katrina

‘Lesson Before Dying’ author staying put in Oscar, Louisiana
/ Source: The Associated Press

For the past decade, Ernest J. Gaines has been working on his first novel since his acclaimed best seller, “A Lesson Before Dying,” published in 1993. But he set the book aside when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Gaines lives in rural Oscar, La., about 100 miles northwest of New Orleans, and for him, Katrina was little more than a heavy storm, knocking out electrical power for several hours. But many of his family members are from New Orleans and have been staying with him, 14 altogether, and up to 11 at a time.

Fortunately, he has space — a large main house, a guest house and a trailer.

“Since the storm hit, I haven’t done much writing,” says the 72-year-old Gaines, best known for “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” the imagined life story of a former slave.

Gaines’ stories have focused on personal struggle rather than political themes, and he sees Katrina in a similar way. He is not interested in discussing who is to blame for the tragic flooding. He thinks instead about individual acts of bravery and hopes that displaced hurricane victims, including family members, will return.

“We’re a special kind of people in Louisiana, with a special kind of food and a special kind of music, and I think the people who left are going to miss these sorts of things,” Gaines says in an interview from his home in Oscar. He notes that some of his relatives have left his house and resettled in Dallas, Atlanta and elsewhere.

His heart is in LouisianaFor generations, the Gaines family has lived in Oscar, and, thanks to his success as a writer, Ernest Gaines now owns some of the land where he picked cotton as a boy. He also knows the meaning of leaving home against his will. As a teenager, his family sent him to California because none of the local high schools admitted black students. After spending several years away, including undergraduate studies at San Francisco State College and a writing fellowship at Stanford University, he returned.

“I didn’t want to go,” says Gaines, the eldest of 12 children and the father of four. “I loved my brothers and sisters and my friends. I like to say that my body went to California, but my heart remained in Louisiana.”

Gaines has a book out next month, “Mozart and Leadbelly,” a collection of stories and essays. Virtually all his work is set in his native Louisiana community and in his new book, he comments frequently on why as a writer, and as a person, he wasn’t meant for other places.

“In the beginning, I tried to be a more cosmopolitan writer, but I realized that I was a country boy and I had to deal with things I knew about and where I came from,” says Gaines, whose fiction is so intimate that he names characters, places and even the local river after people he knows.

His current fiction project, tentatively titled “The Man Who Whipped Children,” is a novel about an anguished father who shoots his son dead in the courthouse rather than see him executed for murder. The story is again set in rural Louisiana. But he worries that the material is a little too familiar.

“It’s hard, because I don’t like repeating myself and I’m thinking all the time how to tell this story, asking myself, ‘Do you really put this in the book?”’ he says. “Once everything settles down here, I’ll go back and give it another try.”