"The problem isn't creating a story," says Ernest J. Gaines, "It's getting it published. I haven't written a short story in 15 years. When I get a new idea, I hope it will turn into a novel."
One of Gaines' ideas that turned into a short story in the early 1960s now has been turned into a television drama. It is "The Sky is Gray," to be shown tonight on WETA-TV (9 p.m. Channel 26) in the PBS series "The American Short Story."
He is known best for another idea that becomes first a novel and then a movie, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." Sometimes he talks about her as an old friend: "Miss Jane has carried me on her back for a long time, and the old lady's getting tried. I'll have to find someone else to carry me."
Gaines writes slowly, and worries sometimes about money ("you can write for a whole year, and no money coming in"), but he refuses to do the kind of writing that brings the money in fast. "Now and then," he says, "I get offers to do things on television -- 'Come out to Hollywood,' they tell me, but I turn them down. I've read about what happened to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it worries me."
Until the publication of his second novel, "Of Love and Dust," in 1966, he was a part-time writer, earning his living first in the post office and later as an apprentice printer.Now he supplements his royalties with lectures and readings, mostly on college campuses. His writing is not highly commerical. "I'd hate to tell you how many magazines sent back 'The Sky is Gray' before it was published in Negro Digest," he says. But his work seems built to last, which may be why it takes to long to produce. "'Miss Jane'only took two years," he says, "but my latest, 'In My Father's House,' took seven. I've been working on another one since that was published in 1978, and I think it will turn into a novel, but I'm not really sure yet."
Gaines was one of 12 children in a poor, black family in Louisiana. The family moved to California (where he still lives) in 1948, when he was 15. He says he first got into writing because literally, it kept him off the streets: "After we moved to California, I used to hang around on the corner with the boys, and my father, who was in the merchant marine, told me, 'Get off the block or you're going to get into trouble.' I had a choice of two places to spend my time -- the YMCA or the library. I had never been in a library in Louisiana, so I went there looking for books about my people -- blacks, especially southern blacks -- and I didn't find much. Eventually, I started to write about my old home; if the book you want doesn't exist, you try to make it exist."
More than 30 years after leaving Louisiana, he still writes about the people he lived with there.
But they become mingled with people he has seen more recently -- fragments of experience from everywhere, simmering and shifting slowly in the back of his mind until they are ready to fit into a piece of fiction. "I saw a lady in a bar," he recalls, "a small lady with a plump mouth, and she would short of squinch her eyes when she smiled, and she would smile all the time. Watching her, I knew I'd use that smile in a story sometime -- not that I'd write a story about her, but that she'd be in the story."
Writing a novel, he finds, "is like traveling on a train from San Francisco to Louisiana or New York -- not a plane, a train. You encounter all kinds of weather, you meet a variety of people, you eat different kinds of food. You know in general where you're going, but you don't know the details ahead of time. I usually enjoy it. Writing is hell, but it should be hellish fun."
His next novel (perhaps) is still only a cluster of ideas and situations, and he says, "I'm not sure yet whether I will write it or not. I'm thinking about some time in the future -- an illiterate who is going to die in the electric chair, and his aunt will call on another young man to help him prepare to die like a man. He's teaching in the North, has to come down to do it, and doesn't know how. His phone rings one morning while he's asleep, and she tells hiem 'You have to come dowm here right away . . .'
"That doesn't make a novel, of course; I have to create characters -- a defense attorney, a prosecutor, a crime, so I can come to grips with the problem: How do you teach a man who has never had anything, who is close to an animal, how to die like a man: How do you do it in 60 days?"
He pauses and grins: "Now that I've talked about it, maybe I'll never write about it. You never know what's going to turn into a novel."