Tim Gautreaux was born and raised in Louisiana and until his recent retirement taught writing at Southeast Louisiana University for thirty years. He has published two story collections, Same Place, Same Things and Welding with Children, as well as two novels, The Next Step in the Dance and recently The Clearing. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, and Zoetrope as well as a number of anthologies. Tim Gautreaux lives outside of Hammond, Louisiana with his family and, given his Catholicism, is assuredly at work on something.
The Clearing takes place in post-Great-War backwater Louisiana with two brothers from Pittsburgh attempting to run their timber mill business against the background of various adversities, including the Sicilians whose business interests— a saloon and whore house—they threaten. Mississippi’s Larry Brown sums it up well, “This novel soars in its evocation of a land and people lost to the mists of times. It’s a story of men and women bound to a great forest by their destruction of it, and the ties of family and blood and evil and greed and good and human tragedy and human triumph…”
Robert Birnbaum: Is The Clearing the best thing you have ever written?
Tim Gautreaux: Probably so. I would say so.
RB: If it were possible to quantify that, by how much of a margin?
TG: It’s a step up in project size from short-story writing, which is what I am known for. The short story, of course, is a wonderful form that I love dearly. It is a manageable form. You are in and out in six or seven thousand words. The novel, of course, has to keep going beyond that to one hundred and thirty, one hundred and fifty thousand words, and it’s very easy to lose your way. It’s a quantum leap from story writing. So it pleased me that I seem to have come out of the woods with this particular one. At least, according to the reviewers, if the reviewers are to be believed.
RB: You said a few things there that caught my attention. Starting with "if the reviewers are to be believed." Isn’t it the case that when you put the pen down or hit ‘save’ for the last time on the computer, you say something like, "I’ve done it?"
TG: No. I don’t think so.
RB: [Both laugh]
TG: Not at all. When you finish that first draft you know that you are at the beginning of a long, dark, smoky tunnel. And then, of course, there is second draft. And then you show it to your wife and then you have a third draft resulting from that. And then you send it off to your agent and there’s a fourth draft resulting from that. And then he sells it. And then there are fifth, sixth and seventh drafts that come from that and a couple of final polishes. And even after you cut it loose and you get back the first hard-back copy you are reading somewhere on page six and you say, "Oh I can’t believe that I put those two words that close together, etc." So it’s never finished. And you never get the feeling like, "This is a grand masterpiece." If it is, you certainly don’t know it. At least in my way of thinking. Somebody will tell you if it’s great.
RB: Well, is it at least a relief to finish?
TG: I think so. It goes along with automatic writing. The notion behind automatic writing is that things are a little bit out of your control. The language you put on the page is a gift and it comes from somewhere and you are not quite sure where. Very often it is from experience—which means writing a lot over many years and also your own worldly experience that you transmogrify into art. But still you sometimes write a sentence and you ask yourself, "Where did that come from? How did that come out of me?" And that’s a wonderful thing about writing or any creative genre—the surprise that you bring upon yourself while you are composing.
RB: You also said that you were pleased to have written this novel, but you have published another novel. Are there other unpublished novels?
TG: There are two or three novels that I have written that are sealed in Tupperware in the attic.
RB: [laughs] That indicates that you are interested in preserving them.
TG: Only from the roaches. I am not sure they will ever see the light of day. Several people I know who are famous writers have two or three rookie novels that wound up in the fireplace because they didn’t want anyone finding them. That might be wise.
RB: At this point the publishing industry buzz, for what it’s worth, is "breakout novel." You’ve been at this for quite a while now, haven’t you?
And that’s a wonderful thing about writing or any creative genre—the surprise that you bring upon yourself while you are composing.
TG: I taught creative writing for thirty-one years or better. I’m fifty-five now and I retired in December. And I have always had to write a lot to justify my existence as a creative writing teacher. I started out as a poet and then began to work in the short fiction form in the late ’70s at the urging of Walker Percy. It just takes a long time to hit your stride as a writer and teacher. One robs time from the other. But it takes a long time to develop as a writer even if all you do is write. One of the last things I got in the mail before I retired was an anthology of American Literature and the last section of the anthology was New American Writers, and I checked the bios on each writer, and the youngest one was born in 1949. Which says something about how long it takes to hit your stride as a writer.
RB: What do you make of the twenty-year-olds that are being published?
TG: They tend to be the exception rather than the rule. These are people with a blinding amount of talent. After all writing a novel is not rocket science, and if you are genius you can do it —but there are damn few of those around.
RB: I’ve talked to quite a few young writers recently. I wonder where they go from here.
TG: I would rather peak late than early.
RB: Let’s talk about the subject at hand, The Clearing. Is it a Southern novel or a Louisiana novel or a bayou novel? Or none of the above.
TG: I hope none of the above. Because of I am very wary of the label "Southern writer." Of course, I live in Louisiana and I was raised in south central Louisiana, born and raised there. I was raised in every cliché known to man about the Deep South. Once you allow yourself to be labeled, you begin to believe the label and then when you compose you feel duty bound to include as many of the usual cliches as you possibly can about your region. That’s a terrible thing to happen to a writer, and I hope that it doesn’t happen to me too much. When people interview me they ask if I consider myself a Southern writer. This seems like an honest question. Well, it is an honest question. But it’s a hard one to answer. I prefer to put a little different spin on it— I consider myself a writer first who happens to live in the South. If I had been born in North Dakota I would still be a writer. I would probably have had a similar life. But my people and my settings, my moods, my skies, my waterways would be from North Dakota or South Canada. I would still be writing something.
RB: If you were currently living in Seattle would you be writing about the bay and the ocean, the mountains or about mangrove swamps and alligators and Cajun fisherman?
TG: You’ll notice that when I gave the little North Dakota spiel I said, "If I had been born and raised in North Dakota…" Wherever you are born and raised tends to have profound effect on your fictional world. I don’t know why. Ernest Gaines left Louisiana when he was sixteen. And the only fiction he writes that seems to be really powerful and effective and moving is fiction that is set in Louisiana. And he knows this and he has tried to write about California and San Francisco, where he has lived, by this time probably as much or more than he has lived in Louisiana. And it just doesn’t seem to work for him. He has said this himself. One reason he has come back to Louisiana in his later years and is living there at least half the time is so that he can write and get in touch with what matters to him— the rhythms of speech. The music of the language around him and the feel of the weather. It’s in his bones. We are talking about a man who really didn’t write at all before he left here. He never thought he would be a writer. But everything that has magic to it in Ernest Gaines writing stems from a period before he was sixteen years old. I think that is the same with me. You really learned every thing you need to know about human nature directly or indirectly by the time you are fifteen or sixteen. You know what your family history is, what your structures are, whether you are paying attention to it or not, what their values are. And, of course the language of your region and all that is in your literary bones, so to speak. You know the cadences of the relatives’ parlance and you can go somewhere and you can live a long time, and it just doesn’t ring true. I used to spend summers with my sister out in California. In my first novel, The Next Step in the Dance, which did really well, I had a long section in Los Angeles, and my editor, who was originally from Los Angeles, said she found it unconvincing, "No, the Louisiana stuff is fine and has heart, but this LA stuff is kind of one dimensional. Let’s trim it back." And trim it back. And trim it back. And finally the novel, which was maybe thirty per cent in California, was maybe seven percent.
RB: A while back I spoke with Mark Winegardner, and he pointed out that southern readers are extremely loyal to their own. And also that some writers were trying to pass themselves off as Southern. In the past was being called a Southern writer a slur?
TG: I don’t think so, but it can be limiting. It’s not a big problem. From a marketing point of view, sometimes people see "great southern novel” on the cover of a book, and if you are a Minnesota native you say, "I don’t want to read about those nasty people, those sweaty folk down there.” So there might be a little market resistance to that. Then conversely, people seek out Southern fiction. People in England are fascinated with it. I have lots of sales from my books in California. For some reason the West Coast is interested in the Deep South and in Southern Literature, particularly Louisiana. I don’t think it’s that big of a problem —but I have forgotten the original question.
RB: Me too. When I was thinking about your book it occurred to me that I loved John Biquenet’s Oyster. Is he a Cajun? His is a French name.
TG: Parisian French. His family came over in the 1740’s. My family are relative newcomers. We came over in 1785.
RB: And I liked John Dufrense‘s books and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series. Something about that swamp setting is compelling.
TG: All of us are Catholic. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.
RB: That had not occurred to me. It seems so languidly chaotic. I was talking to Arthur Kempton, who has written a book on Black American pop music, and he said he had briefly listened to reggae music but that he was drawn to New Orleans music and he called it American reggae. Though I am certain that it is different from the rest of the state, New Orleans seems to have something special about it.
