- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - In the blue-collar world of Tim Gautreaux’s stories, characters get grease under their nails fixing old motors, eat gumbo and play bourre.

While much contemporary fiction focuses on the bleak side of humanity, Gautreaux’s people are willing to lend a hand: A piano tuner helps a woman rebuild her life, or a retiree assists a neighbor girl with a school project.

“Everybody is afraid of emotion, afraid of reality, or they just don’t know how to make ordinary lives work in fiction,” Gautreaux said. “The result is all these negative, dark, scary collections of short stories.”

For decades, Gautreaux, 69, has documented these ordinary lives in three “swamp novels,” as he calls them, and three collections of short stories. His latest collection, “Signals,” was released in January. It contains 12 new stories and nine previously published in book form.

The son of a tugboat captain raised in Morgan City, Gautreaux was surrounded by oilfield workers and machinists, and he remains fascinated by antique machinery.

He said he began writing fiction as a child when he grew bored telling his pen pals about life in Morgan City.

“I told a guy I had a pet alligator that I would ride around the backyard, and he believed it,” Gautreaux said. “That got me started.”

The nuns at Sacred Heart, now Central Catholic High School, encouraged his writing. After completing his bachelor’s degree at Nicholls State University, Gautreaux earned his doctorate at the University of South Carolina. He taught at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond until retiring in 2003.

Gautreaux said he is “unequivocally wedded” to realism. Ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems have always populated his stories. In his world, there’s not a lot of murder and mayhem.

“I’m 69 years old, and nobody has ever shot at me or tried to stick me with a knife or shot up my house or beat up my kids,” he said.

Some fiction writers focus on bleak topics the way rubberneckers look at car wrecks, he said.

“That is a negative tendency of human nature that, as far as being a fiction writer, I just don’t understand,” he said.

Gautreaux writes about the “99 percent of people who just lead normal lives.”

In “Resistance,” a story reprinted in “Signals,” a retired sugar mill foreman named Alvin Boudreaux helps a young girl with a science project when her alcoholic father will not. At the story’s climax, the father destroys the display and pushes down Boudreaux - a man in his 70s.

The violence goes no further. Mr. Boudreaux sprays the drunk with a garden hose.

“Mr. Boudreaux squeezed the lever on the hose nozzle and sprayed the father in the stomach and he stumbled backward against the mother, cursing,” Gautreaux writes. “He sprayed him in the forehead.”

Mr. Boudreaux stays up all night rebuilding the project with parts from around the house and surprises the girl with the completed experiment and a freshly typed report.

“It’s a very quiet story,” Gautreaux said. “Nothing unbelievable happens in it. It’s the kind of stuff that happens every day. Nobody knows how to write like that.”

Chiefly known for chronicling the people of south Louisiana, the new collection features a story based in North Carolina, where Gautreaux and his wife keep a summer place in the mountains.

A year and a half ago, Gautreaux moved from Louisiana to be near grandchildren outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He keeps a workshop where he repairs antique steam gauges and steam whistles for tourist railroads. And he writes, but rarely on a deadline.

“I’ve got that Louisiana disease of limited ambition,” he said. “So I write when I feel like it. I guess my motto is ‘Write less and think more.’”

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Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com

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