I had never heard of writer William Gay (1941-2012) until a reader, Diana, alerted me to his death:
“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 found her short note so poignant, I went on a quest to discover more about him.
William Gay was born the son of a sharecropper in Hohenwald, Tennessee. At age 15 he discovered the magic of words and knew he wanted to write, but it wasn’t part of his world.
He served in Viet Nam and returned home to support his family through carpentry and other odd jobs. For decades, he wrote at night and submitted stories to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and Esquire. All were rejected.
His wife eventually divorced him. His children grew up and left home. He decided to try again.
At age 55, he submitted a short story to the Georgia Review. It was called “I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down.” They published him.
“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 in his Tennessee log cabin, age 70.
If you have seven more minutes, please enjoy this interview with him. He’s soft-spoken with a 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
- Opening Art: Cottage with Decrepit Barn by Van Gogh (1885)