ART: William Gay, Hohenwald, Tennessee, 2009. Photograph by Anthony Scarlati.
He cut his own hair. In warm weather, he’d bathe in the creek behind his house. He hunted ginseng in the woods when the season was right. He tended a vegetable garden that grew tomatoes, squash, okra, carrots, and onions. He smoked Marlboros. He sometimes wrote in a tree house on his property. Women loved him. They wanted to take care of him, to fatten him up. He never drove. He wrote. He wrote in yellow legal tablets, one stacked on another. His favorite restaurant was Waffle House. In the ’60s, he heard Janis Joplin play in Greenwich Village, and when he requested a Bob Dylan song, she snapped, “We don't do covers, sir.” He loved him some Bob Dylan. He loved David Letterman, too, and the Cubs. He loved Seinfeld, Deadwood, William Faulkner, Bill Clinton, AC/DC. He loved movies, though he never went to a theater. Most of all he loved his children, and his grandchildren. He had high Cherokee cheekbones and small brown eyes that got lost when he smiled. The skin of his face had deep lines in it that seemed to hint at hard living. When the writer Janisse Ray met him, at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, she said, “You look like a man who's been shot at.” And he did, he looked like a man who’d been shot at. There’d be weeks he wouldn’t answer his phone. It might be disconnected, or it might just ring and ring. If it went on too long, we’d all start worrying, his friends, calling one another. Have you talked to William? Have you talked to William?
I met William Gay in July of 1999 at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. My first book had just been published, and I was at the conference, thrilled to be there with my wife. Among the writers loitering about the various events was a man I noticed, often with an attractive younger woman. This man was older but it was hard to tell how old, maybe forty-five, maybe sixty. He looked grizzled, like he cut his own hair. At readings, panels, and parties, he always stood on the fringe, alone or with the woman (his agent, Amy Williams, I’d later learn), and was always smoking a Marlboro. If it was noon or later, he’d have a Budweiser.
A few days into the conference, I attended a presentation by Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon. At the end of the talk, I got in line to ask him a question. Waiting, I turned around at one point and there stood the grizzled man himself. He wore blue jeans and a black T-shirt and a navy corduroy sports jacket. We introduced ourselves and I was proud when he told me he’d just gotten my book. He’d seen an ad for it in a magazine. He and I began to talk as the line inched along and were still talking when we realized Fisketjon was watching us. It was our turn. (Yes, we’d become an “our” somehow.) William stuck out his hand and said, “I just wanted to meet the man with the balls to edit Cormac McCarthy.”
That night, after dinner, I joined William at Rebel’s Rest, the house where the after-hours parties were. We sat in rocking chairs on the porch, me with my Bud Light and him with his Bud Heavy, smoking, and he asked which was my favorite McCarthy novel.
“Suttree,” I said.
“Mine too,” he said, obviously pleased that I hadn't chosen one of the more popular ones, Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses.
“I love how that book starts,” William said of Suttree, and then he began to quote the opening paragraph, Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours.... And when he stopped, I kept going.
Yet it would be months—which was characteristic for William Gay, a man I never once heard brag—before he told me of his own history with Cormac McCarthy.
In the early ’70s, he’d plucked an early McCarthy novel, Child of God, from a drugstore paperback rack, because the guy who’d written it lived in Tennessee, too. William loved the book so much he decided to look up the author in the Knoxville phone book and was stunned when Cormac McCarthy actually answered. It was awkward at first, and McCarthy wouldn’t talk about his own work but perked up when William mentioned Flannery O’Connor. And then they were off. They spoke intermittently on the phone over the next year, developing enough of a friendship that McCarthy sent William a manuscript copy of Suttree before it was published. It arrived in the mail, coffee-stained, and William read it, then his brother read it, then William read it again, and sent it back. This is before one could Xerox, and that copy had been one of the only two. “Or maybe the only one,” William said. He also told me that the manuscript contained a scene that was later edited from the novel; a bar fight redescribed. McCarthy's marginal note was, “Why re-fight the fight?” William never went to college. Out of high school, he volunteered for the Navy, figuring the view of Vietnam would be better from the deck of a ship. He never went to college, books were his teachers, books and Cormac McCarthy.
After a while, as their phone conversations continued, McCarthy said he gathered William was a writer. When William confessed he was, McCarthy offered to read his stories. He’d mark the manuscripts and send them back.
