We felt compelled to add our voice to the volume of heartfelt tributes floating around in memory of the writer William Gay. What has emerged in the days since his death a week and a half ago is a tribute not only to the man's work and legacy, but to the man himself. A mysterious figure in the book world — he arrived on the scene at 55, a laborer and factory worker most of his life — it seems those who encountered him were so taken in by the man that they never forgot the experience. Like us, they felt privileged to know him.
If any of our local friends met him, it was likely through his occasional visits to Greenwood. When we opened Turnrow Books in 2006, he was the first person who came to mind when inviting authors to appear. He accepted gladly and spent several days with us. (He's captured here with other attending writers Jack Pendarvis, Dennis Lehane and Tom Franklin in a great moment by our friend Susan Montgomery.) He came back later to sign and read from his last novel, Twilight, and later we paid a memorable visit to Greenwood's legendary, and almost mythical, Cotton Row Club.
We started in the book business about the same time as William. We remember the first time his agent, Amy Williams, brought him to Oxford and introduced us to him at Square Books. He did not resemble your typical writer, that's for sure. His rough-hewn appearance and polite deference and sorghum-thick Tennessee accent belied what a wise poet and gentle man resided within. It proved to us that anyone may be harboring a great novel inside. You can't judge a book by its cover and all that.
He once told us he wanted to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald and would crank out stories of society types until he realized he was better suited to telling tales of backwoods Tennessee lives. Read his novels, including The Long Home and Provinces of Night, or his outstanding short stories and you'll be touched by these lives, characters on the fringes, all a bit rough around the edges and misunderstood. We identified with them, enjoyed the rich and fluid beauty of his prose, the stark and shocking imagery, and always the dark humor. Descriptions of William's writing never make enough of the comedy in his work. He was as much an heir of Flannery O'Connor's literary genius as Faulkner and McCarthy, to whom he is most often compared.
We came to know him as well as any writer we've ever met. He was enviably well read and his knowledge of music and movies was seemingly endless. Later in life he acquired a knack for painting and produced additional evidence of his romantic view of his rural Tennessee surroundings.
William was a keen observer and chose his words carefully. His hesitance to rub elbows with the literati sent him in search of a more familiar crowd at the closest neighborhood bar, earning him the misleading reputation of being a hard drinker. William spent the greater part of his life hanging dry wall and only after his arrival on the Southern literary scene did people take notice. Being noticed wasn't something William cared about. Instead his attention was focused on his writing, his family, his friends.
Though his writing will be the legacy left to the world, he took the most pride in his family. He was a dedicated and wonderful father. The only thing we ever heard him brag about was his son Chris, a gifted singer/songwriter. Those who thing it ends with William Gay should wait and see how his legacy lives on through Chris, who writes songs with a similar insight and eloquence.
For those who never had the pleasure of meeting William or hearing him read in that incomparable voice, we'd like to share this short documentary from Oxford American magazine. It captures the William we knew, the quiet and thoughtful soul. A friend we'll never forget.