where the writers are
Heroes; Rediscovering Ernest Gaines

I don't much like the notion of heroes. I've always had a tendency to idealize important figures in my life and then struggle with the inevitable reality that they have flaws, like anyone else.  

I certainly idealized my late accordion mentor, a Louisiana-born Creole musician named Danny Poullard.  My growing connection to him, and his eventual death,  are a major focus of my memoir Accordion Dreams.  I like to think I provided an honest picture of Danny's "tough love" approach to teaching, along with his personal quirks and foibles.  I still miss him.  

So when I read this week's Red Room blog topic I initially thought about taking a pass.  I think I've outgrown the idea of heroes.  Besides, I'm busy with some other writing and reading.

I'm busy working on the revisions of the mystery I've just completed.  Of course, I did a lot of reading about "The Hero's Journey" in connection with that.  Hmm.

Here's what I started reading last night.  I couldn't put it down.  A Gathering of Old Men, by the great Louisiana-born writer Ernest Gaines. 

I've been thinking about Ernest Gaines a lot lately.  It started a month or so ago, when I saw his name on the list of featured authors at the upcoming Louisiana Book Festival.    Here's the thing:  my name is on that list, too.  This will be my first book festival.  I was thrilled, of course, when I was  invited to present my book.  But when I read his name,  I had another kind of new author moment:  What the hell am I doing in this club?  

But it makes me realize I do have heroes. 

Ernest Gaines was one of the writers I discovered when I first fell in love with Cajun and Creole music, almost twenty years ago.  He is the only novelist I'm aware of who has written about the rich culture of  Louisiana's Creole community, and the complex interplay among Creoles, blacks, Cajuns, and whites.

I haven't read his entire body of work, so I'm trying to catch up.  The two I've read  previously and remember the best are Catherine Carmier,  his first novel, and then a more recent collection of essays and interviews called Mozart and Leadbelly.   Gaines is most widely known for the novels that became films:  The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, A Lesson Before Dying.   

Gaines has been nominated for all the major literary prizes.  He's won all the fellowships and awards.  I won't get into all that here. The Wikipedia entry sums it up nicely: Link

A Gathering of Old Men is stunning.  And it's certainly about heroes.  The plot is too well known for me to repeat it here. The quality of the writing--18 distinct voices--is a revelation.  It's making it hard to go back to my own plodding prose.

I also came across something inspiring about Gaines' own journey as a writer.  He moved to  Vallejo, here in the SF Bay Area, at 15, since there were no public high schools for blacks in his rural Louisiana community.  He wrote the first draft of what would become his first published novel, Catherine Carmier, at the age of 17.  He typed with one finger, on a typewriter his mother rented for him.  He typed it on half sheets of paper, both sides, so it would look like a real book. He sent it to a NY publisher. When they sent it back,  he burned it.   

Fortunately, Ernest Gaines didn't forget his story.