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William Gay is a man who looks like “he’s been rode hard and put up wet,” as the old saying goes. You can tell the man has worked at some difficult jobs and has seen a great deal of life—the good, the bad, the ugly.
Instinctively you know that’s why he can bleed people onto the paper.
When he comes to Clarksville Writers’ Conference, he reads from his books and answers questions from his audience like all the other writers but he admits to feeling a bit uncomfortable with strangers. You aren’t likely to see him hanging out in the hallway chatting away.
“I’ve spent so much of my life alone,” he says. He resides in a log house in Hohenwald, Tennessee. It’s a quiet secluded place where he has a tree house where he sometimes sits and writes. He writes with a pen on yellow legal pads. He tells of the years when money was scarce and paper was precious. He doesn’t skip lines and he uses the backs of the paper.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” he states unequivocally. He tells of his seventh grade teacher who noticed that he liked to read but was involved only with Zane Grey and other books in that vein. The teacher gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and told William that he’d give it to him if he’d read the whole thing.
“It changed my life,” William Gay admits. “He also gave me As I Lay Dying. After I read books like these, I thought I could write a novel too. I figured if you could read one, you could write one.”
William Gay left Hohenwald after high school and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. When he came back, he spent some time in New York and Chicago. “I thought you had to live in New York to be a writer,” he says.
“I wrote a lot when I was in the Navy,” he relates. “I had never been to college. I wanted to be a poet when I was a kid but then I found out I’d have to be able to write poems.
“At first, I would send a story to the New Yorker and when it came back, I’d send it to The Atlantic, or Harper’s or Esquire. I didn’t know about the college literary magazines but when I found out about them, I started getting published.
“After I finally got published in the Georgia Review, I got a call from the editor at The Atlantic. He asked why I wasn’t sending them something because they’d like to publish my work. I told him I’d been sending things for years. He said they never got to his desk. I had to wonder what king of operation they were running.
“I was about 55 when I first got published. Before that happened, one editor didn’t buy my story but he wrote me a letter and said he’d like to see some more of my work. I sent him five and he wrote a critique of each one of them. I learned a lot about self-editing from him.”
William Gay’s novels are The Long Home (2000), Provinces of Night (2002) and Twilight (2006). His short story collection, I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), reflects his lifelong love of music as he takes the title from the first line of “The St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy. William Gay is the winner of the 1999 William Peden Award and the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize; he is the recipient of a 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship. He was named a 2007 USA Ford Foundation Fellow and awarded a $50,000 grant by United States Artists, a public charity that supports and promotes the work of American artist.
He tells his listeners, “The awards have made things a lot easier.”
These are the words of a man who had worked as a carpenter, a dry-wall hanger and house painter among other jobs. He says that when his wife and he were married and began their family of four children, he had to make a living. It was not until he became divorced and the children were nearly grown that he could concentrate on writing most of the time. While his children were small, he had to write late at night after they were asleep. He told an interviewer for the Oxford American that he loved being “Pa Ingalls” and you can hear in his voice the love he has for his children.
Once when there was a tornado in Hohenwald and his oldest son had gone somewhere in the truck, William became worried because his son was so late getting home. “The sky had turned almost a greenish yellow. I finally went after him. He was trying to get home. He had run the truck in the ditch and had abandoned it.”
When asked about his home life now, William says, “My son lived with me for about 10 years but he got married a couple of months ago. I have a real gentle pit bull. He likes kids and he’s never been aggressive at all. The dog is a lot of company.”
Patricia Wynn, the founder of Clarksville Writers’ Conference and the person who had introduced William, told him, “Several women at the conference are interested in you.”
“Do they have a dog?” he asks innocently.
Right now, he’s working on his next novel, The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train. It’s about an old man who has always been a psychic and he has some property. Some relatives move in on him and try to steal what he has.
“I’ve been painting some landscapes. I took about a dozen of them to a man in Oxford, Mississippi, and he put them in his gallery,” William says shyly. “He actually has sold six of them.”
Pat Winn tells him, “They have your name signed on them.”
“Well, this guy came to see me a while back and he wanted to buy one of my paintings. I didn’t feel right selling it to him so I gave him one. I think he has a lot of parties so people in Oxford had probably seen my painting.”
Two of William Gay’s books have been made into movies, the latest being Bloodworth from Provinces of Night. “The old man in my book was a banjo player. Kris Kristofferson was in the movie so they changed it to a guitar player. I put a lot of work into making him into a banjo player!” he insists and you’re sure he’s not too happy about the change.
When he’s asked about getting his next book out, he admits, “My son was sitting near the computer and he had a glass of beer. The dog snapped at him and he spilled the beer in the computer.
“They won’t run on beer.”
Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing.
She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter, Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University.
Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students.
Sue writes “Uncommon Sense,” a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of “Seven keys to a sucessful life”, which is available on amazon.com and pubishamerica.com; this is a self-help book for all ages.
SectionsArts and Leisure
TopicsBloodworth, Clarksville Writer's Conference, Georgia Review, Guggenheim, Hohenwald TN, I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, Kris Kristofferson, Oxford American, Patricia Winn, Provinces of Night, The Long Home, The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train, Twilight, William Gay
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