TG: New Orleans has a wonderful music scene that starts up around ten o clock and goes and goes and goes. Any big city has this, I imagine, but there’ll be thirty or forty bands playing in town on any given night— in small clubs and big clubs and crazy clubs. My favorite is Rock n Bowl, which is an upstairs twelve-lane bowling alley from the 1940’s. They changed the locker area into a dance floor and have music nightly—rhythm and blues and Cajun music and Zydeco —just about any kind you want. It is a bizarre gumbo of cultures as you say. The whole place is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and they have St. Joseph altars there during that time of year for Catholic ceremonies and a big bar serving hard liquor and any kind of beer you want, while all this is going on. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place. And you can bowl and dance on the lanes if you want. It typifies New Orleans. It’s such a mixture of white music, Afro American music, Cajun music, and French black Louisiana music. Which is really strange. People still can’t get over seeing African Americans playing an accordion and wearing cowboy hats and speaking French. But that’s what we have especially in southwest Louisiana. The results of a chemistry even people that live in New Orleans don’t understand. And they don’t want to understand it, because if you understand something, it loses its magic.
RB: That sounds Catholic.
TG: You’re right. Exactly. Three persons in one God. You can’t understand it. Well, that’s fine. And it’s kind of a template for how we live, how New Orleanians live. We don’t know why it works but it sure is fun and weird.
RB: Is there a city/country split?
TG: Definitely. Louisiana is three states. Forty percent of it is Cajun country. Although even within that country there are different categories. There are two types of Arcadian language spoken down there. Less and less each day. But it is still spoken in some regions. And then there is New Orleans, which is separate, unlike the rest of the state. It’s more cosmopolitan. And north of Alexandria and north of Lake Pontchartrain a few miles, it’s the Bible belt. Just like Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi.
RB:The Clearing seems like the kind of story that has been gestating or percolating, fermenting for some time. It doesn’t strike me as something you just decided to write after you finished with the last thing you wrote.
TG: That’s completely on target. It is a novel that has been percolating perhaps twenty or twenty five years. And started with some tales I heard about lawmen in Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. A distant relative was a constable at a sawmill back in the ’20s. And my great grandfather was a city marshal in the little town where I grew up. There were other lawmen that were in the Gautreaux clan on my mother’s side too. They came to bad ends at the hands of criminals at the turn of the century. You hear—not stories so much—but mentions at family gatherings, of these older relatives."You remember Murvie?" "Oh yeah, he was the one that got shot when…" And that’s it. You would hear one sentence. To a ten year old that’s magic. That’s money in the bank. And you’d ask a question, "Well, why did they shoot him?" "You don’t need to know about that." Which makes it even more fascinating for a young child hearing this. Most of my family members were …I was the youngest child of a youngest child. So the family members I grew up with were in their seventies or eighties. My mother had me when she was forty- one and she was born in 1907. And she is still alive. She is ninety-six now.
RB: That bodes well for you.
TG: One hopes.
RB: You’re going to have a lot of time to fill up.
TG: So the novel has coalesced around an enormous raft of these little one- and two-sentence tidbits that I have absorbed all my life. Starting from the 1950’s going back to the ’60s and ’70s and it all just comes together one day, "Well let’s see if can write a novel about this." And you sit down and that first outline starts to grow like a tomato plant. You start with one fact and then "I’m going to write about this marshal and he’s in trouble." "Who’s going to help him?" “Maybe he needs a brother?" So you come up with a brother. One thing generates another until finally you’ve got a structure you can start with and kind of outline. The most important decision I made in The Clearing, and this goes back to your original question about the Southern writer, is point of view. I decided in the book early on, even when I was writing the outline to have as the point of view of some outlanders. Some people who were not from the South. So I came up with these two brothers from Pittsburgh. They are the points of view. You see the action of the novel, basically, through their eyes and their sensibilities. And that makes all the difference in the world—instead of this being another Southern novel where the artist has put together a bunch of uneducated deplorable folks and allowed them to self- destruct for four hundred pages.
TG: You have a different chemistry going there. You put the non-Southern reader into the novel with this particular choice that I made. It’s seems like a simple choice but it has had a profound effect on how people take the action that goes on in the book. It’s not just a bunch of depraved people beating up on each other. It’s some sensitive people, some Yankees, my god, who are down there.
RB: There are two women who are seem to be unexpectedly powerful. The younger brother’s wife who comes down from Pittsburgh. She seemed like she would not do well in this hard scrabble place of a lumber mill in the backwaters of Louisiana. But she thrives. And the black housekeeper who adds some surprising plot twists.
TG: Men don’t exist without women. You can’t write a novel with out having women in it. Let’s face it, they are all over the place and they are in everybody’s world. So I had to have the women in this novel or it would have been artificial. I have heard feminists complain, with great justification, of how there some novels particularly western novels, that have no women in them. It’s all men. That’s just unrealistic.
RB: You could have gotten away with it. This is a very remote place deep in the wilds. Like the Alaska Pipeline. There wouldn’t have been any women there.
Once you allow yourself to be labeled, you begin to believe the label, and then when you compose you feel duty bound to include as many of the usual cliches as you possibly can about your region. That’s a terrible thing to happen to a writer, and I hope that it doesn’t happen to me too much.
TG: I guess so. I thought it would be less realistic. These are normal men. They have normal desires and loves. They are going to have their love with them. They can afford to, let’s put it that way. Whereas the lumber company employees that are basically single men from east Texas who are there because the east Texas mills have run out of timber. You can expect that work force is pretty much going to be womanless. Which is part of the problem with them. The danger with those characters [you mentioned] is I found them very attractive and interesting and powerful women. The danger was they were going to take over the narrative. So I had to watch myself and limit their influence in the novel somewhat so they didn’t take over. The narrative is about the two brothers. The focus is on them. And really, another novel could have been written with the women. They were wonderful. Someone who read the novel thought I gave these women short shrift. If I had developed plot lines for them that were any more elaborate the novel would have been something else. It would have gone off on a tangent.
RB: That sounds like a criticism about the book that you didn’t write.
RB: A critic took Tom Franklin [Hell at the Breech] to task because word ‘nigger’ doesn’t appear much in his novel, which is set in Alabama in the 1890’s. The complaint was that this was not real, a false note. Are you compelled to use vernacular?
TG: If you are going to give an accurate portrayal of a particular time you have to look at the linguistic patterns and idioms of the time. And you have to be honest. It’s something a writer thinks about naturally. But I taught Huckleberry Finn enough times as a college instructor to understand the purposes of the language in the South, particularly. Some of the positive characters in the novel or at least one of them does use the dreaded ‘n’ word. That’s because in 1923 in the Deep South every body used it and to tell you the truth, a lot of people used in the North. It’s just realism. The main characters don’t use it because they are from Pittsburgh and they are educated but that’s not the real reason they don’t use it. It was considered very impolite and rude.
RB: I understand that some language placed in a character’s mouth may ring false. I don’t know how telling it is if a character doesn’t use certain language.
TG: It’s kind of a reverse PC. It’s kind of skittery.
RB: Was that the only pejorative term for black people?
TG: There was no lack of them. There were innumerable hideous terms for Jewish people and Italian people. Even Germans. So there is no lack of those for that particular time. There would be a danger of over kill if you just peppered the narrative with dozens of these things. What would be the point? Unless you were trying to deal with a one -dimensional racist character that you were trying to send up. Which I find to be an uninteresting endeavor for a fiction writer to deal with —a one-dimensional character.
RB: It’s the kind of thing that Spike Lee did in Do the Right Thing and reprised in The 25th Hour, where there is a montage of races and religions when a narrator is speaking the most racist, insulting invective. But we digress. The Clearing seems to end with a number of narrative possibilities. Why did you end where you ended? Or are you thinking of a sequel?
TG: I had ideas for the novel to go on. I wasn’t quite sure how long I could stretch out the tension. The short story writer in me wanted to keep things succinct. I can’t give away too much but there is a certain some thing that happens towards the end of the novel which effectively ends it. I could have not had that happen and extended the novel even unto other sections. For example, I was thinking…After the mill was finished cutting that tract of lumber, the family could have gone on to another tract somewhere and then the violence could have followed them The particular Mob members that were after (that sounds terrible) them could have continued going after them. The novel could have gone in to the ’40s when the baby grows up and asks questions about its origins. It could have gone through the Second World War and drawn parallels with the First World War and the Civil War, because they figure in this novel. It could have gone on and on and on. I was afraid to lose the focus of the world I had created down there at that lumber mill site. I was dreading the reviews that would go like this, "Well, this was a wonderful novel as long as he stayed in the swamps of Louisiana but the minute he moved back to east Texas…"
TG: So I just decided to go for 350 pages or however long the novel is and stop.
