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A Tribute to the Life of William Gay

This is an unedited speech given on Thursday, June 7, 2012, at the Eighth Annual Clarksville Writers’ Conference dedicated to the memory of Tennessee author, William Gay.

Clarksville Writer's ConferenceI’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell! They’d banish us, you know. How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog. To tell your name the livelong day To an admiring bog!

That’s the way Emily Dickinson said it, of course. When I arrive at the Clarksville Writers’ Conference every year and see all these fabulous writers whose books are actually best sellers or aiming at that distinction, I have a hard time not feeling like I’m nobody.

William Gay had to have a little of that feeling in his soul when he arrived to give a reading to the admiring mobs—that is after the 40 odd years of not being published initially. He didn’t go to college but he was probably much more highl educated than many people with a Ph.D. He paid his dues in society with hard work—some of it physical, most of it mental. He read, he absorbed, he learned, he translated what he saw in life onto the written page.


I can’t tell you everything about William’s life in the few minutes I have here. I can only give you a few glimpses—actually some of the ones I cherish.

I have to start out first, however, by telling you that I almost didn’t ever hear William Gay because I was terrified of him. The first year I attended this conference I read these words in his biographical sketch, “His third novel Twilight is Southern Gothic, with its elements of the grotesque and perverse, its psychological extremes and its fixations on violence and sex.” I’m thinking to myself, “What is this about? Is this guy some kind of pervert and is he going to gross me out? I can’t handle that.”

Sue Culverhouse speaking about author WIlliam Gay
Sue Culverhouse speaking about author WIlliam Gay

I belong to the School of Cowardly Readers; that means I read a book until it gets scary and then I put it down until I get enough nerve to read the next paragraph—or sentence. I have books I haven’t touched in years because I’m waiting to get up enough nerve to go on. Here’s a guy whose biography reads like Larry Flint. He looks a bit different too. I’m not going to sit in his readings. There might be pictures.

So I went into the room where David Poissant was going to read—and they had switched it to William Gay! I was sitting up front too, so I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by running out of the room—and I stayed—and never looked back. William was the first person I looked for every single year! I just couldn’t get enough of that dry humor and soft voice and marvelous writing.

The first year I heard him read, he told about being asked to write about his worst job. He said, “I had some pretty stiff competition for the sorriest job” and then he began telling about “the toadies lording over people like me trying to pay the grocery bill.”

Those toadies ate into the heart of a sensitive person like William. He never liked to run in a crowd, as far as I know. That first year I was delighted to learn that he was going to sit at the same table where I was during the banquet. When it came time for his name to be announced, we all looked over and William had left the building. That prime rib could just lie there congealing forever as far as he was concerned. It’s my belief that Shelia Kennedy had been summoned to drive him back to the hotel.

Shelia was a real friend to William. He didn’t drive so every year she drove down to Hohenwald to pick him up and make sure he got to all his appointments at the conference.

Shelia Kennedy, Taylor Emery, Marshall Chapman, and Sue Culverhouse
Shelia Kennedy, Taylor Emery, Marshall Chapman, and Sue Culverhouse

If you read about William on line, you’ll learn that many of the greatest memories people have of him are during the times they drove him from one place to another.

William Gay was born in Hohenwald, Lewis County, Tennessee on October 27, 1941. Now here’s one of the things I like about William. Somehow that date got translated into a couple of years later, so when I wrote his obituary for clarksvilleonline.com, I said he was 68 rather than 70. Personally, I think if you can chip a couple of years off your age, it’s not a bad thing.

Here’s another one of my favorite stories about William in his own words. This is taken from “A Glimpse of William Gay” that I wrote after last year’s conference here in Clarksville.

Marshall Chapman talking about Author William Gay
Marshall Chapman talking about Author William Gay

“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.”

The same day he shared this, 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.

From what I’ve read about William, he liked women, dogs, Bob Dylan, Cormac McCarthy, and drinking various things like beer, bourbon and coffee pretty much.

I wrote this about him too:  “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.”

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.

Singer Marshall Chapman emphasizing a point in her talk
Singer Marshall Chapman emphasizing a point in her talk
Author William Gay taken at the 2010 Clarksville Writer's Conference
Author William Gay

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.

