Tim Gautreaux was born in Morgan City, Louisiana, in 1947. He attended Nicholls State University and the University of South Carolina, where he earned a PhD in English literature. In 1972 he began teaching creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he directed the creative writing program until his retirement in 2003. His books include the story collections Same Place, Same Things (St. Martins) and the New York Times notable Welding with Children (Picador) as well as the novels The Next Step in the Dance (Picador), The Clearing, and The Missing (both from Knopf). The Clearing made several top-ten lists, including the USA Today ten best of 2003, and Annie Proulx called it “the finest American novel in a long, long time.” His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, GQ, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, and O. Henry Prize Stories, and in several university literature textbooks. His essays have appeared in Oxford American and Preservation Magazine. Among his awards are a National Magazine Award, Southeastern Booksellers Award for best novel, Mid-South Booksellers award, Heasley Prize, John Dos Passos Prize, and an NEA creative writing fellowship. He has served as editor of Louisiana Literature and was the John Grisham visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. Presently he is professor emeritus and writer-in-residence at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is married to Winborne Howell and has two sons, Robert and Tom, and a grandchild, Lily. He was interviewed in Hammond, Louisiana, by his former student Dayne Sherman.
Image: How did growing up in Morgan City and spending your adult life in Hammond influence your writing?
Tim Gautreaux: Morgan City in the 1950s was an oil-patch town with kind of a Wild West flavor to it. There were maybe twenty churches and forty barrooms. The place was an odd mix of locals and outlanders brought in by the oil industry. In my earliest years, the town was about ninety percent Catholic, and in at least one restaurant if I forgot what day it was and ordered a hamburger on a Friday, the waitress (who knew my family) would remind me that Catholics don’t eat meat on Friday. Our neighbors were Cuban and African American and Tennessee hillbillies, and across the street were French-speaking Creole black ladies. Down the street a bit were some rich Italians. There was no segregation, and most neighborhoods were jumbled up like this.
I think most little towns in America present a mixture of all sorts of cultures, and this makes me suspicious of stereotypes based on the assumption that a certain region is peopled by one type of person. Back in the 1950s I thought Texas was all cowboys and oil men listening to Hank Williams or Bob Wills, yet traveling by train through Texas with my transistor radio I picked up Mexican polka music played on German accordions. This marriage of musical cultures introduced me to the idea that no region is one thing only. A writer has to keep this in mind when he deals with setting. Don’t oversimplify, and pay attention to what’s around you culturally. Awareness of class and culture is money in the bank for a fiction writer.
When I started writing, I paid attention to how characters from different backgrounds interact, and that brought me to stories such as “Dancing with the One-armed Gal” about a Cajun ice-house employee picking up a hitchhiker who is a recently fired feminist university professor.
Image: In this light, does diversity create conflict?
TG: Right. Take the two conflicting characters in “Welding with Children.” Though these two white Protestant men are from the same tiny Louisiana town, they are nothing alike. Bruton is not a churchgoer. He is a welder, a blue-collar shade-tree mechanic. Mr. Fordlyson is a businessman in his seventies or eighties, a deacon in the Baptist church. He has an inner compass that tells him what the community values should be. He’s also judgmental and tactless. They are from two different levels of society, and everything they say to each other is freighted with the reader’s understanding of that fact.
Image: You went to Catholic schools and then Nicholls State University in a Cajun Catholic community. How did the church and school shape your worldview and artistic vision?
TG: I was educated by Marianite nuns in the 1950s and received a very structured view of the world. That order specialized in education in all fields, and in particular in religious instruction. They were great teachers and great people. As a kid, I was pretty rough around the edges and benefited from the notion that I owed a debt of loyalty to the giver of all things. A sense of right and wrong, of self-control, of respect for a religious tradition, an understanding that I can’t understand everything in the world and that’s all right—these things were like seeds that have matured slowly in me. I would be one unhappy man without them. I feel sorry for kids who are raised without any moral guidance from parents or church, kids who grow up in a vacuum and who are expected to “pick it up when they get to be adults.” Maybe drive down to Wal-Mart and buy a gallon of religion. That’s like throwing a twenty-six-year-old off an ocean pier and yelling, “Hey, it’s called swimming. Pick it up.”
