William Gay, 68, reportedly died in his sleep the night of February 23rd, 2012. Acclaimed as the “William Faulkner of Tennessee” and compared to Cormac McCarthy, William Gay was one of the brightest stars of the Clarksville Writers Conference for the past few years.
A quiet man who shunned the spotlight, William read his work as if he were speaking softly to a friend on the front porch of his log home in Hohenwald. His books did not quiet the soul however; they showed the lowest forms of human beings creating havoc in the lives of others.
William Gay grew up in Hohenwald and finished high school there. He went off with the U. S. Navy to the Viet Nam War but was not known to discuss those years as is common with many other Veterans. He would talk about living in New York and Chicago because he believed you had to do that to become a writer. He outgrew that belief.
He supported his family by painting, hanging dry wall and being a carpenter.
He loved books from the time he was a child and was encouraged by one of his teachers who led him to turn from consuming Zane Grey’s books to loving those of Thomas Wolfe. William Gay’s great ambition in life was to become a writer, but he firmly held to the idea that unless someone paid for your work, you had not yet become a real writer.
“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 kind 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 once told me.
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 was the winner of the 1999 William Peden Award and the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize; he was 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 supported his family by painting houses, hanging dry wall and being a carpenter. The father of four children, he wrote for many years late at night after all the children were in bed.
William Gay never felt entirely comfortable with strangers. When he attended conferences, he didn’t tend to hang out in the hallways of a university meeting chatting. When he was a guest at banquets, he had a habit of slipping away back to his hotel room before he ever ate a bite of food. Public gatherings were just not the place he wanted to be.
He’d much rather be writing in his treehouse behind his log home.
If you want to see the real William Gay, you can watch a few interviews with him on the Internet. You can hear his soft voice and get an impression of who this great writer really was.
Those of us who were privileged to meet him and hear his read will never forget his presence nor ever quite fill the place he created in our lives. He had been scheduled to speak again in June, 2012, at the Clarksville Writers Conference. Those of us who are always in attendance at this gathering will certainly miss him.
William Gay, a quiet man, made a gigantic impression in the annals of American literature. He left this world in the stillness of the night but his words will ring throughout eternity.
William Gay Reading
William Gay reading from his novel Twilight at the 2011 Clarksville Writer’s Conference which is sponsored by the Clarksville Arts & Heritage Development Council