For just 15 years, Tennessee native William Gay graced the world with the kind of honest, gritty stories that made him a natural successor to the greats of Southern letters, drawing comparisons to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, as well as contemporary masters of dogged rural realism like Cormac McCarthy. Gay’s death last week at age 70 took the publishing community by surprise, especially those who had grown to know and admire the lifelong writer who didn’t publish his first novel, The Long Home, until he was 55.
One of Gay’s best friends and traveling companions was Sonny Brewer: author, native of Fairhope, Ala., editor-in-chief at Macadam/Cage Publishing, and a longtime fixture in the Southern literary scene. Brewer recently put together an essay compilation called Don’t Quit Your Day Job, for which Gay contributed a piece about the decades he spent as a carpenter before becoming a full-time writer.
Gay died in his Hohenwald, Tenn. home on Thursday, February 23, just a day before Brewer was scheduled to pick him up for one of their frequent road trips, this one to Lincoln Memorial University in northeast Tennessee, where they had been invited for a reading. The Tip Sheet spoke with Brewer about his late friend, and the last road trip they had scheduled together. Here’s what he had to say:
We were scheduled to take a road trip, we’ve had others in the past that included short trips from Hohenwald, like to Landmark Books, we did three or four signings at that bookstore. We took some long trips, drove to Miami once. The last long one was to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Cedric Bryant, a Faulkner scholar, invited us up there.
I was actually on my way from Fairhope to Hohenwald to pick up William on our way to Harrogate Tennessee to do a reading. On my way there I got the news that William died. I thought I would turn around and go home but the writer-in-residence, Darnell Arnoult, asked me if I would come anyway. I told her no, then I thought about it and said I will, but instead of reading my stuff I’ll read William’s stuff. I felt that, with all the road trips we made [together], without William in Howhenwald, I might not ever make that drive again. I was already halfway there, so it seemed appropriate to go ahead and do it. I went straight to his house, there was nobody there of course and I knew there wouldn’t be, but I went down to Little Swan Creek Road and parked where I always park when I go to get William, got out and sat on the porch and listened to Little Swan Creek behind the house. Then I went to his son Chris’s house and we talked about his daddy till Midnight, and his other son William Jr. came by. William and I had planned to eat some catfish at the General [Café] in Hohenwald, there was no reason to change any of that so we all shared it at Chris’s house.
The next morning I went back to William’s place, it was time to make the trip to the campus, that was another six hours. I sat on William’s porch again, and then, it was just kind of silly you know, walked back to my car and looked in the passenger seat to see if he was there. I put a 6x9 glossy in the shotgun and we drove over to Harrogate in Tennessee.
I got there and, you know, we did the reading in the Abraham Lincoln auditorium, and the projectionist was able to put a big 12-foot-by-12-foot photo of William on the screen behind me, so he was looking over my shoulder as I read his stuff. I read a couple paragraphs from Long Home that stunned me when I first read them, then I read an essay he wrote for me about being a working man, and how he quit that job to become a writer. Then I read Ecclesiastes 12:5, where he got the title for The Long Home: “The dead shall go to their long home, and the mourners will walk the streets.” And with that I closed the Bible on my hand, and that was it: that was our last road trip.
You know, the books, the writing, will be the testament of his legacy, and those won’t go away. I’m looking at a poster here in my office, something Carl Elliot said, that “Man builds no structure that outlives a book.” There are a half a hundred such quotes about books outlasting us—for heaven’s sake, they dig ‘em up in the Egyptian desert. Those will speak for themselves to the readers. But there’s something about William—part of his legacy is his example as a man who lacked pretense, who didn’t buy into the affectations of the literary lifestyle. Here’s a fellow compared to Faulkner and McCarthy, but he was a guy who didn’t wear leather patches on his sport coat, he didn’t sip some exotic drink as a signature, he was just William. And so part of his legacy is the kind of man that he was. You know, sometimes we feel we’re supposed to behave like some outrageous character if we’re a poet or a novelist, but not William. And the people who knew him, everybody who met him or spent any time at all with him has a story that confirmed the kind of man he was. That’ll be missed. I’ve got his books, but I’ll miss him.
Before his death, Gay had completed a fourth novel, called The Lost Country. Brewer reported to The Tennessean that, “barring some weird force of nature,” it should be out in the fall from MacAdam/Cage.