RB: Okay, I am still wondering. There is a ripeness about this novel that suggest other tangents and back-stories. May, the housekeeper, is a smart cookie, she seems to be a novel unto herself. Or the one-eyed assassin. Far be it for me to suggest what you should write but a group of inter-connected stories might be the thing.
TG: Believe me I’m thinking about it. As you say, a certain fictional world has been set down as a foundation and it could be something to build on. One hopes that if I do that they won’t say I am copying Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy with a Swamp Trilogy or something. Cormac has done a wonderful thing for El Paso with that first novel and the second kind of built it on that success. It would be nice if I could do that. I am thinking along those lines.
RB: I don’t think people criticized Faulkner for being stuck in his fictitious county or William Kennedy for the Albany books. Sometimes a locale or family seems to warrant that extended attention. I am surprised that more writers don’t do that
TG: I agree. You can look at Faulkner and what he has done, of course, and other writers as the great archetype for doing that and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. And some writers have an irrational fear that goes beyond my fear of being labeled solely as a Southern writer. They really want to show breadth, show flexibility and write about Canada and South Africa as well as Vermont, you see. And that’s great but it’s also great to create a magical and vivid world which you can stay in or stay close to…I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a different type of writing. Faulkner was a great writer. He stayed in one spot. Shirley Ann Grau is a great a writer and her novels, each one is different from the other.
RB: Where do you live?
TG: Hammond, Louisiana, which is about an hour north of New Orleans. The southeast toe of Louisiana.
RB: When you step off a plane in Boston and you look around besides all the red brick, is there a palpably different feeling?
TG: I was walking around this morning and I thought, "A hundred and fifty years ago there was a lot of money here." You walk around in Louisiana and you say, "A hundred and fifty years ago there were Indians here and trees and no dwellings." New Orleans is an old city but much of the state is…the population is half of what New York City is and it’s losing people. The feeling is there was money, there was civilization, there was education, and there was good fortune here. When you go down to New Orleans, things are a lot seedier and there is less money and it’s just different. You walk down the streets in the older neighborhoods in New Orleans you see a lot of front porches. I noticed that you don’t see that up here. That’s just dictated by the weather. Up until 1955 you couldn’t stay in a house in Louisiana after three o clock. You had to go out on the front porch because it was too darn hot in the house. And there is a different rhythm of life. If you were a field worker up here, I imagine you could spend the whole day up out in the field working. You can’t do that in Louisiana. You would drop dead around eleven thirty. So people got up at four and worked until ten and then knocked off until four and worked until nightfall in the summer. They would get their ten hours of work in but couldn’t work between eleven and three.
RB: Sugar was the cash crop?
TG: Mainly sugar cane in the southern regions and there was some cotton. Cotton has always been a poor man’s crop. Without getting into a six-hour lecture, the agricultural entities up here and in the Midwest were controlled by individuals. In the South they were controlled by, in the beginning plantation owners and after slavery the plantation owners and the bankers and the local storeowner. The whole economy was controlled by that. It has always been a poor man’s economy, the agricultural part of it. That changed in the ’40s and ’50s but not until then.
RB: Was Huey Long a symptom or a result of change?
TG: Long was a demagogue who took advantage of the times. People praise Huey Long in Louisiana for building bridges and roads but the truth is in the 1930’s, all the states were building bridges and roads. The technology for developing concrete or asphalt highways and bridges had come to the point where it was time for the Deep South to be paved. And it was happening all over. Huey Long didn’t do that for Louisiana. It was the same thing that was happening in Alabama and Arkansas and Georgia.
RB: And Louisiana State University?
TG: It was only by accident. He wanted a big football team that he could brag about. Like most politicians he cared not a whit about education.
TG: To return to what may be enveloping you, the warm fuzzy feeling of having written a well-received book. You are going to spend some period of time going out and talking about it and then what?
TG: Life after the book tour? I guess you go home and start writing another one.
RB: You recently retired. Are you spending more time on the front porch?
TG: I mentioned before I was Catholic and that comes with a suitable amount of guilt. I heard the parable of the talents where terrible things happen to you if you don’ t take advantage of what has been given to you. I have often said this, " If you are a talented singer or dance you would somehow feel it was wrong not to sing or dance." I think a literary artist is the same way. If you decide I have enough money, I have all the fame I can handle, so let me do something else. You can do that. That’s fine. It would make me feel guilty as if I was not giving what I should be giving.
RB: And is there a parallel drive to get your stories down on paper?
TG: You have to use your talent whatever it is. And that’s what you do when you sit down in front of the word processor. If you didn’t you would feel bad. [laughs] Also I can remember when I was a child and there was this woman in the neighborhood that had a gorgeous singing voice. She would come over and have coffee sometimes and she would, if there were enough people around, someone would say, "Well Georgia why don’t you sing us a song?" and she would stand up and sing something, some old show tune or whatever. She had a marvelous voice. I thought, "This woman is not in the entertainment business at all she could just go through her life and not sing a note except in the bathtub but she chooses to share her voice with others." I saw that as the right thing to do.
RB: How clear is your sense of what you are going to do next?
I have often said this, "If you are a talented singer or dancer, you would somehow feel it was wrong not to sing or dance." I think a literary artist is the same way.
TG: I feel really good about whatever it is I am going to do next. [both laugh] I enjoy writing once I can get into it. It just that I have so many other interests. It’s hard for me to get started again sometimes. So I have to rely on a sense of duty. I am looking forward to my next project. I have two or three short stories down—I am thinking may be the basis of another collection. And there is one busted novel that possibly could be resurrected and rewritten.
RB: You are going to unseal the Tupperware?
TG: [laughs] Those are also sealed in gorilla glue and way in the corner of the attic. This is a novel set in Louisiana about the chemical industry. Believe it or not. It’s got some bad things in it. I was reading too much James Lee Burke when I wrote it so there are some Taiwanese assassins that have to be removed. But it might be able to be salvaged.
RB: Given your confessed religious predilections, are you self motivated to publish ever few years?
TG: As soon as I can. I think once I can actually sit down…my computer committed suicide about six weeks ago. A totally useless piece of machinery. And I have thrown it way and I have ordered a new whiz bang computer with all the bells an whistles and big plasma screen and I expect that to have some effect on me. I’ll feel guilty about not writing with this expensive machine in my office.
RB: This book strikes me as much as any thing I have read, maybe more so, as the foundation for a terrific movie. Anything happening on that front? *
TG: I have a film agent, of course sending out copies of the book. I tend to think in cinematic terms. I like to craft words so that they have a strong visual effect on the reader. Not just a glimpse but a glimpse occurring within a larger construct. Which is one reason why I was afraid of moving the novel past the main setting of Nimbus, Louisiana, this sawmill town. I spent so much time placing the reader in this world. One review out in Los Angeles said, " Finishing the novel was like coming out of matinee into the sunlight and thinking that world that you had just emerged into is not the real one but the one in the theater is the real one." That was a great compliment. But it’s something that I worked very hard to achieve. And I want to continue that in any next work. When you mention trilogy (I mention trilogy) I thought it would be nice if somehow I could continue that. I wandered away from the question…
RB: Whether there is real interest in making The Clearing a movie?
TG: My stories have been optioned over and over for various movie projects. None of which, except some excellent student films, have been made. People do write me for movie rights every now and then and if you know anything about the Hollywood crowd, they are always reading fiction and calling up the house and saying," I really like this as a movie project. Would you be interested?" I say, "Sure." and then I never hear from them again. But at least people are thinking about the cinematic possibilities of even the short stories.
RB: Well, good. Thank you so much.
TG: Thank you.
* I have it on good authority the book lately was optioned by Working Title Films.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing
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In his 1983 book, The People Called Cajuns, James Dorman observes that Cajuns "rarely speak for themselves" in the various sources that refer to them—historical, biographical, or literary—but that same year Louisiana's Tim Gautreaux published his first short story, "A Sacrifice of Doves," in the Kansas Quarterly.1 In the more than quarter-century since, he has published two short story collections and three novels, most recently The Missing (Knopf, 2009). Gautreaux's name reveals his ethnicity, and in his fiction readers find his Cajun perspective. He is a descendent of the French Acadians who settled in south Louisiana after the British drove them out of Novia Scotia in the eighteenth century.