Image: In 1977 you studied with Walker Percy at Loyola University in New Orleans. Can you talk about the class and what Dr. Percy was like as a teacher?
TG: Percy selected ten students based on writing samples, and we met every week for three hours and did the usual creative writing workshop stuff. What was special was that this world-famous writer was taking the time to share his notions of good fiction with us. Several people in the class went on to become successful writers. One wound up being the editor of Newsweek. Another was the novelist Valerie Martin, one was playwright Larry Gray, and another was famous French Quarter guide and raconteur Kenneth Holditch. Everybody was smart and engaged and felt honored to be in that class. Percy, who had that rare quality of being modest and brilliant at the same time, addressed us like friends. He was generous with his time and tactful and succinct with his criticism. He would take my feeble efforts and mark them up as carefully as if he was a New York editor. For the first time, my fiction was taken seriously, and this helped me take myself seriously as a writer.
In class Percy asked us to question the values of the characters we created: he wanted to know what they were looking for in life, where they wanted to go. For Percy each fictional character was on a quest for truth or happiness or something that would complete him. In an interview he once said that if a piece of fiction didn’t in some way concern itself with values, he wasn’t interested in it. His own fiction shows him to be worried about American society and how it’s affected by materialism, the worst side of Hollywood, the worst side of the music industry. But in class, he was not cynical. He was a gentle, guiding spirit throughout that semester in 1977. During the class I read all of his fiction, and afterward much else that I read seemed inconsequential and detached from the real world. Reading Percy made me ask questions about narratives: What are the characters looking for? What would make them happy?
Image: In many ways your writing class was like a high school shop class. I mean this in the best way. We received general information, then we went to the shop and built the stories. You taught like a person preparing us to work on machines. Do you think this is an accurate remembrance?
TG: When an instructor asks a student in an introductory creative writing class to write a short story, he is asking him to do something very complex. It is like telling a bunch of people who have never done carpentry at all, “Go home and build me a dining-room table.” They have no idea what to do. The first thing the instructor does is break down the task into its composite parts. I would tell them what kind of lumber to buy and then how to plane it, how to glue the boards together and then how to sand and stain and varnish it. You spend one week on each process. That student of furniture-making can build a table because he comes to understand that it is not an incomprehensible mass of activity, it’s an ordered series of steps. It’s the same with fiction writing. Instead of lecturing on wood and varnish, I explain about plot, character, conflict, and setting. I try to give students the tools with which they can build a story, along with a few exercises so they can practice using the tools. The aim is to get them rolling, to give them some feeling of control, some orientation to the task at hand. If a teacher merely tells a class to go home and write a story, he’s wasting his students’ time and his own. He’ll mostly get in a bunch of prose units as rough as a table built out of demolished chicken coops.
Image: Could you talk about two or three of the main notions you like to communicate to would-be writers in your short-story workshop?
TG: In regards to the short story form, the simple stuff is the most important: “To open parachute, pull this ring.”
First, if there is no conflict, there is no story. A story doesn’t exist until there’s conflict. Everything seems to grow out of it. It brings plot into being. Character is defined by it. Conflict generates theme out of thin air. The initial conflict the author chooses is what is developed all the way through the tale. It’s the nervous system of the story. Eventually there is going to be an epiphany or a climactic moment or an anti-climatic moment that relates to that conflict. Every part of the story is informed and united by the struggle between two forces. To use a homely metaphor, a loaf of bread, anywhere you sample it with a pinch, is a loaf of bread. A story about a struggle between a man and his wife, anywhere you sample a piece, will taste of the struggle between this man and his wife. If it tastes of something else, you’re writing two different stories at the same time.
