In his first 10 years of writing fiction, Tim Gautreaux collected enough rejection slips to paper the four walls, ceiling and filing cabinets in his office at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he taught creative writing for 30 years. His breakthrough came in 1990 when the Atlantic Monthly published one of his stories. He's since published two collections, and the novels, The Next Step in the Dance, which won the 1999 Southeastern Booksellers Association Award, and The Clearing, winner of the 2003 Mid-South Independent Booksellers Association Award. The son of a tugboat captain, Gautreaux, 56, has crafted an unforgettable fictional territory in gritty oil-patch towns, like his native Morgan City, and a turn-of-the century cypress mill, populated by the modern-day descendants of French-speaking Cajun exiles who settled southern Louisiana in the 18th century. Married and the father of grown children, he lives north of Lake Pontchartrain in Hammond, La.
Why did you become a writer?
When I was a kid, somebody gave me a new typewriter and I figured I ought to use it. I started to write to pen pals from around the country, but very quickly I ran out of things to say, so I started to make things up, to lie to these people about my life — how I was hunting alligators and things like that. It was just fun to tell stories. But it wasn't until many years later, when I took a novel-writing course under Walker Percy, that I understood that fiction writing was something for me to take seriously. Also, if I hadn't become a creative writing teacher, I wouldn't have developed into a writer of any quality. In the classroom, the writing teacher has to justify his authority, and the only way to do that is to get published himself. Teaching helped me understand the process of becoming a writer and that it doesn't happen in four-and-a-half months, which is a semester's length, or even a year. For most writers, ability is something that evolves slowly and is helped along by their day-to-day experiences of living. I understood after about 15 years of teaching that the events of my life, my children, my marriage, my spiritual life, my hobbies, my work life — all that gave me the raw material that I could feed into the machine of my creativity. What came out was a story.
Why don't you have to be Southern to appreciate Southern writers?
You would think that there would be a regional bias. Somebody in Minneapolis would pick up a book by Kaye Gibbons and say, "Oh, this is another one of those Southern women stories, I can't relate to this." But, indeed, they do relate to it. Why? Beats me, but if you go to Ohio, you don't find many people from the Deep South touring around. But if you come to New Orleans or Lafayette, the Cajun capital, you see all sorts of folks from New England and the Midwest just wandering around looking at stuff. What are they looking for?
You've said you're leery of the label "Southern writer." Does that mean you'd rather not be considered one?
Not calling myself a Southern writer is a trick I play on myself. If people tell you you're a Southern writer and you believe it, you put yourself in a little claustrophobic room, you restrict the way you look at the world and when you go to write, you say to yourself, "Let's see, I've got to have some alligators in here and some French accordion music and a sheriff with mirrored sunglasses." In other words, you start thinking in clichés. You can't let yourself think like that or else you'll be, as Walker Percy once stated, in the business of amazing Yankees. So I'm not a Southern writer. I'm just a writer who lives in the South.
Why do you write about your people?
Wherever you're born, that's your territory, a place with a culture just as complex as the culture of a Tibetan yak herder. You might live in a subdivision and think it's not an exotic place, but if you brought a Tibetan yak herder over and camped him in your back yard, he'd think you and your culture were plenty damned exotic. If you're not curious and amazed about your own territory — your family, your neighborhood — you're not a writer.
You once said, "No story is interesting unless it deals with matters of values." Why is that?
There's no substance. What is this about if it's not about a question of right and wrong or good and evil or somebody making a right or wrong decision?
Why is the South such fertile ground for fiction?
The Southern writer loves where he's from, warts and all. When I think of the history of my family, I think of how hard it was for people to work and survive and how much my family members suffered living in a tough climate and tougher poverty. Sometimes I recall one of my father's first jobs, which was cutting down cypress trees that were 5 feet through the middle. He had to stand in waist-deep water, fighting snakes and leeches, and work with a crosscut saw in 95-degree heat. When a man paddled out from town in a skiff and hired him as a tugboat deckhand, he felt lucky just to be above the water for a change. Sometimes I remember that my grandfather worked under the thumb of a stingy plantation owner for 65 cents a day. You look back on all that history and all that misery and you almost feel like a traitor if you don't respect the people you came from and the place they made. In one way or another, you have to tell their story.
What are you in the business of?
People ask me, what do you do? I tell them the truth: I'm a retired schoolteacher.
Why don't you tell them a writer?
That strikes me as being pretentious. Mostly I'm not a writer. I've only had four books published, and right now I'm not really working hard on anything. I've got one cooking in my mind, though. It's about the Mississippi River in the '20s and '30s, and the thing that's driving me to write it is basically religious guilt. If you have a talent, it's wrong not to exercise it.
What is your novel The Next Step in the Dance about?
It's about the moral decision you make when you abandon your roots, your class, when you think you're better than your raising. But it's more than that. It's about bailing out of a marriage that could be fixed, and about what it means to be in a relationship for the long haul. Every marriage is broken when it starts. When young people get married, they have no idea what marriage is about. They think they do, but I can tell you as a veteran of 32 years, I learn something new about marriage almost every day.