In spite of Gautreaux's importance in adding a seldom-heard voice to literature, he resists such labels as southern or Cajun writer. And certainly his fiction is not limited to the perspective of Acadian descendents—or southerners. The two main characters of his second novel, The Clearing, are from Pennsylvania. While the main characters of his other two novels, The Next Step in the Dance and The Missing, are Acadians, the characters in his short stories are more likely to have working class backgrounds than to be identified as Cajun. His protagonists are predominantly white, blue-collar, south Louisiana men, their ages ranging from the twenty-somethings of his novels to the numerous grandfathers in his stories. It is the Louisiana white working man's story that Gautreaux tells—or rather, the various stories of blue-collar workers, a voice fairly new to southern literature, offered by other writers of Gautreaux's generation (such as Mississippi's Larry Brown and South Carolina's Dorothy Allison), countering or deconstructing poor white and "white trash" literary stereotypes.
Born in 1947, in Morgan City, Louisiana, Timothy Martin Gautreaux is the son of a tugboat captain and the grandson of a steamboat chief engineer. Other men in his family worked for the railroad and offshore on oil rigs, and many of them enjoyed storytelling.
After attending parochial elementary and secondary schools, Gautreaux went to Nicholls State University in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, graduating in 1969 as an English major. One of his professors entered poems Gautreaux had written in a Southern Literary Festival contest held in Knoxville. Keynote speaker James Dickey read the winning poems, among them Gautreaux's, and invited him into the PhD program at the University of South Carolina. Gautreaux's PhD dissertation was a volume of poetry called "Night-Wide River" (1972).
Gautreaux returned to Louisiana in 1972 to teach at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, east of Baton Rouge and about sixty miles northwest of New Orleans. He brought with him his new wife, Winborne Howell, a North Carolina native he had met in graduate school. Five years after moving back to Louisiana, he applied for a seat in a fiction writing class taught by Walker Percy at Loyola University in New Orleans. Percy selected Gautreaux, along with other writers who would go on to have successful careers, such as future novelist Valerie Martin and future Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson. From this experience on, Gautreaux wrote fiction.
Due to the heavy teaching load of a small state institution, along with raising two sons (Robert and Thomas), and maintaining interests beyond academia, it took Gautreaux into his forties to surface on readers' radars. After a couple of early publications in literary magazines, Gautreaux's stories were accepted by such venues as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and GQ, and selected for the anthologies Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, and The O. Henry Awards' Prize Stories. His stories also attracted the attention of Barry Hannah, who invited Gautreaux to be the 1996 John and Renée Grisham southern writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, allowing him to finish his first published novel.
Gautreaux's first book, a collection of twelve stories, was published by St. Martin's Press in 1996, a year before the writer's fiftieth birthday. Same Place, Same Things was blurbed by fellow Louisiana writers James Lee Burke, Robert Olen Butler, Andre Dubus, and Shirley Ann Grau and reviewed by The New York Times. Calling it "[a] terrific debut collection," Kirkus Reviews noted the writer's "sympathetic understanding of working-class sensibilities" and compared Gautreaux to Flannery O'Connor. The Catholic magazine Commonweal praised the collection's stories for providing a "welcome relief from the blandness of McWorld; they bring reassuring evidence of the continuing existence of places away from the big place where, increasingly, we all live." And the reviewer for The North American Review remarked that Gautreaux "knows how to get out of a story's way and just let the characters do what they need to do. . . . These characters move through the world compelled by important motive. The characterizations are swift and precise, rooted in gesture, speech and action."2
Gautreaux's second book, the novel The Next Step in the Dance (Picador, 1998), was also reviewed in the Times, with the reviewer, Andy Solomon, remarking upon the author's "poetic mix of colorful detail and rapid-paced suspense," as well as "his keen ear for Cajun dialect." The Missouri Review also admired Gautreaux's "unmatched ear for the speech of rural Louisiana," as well as the writer's talent for writing about machines: "Here is a writer who can make the refitting of an engine as compelling as another author's love or death scene." This reviewer, however, found that the novel "suffers from a lack of urgency and momentum" and "overstays its welcome." By contrast, the New Orleans Times-Picayune argued for the importance of The Next Step in the Dance: that the 1980s, "a time of great trauma for this state[,] . . . certainly deserved a literary piece to memorialize it."3
In 1999, St. Martin's published a second volume of Gautreaux's stories, Welding with Children, which the Times again selected for a lengthy and positive review, praising the author for his "cartograph[y in] mapping with affectionate but unflinching accuracy both the back roads of Louisiana . . . and the distance between parents and children." Reviewing this collection for the Hudson Review, Susan Balée called Gautreaux "[t]he master of the Cajun short story," as well as one of the three "best short story writers in America today"—praise that would please a writer who resists regional labels. Reviewer Alan Heathcock lauded Gautreaux's "invention of clever, out of the ordinary conflicts" and "his ability to render true the voice of his Louisiana working-class characters." Heathcock sums up the collection: "The stories are all about people who want to be good, who want to help others and end up helping themselves in the process. They are about redemption, with a tender sense of humor, as seen through the kind eyes of their author."4
Next, Gautreaux tackled an historical novel set in the 1920s, dealing with a World War I veteran suffering Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, perhaps prompting USA Today's comparison of The Clearing (Knopf, 2003) to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. The New Yorker responded to The Clearing by calling Gautreaux a "Bayou Conrad," and several reviewers began to compare (and contrast) the author to Cormac McCarthy. Publishers Weekly suggested that The Clearing confirms the opinion that "Gautreaux is perhaps the most talented writer to come out of the South in recent years."5 His growing reputation is reflected in the larger number of reviews of this novel in a broader spectrum of venues, from local papers to the Christian Science Monitor and the UK's Guardian. This happened as well for The Missing, another post World War I novel, promptly reviewed in The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post, as well as by several UK publications. For both historical novels, the author did his homework—researching details that would allow him to realistically depict life in the 1920s in a Louisiana lumber mill town in The Clearing and on a Mississippi River entertainment steamboat in The Missing.
After drafting a volume on Tim Gautreaux for the "Understanding Contemporary American Writers" series published by the University of South Carolina Press,6 I drove to the author's new home in western North Carolina to fill in some biographical blanks and test some theories about his work. Having read every interview I could find, my own interview did not cover the usual ground.7 It was the first interview I'd conducted—though as a journal editor, I've certainly read and helped shape my share of interviews.
Gautreaux is very easy to talk to, a natural raconteur (which will surprise no one who has read his fiction), but some of my questions, while not receiving blank stares, were not responded to with the assurance that I was on track with my readings. Rather, Gautreaux occasionally seemed surprised—an interested, intrigued surprise, but still surprise—by my interpretations. And suddenly, in the middle of it all, I understood that of course he would be. If he had intentionally set out to accomplish what I was asking him about, his work would not be as good as it is. Rather, he is just telling his stories, crafting his stories, polishing his stories. I'm the literary critic who then analyzes what he's done within those stories—while he goes on to the next one.
With this realization occurring as I sat on his living room couch, I wondered why I was wasting the man's time with an interview—why we ever ask writers these questions about their work, questions that suggest that the writer sets out with some agenda besides telling the story, when it is probably the case that the writer with a predetermined agenda is usually not the writer we bother interviewing.
Since he knows I am working on a book about his writing, at least I could reassure him during the interview that I appreciate his writing and know it very well—better, perhaps, than he does, he later admitted. And so we continued to talk, not just about his own work but about literature in general and about our common home, south Louisiana, for the rest of the evening, long into the night, and the next day—though after the "formal" ninety minutes of "interviewing," we stopped recording and just talked. Gautreaux's wife, Winborne, another lover of literature, joining us as we shared our favorite novels and writers and figured out who we know in common, having grown up in small towns just about twenty miles apart. After a stimulating visit, I traveled back home to eastern North Carolina with most of the answers I had been looking for and much more, including a bittersweet homesickness for the music of the voices, the celebration of fine food, and the family and friends I've left behind in Louisiana.
Interview with Tim Gautreaux
This interview took place July 9, 2008. It has been edited for clarity by Tim Gautreaux and me, and to avoid the distraction of brackets and ellipses, such minor changes are not noted in the text below. I thank Tim and Winborne Gautreaux for their hospitality during my visit to their western North Carolina home. Thanks as well to an East Carolina University Faculty Senate Research/Creative Activity Grant funded by the University's Division of Research and Graduate Studies, which provided a summer stipend to complete a draft of my Gautreaux book, travel money to interview the author, and a graduate student stipend to transcribe the interview—for which I also thank Elizabeth Howland for her quick and accurate transcription.
BAUER: Let's start with some biographical information. I've found the basics in interviews and the DLB article on you, but I noticed the date 1969 for your Nicholls degree and then 1972 for your PhD. So is the 1969 date a bachelor's degree? And you went straight from that to a PhD? No master's degree?
GAUTREAUX: That was because the University of South Carolina offered an accelerated program for the PhD where you bypassed the master's. It was ultimately an academic mistake for an institution to do that because the program wound up generating so many PhDs that it contributed to the PhD glut of three or four years after that. So you don't find many colleges—or any colleges—offering that type of program anymore.
BAUER: I've read the story of James Dickey discovering your poetry and inviting you into the South Carolina graduate program, but would you talk about your decision to go to college, coming from a family of blue-collar, working men? And what was their reaction to your going to college? How did you end up going to college?
GAUTREAUX: Well, no one really said much about it. I did well in high school, and that summer after high school graduation it occurred to me that I had to do something. So, a friend of mine was going to college and he said, 'Why don't you go to college with me?' and I said, 'okay.' College was so incredibly cheap in Louisiana in those days. A summer's semester tuition was twenty-five dollars, and I had received a little scholarship as a senior in high school. I think it was a reduction of fifteen dollars off of that twenty-five dollars, so basically my first semester in college cost ten dollars tuition. So it really wasn't any giant financial decision. I went down the road thirty miles to Nicholls State University and began studying English there.
BAUER: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
GAUTREAUX: I have one sister. She's about fifteen or sixteen years older than I am, and she's a housewife. And then I have a brother who's eleven years older than I am, and he's in the oil business.
BAUER: So you're the first in your family to go to college?
GAUTREAUX: Of the immediate family, yes.
BAUER: And you say your sons both went to college?
GAUTREAUX: Yes. One's an electrical engineer and one's a lawyer.
BAUER: I'm also wondering about the focus of your PhD program on Romantic literature. Why did you choose that period in particular?
GAUTREAUX: Well it's hard to say. I think that the answer would be in undergraduate school I had a really good professor who taught English Romantics. The English Romantics are very accessible. It was a time in literary history that I found more interesting than eighteenth century, more interesting than Victorian.
BAUER: And you were focused on poetry at the time?
GAUTREAUX: At the time, right. I found, in particular, Byron's long narratives to be interesting. They were witty, they were gossipy, and I probably liked them for the same reasons that people who read them in the early nineteenth century liked them.
BAUER: I've noted that several of the stories in your first collection had been published in pretty major venues and selected for the various "Best Stories" anthologies. Prior to that, did you publish in the usual literary magazines before breaking into the big time? You published early on in the Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and Harper's. Are there some other stories, in other words, that I might not have read yet? I did find two stories that are not in the first collection, one called "A Sacrifice of Doves," that appeared in Kansas Quarterly and another story, "Just Turn Like a Gear," in Massachusetts Review. Any others?
GAUTREAUX: No, I never wrote many stories. Every story that I wrote got published. I just write them with the idea that I'm putting them together in the best way that I can. I guess I'm kind of a perfectionist when it comes to short fiction, and also I didn't really see the point of writing dozens of stories for very small venues that really wouldn't do much either for my career or for my finances. So I always aimed high.
BAUER: You didn't start publishing until you were in your forties—do you think this accounts for the absence of the typical autobiographical first novel among your books—or is there such a novel in your attic?
GAUTREAUX: I really don't have much of an interesting life to write a biography about. I got out of undergraduate school very young. I had a PhD by the time I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and then I got married and started teaching full-time at Southeastern Louisiana University. I was teaching writing, and I figured that if I was going to teach it, I should have some credibility. And that's one reason—or maybe the main reason—I always tried to become a good writer and to get published in major venues. After I began publishing I could mention this in class and students' ears would perk up and they would say, 'Oh, well, he's got some success himself.' Because there are a lot creative writing teachers who really don't have any publishing record, and it's kind of rough sledding for them in class because the student always has in the back of his mind, 'Okay, you're teaching me how to write artistically; you're teaching me to write, presumably, a publishable type of literature. What have you done?' So that's one reason why I tried so hard, I guess. But then, I've always liked to write. In other interviews it's come out that as a child I had pen pals all over the place and would write voluminously to these people every week.
BAUER: You have mentioned in other interviews too that there are a couple of novels that you wrote and didn't get published. One you said you drew on for the scene in the boiler in The Next Step in the Dance. Is one of them the autobiographical novel that the beginning writer often writes?
GAUTREAUX: No, no interest whatsoever in ever doing anything autobiographical. There are more interesting stories to tell.
The last book I got as an academic—the last free book that a publisher sent me—was an anthology of American short fiction. It was a huge book, and there was a section in the back of the index called "Most Recent American Writers" or "Young American Writers," something like that. And the youngest writer in that group—and there were twenty of them maybe—was born in 1949. So when you mentioned that I only started publishing in major venues in my forties, well, most people do that. It takes twenty years for you to develop the language skills, the intellectual filters in your brain that tell you what to put on the page and what to leave off the page. It takes an incredibly long time to develop these skills.
BAUER: Yea, but a lot of people in the meantime, send out to small magazines, and with the self-publishing, a lot of people don't wait. They just want to get it published.
GAUTREAUX: But where are these twenty-year-olds being published? Unless you're a truly rare talent, generally you're not going to sell a book to a decent house or in a major publication until you're along the line a ways.
GAUTREAUX: I don't really think about it. I know that's probably not what you want to hear. I don't think of myself as any particular type of writer. I am what I am. I was born in a certain area of the country, and the people around me happen to speak a certain way and have a certain set of values, and pursue a certain type of lifestyle, and that's all I know. That's where I draw my characters; that's where I draw my dialogue, my sense of timing, my values. If I were raised in some other area, naturally, I would be drawing on some other set of characters and culture. So I don't think that I have to ennoble or expose a particular type of culture. I don't feel a particular duty to region. I just weave narrative out of where I'm from. I think it's bad for a writer to think that way—that 'okay, I'm Polish, I have to do this tribute to my area of Chicago' or wherever my little group is—because that's what forces a writer into using clichés. He figures, ' well, okay, I'm going to write a Polish story, so I've got to have some cabbage rolls in it or some kielbasa or something like that.' While that's part of the fabric of that particular culture—just as étouffée or boiled crawfish is part of the fabric of Louisiana—you don't consciously sprinkle details like that throughout your writing like salt and pepper. If they happen, they happen, but you don't consciously plant them with the idea of "amazing" readers who are not of your culture.
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BAUER: Now, I know you resist the label "southern writer," and I agree with all the reasons that you give in the various interviews I've read—especially the fact that everyone is a regional writer, but also the danger then of being self-consciously southern à la Rebecca Wells. That said, your identity as a Cajun writer is so important, since you're filling in a previously unheard voice. How do you feel about this label?
GAUTREAUX: I'm not interested in labels; I'm interested in storytelling. And nobody even knows what a Cajun is. I put a redneck character in one of my stories in Welding with Children, and a lot of people have called him a Cajun, and he's from Alexandria, which is the most un-Cajun place on the face of the earth. And he's not Catholic, and he doesn't have an Acadian surname. Anybody from the region understands who that fellow is, but people out of the region will read other things into it. I just can't worry about that.
BAUER: What about when you see Cajuns in film? I hear a voice that is more authentic coming out of your fiction than in the film The Big Easy.
GAUTREAUX: The Big Easy was a very popular movie. It painted New Orleans as being a Cajun town, which is absurd. It didn't worry me at all because a long time ago I understood that Hollywood never gets anything right as far as culture is concerned. Not for one nanosecond, anywhere, in any way, shape, or form, will Hollywood get it right. And the only thing Hollywood is concerned about is bucks. They're not interested in culture.
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GAUTREAUX: Cajuns are in Louisiana; Catholics are all over the planet. None of us knew we were Cajuns until all the hoopla in the mid-1970s when a sort of Cajun Renaissance started and brought out of the closet, as it was, Cajun music and food. I really don't consider myself some kind of dyed-in-the-wool southern cultural phenom.
In south-central Louisiana, I never really ran across many people that considered themselves southerners in the sense that Georgians or Mississippians consider themselves southerners. And I don't consider myself to be any kind of alligator-eating Cajun type. As I said, that's kind of superficial. But I've always been a Roman Catholic, since baptism, since birth.
BAUER: In one interview you talk about the inspiration for The Next Step in the Dance—wanting to capture the oil bust of 1980s Louisiana. First, I want to ask you why that period in particular was so attractive to you.
