On Monday I received an email from Diana, a reader:
“We lost William Gay this past week. He was first published at 55 years of age. He is being compared to Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. He is one of my literary heroes.”
I’d not really heard of him, but her short note was so poignant.
I discovered that William Gay was born in 1941, the son of a sharecropper. He grew up a blue-collar worker, a carpenter and painter. At age 15 he discovered the magic of words and knew he wanted to write, but it wasn’t part of his world.
He worked odd jobs, enlisted in the Navy, traipsed around Chicago and New York because that’s where he thought writers hung out. For decades, he submitted stories to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and Esquire. All were rejected.
William finally came home to Tennessee, got married and raised four children, always writing at night. His wife eventually divorced him. His children grew up and left home. He decided to try again.
He submitted a short story to the Georgia Review. It was called “I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down.” They published him. He was 55.
“After I finally got published in the Georgia Review, I got a call from the editor at The Atlantic. He asked why I wasn’t sending them something because they’d like to publish my work. I told him I’d been sending things for years. He said they never got to his desk. I had to wonder what kind of operation they were running.”
Besides numerous short stories, he wrote three novels, The Long Home (2000), Provinces of Night (2002) and Twilight (2006). He received several literary awards, including a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
William wrote Southern Gothic, a style known for evocative prose about dark subjects — grifters and golden fields, hard earth and eternal sky, the devil at the crossroads. As Diana pointed out, he’s been compared to Faulkner and McCarthy (No Country For Old Men). Here’s the opening of Provinces of Night:
Just at twilight Boyd came up the graveled walk, the chain with its plowpoint weight drawing the gate closed behind him, before him the shanty black and depthless as a stageprop against the failing light. On the porch the old man in the rocking chair sat staring burnteyed at him like some revenant out of his past.
William Gay peacefully passed away last Thursday in his Tennessee log cabin, age 70.
If you have seven more minutes, please enjoy this interview with him. He’s soft-spoken with gorgeous drawl, a born storyteller. The literary world recognized him for just fifteen years, but he felt no bitterness. He never gave up. I plan to write more about him later. Much thanks to Diana for introducing me to this amazing man.
- Clarksville Online: On The Passing of William Gay
- New York Times Obituary
- Photo by Elizabeth DeRamus