{Right here ends the part of the obituary that the TENNESSEAN plagiarized from me. That’s another story! They claimed “someone who no longer works here thought that we were part of the LEAF-CHRONICLE” but sent me $50 because they usually pay $35 for an obituary. They were supposed to have written a retraction giving me credit for writing it, but I have yet to see it.

Believe it or not, I think William would have seen the humor in this because from Thursday when he died until the following Monday, the TENNESSEAN didn’t have anything about his death in the paper. They later ran something by someone on their staff who interviewed someone, I think. I was pretty well disgusted with them by then but considering the years William waited to be recognized by the literary world, I somehow just felt that this was typical of “the frogs” that Emily Dickinson was talking about and that William really wanted no part of.)

Therein ends this part of the story and we go on with William’s life:

He supported his family by painting, hanging dry wall and being a carpenter.

He loved books from the time he was a child and his greatest 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.

In early years when money was scarce and paper was precious, he wrote on the back of used papers. Throughout his life, he wrote his books on yellow pads and still didn’t skip lines; he continued to use the backs of the page too.

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 tree house behind his log home.

Author William Gay reading from his third novel Twilight at the 2011 Clarksville Writer's Conference
Author William Gay

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.

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.

His family was there, and he said he couldn’t write anywhere else. “I don’t know what it is about that,” he told me. “I’m close to the place I grew up, and the countryside, the natural part of it, hasn’t changed.”

William was asked what it was like to be a famous writer in a small town.

He said he tried to lay low. But occasionally people did approach him. One day, he said, “This woman asked if I had someone who helped me with my writing. I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘Well, I knew your family a long time, and they’re not that smart. I knew you when you were younger, and you’re not that smart. I was wondering if you had somebody who took out the little words and put in the big words.’”

I’ve always thought of William as a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He actually got even by holding them up to the light of truth and burning into the evil of their souls so that no one would ever forget.

That little old biddy in Hohenwald who scalded William’s soul will never be forgotten because of her gross stupidity and insensitivity—but neither will her name ever be remembered.

Author Tom Franklin at the 2010 Clarksville Writer's Conference
Author Tom Franklin at the 2010 Clarksville Writer’s Conference

William wasn’t selfish. Tom Franklin became friends with him when Tom was at Bucknell trying to write his first novel but was just plain stymied. William told Tom this 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 laid 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.

Tom Franklin got this information from Sonny Brewer who heard it from William’s son Chris. 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, Tom asked, but he answered himself this way, “I also think of this when I think of William. He built us a fire, he left it burning.”

For me, having begun my glimpse of William Gay in a gothic fog of misleading terror, I think of the pleasure just hearing his voice has given me and I rejoice in the fact that I can still hear it for as long as my computer holds out. The hole in this conference left by the absence of William can never be filled by anyone else, but, oh, the wealth of the essence of William that it radiated when he was here.

William said to an interviewer once, “I believe that there is such a thing as evil. And I believe that your DNA, or how you are, you’re sort of programmed that way. But you could be deterred from it if you were treated differently as a kid. I think they were already sort of leaning that way, and then they had terrible childhoods.

Or maybe it’s just a series of bad decisions. There was this guy I knew growing up. He started out stealing 45 RPM records in a record store, you know, and then just worked up. They sent him to reform school—by then, he’d graduated to robbing people and that kind of stuff. But he never seemed to learn anything, you know, that if he kept doing that kind of stuff…. And he wound up eventually killing someone and being in there for life. But he started that way when he was a kid. He came out of a decent family…. He just didn’t have any scruples. He would do whatever he wanted to do.

When William talked about what it was like to work with other carpenters or construction people, he said, “I just remember I felt like an undercover man or something when I was working with construction crews. I mean, I could do the work and I could do the saw, and I did it for years, but it’s because I compartmentalized things. I never mentioned trying to write, because you don’t go out on Monday morning—with these guys talking about deer hunting—and tell them about the sonnet you wrote over the weekend. You keep your mouth shut about things like that. It don’t take you long to learn that.

William wrote in the last page of PROVINCE OF NIGHT, “In the end, he was left only with the fireflies.”

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. I like to think of William living now surrounded by swirls of fireflies and the sound of a peaceful creek rippling near-by. I expect he has a comfortable tree house and an eternal supply of yellow tablets on which he can continue his work.

Sue Freeman Culverhouse
Sue Freeman Culverhousehttp://culverhouseart.com/
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.

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