The second thing I like to talk about is the personal territory of a writer. Young people find it hard to believe that they have a personal territory. They don’t find their own experience interesting and don’t consider certain things as foundations for stories, things like their own personal fascinations, their family’s dynamics, stories, legends, the old folks, weird folks, history, the streets of their neighborhood, values of their county or region—in short, all the stuff the Faulkners and Cormac McCarthys of the world wove into their greatest work. One reason the fiction of the average college sophomore is so dreadful is that they don’t listen to the tales those old boring people in their family tell, the grandparents and great-uncles and aunts. So where do they go for story ideas? They borrow from TV and movies. The result is a weak copy of a New York detective drama written by someone raised on a dairy farm by deaf Iranian parents on the banks of the Mississippi River in Arkansas.
Well, I’m exaggerating. What about the kid who was raised in a typical subdivision outside Atlanta? He thinks writing about such a raising is dull, because all subdivisions are the same, right? One day I challenged one of these uninteresting kids. “What is the subdivision next to yours?” “Azalea Acres,” she said. “And that place is exactly like your area?” “Oh, no,” she said. “Half of those people don’t even have pools. We’re much better off than they are.” “But the kids there are as good as you are?” She hesitated, but only a bit. “They’re a pretty rough crowd and ride around in those loud little trucks.” What’s the next subdivision past them?” “That’d be Pine Hill.” “Just like yours?” “God no. Those families think they’re royalty. Even the kids drive BMWs and the little girls wear designer flip-flops to the country-club pool!” There are indeed great differences even between subdivisions in the same community. There is a pecking order. There is a culture war between subdivisions worth writing about.
What I want students to understand is that wherever they’ve lived, that’s their territory. They know that area better than any outsider. They know the idiom, the values, the social structures, the different coexisting cultures. A lot of young writers don’t understand that every place is unique and that they own the places in which they were raised as far as writing is concerned. Something, maybe TV or Hollywood, gives them the idea that one place in America is just like another. That’s a lie. Many writers sometimes don’t realize this lie until they’re in their forties and start looking back and composing stories and building characters out of their own personal history, set where they were raised. Can you do research and set a story in New York City if you are from Baton Rouge? Sure. A master writer like Annie Proulx does extensive research when she produces her western fiction. But it is a hard way to go, and when a writer ignores his own territory, he does so at his own peril, because unless he is a born researcher, what he discovers will never be as authentic as his impressions of his family and culture witnessed in childhood. What you discover will never be as good as your own background.
I gave this spiel to a class one semester and a student went home and wrote about his subdivision. He lived in one of the New Orleans neighborhoods which experienced terrible soil subsidence. All the homes were built on slabs. The homes built on pilings were three feet up in the air after twenty years because the soil had withered away beneath them. The ones not built on pilings had broken slabs, which caused the living room to lean fifteen degrees one way and the bedrooms to tilt the other. The student invented a dysfunctional family and placed them in one of these houses. It was hilarious because the characters were as warped as their environment. Throughout the story things were sliding off tables and pianos rolled on their own across the rooms. Pets and baseballs would get lost under the marooned slabs. It was a great story, and all the student did to get it was to go home and look around.
Image: I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to put writing above your “real” life.
TG: I don’t know if that was any conscious decision on my part. I just learned along the way that writing comes from living. Living doesn’t come from writing. The best way to learn how to write about children is to have a couple of your own. You have to go through the struggle of raising them. It’s hard, not ever having kids, to sit down and imagine child characters that are going to be believable. If a writer sets a tale on a farm, it seems like he ought to have spent some time on one to figure out the animals and machinery and planting techniques, the little bits and pieces woven into such a narrative that give it some sense of realism. If a guy thinks he’s just going to sit in a garret somewhere and write great fiction without being connected to the sources of fiction, he’s a fool.
What’s important is not so much the act of writing but the stuff that generates your writing, that is, the details of day-to-day life, the physical world, the objects we touch and study every day. I am always out in the yard working on stuff. I live on five wooded acres here; I’m always cutting trees, splitting firewood (with a hydraulic log splitter nowadays), burning brush, or repairing my broken-down tractors. If the weather’s bad, I love going into my barn workshop and tinkering with stuff. Last year I was working on pocket watches; the year before it was antique clocks; the year before that, antique shotguns. I just love objects, not just to own them and brag, but to see how they work and the way they are made.
