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?
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.
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?
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