Brewer and GayPosted: December 14, 2007
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.