I’m honored to host a guest writer: my friend, columnist Julie Gillen. Julie and William were close friends. She did an interview with him back in 2004 and from then on, their spirits maintained a deep caring connection. The week of his death, William provided Julie with a blurb for her forthcoming book. A lifetime treasure, that is, and something to hold on to in a time of loss. William has such a rare talent. I think my grandchildren and Julie’s grandchild, who are barely three and almost three, will study him later on in school.
WILLIAM GAY AND THE INEVITABILITY OF MIRACLES
“Without knowing it, he followed the same self-route the doctor had taken some eight months earlier, and in a world of infinite possibilities where all journeys share a common end, perhaps they are together, taking the evening air on a ruined veranda among the hollyhocks and oleanders, the doctor sipping his scotch and the paperhanger his San Miguel, gentlemen of leisure discussing the vagaries of life and pondering deep into the night not just the possibility but the inevitability of miracles.”
— William Gay, excerpt from “The Paperhanger”
My friend William Gay died last week, and I will miss him, as will all of his friends and legions of fans. Back in March 2004, I interviewed William Gay, critically acclaimed writer, and the interview was published in The Daily Herald on March 7, 2004.
There have been two times in my life that I have sensed inevitability: The first time was when I was a senior in high school, and that one did not turn out well. Still, there was that sense of inevitability, that sense that something was about to happen over which I had no control.
The second time I experienced the sense of inevitability was in late October 2002, when William Gay and his son Chris Gay were to perform on the “Thacker Mountain” radio show in Oxford, Miss. I was headed down to Oxford to visit our daughter Katy that weekend, and I knew that somehow, I would run into William Gay, although I would not seek him out, because it seemed inevitable, meaning that there was nothing I had to do.
My interest in William Gay originated from a reference he made to my great-grandfather, “Pappy Rasbury,” in his first published book, “The Long Home.” I will add that my connection to the Rasburys was strong and protective and sweet and somewhat clannish, and I knew somehow that we would cross paths, because I knew that somehow, he was like the Wayne County Rasburys and that was a sweet and pure thing. It is my belief that people who grow up in this neck of the woods need to stay close to home.
Sure enough, as I was walking down the stairs at Square Books on a Sunday morning in Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 2, 2002 at 10:30 a.m., there he was, with a perky young woman by his side. And it just so happened that I had just purchased his new collection of short stories, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.” I walked over to him and asked, “Are you William Gay?”
“I think so,” he said, and seeing his book that was clutched firmly to my heart, he asked, “You want me to sign your book?”
“No, I said. “You’ve already signed it.” And then I made mention of Pappy Rasbury, and we talked about our local connection.
Meanwhile, the young girl lit up and said, “We want William to move to Oxford! We just love him down here!”
I said, “William’s not going anywhere but Hohenwald. That’s the only place he can write.” And then I realized that my adrenaline level had risen, and that I was not competing in a basketball game with Loretto, Tenn., anymore, and I calmed myself down without knocking her into the bleachers or fouling out.
Over the years, William Gay and I continued to talk, at first about writing and music, and then to more local concerns such as the behavior of our children and the rising cost of coffee and beans. While I admire and appreciate William’s rare talent that is compared to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, it is the local, normal conversations that I will cherish the most.
William Gay and I each have four children: Two girls and two boys, all grown. In our later conversations, we spoke mostly about our children, and it was clear to me that his children were his top priority. He was not remotely interested in reading reviews about his writing, and he enjoyed his privacy, which I respected. William occasionally got a kick out of things I would say to him. Back to the Rasbury connection, I told him that my beloved Rasbury grandmother had a bookshelf in her living room that contained a minimal portion of books that I had loved to look at since my childhood. One of the books was titled “Naked Came I,” by David Weiss. I told William that throughout my life, I dared not touch that book because my visual perception of the title was sinful, in that it appeared to read “Naked Camei.”
I always wondered: Why was Camei naked? Surely this was not a book that I was supposed to touch, much less open, because Camei was naked! William laughed at my perception and said it was a highly significant book. I will add that William knew details about every book I ever mentioned to him, because he spent much of his life reading and studying the patterns of the writing therein.
One day I mentioned to William that back in high school, I had read Jacqueline Susann’s book, “Once is Not Enough,” and he said, “That is the stupidest book ever written.”
But we laughed, and I was not offended. After all, I read it in a beauty shop and it was quite shocking to me at such a tender and vulnerable age.
My friend William Gay won both the James A. Michener Memorial Prize and the William Peden Award, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition he was named a 2007 USA Ford Foundation Fellow and awarded a $50,000 grant by United States Artists, a charity that supports and promotes the work of American artists.
William, I will miss you always, and so will the rest of your friends and fans. You will live on through your writing, and I find comfort in that belief. Although you are gone from this harsh world in which you wrote about, we will take care of you and your precious children.
Press on, William. Press on.
This picture, shared on Facebook by Landmark Booksellers, says it all. You can see it in his face. A man from lowly means, a drywall hanger for much of his career, a man who collected sassafras root in the woods, a man who is not pretentious, a man who is genuine, who likes to talk about his seventh-grade English teacher who encouraged him to read good literature and gave him The Sound and the Fury, and his reading of and influence by writers such as Cormac McCarthy, O’Connor, Faulkner, a man who will go down in history as one of the most acclaimed Southern writers of all time.
He looks strong and confident in this picture. Like he’s saying, Read me. Know me by my works. His chin is determined. His eyes take hold of me as I look at the image and almost against character tell me, You will remember me. I will be with you always.
Landmark Booksellers — Joel and Carol Tomlin — believed in him and hosted him many times for readings, signings, and just to sit out front of the book shop and talk to thousands of people during Main Street Festival. I think I was there every time William was. I think I bought all his books from Landmark. I loved being in the cozy literary environment with all the pictures of Southern authors hanging behind the butterscotch leather sofa.
I feel the need to go back there … and gather with other writers and readers … and sit on the butterscotch sofa and matching chairs and on wooden benches between the stacks … and read aloud works by this talented author. Somehow, Landmark seems home.
Somehow, we need to go home and remember.
Besides Wine Down Main and the Art Crawl, there was William Gay at Landmark, signing books and selling his paintings. I want one so badly! Chris, his son, played guitar and sang. What talent these two have!
I enjoyed wine and cheese with friends there: Colleen, Julie, Ted, Neil, and it’s always great to see Joel and Carol. Some pictures of the evening:
Wine, cheese, crackers, and green grapes, along with Sonny Brewer and William Gay last night in cozy Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin, Tennessee. Life doesn’t get much better. Landmark, with its unique collection of rare and used books, must be much like Over the Transom, the bookstore that Sonny established in Fairhope, Alabama. Now, Sonny writes and goes on book tours; a friend took over the store.
I staggered into Landmark and planted myself next to William Gay on the soft caramel leather sofa with some crackers and cheese. I’d just had a colonoscopy that morning and was still loopy from being put under, but I wasn’t about to miss the literary event of the year.
I first knew of Sonny as the editor of the Blue Moon Cafe Southern fiction series. He also has two novels: The Poet of Tolstoy Park and A Sound Like Thunder, both set in his bayfront hometown of Fairhope. His newly released book is memoir [creative nonfiction] and is titled Cormac, after author Cormac McCarthy, of course. The book is about Sonny’s Golden Retriever, Cormac, who ran away one night while Sonny was away. The dog ended up in the back of a red pickup truck and made it all the way to Connecticut.
The story is mostly true. Sonny confesses, in person and in the Author’s Note, that he fudged on a few things. “Some of the facts are changed because I waited three years to write this and I forgot some details…When I wrote that I picked out my puppy from a litter of puppies, I truly could not — and cannot now — remember whether there were five puppies or seven puppies in that litter…” And so on. Last night, he told another related story about a compassionate letter — a tribute to the dog — he got in real life from a famous author friend. He wanted to use the letter in the book, but the friend say no, not to use his real name, but to call him a “Cajun, a six-foot-nine walking book on the outdoors,” who “had a master’s degree in forestry, and had once hosted his own outdoorsman reality show on cable television,” which Sonny does on page 123 of the book. (Maybe I shouldn’t tell who it really is, but his initials are R. B.) In creative nonfiction, it is acceptable to enhance or fill in a few details, as long as you inform your audience you are doing so. There’s this thing about building trust with your readers, and Sonny has made an effort to be honest with his.
Sonny described how he first met William Gay. It was at a SEBA conference years back. He was told he should pick up a chapbook by this writer who only had one or two hundred printed. He later met William in the bar, but forgot to get a copy of the book. He knew there was a signing the next morning and thought it would be easy to get a copy then, as this was an unknown writer and nobody would come to the signing. He went…and the line was out the door. Sonny didn’t wait in the line, but he ended up with a book somehow, and on the drive home with two other writers, he pulled out the chapbook and asked permission to read. Afterwards, all he could say was, “Damn.” William is that good.
By trade, William has been in construction — making mortar, laying bricks, framing, hanging drywall. But he has been obsessed with reading since a teen and his seventh grade teacher encouraged him to read books better than Zane Grey and gave him Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. He thought he could write like that. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is one of William’s Top 5 favorite books, and it was funny because last night as William read one of his own stories, I heard a Faulkner-like line every now and then.
William writes scene by scene, not in sequential order. Then he goes back and puts all the scenes together. It’s like he establishes all the significant land masses, then builds the bridges to connect them.
William was fifty-five before he ever got anything published. He’d send stories to The New Yorker and Esquire and the likes, and got rejection after rejection. He started getting published when he submitted to college quarterlies. His debut story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” was published in The Georgia Review. Afterwards, an agent called him — or actually called his daughter because William didn’t have a phone. And the rest is history.
On a cold, wet night, in all my loopiness, I was aware that I was in the presence of significant literary talent.