I asked William what his edits were like and William smiled. “I used to like the word ‘moon’ a lot,” he said. “I used it four times on one page, and he underlined the first one one time, the second one twice, the third one three times, and by the fourth one he wrote something like ‘too many goddamn moons.’” From that he learned to intend one’s repetition, otherwise it’s just clumsy or lazy.
William told me this story late one night in the fall of 1999. I was living in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a very lonely Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University. I talked to my wife, who was back in Illinois, on the phone each night before she went to bed, and, after that, I called William, or he’d call me. He’d given me his galley copy—his only copy of his first galley—of The Long Home, and I’d found it amazing, a Tennessee noir (which William pronounced "nar"), where the worst sort of character comes to town. As we talked, night after night, he told me about a new novel he was writing called Provinces of Night. He sent me the book in manuscript and I read it. I thought it was even better than his first. How was that possible?
I was trying to begin my own first novel then, that’s why I was at Bucknell in the first place, but I wasn’t having any luck. I had a few bad pages. I had a looming deadline. I was growing desperate, and one night, I told that to William. I said I didn’t know if I even had a novel in me.
He didn’t say anything for a while, and I opened another beer. Then he told me a story he heard growing up, of a man who tried to steal a ham on Christmas, so he could feed his family, and the man he was stealing from shot him. Then the fellow brought the dead man back to his family in a wagon. He pulled him off and lay him on the ground. But he gave them the ham.
I didn’t know what to say. The long distance buzzed between us.
“I just thought maybe you could put that in there somewhere,” he said.
I don’t remember how I responded, but after I hung up, that very night, I wrote six pages, that scene, woman and child waiting and her husband being brought back, shot dead. Along with the ham. As I read back over the pages, I realized I had my novel’s tone. What I’d just written, I knew, would become the background for one of the characters. And it gave me a foothold. I knew something about her I hadn’t before. From there I began, slowly, to write.
Years later, the manuscript finished at last, William read it for me. He called and said I needed to work on one part. I asked where. He told me the page number. William told me I had one of my poorer sharecroppers in too much misery. It was the only time I ever offended him, though he never said that. “No matter how hard he got worked,” he said, “he’d still want to set on the porch with his kids in the evening. Maybe play a guitar or banjo.”
What did I learn? That no character should be a one-note character.
He would say “Really?” a lot, his italics, always fascinated or amused by something or other, and it was here his dialect stood out the most. Say the word “Israeli” and take off the “is.” That’s how he said it.
My wife and I invited him to visit us when we lived in Galesburg, Illinois, and he gave a reading at Knox College, where we taught. He read a story, “The Paperhanger.”
After he finished, the room, packed with students and teachers, was quiet. There was a token question, an awkward silence, and so we dismissed. Later, I heard that none of those Midwesterners had been able to understand him, his accent was too thick.
Mostly when we talked we talked late at night. He’d be watching Letterman or the Cubs when I’d call.
“Hey, Thomas,” he’d say. “Let me get a beer.”
If you called him in the middle of the day and let the phone ring and ring, he’d sometimes answer, breathless from having run in from picking tomatoes.
His son Chris made the best beef stew I’ve ever eaten. Full of fat carrots and potatoes and onions from the garden. Sitting in their living room, a fire in the woodstove, talking politics or Larry Brown. The Cubs on or, in deference to me, the Braves.
We’d sit on the back porch in summer and look out over Little Swan Creek, which runs behind his house.
I’d take my kids there and we’d stand on the bank, me with a beer, him coffee, and watch as his grandkids joined mine catching small fish on the poles we’d brought, or on their knees in the creek after minnows or crawfish, frogs. On those nights, Chris would cook for everyone and all the kids, six or seven by now, would fall asleep watching a movie and William and Chris and I would go outside on the porch and Chris would strum his guitar and we’d talk or, later, watch Apocalypse Now again, a film William thought perfectly mimicked in structure the Vietnam War itself, a mission going more and more crazy.
Over the years, on the phone, on porches, in bars, walking in woods, side by side on literary panels, or side by side signing books, in hotel rooms, we’d talk....
On a plane, once, in South Carolina, we sat detained for hours because paperwork surrounding a red Igloo cooler didn’t match up; the human organ it contained wasn’t the correct one. When we finally landed, William, who wanted a cigarette, leaned over and whispered, “This’ll be the last time you’ll catch me in one of these cocksuckers.”
When he had his second heart attack, the doctors told him he needed a pacemaker.
