Tim Gautreaux's first
novel, The Next Step in the Dance, won the 1999 Southeastern
Booksellers Award. Born and reared in Louisiana, the author recently retired
from his position as Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana
University and has spent the summer promoting his most recent novel, The
Clearing. His work has been selected for inclusion in the O. Henry and
Best American Short Story Annuals and has appeared in Zoetrope, GQ,
Harper's, and The Atlantic Monthly.
You're from Louisiana ....
I was born in 1947 in Morgan City, a tough oil-patch town in south central
Louisiana. My father was a tugboat captain, and he wanted me to follow in
his footsteps, but the job was too slow for me. After twelve years in a
Catholic school and four years in a regional college, I entered an
accelerated Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina where I
studied under James Dickey for three years. Ph.D. in hand, I got a job
teaching literature and creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana
University, taught thirty years and retired last December.
What changes have you seen in the state and local culture during your
In south Louisiana, when I was a child, more people spoke French, but the
number of French-speakers has declined a great deal in the past thirty
years. Cajuns were shy about their culture, suspecting that it was kind of
a joke to outlanders, and many didn't pass on the language. I didn't even
realize I was a Cajun until I moved out of state to go to graduate school.
Nobody talked about being this or that in those days. Nowadays Cajuns are
pretty knowledgeable about their history, and though the language has
diminished, the music, food, and folkways are thriving here in Louisiana and
around the country. Louisiana has developed more of a literary presence
also thanks to writers like John Biguenet, James Lee Burke, Walker Percy,
Andre Dubus, Shirley Ann Grau and a dozen others.
What image or character came to mind first as you were writing THE
The constable. I imagined his haunted expression as he looked out across
the sawmill yard toward the saloon, hearing the yowls of a brawl and knowing
that the only way he could save the fighters from themselves was to hurt at
least one of them, even though he didn't want to.
Did you do any research for the historical elements or were they part of
local and/or family lore?
The meaningful details in The Clearing came out of my imagination
supported by thousands of bits and pieces of things I heard as a child: a
reference to a long dead relative, an old firearm in the closet purported to
have killed someone, an embarrassed turn of the head, a helpless shrug, the
way an uncle slowed down his voice when speaking two sentences about what he
did in the war.
One thing that makes a child turn into a writer the ability to understand
the importance of remembering everything. And to remember you have to
listen and believe that everything you hear is interesting.
When I was a kid, a lot of old relatives were still around and they talked
and talked about their jobs, local murders, cops, cancer, lynchings,
sawmilling, how to repair steam engines, being poisoned by a pork roast,
killing pigeons, praying, water-skiing, steamboat navigation, and welding.
I consulted my library of antique machinery manuals and catalogs, read a
book or two on sawmilling history, but the guts of the story came from
shutting up and listening.
Would you talk about writing about the bonds between men without
succumbing to sentimentality?
Avoiding sentimentality is easy to do. Use not one cliché. Use as
little exposition as possible. Focus on action and detail that in a subtle
way suggests what you want to say.
Were you influenced by any particular writers?
Flannery O'Connor (who hasn't been?) Walker Percy, Jane Austin, Cormac
McCarthy, Annie Proulx
Would you like to name some writers readers should be reading but might
William Gay, Tom Franklin, George Saunders, Jeffery Lent
Does teaching influence your writing in any way?
Sure. When I teach a room full of students, I teach myself, remind myself.
One time a negative review charged that I must listen to my own lectures.
I would hope so.
You've spent the summer promoting the book. What was your impression of
the state of bookselling? reading?
The independent booksellers are the saviours and maintainers of literary
fiction. They actually read the books, make recommendations, do each
customer a favor by matching that customer's individual taste up with a
particular writer, plus they sometimes challenge their customer's laziness
and recommend titles that engage the intellect. Again, they read the books
and recommend from experience. A chain store clerk can only ask "You want
fries with that?"
What would you still like to be asked?
"Why is there so damn much machinery in everything you write?"
I'm sure someone will
write a master's thesis on that topic, and I don't really understand why
myself, fully. I've always been fascinated by any mechanism and love to
take lawnmowers and tractors and steam locomotives apart to make them run
When I started working on the accordion scene in The Clearing, I
bought a big accordion for fifty bucks on Ebay, taught myself to play "Lady
of Spain" with one finger, figured out the stops and buttons, discovered how
the thing smelled, vibrated on my chest, broke my back, wrenched my
shoulders, confused my fingers with its left-hand board of 120 identical
black chord buttons. Then I took it out to my machine shop and completely
dismantled it and figured out how it worked, studied the brass reeds,
beeswax, kid-leather check valves etc.
The thing about a properly designed mechanism is that there are no
non-functioning parts. Everything has a purpose, every bit and tag, screw
and eyelet. Good fiction's the same way.
- The Clearing
- By Tim Gautreaux
- Knopf, 2003
- Hardcover, $23.00
Southern Scribe Review
Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved