Conversations on the Writer's Craft

By Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton

Louisiana State University Press. 140 pp. $19.95

As readers have known for some time, Ernest Gaines is a gifted and accomplished writer; among his several novels, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "A Gathering of Old Men" in particular have won both critical and popular respect, in each instance deservedly so. Now we learn that Gaines is a proficient conversationalist as well; he proves this in "Porch Talk With Ernest Gaines," wherein he rambles on in a most agreeable and interesting way about a broad range of subjects, literary and otherwise.

After years of paying a writer's dues by supporting himself in various occupations, Gaines settled in not long ago as writer in residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, about 50 miles southwest of the River Lake Plantation that is both his native soil and the setting for most of his work. He is at once a son of Louisiana's strong black culture and a citizen of the world of literature, and in both roles he seems to have won an honored place in his home state's cultural life.

Certainly that is reflected in the deferential if not obsequious treatment accorded him by Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton, the two academics who interviewed him for this "porch talk." As is often true of interviewers, they are at once respectful and eager to make an impression -- Gaudet, self-described as a folklorist, is especially determined to direct the conversation into her own specialty -- but Gaines takes all of this in stride; like a veteran of the interview wars, he knows how to steer the talk away from the questions and toward what's actually on his mind.

He gives the impression of being uncommonly self-possessed and disciplined, not to mention utterly free of racial cant. He views himself, his work and his environment with a clarity that is both admirable and startling:

"I know who I am. I know that I was born in Pointe Coupee Parish. I know that I grew up on a plantation. I know about the old people around me who have sacrificed everything for me to educate me. I know that I have written books. I know that my books have been translated into many languages. I know all these things about myself. I know that I care for my family. I know that I care for my friends. I know that I don't give a damn for my enemies. I know that I don't judge all whites as my enemies; I don't judge them as my friends, either. I know I have white friends. I don't say that all blacks are my friends, because I don't have too many black friends here in the city of Lafayette. I say I must go on and do my work, I must earn my living, I must do my teaching, yet communicate with my friends, be with my friends, and all this sort of thing."

His Louisiana heritage, with its mixture of black and white and Cajun and Creole, obviously is of central importance to him. "I am a different writer from, say, Faulkner," he says, "and I'm a different writer from a lot of black writers." He attributes much of this to coming "from a place that is quite unique, certainly very different from all the rest of the Southern states." Yet he also is deeply conscious of the influence on his work of different writers from different places; he refers over and over to Hemingway and Twain and not much less frequently to Faulkner.

Beyond that, he attributes much of his success to someone whose personal history could scarcely have been more unlike his own: his agent of 3 1/2 decades' standing, the late Dorothea Oppenheimer, a wealthy German who fled to the United States during the rise of Nazism. She gave him help, both financial and inspirational, and above all she encouraged him to believe in himself; he now says, "There'll never be another person like that in my life," and the tribute he pays her obviously comes from deep in his heart.

His comments about his various editors are, appropriately, more various -- praise for E.L. Doctorow and Hiram Haydn and Bill Decker, a tart word for Robert Gottlieb -- but unlike many writers he is quick to acknowledge the essential services they performed for him. He has mixed pronouncements as well on Hollywood, which has done both handsomely and badly by his work; but he is sensible and detached enough to know that books and films are different, and thus to say, "Since they didn't tell me how to write the book, I would not tell them how to make their film," and to let it go at that.

All in all, Gaines comes across as outspoken yet gracious, independent yet gregarious. It doesn't take long to read this slender "porch talk," and it's time spent in good company.