My personal fascinations bleed into my fiction. Much of my writing is full of machinery, sometimes as simple setting detail, sometimes as metaphor. When I write about a character repairing an old engine, it is not something I got from research or conjured out of thin air. It comes from the experience of taking apart and repairing a John Deere two-cylinder tractor or a lovely old Parker shotgun. If a writer understands the source of good fiction—the people, plants, and things he touches in daily living—he won’t have any trouble keeping his writing in perspective.
Image: “Welding with Children” is one of your most compelling stories. At one point Mr. Fordlyson says, “Bruton, everything worth doing hurts like hell.” I see this a lot in your work: redemption comes at a price.
TG: It’s not exactly a secret that important achievements happen after a long payment plan. That “everything worth doing hurts like hell” is a simple law of physics, an obvious rule, and it applies to writing as well as all other arts. It certainly applies to characters who are trying to set their lives straight. In “Welding with Children” Bruton has not done a good job of giving his daughters much of a value system. Now he’s got to do it with a set of grandchildren, and it’s a mountainous task. It won’t be easy, and it’ll take the rest of his life. But he has hope that they’ll turn out better than his daughters did.
Sometimes I wonder if we are all gradually being babied into the notion that earthly existence is heaven. That life is something perfectible. People lose sight of the notion that sometimes life is still good when it is not so comfortable and not so perfect. An athlete goes through a lot of pain and failure to be a winner. So does a musician or a writer. Every great achievement involves sacrifice and pain and repetition and denial and failure. Everything worth doing hurts like hell. It seems like a lot of people run away from any painful endeavor. They just don’t want to deal with it. The lucky ones eventually come to realize that it’s okay to sweat.
Image: Humor is a big part of your fiction. Often the humor involves children and old people. Tell us why.
TG: I’m not quite sure myself. Humor is just a tool writers use to make a story work. Shakespeare used it in his tragedies to balance them. Flannery O’Connor used irony and parody to bring tension to her narratives. In a recent story I wrote, a character walks up to a store’s community bulletin board and tacks up an advertisement for a carpenter. He places the notice next to another that says, “Free rattlesnake to good home.” You might ask why I put that in there. For several reasons: It tells us a little something about the story’s setting. Also it gives the reader a little chuckle, and the story needs one at that point. It’s a pinch of yeast that I added to give it some buoyancy.
I can’t imagine writing a story, even a very sorrowful story, without humor in it. If you read Walker Percy you will see gentle humor. If you read Flannery O’Connor you see a masterful blend of humor and tragedy, sometimes a razor sharp, painful humor. It is something the writer has to know how to use. There is nothing more boring than a story about a tragedy that has absolutely no humor at all. It becomes whining, depressing. Who would want to read such a thing?
You asked about humor with children and old people. Kids and geezers are off of life’s script. In the middle of a person’s life, he’s supposed to behave a certain way: have a career, kiss the wife, argue with the kids, pay his taxes, keep his job, behave, watch what he says. Very old people and very young people ignore all conventions and behave how they want. That’s what’s so delightful about them, and that’s what offers so many opportunities for the writer.
Image: Your novel The Missing is rich and compelling, a big canvas. Assuming there is such a thing as a Catholic novel or a Christian novel, I believe you’ve written it. You have illustrated the Socratic notion—which has its fulfillment in the teachings and life of Jesus—that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong to others. Between your earlier novel The Clearing and The Missing, I see a change. The earlier book shows the damage of war and violence. However in The Missing violence is to be avoided even when it seems warranted. Sin is its own punishment. Why did this artistic shift occur?
