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"Everything Has a Purpose"

An Interview with Tim Gautreaux

by Pam Kingsbury

 

 
 

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 lifetime?

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 CLEARING?

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 have missed?  

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 better.  

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 (305 pages)
ISBN: 0-375-41474-6

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© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved