Guest Blog on William Gay

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.



“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.


Julie Gillen writes a weekly humor column for The Daily Herald. She may be contacted at Her blog is


2 Comments on “Guest Blog on William Gay”

  1. Colleen K. Speroff says:

    Julie, you are so fortunate to have known William at such a personal level, and this column is a wonder tribute to him. Thank you for sharing some of your experiences with William with the rest of us! Colleen Speroff

  2. Julie Gillen says:

    Thanks, Colleen. Truth is, we were all lucky to have William, and if you read his books and stories you will discover that he is still with us. His writing is unsurpassed, and although he is gone in body, he will live forever in spirit.

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