He said he didn’t want it.
“You'll die without it,” they said.
“Put it in, then,” he said.
They did, and it kept him around awhile longer. When we’d talk after that, I’d call him an old cyborg and it always made him snicker.
People loved to tell stories about William, and stories about the stories. Mostly they revolved around his being a famous drunk. What people didn’t understand was how private he was, how hard it was for him to stand in a cluster of people and make small talk. Later, when he began to get famous, he was at a party where, he said, "They perched me on a sofa like a redneck savant. Every time I said anything they all hushed up and looked at me. I felt like E.F. Hutton."
He hated that. And he didn’t drink much at home. On our early phone calls he would, but later it would be coffee. In the last few years of his life, he only drank when he went out, when he would get nervous again.
Once (this from the writer George Singleton), William was in a hotel bar, sitting with George. A woman walks up and introduces herself to William. “You have such fathomless eyes,” she tells him. When she leaves, William leans over to George and says, “You’d think, with such fathomless eyes, I’d get laid more.”
He had his first heart attack at another book festival, while sitting on a panel.
This from William, and from the novelist Bev Marshall, who was there, and the writer and publisher Sonny Brewer, William’s dear pal, who was on the panel alongside William:
Someone, a woman, was in the midst of a long, heartfelt question to William, a “question with semicolons” he later told me, when he, William, started to feel shaky. He got cold and began to tremble, began to sweat. Meanwhile, the question was still going on, the woman looking up at the ceiling (I’m imagining now), carefully phrasing each word in the air with her hands, When you’re composing one of those lovely sentences...while William’s heart is racing and he wonders if he’s going to pass out. Or worse.
About then the question ended and the woman sat down (flushed, I imagine) and waited for her answer.
William cleared his throat a little, tried to even his breath. He leaned into the mic and said, “Sometimes.”
Sonny, watching William, reported that he lost all color, just went gray. “He looked terrible,” Sonny said. “I mean, he always looks terrible, but now he looked even worse.”
Back to Sewanee, 1999.
A bunch of us went skinny-dipping late one night, in a pond on a farm somebody knew about. Twenty or so of us clambered into the moonlit water with our drinks, all except my new friend William, whose white shirt glowed on the bank. He paced back and forth, smoking. I’d been talking to Jennifer Haigh for a while when I turned, and there, naked, waist-deep in the moonlight, a Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was William.
“I felt a little creepy,” he said, “just watching.”
Some of these stories have become famous.
How, as a poor kid desperate to write a novel, he crushed walnut shells in water to make ink. And wrote the novel.
How as a kid he got a rejection letter from The Saturday Evening Post that read, “We do not accept handwritten manuscripts.”
How “The Paperhanger” was inspired by a plumber friend of William’s, who said he was doing a job under some rich lady’s sink when her lapdog ran in and bit him on the ankle. Without thinking, he’d whacked the little dog in the head with his pipe wrench, and killed it. Here she comes, clicking through the house in her heels, and he takes the little limp dog and lifts out the tray in his toolbox and drops in the dog and replaces the tray, finishes the job. Gets paid. Drives away, flings the dog out the window.
The lesson here, I tell students, is that in “The Paperhanger,” William upped the ante by changing the dog to a little girl. Made a tragedy out of a comedy.
There’s the one about how the woman he was dating asked to read something he’d written and he gave her “The Paperhanger.” He said she would read awhile and then look up. Read awhile and look up. When she finished it, she asked him, “How much of the paperhanger is you, and how much of you is the paperhanger?” William shrugged and said it was just a story. Made-up characters.
The romance ended shortly thereafter.
“I don't think she believed me,” he said.
He loved his long titles, which he said hearkened to Flannery O’Connor. “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” “Those Deep Elm Brown’s Ferry Blues,” “Closure and Roadkill on the Life’s Highway,” “The Man Who Knew Dylan,” “Charting the Territories of the Red,” “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” and even the original title of “The Paperhanger” was “The Paperhanger, the Doctor’s Wife, and the Child Who Went Into the Abstract,” until, at Sewanee, in 1999, Barry Hannah told him what to call it.
The last time I saw William was in Clarksville, Tennessee, at a writing conference. We stayed up late in his hotel room and talked about the same things we always did. He looked older, frailer. His face seemed longer and he seemed to have lost weight, even though there hadn’t been much spare weight to lose. Yet we laughed and he smoked and I drank my beer and he his coffee and, at some point, I got up and hugged him good night and crossed the street to my sleeping family.
