One of my favorite writers, William Gay died Thursday of heart failure at age 68. I’m very sad for his loss, and the loss of all the beautiful fiction he would have written if he had survived.
William Gay came up poor in the small town of Hohenwald, Tennessee. He never attended college and made his living as a carpenter. For about 35 years, he would write his haunting southern stories and send them off to magazines, and for decades, they were rejected. But he kept writing, kept getting better, and ultimately, he did get published in some of the most prestigious literary magazines.
In the mid-90s, I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona. One Saturday, I was at a yard sale and I came across a cassette tape edition of his first novel, The Long Home. At the time, I’d never heard of William Gay, but the blurb on the case made it sound like my kind of story, so I bought it for a dollar and stuck it in my car.
A few days later, I was driving somewhere and I remembered the tape and popped it into the player. I listened for about five minutes, and I immediately was drawn in completely. So much so, that I thought what I was hearing was just too good to listen to on tape. I knew that the tape was a shortened version of the novel, and I didn’t want to miss any of it, so I went to a bookstore and found the novel and read it and I was hooked addictively to William Gay’s exquisite sentences.
I went on to read everything I could find of William Gay’s. His second novel, Provinces of Night was even better than the first. His two collections of short stories include some of the best I’ve ever read. When I ran out his books, I hunted down his work in magazines and anthologies and read it.
In 1997, I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, home to the University of Arkansas. When I found out William Gay was giving a reading on campus one cold winter night, I went and dragged my son along with me. We found seats on the third row of the auditorium where he would be reading. Local writer of note Skip Hayes, who I remember was suffering from a terrible cold, introduced William Gay.
When he came out, he was a slight, retiring man. He stepped to the podium and began reading one of his short stories from a current copy of Tin House. There was a microphone in front of him, but the public address system wasn’t working that night.
And William Gay was so soft spoken, we couldn’t understand the words he was reading, and we were only about fifteen feet away.
Everyone in the auditorium sat there politely while he read, though not one person in that audience could understand what he was saying. When he finished reading, I went to him and shook his hand and told him how much I loved his writing. I wish I had done even more, invited him to coffee, or a beer. Even if he’d turned me down at least I would have tried. And if he had accepted, I would have been overjoyed.
I’ve replayed that moment in my mind for the past few years and I constructed a fantasy that someday I would be driving through Tennessee and I would go through Hohenwald and I would call William Gay and invite him to meet me at the down home cafe there that appears in his novels. That’s how much I liked this writer.
A couple of days later, I went to the library and read the story I had been unable to hear him read that night, and it was a fine one.
Southern literature has lost a great voice. His time here was not long enough. I told him in the brief moment I met him that I thought his work was transcendent. It’s doesn’t seem fair for him to be lost to us, to be silenced in the prime of his artistic life. I will miss him like crazy.