A Conversation with Tim Gautreaux
March 14, 1997
In a world characterized by increased transience, Tim Gautreaux is a writer with a strong sense of place. His accurate prose, both visual -- "a yellow butterfly playing in a clump of pigweed" -- and vernacular -- "Whoo. Grendaddy can bust a move" -- is culled from a lifetime spent keenly observing the South, beyond the anesthesia of cultural homogeneity.
"Welding With Children" (March, 1997, Atlantic), is Gautreaux's third Atlantic story. His fiction has appeared in, among other journals, Harper's, GQ, and Story, and been selected for publication in New Stories From the South and Best American Short Stories. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the National Magazine Award for Fiction, Gautreaux has directed the creative writing program at Southern Louisiana University for more than two decades. St. Martin's Press has recently published his book of short stories, Same Place, Same Things (1996), and will issue his novel, Machinery of Dreams, early next year.
Gautreaux recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick and David Watta.
From The Atlantic Monthly, March 1997
From The Atlantic Monthly, February 1995
From The Atlantic Monthly, June 1991
The majority of your writing is based in Southern Louisiana, where you have spent a great
deal of your life. Although location never overwhelms your characters, it certainly determines
some, if not all, of who they are and will be. Does the same hold for you as well?
What would you say the differences are, if any, between the preoccupations of a "Southern" writer and other American writers? And how do you feel your work fits into the Southern tradition?
I don't really understand what a "Southern" writer is. Writers just tend to write about their environment. If the South tends to be more poverty stricken, or has a less-educated population, or the politicians seem more arrogant, or there's a more intense devotion to religion, that's just the way it is.
Perhaps the only difference I can perceive between a "Southern" writer and a non-Southern writer is that maybe the "Southern" writer loves where he lives more than other writers. When you read Eudora Welty or Walker Percy you sense they really enjoy the details of where they live, warts and all. This quality doesn't seem to surface as much with non-Southern writers.
I would rather be classified in the Frontier tradition than the "Southern" tradition, because I can see elements of the old tall tale and frontier humor in my writing. Much of my early reading was devoted to folklore and the likes of Mark Twain. Tall tales, with their hyperbole and outlandish plots, seem to have had an effect on my writing.
I hearken back to the days when television was a minimal presence in American life. People used to sit around and tell tales, particularly the older relatives who would come over and entertain with stories. This is something that Earnest Gaines writes about -- he used memories of his aunts sitting on the porch and telling stories to provide the rhythms for his characters' dialogue. For me, it was a little different: I listened to retired tug-boat captains and oil-field workers try to outdo each others in stories.
The themes you choose to write about seem to rise from regional roots to encompass universal concerns. Which come first, the characters or the themes?
Themes rise out of character organically. A writer who sits down and thinks "I'm going to deal with a theme," rather than "I'm going to tell a story," is not a fiction writer but an essayist in disguise. I think no matter what character a writer chooses he's going to write about the same themes, because a writer's favorite thematic concerns arise no matter what the story line is, no matter what characters are chosen. I just set a couple characters against each other on the first page, and next thing I know, the story is "about" some idea that interests me -- and that is the theme.
Your characters are so real and so vividly rendered that they seem to live on long after the story is finished. How do you approach characterization?
When people say, "Your characters are memorable," they are remembering what the characters say and how they say it. For description, as far as characters are concerned, I try to use unique details rather than a bland inventory of a character's experience. I like to do that in a very minimalist fashion -- two or three carefully chosen details that quickly give the reader an idea of what this character is about. I pay a lot of attention to little body movements: the way people move their hands, position their feet, what they do with a cigarette. Movement becomes a language unto itself.
The names you use are interesting -- Moonbeam, Nu-Nu, Pig, Bullfinch, Fernest, to name but a few. How and why do you choose the names you do?
I have no particular method in mind when I choose names. Striking names are hard for a reader to forget. But the names that appear in my stories are the types of names found in rural Louisiana.
Most of your stories seem to pivot on moral questions. Could you talk about moral weight as an aspect of fiction, and its importance in your work?
I consider myself to be a Catholic writer in the tradition of Walker Percy. If a story does not deal with a moral question, I don't think it's much of a story.
You have been both a professor and editor while continuing to write. How do these different roles inform your fiction? How justified do you feel about asking others to revise and how do you feel about changes that are suggested to you?
When you teach creative writing, you're always telling people what to do, and this constant discussion of technique has an effect on your own writing. When you're an editor, you're micro-managing other people's manuscripts, and it's similar to being a teacher. What you end up telling the person whose manuscript you're looking at is something you're basically teaching or telling yourself. It's a learning process both ways.
As far as feeling justified about asking others to revise, my take is, "How can I help this person to make a better manuscript?" That's the sole thought I have in my head when I read others people's work. With regard to recommendations about my own work, I generally always follow them. If a writer or editor takes the time to make a recommendation, he must care about my work and want to make it better. If someone tells me to cut 1,000 words, I'll do it in a heart beat. It's okay for story writing to be a collaborative art.
How would you describe your writing habits?
I'm very erratic in the way I write. I have no particular schedule I adhere to. I simply write whenever the urge hits. I compose on a word processor, print out a first draft, and read for sentence structure. After edits I show it to someone (generally my wife or a graduate student I've worked with), and then I make five additional passes -- each pass lasting about two and a half hours -- before the manuscript is sent out for publication. On the first pass, I concentrate solely on language -- vocabulary and authenticity, that is. The second pass consists of looking for all the tropes, metaphors, and similes in order to make sure they're integral to the story. Then, after letting it age a few days, I go through a third time and check all the punctuation and thin out anything extraneous. In the fourth pass I expand on the material still there. The final pass is an edit of anything that has been added. The process is a bit mechanical but very effective; it produces a clean manuscript.
You once wrote, about teaching fiction: "I'm big on telling students to incorporate their own fascinations into the fabric of their writing, whether it's mounting butterflies or collecting toilet bowls. I've also taught them that they should write about what goes on in their own back yards." What's your approach to the teaching of fiction?
What I do with students is try to put them in touch with where they're from. Everybody's heard the cliché, "Write what you know," and as is the case with most clichés, there's a great deal of truth in it. One of my big problems with beginning writers is that they act like they're all from Los Angeles or New York, and that's because they've been bombarded by everything from MTV to Burger King ads to Hollywood stereotypes, all originally from those two places. My job is to tell them that no, this way of thinking is inaccurate. They've been given a little piece of territory all their own, consisting of their family and neighborhood. If they're going to write, they've got to write about characters based on people they know: aunts, uncles, the eccentric guy down the block, and they've got to write using the unique language patterns of that landscape they own. Once I get them to use their own culture, everything starts to gel: the way people talk, the way things look, the way people value things.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.