An African-American author, Gaines is best known for his award-winning novel, A Lesson Before Dying (1993), which tells the story of a black man who is sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit. Gaines's other works include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983).
He wrote his first novel when he was just seventeen years old. Several years later, he graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in literature.
He was the recipient of the prestigious National Humanities Medal.
He grew up in Louisiana as the oldest of twelve siblings. He married attorney Dianne Saulney.
He and Regina Carter both received MacArthur Grants.