Saturday, December 24, 2005

Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays by Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines might be called a perfectionist because he writes and rewrites his novels over many years. It took him seven years to write A Lesson Before Dying, and he rewrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman from several perspectives before submitting it to his publisher. As a result of his exactness, the publishing of his novels is a rare event. In Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays , he tells about writing these and other books and about the influences on his writing career.

The public library in Villejo, California played an important role in the author's development. Gaines spent the first fifteen years of his life on a plantation in Louisiana, living with his aunt, listening to all of her friends and relatives tell their stories on the front porch or in the kitchen. Then he took a bus to California to live with his parents, so he could attend junior high and high school. When his parents moved out of the projects, but into a still tough part of town, the library became his refuge. There he read Twain, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Cather, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.

Gaines always writes about black life in Louisiana. He says that he has tried to write about California but he is never satisfied. While his subject is narrow, his audience is not. He writes for no one reader, hoping everyone will read his work. When asked how much of his story he knows when he starts a novel, he tells about riding a train from San Francisco to New York; he knows from where he starts and his intended destination, but he will be surprised by the weather, the people he meets, and incidents that occur on the trip; he might get off in Philadelphia instead.

The short stories in the center of the book serve as examples to illustrate his methods. "Christ Walked Down Market Street" has a nice twist in the plot. "Mozart and Leadbelly" is an essay that tells how music influences his writing. The topic is revisited in the lengthy interview that completes the book.

Readers interested in Gaines or in the art of writing will enjoy Mozart and Leadbelly.

Gaines, Ernest J. Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1400044723

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