GAUTREAUX: It's something I lived through. I was born and raised in Morgan City, Louisiana, which is an oilfield town. And the entire oil industry in Louisiana crashed and burned during the eighties. I saw the effects firsthand: the out-migration of white-collar people and skilled workers, the idle boats and oil rigs, and so many people out of jobs, houses that were worth two hundred thousand dollars going down to ninety thousand dollars in value overnight, just about. I could see it happening around me, and nobody else was writing stories about the oil bust. I'm sure people who experienced the Dust Bowl in the thirties had the same feeling: is anyone going to write about this? I felt that if I didn't produce literature out of this, maybe nobody else would. There are lots of events in American history that are ignored and unknown because nobody wrote anything about them. And I had the feeling that this was going to happen. People talk about the oil bust as an economic phenomenon, but The Next Step in the Dance shows it as something that affects people in a very painful and personal way. It's one thing to say that twenty thousand jobs were lost; it's another thing to put a reader inside the house of one of those people who lost his job.
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Influence of War
BAUER: Now, would you talk about the inspiration for each of the other two novels? What has drawn you twice now to the period just after World War I? To the lumber mill in The Clearing, the excursion steamboat in The Missing?
GAUTREAUX: Many of the uncles in my family were in World War I, and they all came back with their stories, and I heard a lot of them. The Clearing, of course, is about this damaged veteran who returns shell-shocked. I had an uncle that was in all eight major American engagements and endured some horrible things. And I knew what it was that he endured through family stories and through talking with him because he lived to be quite old. I knew him many, many years. Of course he was very unlike the character in The Clearing, but nevertheless I could draw on the psychological damage that I witnessed in him to develop the Byron character in that novel.
BAUER: Is it significant that you've been writing post-war novels during the two Gulf wars? Do you feel like you're inspired by what's going on now?
GAUTREAUX: No, I don't think about the present conflicts much. It just happens that everybody that gets involved in the business of shooting people with rifles winds up damaged and changed. When someone writes a novel thirty or forty years from now, there's going to be a war going on somewhere and the same question is going to be asked: 'Are you thinking about this present war?' There's always a present war, it seems. The fact that it's going on while I'm writing a novel about psychologically damaged warriors, that's just the way it happens. In a way, all wars are the same war. The other novel, The Missing—really, the novels can be analyzed side by side because in one, we have a protagonist severely damaged by his experiences in World War I, and in the second we have a protagonist who arrives in France on the day the armistice is signed and doesn't get to shoot anybody at all. Even though he is briefly involved in the aftermath, the cleanup of the battlefield, he's not affected by the carnage, and really, even while he's over there, he understands this. Then we follow him through the rest of his experiences in The Missing, and we see that he behaves differently from Byron in The Clearing, has a different life, a different outlook. The novel is negative definition: Sam, the main character in The Missing, is defined by what he does not do. If I had had him show up two months earlier on that troop ship, while the killing was still going on, it would have been a different novel. I think the whole narration is propelled by the fact that he did not have to shoot anybody in France, that he showed up by an incredible stroke of luck on the day the armistice was signed.
BAUER: And I did read that you have another uncle that that happened to?9
GAUTREAUX: Nobody knew anything about battlefield disposal. There were so many millions of tons of unexploded ordinance left all over Europe buried in the mud that farmers are still plowing it up to this day. One uncle was sent out right after he got there; it was just like in the novel. They gave him a bunch of clips of ammunition and a rifle and said, 'Go here, and shoot at this ordinance; we've got to get rid of it somehow.' He went out for a day or two, but it didn't work; it was an absolute screw-up. Most of that in the novel is imagined, of course, but I could sort of put two and two together from what he'd told me. His squad didn't do that more than a couple days. The officers immediately realized that it wasn't working, that it was dangerous, that it was going to hurt more people than it was going to help.
BAUER: Were you in Vietnam?
GAUTREAUX: I was going to join the Air Force, but they had that draft lottery, and I drew number 361. Number one went, and the further away you were from number one the less likely you were to go. When I drew the number, I had already taken my physical and everything; I was headed to boot camp, but I hadn't signed the enlistment papers yet. So I guess I was lucky.
BAUER: Going back to The Clearing, why did you choose to leave Randolph and Lillian childless at the end? Byron and his wife are expecting a baby, and they have Walter by then. The nice clean, bows-all-tied ending would have been to give Randolph and Lillian a child, too, but I am curious if it was a conscious choice not to do so, if there was something in that?
GAUTREAUX: It was a conscious choice: to show how much Randolph loves his brother. It was a big sacrifice to give up that child. I think the fact that they remain childless through the end of the novel is to demonstrate how big a sacrifice giving up Walter really was.
BAUER: In various interviews, you have talked about the value of capturing the voices of home, and you have been praised by interviewers and reviewers for the authenticity of your dialogue. So it must have felt like a risk to choose for the central perspective of The Clearing two Yankees. Would you talk about that choice in light of what you have said about writing about Louisiana?
GAUTREAUX: The point of view characters are the two outlanders from Pennsylvania. That was done to open up the novel to all readers so that we wouldn't have so much a hermetically sealed, southern novel with southerners looking at southerners. We have a novel in which these northerners are looking at the culture and the people down here, and the readers in Minnesota or Oregon or Canada look at things through the main characters' eyes. The non-southern point of view makes The Clearing less of a southern novel, and I think improves it, broadens it.
BAUER: Well actually, if you think about the nineteenth-century southern literary tradition of bringing the northerner in to see that the South is not so bad, it actually is an old tradition of an outsider looking in. What Byron and Randolph see is completely out of their experience. Randolph doesn't know what to do with it. Byron says, rather, 'This is what I've seen of the world; this place is no different.'
GAUTREAUX: They come down, and the stereotypical notion is that they're going to condescend or hate the place. But they don't. The anonymity and isolation are what Byron wants. Randolph finds himself empowered by coming south. He's really, for the first time, in charge of things. When he goes back to civilization he finds it to be inconsequential. Swamp life is a tough existence, but then again it's an intense one. It's one that he grows used to.
GAUTREAUX: For two reasons: one, because I don't know California culture that well; two, readers seem not to be interested in that. They don't want to read about California.
BAUER: The best scene in California is when Paul eats in the Cajun restaurant.10 I have always connected Cajun tourism to the oil bust—'we have to make some money, and we're not going to make it in oil now; let's build a Cajun village tourist site'—but you were saying before that it was earlier, in the 1970s.
GAUTREAUX: I think the people associated with USL (now UL) got the public in touch with Cajun culture, and then Vermilionville and Cajun Village and the promotion of Cajun culture and all that stuff came out of that earlier "renaissance."11 The oil bust didn't do anything except make everybody poor.
BAUER: What I was thinking was that they started hyping up tourism to try to replace the oil business, but maybe that was just New Orleans.
GAUTREAUX: The hyping of tourism is in western and south-central Louisiana, too, but I don't think it was because people were looking for stuff to do. Really, there was an out-migration of a quarter-million skilled workers in the eighties; geologists, the best welders and machinists, they just left the state. They didn't start up some Cajun enterprise.
Voice, Violence and Steamboats
BAUER: Do you have something in mind for what's next after The Missing?
GAUTREAUX: I'm starting to think about it, but I don't have anything sketched out yet. I don't know what the next one will be. I've got this old cranky guy in my imagination, and I might give him a book. I've never written a book in first person and it might be time to try that. I had good luck with "Welding with Children"; the voice in that story was really good. It's easier to write in first person than third person. It doesn't take the same discipline. So I might start playing around with that.
BAUER: Although in The Missing, right when we are getting worried about the little girl, Lily, you have a chapter in which we find out that the scoundrels who kidnapped her are not abusing her. So third person allows this information, which is kind of a relief to the reader, who can go on with Sam's adventures, knowing that Lily is at least physically okay, especially when we learn about the boy who was adopted and then sexually abused—which brings me to the violence in the new novel. But first, backing up a bit, throughout the novel, Sam keeps meeting himself—in the German girl, in Lily and August—until he finally meets the Cloats and deals with his past. Now there's a scene! Leading up to Sam's own experience with the Cloats we hear Constable Soner's story about them—he alludes to a dog involved but doesn't ever get specific—just says that whatever his wife witnessed, she couldn't get over. Again, then, the violence occurs offstage.
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GAUTREAUX: It was hard to rein that one in. You have to know when to stop because you can ruin things for the reader. You can give him a piece of graphic violence that will just overpower the rest of the narrative for him because he can't think of anything else for the rest of the story except some horrible scene that you've detailed for him, which you don't need to do anyway because whatever's in the reader's imagination is worse than anything you could paint for him. Even in the scarier parts of a Cormac McCarthy novel, I can see his restraint where he doesn't want to cross that line into ghoulishness. Then I remember the books that I've read where authors have gone into ghoulishness, and it's just like a trip down the meat counter at Piggly Wiggly—sensory overload. A writer just has to know when to hold back.
BAUER: Thinking about taking Sam up and down the Mississippi in The Missing: it's very Huck Finn; you have this Mark Twainian thing happening. Can you talk about Mark Twain?
