Ernest Gaines says, "We all know-at least intellectually-that we're going [to die]. The difference is being told, 'Okay, it's tomorrow at 10 a.m. 'How do you react to that? How do you face it? That, it seems to me, is the ultimate test of life.
"When I speak to black students about Hemingway, they often ask me what I expect them to learn from 'that white man.' I tell them: 'All Hemingway wrote about was grace under pressure. And he way talking about you. Can you tell me a better example of grace under pressure than our people for the past three hundred years? Grace under pressure isn't just about bullfighters and men at war. It's about getting up every day to face a job or a white boss you don't like but have to face to feed your children so they'll grow up to be a better generation."
Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933 on the River Lake plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, the setting for most of his fiction; he was the fifth generation in his family to be born there. At the age of nine he was picking cotton in the plantation fields; the black quarter's school held classes only five or six months a year.
When he was fifteen, Gaines moved to California to join his parents, who had left Louisiana during World War II. There he attended San Francisco State University and later won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. Gaines published his first short story in 1956. Since then he has written eight books of fiction, including Catherine Carmier, Of Love and Dust, Bloodline, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Long Day in November, In My Father's House, and A Gathering of Old Men, most of which are available in Vintage paperback editions. A Lesson Before Dying, his most recent novel, won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also been awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, for writings of "rare historical resonance." Gaines divides his time between San Francisco and Lafayette, Louisiana, where he is writer in residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He is married to the lawyer Dianne Saulney.