William Gay was born a writer. As a late-life literary success who didn't attend creative-writing programs or pay for professional workshops, Gay symbolized the hopes of struggling writers, especially rural ones. He was good, and he found a way to let the world know he was good — those are facts we cling to as evidence of what is possible. Throughout history, people have made long pilgrimages to witness lesser miracles.
William Gay's death last week of heart failure sent tremors through the community of writers and readers in Tennessee and beyond, people who loved him as a friend and as a writer. We have asked some of those who knew Gay, in ways large and small, to send us their stories. They come from New York City and from Wyoming, from Maine and from Virginia, and of course, from Tennessee. Together, we hope their recollections present a portrait of a man who will be greatly missed. —Serenity Gerbman, Humanities Tennessee
I once asked William Gay what it was like to be a famous author in a small town like Hohenwald. Did his neighbors come around at odd hours, bug him for autographs? Did he get into conversations about his characters at the checkout counter?
He said he tried to lay low. But occasionally people did approach him. One day, he said, "This woman asked if I had someone who helped me with my writing. I said, 'What do you mean by that?' And she said, 'Well, I knew your family a long time, and they're not that smart. I knew you when you were younger, and you're not that smart. I was wondering if you had somebody who took out the little words and put in the big words.' "
What really blew my hair back was how he told the story: He wasn't offended, he didn't laugh. He sounded hurt. William looked pretty hard, with a face that had gone 11 rounds with life, but he was one of the most sensitive men I've had the pleasure of knowing. It came out in his person, and even more in his writing.
Above all, he was sensitive about place. More than most writers, William was about one particular place, that clump of Middle Tennessee where he was born and raised, where he'd written, and written, and written, always to be rejected, until his breakthrough, late in life, with The Georgia Review. Thinly veiled Hohenwalds and Lewis Counties served as the settings for his stories and novels. He had tried to move away. He had lived in New York after leaving the Navy; in the redneck ghettos of Chicago, working at a pinball-machine factory. Now, with his success, he could move to Sewanee, or Oxford, or Chapel Hill, or some other college town and take up with like-minded folks thinking like-minded thoughts and doing like-minded things.
He had lived for a while in Oxford, actually, but he moved back to Hohenwald, again. His family was there, and he said he couldn't write anywhere else. "I don't know what it is about that," he told me. "I'm close to the place I grew up, and the countryside, the natural part of it, hasn't changed."
And here was that place, Hohenwald, kicking him in the teeth. It wasn't the only time William hinted at how hard it was for him to be accepted as a writer in his community. Back before he started selling his work, folks in his own family thought it was a bit weird that he'd spend all his time writing.
There was something heroic about William. To write, to produce something lasting for the rest of us to enjoy, and maybe learn from, he submitted himself to ridicule, ostracism, odd looks in the convenience store. And for the better part of four decades, he batted a goose egg in that particular game. It's easy to aspire to the life of a Brooklyn novelist or a Left Bank poet. But how many of us would have the perseverance, the commitment to art of a William Gay? —Clay Risen (New York City)
I first met William Gay when I was teaching at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma. He had come to do a reading and, of course, had blown the doors off the place. Our students, most of whom worked full-time jobs in addition to going to school, reacted to him like they hadn't with other visiting writers we'd had.
These were rural Tennessee kids, and you could just see the whole world of books and writing opening up to them as he read from his novel, The Long Home. Here was a man who spoke as they spoke, who looked like someone they might have worked with or been related to, who had worked the same kind of jobs they had. It was as if a light had gone on in their heads: This life I'm living, here in Tullahoma, working to make ends meet, is worthy of being told.
What they felt that night was what anyone felt who had the chance to spend a little time with William, namely that you were in the presence of something authentic. The real deal. After the reading, I invited William back to my house for a visit. He didn't know me, but I mentioned that I had some beer and that I really liked Cormac McCarthy. These two facts seemed to do the trick.
Back at my place, we passed through the kitchen, grabbed our beers, and headed toward the den. This proved an elusive destination for William because en route he had come across my bookcase. It was here that he stopped, or set up shop, rather. I went on in and put on some music, then joined him again in front of the books. For the next 40 minutes or so, we stood there, never quite able to make it fully into the den, pulling out book after book and talking about it. We talked specifically about scenes we liked, and how the writing conveyed what it needed to convey. Three scenes I remember off-hand were: the turtle crossing the road in Grapes of Wrath (point of view), Rufus walking home with his dad after seeing the Chaplin movie in A Death in the Family (voice and tone), and Harrogate's amorous adventure in the watermelon patch in Suttree (good ol'-fashioned romance).
It soon became apparent that there was no book in my collection he hadn't read. And apparent as well that William had something very near a photographic memory. His recall was uncanny, and he was just damn smart. Eventually we did make it into the den, where my wife and a few friends were waiting. Seeing all my CDs in one convenient browsing spot, William plopped down on the floor and began looking at these. Again, there was no music I had that he wasn't familiar with, be it John Lee Hooker, Coltrane or Waylon Jennings. He smiled as he pulled out each new CD, sometimes offering a comment on its production or inspiration, sometimes just grinning fondly to himself as if he was seeing an old friend. I suggested he just go ahead and DJ for us, and this was an idea he could embrace. So that was how the night went on, a late, late night as my wife just reminded me: William on the floor in front of the stereo, a bottle of beer beside him, some books he liked scattered about, and Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent, & the E-Street Shuffle cranking out into the night. —Inman Majors (Harrisonburg, Va.)
Read the rest of the essays — by Darnell Arnoult, Adrian Blevins, Sonny Brewer, Robert Hicks, Derrick Hill, Suzanne Kingsbury, Randy Mackin, Corey Mesler, George Singleton, Brad Watson, and Steve Yarbrough — as well an excerpt from Gay's forthcoming novel The Lost Country at Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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