GAUTREAUX: Yes and no. I enjoy Mark Twain. I enjoy Adventures of Huckleberry Finn immensely, and of course when I was a kid I read Life on the Mississippi. But where I get my knowledge of the Mississippi River is the fact that my father was a tugboat captain. He ran up and down the Mississippi River, and I used to ride with him sometimes. And my grandfather was the chief engineer on a steamboat. I was born in 1947. I can just barely remember some of the old steam-powered craft in the New Orleans harbor. When I was a kid the Jackson Avenue Ferry and the Esplanade Avenue Ferry were reciprocating, steam, paddle-wheel boats and I used to ride them just to watch the engines work. I liked to listen to the machinery and the whistles and smell the hot boilers. There were still a few old sternwheel boats running in those days—the government inspection steamer, Mississippi, and John Newton, and a couple of others: in New Orleans we'd see the Delta Queen or the Gordon C. Green. My father knew the people who worked on these boats, and we'd go through the engine room and talk to the engineer. And when I was a kid I used to ride on the old, side-wheeled steamer President down in New Orleans, which was steam-powered all the way until 1980. And I'd be down in the engine room listening to how engineers answered the old bell system of communication rung by the pilot upstairs. I'd go up on the roof and watch the pilot in the wheelhouse blow the big whistle. So a lot of what is in The Missing is from firsthand experience, and then of course I've done all my reading, taken passage on the Delta Queen, ridden the Belle of Louisville, and whenever I'm around any kind of old, nautical, reciprocating machinery, I make a point to photograph it, visit it, talk with the docents that take care of it.
BAUER: You talk about the different steamboat whistles in the novel—the pilot knows who is coming by the different whistles. This has not been captured in fiction since Mark Twain, and these things are gone. But in your new novel we get on that steamboat and ride up and down the river during that time.
GAUTREAUX: It's sort of like writing about the oil bust: nobody has really written any fiction that included the world of excursion boats. From say 1910 to 1940 the excursion boats were a big deal all throughout the South and the Midwest. These big steamers would run on the Mississippi from New Orleans all the way up to Minneapolis, on the Ohio all the way up to Pittsburgh. They'd stop at towns along the route and show up with a great jazz band and huge dance floor and entertain a community, clean up, and move on to the next one. There were probably forty or fifty boats that operated in that trade in the thirty-year period we're talking about.
|Jeremy Atherton, Delta Queen, Memphis, Tennessee, 2003.|
BAUER: It does also echo Huck Finn—as Huck and Jim go up and down the river, they meet all these different people. It reminds us that every community has a different voice. Twain was apparently a linguist who captured all the different dialects. One of the things I like about your Louisiana stories is that you recognize that not every Louisianian sounds the same. Different main characters have different voices. Linguists in Louisiana could probably put them where they're from, whether it's Morgan City or Lake Charles or Alexandria.
I feel like that's in both novels. In The Clearing, you've given the main point of view to the outsiders, but all the different voices are still there—the Cajuns and the Creoles and the African Americans.
GAUTREAUX: It's important for a writer to pay attention to accents and grammar. If you walk around this area of North Carolina, you'll hear retirees from Florida who are originally from New Jersey; you'll hear Mexicans. The priest at the local church is from Vietnam. And then there are mountain people here that I have trouble understanding sometimes. The locals here are very friendly and open people—some of them say thar for there—I mean a deep thar. I might say to someone, 'Well I think I'll go up to West Jefferson,' and he'll respond, 'I wouldn't go thar this afternoon. Up thar they's a-workin' on the highway.' Their speech rhythms are also wonderful. One might assume that a region's accents are homogenous, but that is never true anywhere—especially in the South.
BAUER: There are a lot of Souths, and speaking of the South, you mention in one interview that "Deputy Sid's Gift" is the closest you come to dealing with race, acknowledging the painfulness and thus the difficulty of this topic. That interview was before The Clearing, because you do deal with race in that novel with May and Walter, and you also deal with race with the musicians in The Missing. Would you talk about race and why you don't write about it, even as a writer of southern literature? Your reviewers don't find the subject missing, by the way—I've found no one noting the subject as missing in your work. But you are from Louisiana, as I am, and I know race is still an issue there.
GAUTREAUX: I don't even think about it, not for a nanosecond. I don't write about race. I write about people. I included black characters in The Missing because the best musicians on the dance boats were African American. The new jazz music was money in the bank for a big dance boat. The white bands couldn't play like that, not at first, so the boats hired the African American, New Orleans musicians, not because they were black—it wasn't a racial issue—it was because only they had the sound, the good dance sound, and these were dance boats. The second decks were three hundred-foot-long, waxed dance floors, and the boats were after young people generally, who wanted to hear the latest hot music. The best jazz was African American. To put a white band on a New Orleans-based boat would not have been realism. Let me tell you why nothing big in the way of racial stuff happens: always stick to the narrative. The story of The Missing is driven by Sam's character, and his character involves him in this rescue search, and that's what the whole novel is going to be about. The minute a writer says, 'I'm going to write about race' instead of 'I'm going to write a story about people' he has already failed.
Place, Character and Intervention in Short Stories
BAUER: Do you think you'll write any North Carolina-set stories, now that you're living here part-time?
GAUTREAUX: I won't know until I set pen to paper. But I find myself testing the waters outside of Louisiana. For example the story that I was working on this morning is set in north Mississippi. I've got a feel for north Mississippi because I was up at Oxford for a semester as writer-in-residence, and one of my sons went to Oxford, so we were always up there visiting him. And I have relatives in Memphis; I've got some kind of a feel for the lay of the land, so we'll see how that comes out. It's possible that I could write something set in North Carolina. I'd be among good company.
BAUER: And speaking of North Carolina writers, Jill McCorkle has actually told me she prefers writing short stories—I was so glad to hear that because after devouring each of her collections, I've looked forward to the next one. What about you? Which do you prefer to write, or do you have a preference?
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GAUTREAUX: The short story; it's controllable, and it's—how can I put this?—you can work on a short story sentence by sentence almost the way you work on a poem. And you can micromanage it. You can go back over it many times and make everything line up. You can make sure that the logic of the first sentence ties in with the logic of the very last. You can't do that with novels; they're just too large. I guess you could if you were a genius or something, but I don't fall into that category. I think the short story is more of an art form, really, than the novel. I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me on that.
The short story is a very important genre. Think of the major American writers who are known more for their short stories than their novels. That statement goes back to Hawthorne and Poe and applies to contemporary writers like Joyce Carol Oates. If Joyce Carol Oates had never written two short stories, "Where Are you Going, Where Have you Been?" and the other one with the long funny title, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections, and Began My Life Over Again," which are anthologized in everybody's phonebook even, you wonder how many people would know who Joyce Carol Oates is. But those two stories are in every university anthology known to man, and so she's taught all over the world and students go on to her longer works after they read those two, or to her story collections. The college anthologies are like wonderful advertisements for short story writers. Similarly, if a twenty-one-year-old college student knows Faulkner, it's probably through an anthologized short story like "A Rose for Emily," not because he read Absalom, Absalom!. You can go through indexes of American literature texts and look at the important stories and see how much they've done for the reputations of major American fiction writers.
BAUER: Well you mentioned "A Rose for Emily," so I have to ask—in my book on William Faulkner, I included a chapter on your story "The Piano Tuner" and "A Rose for Emily."12 I resisted, while I was writing it, asking you, so now that it's already done I have to ask, did you by chance have Faulkner’s "A Rose for Emily" in mind when you were writing "The Piano Tuner"?
GAUTREAUX: I had in mind instead the archetype of the spinster lady left with the family house, which happens not only in the South but all over the place. You don't see it so much anymore because families now are composed of two kids. But say in the 1920s, a man would have a large house, and he would have six kids, and four of them would get married, one of them would get killed in a car accident or something, and then it seems like there was always one daughter that was left over; she never married, and she would wind up living in the father's house. And the father's house of course had eight bedrooms in it, and she couldn't afford to heat all of that, so she would close them off one at a time over the years.
She would take in boarders, and then she got too old to manage boarders. Then there was this old woman living in one or two rooms of this house built in 1900. Such spinsters were all over the place. I knew several women like this, a lot of old women, and I even have a couple of them in my family. So that's where the archetype for that story came from. And that's probably the archetype that Faulkner drew on to write "A Rose for Emily."