The last time I spoke to him was the day before he died. I’d just put him on speakerphone to a class of beginning fiction writers at Ole Miss, where I teach. For half an hour, he told them stories and answered questions. After the class, on the drive home, I called to thank him. I told him he’d been great. They’d loved him.
“Really?” he said.
Sonny Brewer told me this next part. William’s son Chris told him. That on the night of his death, William made a fire in his wood-burning stove. Then he went across the living room and into his bedroom. He shut the door. And died.
What I wonder is why he shut the door.
Perhaps to keep his beloved dog out. Perhaps because he was so private. What he had to do, he had to do alone. He went in and closed the door and I imagine Jude outside it, whining, scratching at the wood. He worries something is wrong. And something is wrong. It will keep being wrong.
But I also think of this when I think of William. He built us a fire, he left it burning.
Interview with Tom Franklin
by Marc Smirnoff
With stories as touching as the ones above, we couldn't let Tom Franklin get away without asking him a few questions about his favorite writing by William, the end of phone calls, and his final wish for his dear friend.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: Oxford, Mississippi, has lost some big literary legends of late: Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Jimmy Pitts, Dean Faulkner Wells, and now William Gay. We connect William with Oxford because he had a special affection for your town. It was a big deal for him, a homebody, to leave Hohenwald, Tennessee, every now and again to absorb the literary lights in Oxford for a few days. What do you know about his regard of Oxford?
TOM FRANKLIN: He lived here a few months, in a basement apartment on South Lamar. It was here while visiting Murff’s Bar that he found himself sitting next to Larry Brown. William quoted part of a line from Joe, and Brown quoted the rest, and they were friends from there on, albeit not close ones. William admired Brown’s work though.
I know, too, that William came here from Hohenwald to hear Mark Richard read.
His favorite bar in town was Ajax. You’d find him sitting there, drinking a Budweiser. When he came, you could still smoke inside, and he’d have a Marlboro going. There’d be a few friends clustered about him, and more of us would come, but he’d never hold court.
THE OA: Besides that, what does it feel like, as a writer, to have so many writer friends falling like this?
TF: On a personal note, it means I’m getting older. Fewer weddings, births. More funerals. A lot more. That so many Southern writers have gone so quickly here, lately, is hard to me, because not only have I lost friends, dear friends in some cases, but I’ve also lost beloved writers. No more Lewis Nordan books? No more William Gay books? But also, no more William phone calls. No more running into Buddy at this event or that, and seeing his giant smile and knowing you’d be laughing in seconds.
THE OA: You and William were phone buddies. What do you miss about talking with him the most?
TF: Just being able to call him up. In the last few years, he was better about answering, though more than half our calls would end because his phone battery would die. He’d be in the middle of a sentence, and suddenly you’d hear static. It got so bad that I once bought him a phone and mailed it to him. Somehow, it kept happening, even then.
THE OA: What is your favorite piece of writing from William?
TF: Provinces of Night. As for stories, I love “The Paperhanger,” and then William’s quietest two, “My Hand is Just Fine Where It Is,” and, “A Death in the Woods.”
THE OA: For someone who’s never read William, where do you recommend he or she start?
TF: At the beginning. I’d read ’em all, in order. And then wait for The Lost Country, which he’d been “nearly finished with” for years.
THE OA: William was also an exceptional music writer. What qualities allowed him to express himself in fiction and nonfiction? Do you recall any specific music moments you had with William?
TF: Well, I’m mostly a real music novice. I grew up loving Styx and Boston. And still do, kind of. But William introduced me to Leonard Cohen, Tom House, Chris Knight, and a slew of others. He educated me about Bob Dylan. We could talk John Prine for hours. He loved music as much as writing, and I think he and Larry Brown were alike in that respect.
THE OA: If you had a chance to give William one final gift—a book, a beer, whatever you want—what would it be?
TF: John Grisham had wanted William to be the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence here at Ole Miss. William wasn’t able to come for that. I wish he could’ve. He could live here in Oxford for a year, and my wife could fatten him up with her cooking, and he’d find a girlfriend who loved Bob Dylan and the Cubs, and his children would visit, and his grandchildren, and I could just ride my bike over to his house any time I wanted. Is that too much to ask? But it’s more a gift for me than for him. For him? Let the fucking Cubs win the World Series. I’d give him that.