Before Alex Haley's Roots became a mini-series phenomenon, Ernest J. Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman paved the way. In the 1974 TV movie, Cicely Tyson starred as Miss Jane, the 110-year-old African-American woman in Louisiana who recalls her life as a slave, her role in the Civil War, and her views on the civil rights movement. It is safe to say that no other fictional character had as much influence on the American freedom struggle as Miss Jane Pittman. Her story has been read in American literature classes around the world. And Chicago's Derrick Carter, the master mixer of cutting edge house music, leads his newest CD About Now with a spoken word track taken from this Gaines classic.
Since 1956, Ernest Gaines has written eight books of fiction, including In My Father's House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying. Four of his works have been made into films. His contemporaries count him as one of the great Southern writers. Currently, Gaines is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
Gaines was interviewed this spring in Columbus, Ohio, by Dale Brown, a professor in the English department and director of the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brown's most recent book is Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work (Eerdmans). —The Editors
Dale Brown: This all started for you on the plantation in Louisiana where you wrote letters for neighbors and old people. And your first performances were in church?
Ernest J. Gaines: I tried to put on a little play. I had to be producer, director, and actor. I even had to pull the curtain. I think I was 13 or 14.