BAUER: Well, the difference is that Emily's dead when the story starts. She's lived to the old age that you're talking about. The town is mourning her passing—or at least the story's "We" narrator is. But they wait until she's dead to go see her. Even when she bought the poison to kill Homer Baron there's the telling line, "So the next day we all said, 'She will kill herself'; and we said it would be the best thing."13 But nobody tries to help her. In your story the piano tuner gets involved. And this is what attracts me to your stories: these men who say, 'What can I do? I have nothing to do with this, but I could do something.' Faulkner's prototypical Quentin Compson feels really bad about the oppression he witnesses but Hamlet-like just worries and doesn't do anything. You're sending in these guys who are not sons of the aristocracy but they're doing something about it. I'm curious if this is your reaction to Faulkner—if you're responding to these sons of the aristocracy. Ernest Gaines has said, "Faulkner wrote about Dilsey in his kitchen; I wrote about Miss Jane in her kitchen."14 Are you also responding to Faulkner?
GAUTREAUX: There are several of my stories that you could call intervention stories, where somebody's in a bad way, and a character takes that step to help, breaks through the mirror, to go to the other side. There's no story unless somebody does something like that. You see, if the piano tuner had come out and tuned her piano and then went home, never went back, and then she died of old age or something, there wouldn't be much of a story. What propels the story is his decision to help.
It's like what Rust Hills, the old Esquire editor, used to say: there's fixed action and moving action. Fixed action is the stuff that you expect to happen and happens every day—it is kind of a pattern. You go to the mailbox every day to check your mail; you stick your hand way down in the mailbox, if it's one of those old post-mounted ones on your porch, and you look for the stuff, and you pay your bills. This is all fixed action: every day you do the same thing. One day you go out on the front porch, stick your hand in the mailbox, and feel something kind of crawling, and you pull it out and it's a big chicken snake, and you're scared to death, and you holler and you drop it. Then you hear laughter, and across the street your neighbor is just doubling up because he's put that big, harmless chicken snake in your mailbox as a trick. Well that's moving action—that doesn't happen every day. A pattern has been broken, and it's going to generate other action. The reader already sees what's going to happen: he's going to play a trick on the guy across the street.
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The same thing when the piano tuner decides to help out the woman by getting her a job. The pattern of fixed action is broken, and we're now in moving action: we're in a type of thing where we don't know what's going to happen; we can't predict what's going to happen; we're in a series of events now that's new for both characters. That's what interventions do. But all of that comes from being raised Catholic where we have been taught to help people who are less fortunate than we are, not just by praying for them but by actually going out and fixing their busted air conditioners and stuff. And it also comes from my blue collar raising. My father never made a lot of money and the people that were his friends never made a lot of money, and when their cars broke down the one of them that was best at fixing cars would go over there and fix it, and when my father's air conditioner broke down the guy in the neighborhood that was best at fixing air conditioners would come over and fix it and it was sort of a quid pro quo relationship among blue-collar workers that way and that's true all over. It's another form of this intervention mentality where you help people for no real reason. Intervention in a purer form occurs in stories like "The Piano Tuner" and in "Resistance" where the old guy helps the little girl with her science project. It's kind of a distilled form of altruism, and there is a point in many of my stories where the character feels put upon by fate because he says, 'I gotta make this decision: I can turn around and I can walk away—or I can help.' And when he makes that decision, then the story is rolling.
BAUER: That's what I like—they make the decision not to turn around and walk away.
GAUTREAUX: Well, if they walked away there would be no story or there would be the usual 'life has no meaning' story.
BAUER: Yes. As I tell my students when they complain about reading what they consider one negative story after another, 'No conflict, no story.'
I do find it interesting that there are so many very specific details that are the same between your story and Faulkner's—there's so much we read that's out there, that's in our heads—for example, the fathers in both stories ran all the suitors away.
GAUTREAUX: That's coincidence—just another part of the archetype; that's why the old lady wound up by herself. It was common for the father of the family, the patriarch, to run the suitors away for several reasons: they weren't good enough, rich enough, but you wonder if he really wanted that daughter to stay around to take care of him, to take care of his wife. He didn't want her to get married and move away. He'd lose a nurse.
BAUER: And the mothers often died after having so many children, so he wanted someone to take care of his house.
Responsibility and Compassion
BAUER: Another pattern I've seen in your stories is the grandfathers. I'm fascinated with my father's enjoyment of his grandchildren. He truly plays with them when he babysits (or when they Poppysit for him, as he puts it). His generation of fathers did not participate in childcare the way my generation of fathers does, and I think they realize now, watching their sons and sons-in-law, how much they missed. You have several stories with grandfathers stepping in to take care of their grandchildren—"Welding with Children" and "The Courtship of Merlin LeBlanc," for example. Would you talk about the men in these stories? What is your inspiration for this particular focus on grandfathers becoming involved in raising their grandchildren?
GAUTREAUX: Grandfathers in the stories come from two sources. One, I never knew either of my grandfathers because they died before I was born. One thing a fiction writer does is he makes things that he doesn't have, so I make grandfathers for myself while I write. Another thing is that in teaching survey courses with thirty-seven students in them, I always had a number of single mothers who had child care problems. And I always got a lot of excuses, like 'Oh my mother or father couldn't take care of my kids so I couldn't come to class.' Or, 'My kids are sick and my mother and father can't take care of them because they're scared they'll catch the flu themselves, so I have to stay home.' Or they show up with the kids. They bring the kids to lecture, so sometimes I've had two, three, five kids in this classroom. So that's kind of where this interest in grandparents comes from—there are a lot of grandparents and great-grandparents out there taking care of little kids. It's because the girl has gotten pregnant once or twice, and she has no husband and no job. Sometimes the student's mother doesn't live close by or she's disappeared or something, or her mother never had a husband maybe. And so the kids' great-grandma and grandpa, who are these 1940s relics, who grew up, did right, got married once, and worked forty years down at the mill and lived the straight life, they're left to deal with the mess.
BAUER: This is tied into your theme of taking responsibility—like the bug man who comes in to spray. It's not his responsibility to help the woman; he could just spray and leave. Or the grandfather—it's not really his responsibility, but it is his grandchild, and he did raise the mother who had this child out of wedlock. You see this theme of responsibility again and again in your fiction. Is this part of the Catholic background, too?
GAUTREAUX: It's not anything I really thought about much; if it's there it's there. I can honestly say I don't think, 'well let me only write about responsible people' or anything like that.
BAUER: It's a worldview that is in your fiction—the choice to take responsibility.
GAUTREAUX: I don't know what to say about that, but let me start talking about something that maybe I do know something about, and that's the notion of hopelessness or despair that I see in a lot of contemporary fiction. I seem to run across two types of stories that worry me. One is the New Yorker type tale where everything is a joke and the reader can't really take anything, including death and disease, seriously. The reader feels he's not supposed to have intense emotions about anything because that's silly and bourgeois. And the other type of story I run across is a truly dark narrative about vicious people who don't learn anything from what they do and are not punished in any way and never get their comeuppance. Sometimes that's realism. And such stories belong in the canon. But the mistake a writer of those types of stories makes, I think, is to write all of his stories like that because then, cumulatively, the author gets away from realism.
Now what do I mean by that? It's unrealistic to ignore compassion and the ability people have to cope and even triumph over their problems. You can write a story about how horrible it is to die from a certain type of cancer. That's realistic. Yet I run across many people who have coped with their cancer and are in fairly good shape the night they die. I've known people like this. Where is their literature? I read this student's story about a woman who was molested, was totally ruined emotionally, and eventually committed suicide. I've known many male and female students who were sexually abused, and most have coped in various ways. Some of them even write about it, which is disturbing to read, but nevertheless—maybe it's therapy—they're able to do it. Somehow people who suffer in this way or that are able to triumph over what they're going through. Where are the short stories about the small successes that people have dealing with their problems? Well, they're not out there because they're hard as hell to write without making them seem simple-minded or clichéd or insipid or sentimental. The most frightening thing in the world to an intelligent writer is sentimentality. He doesn't want a molecule of it in his fiction. But I think if you read enough and you understand how to blend humor and irony and the right tone in with the bad stuff, you can write a story that carries an emotional load yet is not sentimental in the least. If anybody wants to know how to deal with this type of thing, he can read my stories. I'm not exactly sure how I do it myself, but it's a conscious mixing of comedy and tragedy, of irony and straight non-ironic storytelling. A lot of it's like tap dancing or jitterbugging or singing: either you got it or you ain't.
About the Author
Margaret D. Bauer, author of The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist (University Press of Florida, 1999) and William Faulkner's Legacy: "what shadow, what stain, what mark" (University Press of Florida, 2005), is the Rives Chair of Southern Literature, Editor of the North Carolina Literary Review, and Professor of English at East Carolina University, where she was named one of the ten ECU Women of Distinction in 2007.
|Walking beam in the Greensburg Oil Field, 2008 St. Helena Parish, Louisiana.|