TG: Actually, they are the same type of novel. What happens in a narrative is dictated by who the main character is. The notion of nonviolence in The Missing is dictated by Sam Simoneaux, a guy raised by a loving Catholic uncle in west Louisiana. He was brought up to believe that violence doesn’t cure anything, but that belief is also born into him by the mystery of the draw. I think his mild nature is a gift. Once I figured out in the first couple chapters what Sam’s personality was, his character was going to propel the entire novel. No matter what happens in The Missing, Sam is not going to kill anybody.
It was a delight to write The Missing because it goes against contemporary American culture, and against our worst nature. It goes against everything on American television, where cops and bad guys alike are blowing people apart with pistols and assault rifles every hour, on the hour. The Missing goes against almost everything Hollywood teaches, with the exception of the recent Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, which I thought was a very brave and realistic film. The way that movie ends suggests what I was after in The Missing: The path of self-sacrifice was chosen to great purpose.
The Missing builds toward the expectation of a big shootout. When it didn’t happen, I know some readers were disappointed. I expected this from day one. Americans have been programmed to a template of offense followed by justified violence. This is a cliché, and a simple-minded notion. I hope The Missing sets some writers free from the idea that if offense is given then offense must be taken.
Image: In some ways The Missing is an anti-war novel. Were you aware of that element when you started writing it?
TG: I did not go into the writing of The Missing wanting to make an anti-war statement. That said, the facts of World War I speak for themselves. It was a war designed and directed by imbeciles. Growing up, I was surrounded by old uncles who had survived it, and that encouraged me to do some research on the conflict. If there is any anti-war sentiment in The Missing and The Clearing, it is specifically against World War I, which was a mismanaged conflict driven by ego and paranoia. It should never have happened. The only thing it accomplished was to prepare the way for World War II.
Image: You worked on The Missing for quite a while. Describe the process of writing and researching the book.
TG: Much of The Missing happens on a twenties-era excursion boat. The action could have been framed in other contexts, but I used one of my personal fascinations, inland river history. My father was a tugboat captain on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. My grandfather was a chief engineer on steamboats. I came to The Missing with thousands of facts already embedded in my brain about the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, about the excursion-boat trade, about the music played on the boats. I was practicing what I preach in class, that if a fiction writer has a passion for something, be it mountain climbing or dog grooming, he can use that specialized knowledge to form his fictional world.
I did some reading to brush up on World War I–era artillery. I had to consult war maps to make sure the narrative was set in the right area of France and that sort of thing. To my knowledge there’s only one book dealing with riverboat music explicitly, and one on the excursion-boat trade. Not a lot is known about American jazz on the river. It is a tremendous and important chapter of American music history that’s been unvisited by scholars. When the old passenger and freight steamers stopped operating around 1900 because of a lack of trade, some of them were bought, their passenger cabins stripped out, and their main decks replaced with hardwood dance floors and bandstands. These boats hired the best orchestras around and paddled from town to town through the length of the Ohio and Mississippi systems offering day excursions and nighttime dance trips. Eventually some of the boats hired African American bands in New Orleans, and this is how jazz began to be heard up and down the Mississippi Valley, before records and before radio. The heyday of these boats ended in the 1940s.
Image: Did members of your family tell you about the old boats?
TG: Oh yes, my mother went to dances on the Sidney and the old Capitol when she was a teenager and heard the best jazz in the world. Louis Armstrong was playing on the boats in those days. All the famous legends of New Orleans jazz, the guys who invented jazz back in the teens or before, were steamboat musicians.
Image: Both The Clearing and The Missing were published by Knopf and edited by Gary Fisketjon. What did you learn from the process of working with Fisketjon, and how has it made you a better writer?
TG: Among other things, Gary is concerned with readability. He wants language to be accessible, economical, and lucid. He is expert at finding all the goofs that an author overlooks, all the overwriting and redundancy, wobbly logic, inelegant phrasing, tedious passages. Since I’ve been working with him I find myself more aware of what I’m doing. He’s one of the last great editors in New York. I’ve come to understand that a certain kind of clean composition that doesn’t sacrifice originality of utterance is a great way to write. What I’m impressed with most is how seriously and energetically he pursues his craft of editing. I take all of his suggestions to heart and follow a great many of them.
