It was a big sacrifice to give up that child. I think the fact that they remain childless through the end of the novel is to demonstrate how big a sacrifice giving up Walter really was.
BAUER: In various interviews, you have talked about the value of capturing the voices of home, and you have been praised by interviewers and reviewers for the authenticity of your dialogue. So it must have felt like a risk to choose for the central perspective of The Clearing two Yankees. Would you talk about that choice in light of what you have said about writing about Louisiana?
That was done to open up the novel to all readers so that we wouldn't have so much a hermetically sealed, southern novel with southerners looking at southerners. We have a novel in which these northerners are looking at the culture and the people down here, and the readers in Minnesota or Oregon or Canada look at things through the main characters' eyes. The non-southern point of view makes The Clearing less of a southern novel, and I think improves it, broadens it.
BAUER: Well actually, if you think about the nineteenth-century southern literary tradition of bringing the northerner in to see that the South is not so bad, it actually is an old tradition of an outsider looking in. What Byron and Randolph see is completely out of their experience. Randolph doesn't know what to do with it.
Byron says, rather, 'This is what I've seen of the world; this place is no different. But they don't. The anonymity and isolation are what Byron wants. Randolph finds himself empowered by coming south. He's really, for the first time, in charge of things. When he goes back to civilization he finds it to be inconsequential. Swamp life is a tough existence, but then again it's an intense one.
It's one that he grows used to. BAUER: You have also mentioned that you ended up cutting the California section of Next Step in the Dance down significantly in order to bring your characters back to more familiar territory. They don't want to read about California. Really, there was an out-migration of a quarter-million skilled workers in the eighties; geologists, the best welders and machinists, they just left the state.
They didn't start up some Cajun enterprise. I don't know what the next one will be. I've got this old cranky guy in my imagination, and I might give him a book. I've never written a book in first person and it might be time to try that.
It's Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories
I had good luck with "Welding with Children"; the voice in that story was really good. It's easier to write in first person than third person. It doesn't take the same discipline. So I might start playing around with that. BAUER: Although in The Missing , right when we are getting worried about the little girl, Lily, you have a chapter in which we find out that the scoundrels who kidnapped her are not abusing her.
So third person allows this information, which is kind of a relief to the reader, who can go on with Sam's adventures, knowing that Lily is at least physically okay, especially when we learn about the boy who was adopted and then sexually abused—which brings me to the violence in the new novel. But first, backing up a bit, throughout the novel, Sam keeps meeting himself—in the German girl, in Lily and August—until he finally meets the Cloats and deals with his past. Now there's a scene! Leading up to Sam's own experience with the Cloats we hear Constable Soner's story about them—he alludes to a dog involved but doesn't ever get specific—just says that whatever his wife witnessed, she couldn't get over.
Again, then, the violence occurs offstage. You have to know when to stop because you can ruin things for the reader. You can give him a piece of graphic violence that will just overpower the rest of the narrative for him because he can't think of anything else for the rest of the story except some horrible scene that you've detailed for him, which you don't need to do anyway because whatever's in the reader's imagination is worse than anything you could paint for him.
Even in the scarier parts of a Cormac McCarthy novel, I can see his restraint where he doesn't want to cross that line into ghoulishness. Then I remember the books that I've read where authors have gone into ghoulishness, and it's just like a trip down the meat counter at Piggly Wiggly—sensory overload.
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A writer just has to know when to hold back. Can you talk about Mark Twain? I enjoy Mark Twain. But where I get my knowledge of the Mississippi River is the fact that my father was a tugboat captain. He ran up and down the Mississippi River, and I used to ride with him sometimes. And my grandfather was the chief engineer on a steamboat. I was born in I can just barely remember some of the old steam-powered craft in the New Orleans harbor.
When I was a kid the Jackson Avenue Ferry and the Esplanade Avenue Ferry were reciprocating, steam, paddle-wheel boats and I used to ride them just to watch the engines work. I liked to listen to the machinery and the whistles and smell the hot boilers. There were still a few old sternwheel boats running in those days—the government inspection steamer, Mississippi , and John Newton , and a couple of others: in New Orleans we'd see the Delta Queen or the Gordon C.
My father knew the people who worked on these boats, and we'd go through the engine room and talk to the engineer. And when I was a kid I used to ride on the old, side-wheeled steamer President down in New Orleans, which was steam-powered all the way until And I'd be down in the engine room listening to how engineers answered the old bell system of communication rung by the pilot upstairs.
I'd go up on the roof and watch the pilot in the wheelhouse blow the big whistle.
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So a lot of what is in The Missing is from firsthand experience, and then of course I've done all my reading, taken passage on the Delta Queen , ridden the Belle of Louisville , and whenever I'm around any kind of old, nautical, reciprocating machinery, I make a point to photograph it, visit it, talk with the docents that take care of it. BAUER: You talk about the different steamboat whistles in the novel—the pilot knows who is coming by the different whistles.
This has not been captured in fiction since Mark Twain, and these things are gone. But in your new novel we get on that steamboat and ride up and down the river during that time. From say to the excursion boats were a big deal all throughout the South and the Midwest. These big steamers would run on the Mississippi from New Orleans all the way up to Minneapolis, on the Ohio all the way up to Pittsburgh.
They'd stop at towns along the route and show up with a great jazz band and huge dance floor and entertain a community, clean up, and move on to the next one. There were probably forty or fifty boats that operated in that trade in the thirty-year period we're talking about.
It's Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories
It reminds us that every community has a different voice. Twain was apparently a linguist who captured all the different dialects. One of the things I like about your Louisiana stories is that you recognize that not every Louisianian sounds the same. Different main characters have different voices. Linguists in Louisiana could probably put them where they're from, whether it's Morgan City or Lake Charles or Alexandria. I feel like that's in both novels.
In The Clearing , you've given the main point of view to the outsiders, but all the different voices are still there—the Cajuns and the Creoles and the African Americans. If you walk around this area of North Carolina, you'll hear retirees from Florida who are originally from New Jersey; you'll hear Mexicans. The priest at the local church is from Vietnam.
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And then there are mountain people here that I have trouble understanding sometimes. The locals here are very friendly and open people—some of them say thar for there —I mean a deep thar.
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I might say to someone, 'Well I think I'll go up to West Jefferson,' and he'll respond, 'I wouldn't go thar this afternoon. Up thar they's a-workin' on the highway. One might assume that a region's accents are homogenous, but that is never true anywhere—especially in the South. BAUER: There are a lot of Souths, and speaking of the South, you mention in one interview that " Deputy Sid's Gift " is the closest you come to dealing with race, acknowledging the painfulness and thus the difficulty of this topic.
That interview was before The Clearing , because you do deal with race in that novel with May and Walter, and you also deal with race with the musicians in The Missing. Would you talk about race and why you don't write about it, even as a writer of southern literature? Your reviewers don't find the subject missing, by the way—I've found no one noting the subject as missing in your work. But you are from Louisiana, as I am, and I know race is still an issue there. I don't write about race. I write about people. I included black characters in The Missing because the best musicians on the dance boats were African American.
The new jazz music was money in the bank for a big dance boat. The white bands couldn't play like that, not at first, so the boats hired the African American, New Orleans musicians, not because they were black—it wasn't a racial issue—it was because only they had the sound, the good dance sound, and these were dance boats.
The second decks were three hundred-foot-long, waxed dance floors, and the boats were after young people generally, who wanted to hear the latest hot music.