Image: Your recent short story “Idols,” published in the New Yorker, is a real departure. It’s set in north Mississippi and Memphis, and it picks up where two of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “Parker’s Back” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” end. Obadiah Parker has found redemption, but Julian Smith has not. Please tell us about writing the piece.
TG: “Idols” is sort of a continuation and parody of the two O’Connor tales. The editor I worked with was expert and thorough, and we went through the story several times over a period of a few weeks. I had to explain a lot of the southernisms to get to keep them in the story. One editor wanted to call the character Mr. Poxley simply by the name of Poxley. I had to explain that in a small, deep South town, a man in his seventies or eighties who owns a substantial business is always addressed and referred to as “Mr.”
“Idols” is one of the only things I’ve done set outside Louisiana. I got a good feel for north Mississippi when I was visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi for a semester in 1996. I was always tempted to write a story that sprang out of that region.
I was sitting in my office at home one day and Tommy Franklin called from Oxford, Mississippi, and said he and William Gay were thinking of putting together an anthology of stories that gave tribute to Flannery O’Connor. He asked if I had a story that might fit. “You mean stories that sound like O’Connor’s writing?” I asked. He said yes. I said, “Maybe stories that use an O’Connor character?” He said, “I guess that’s one way you could do it.” I said, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.” I chose two characters and started writing to see what was going to happen. Of course the magic is always in seeing what’s going to happen. Every story is a gift.
Image: What are you reading now?
TG: I read books that come my way by accident. I picked up a free book at the library giveaway in Jefferson, North Carolina, a novel by Carolyn Chute, who wrote The Beans of Egypt. This was called Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts. I was floored by the energy and drive, and the insanity. It was a convincing interpretation of backwoods folks in Maine, a whole class that has fallen through the cracks of America’s golden streets. The characters are fleshed-out originals, and reading what happens to them was like watching a house burn down in slow motion. I couldn’t put the book down, and I am looking forward to reading others of her works. It’s not for the faint of heart, but interesting stuff. What she has done is embrace her territory, as all good writers do. I think she knows the woods of Maine better than anybody else in the solar system.
Image: Are you writing anything currently? Is there a trilogy in the works, with The Missing and The Clearing?
TG: It might seem that way, but it’s not going to happen. I do have another novel in mind, something funny and energetic. I hope to get it done in a couple of years, not my usually four or five or six years. I’m also putting together another collection of short stories. I think everything I write is going to be set in Louisiana, but I’m going to try to get away from local characters a little, and write about people who are not from Louisiana but currently living there. I think that would be a way of broadening the scope of the tales.
Image: Besides collecting and restoring antique machinery, you volunteer as a machinist and fireman of steam locomotives at the Tennessee Valley Train Museum in Chattanooga. How did you get involved with the museum?
TG: I’m a lifelong railroad buff. Railroad buffs tend to seek out any operating steam locomotive. I went by there and met a few of the staff members and rode in the locomotive cab and saw what a fine organization it is. I made the acquaintance of one of the engineers, who encouraged me to become a member of the staff and take training as a steam locomotive fireman. For that I am very grateful.
This hobby reflects my lifelong interest in antique machinery. When I was five or six years old and a steamboat would come to town—there still were a few paddle-wheelers in those days—my father would hear the whistle and put me in the car and bring me down to the waterfront in Morgan City and show it to me. If he knew anybody on the boat’s crew, he would get me on board and we would walk through the engine room and listen to the machines, smell the hot valve oil and glossy enamel, and these old guys would tell me about steam engines. Dad would do the same thing when he’d spot an old steam tug on the river in New Orleans. Several times we walked the wharves to take pictures of a sizzling Bisso Towboat Company tug or one of the old paddlewheel steam ferries. He knew the era of steam machinery, the stuff that built this country out of nothing, was passing and would soon be gone forever. Indeed by 1960 or so, most of it was.