I met William Gay during a reading of The Long Home in 2000, and we became very close friends. As a literary demi-god, he often seemed not quite of this world, and yet the complexity and genius of his work matched equally who he was as a man. Because he was quiet and often introverted, I wrote a list of little-known (and a few widely-known) facts I learned about him. For those who would have like to have known the man behind those glorious books:
When he was a little boy, he skipped school to write. If he didn’t have a pen, he used a walnut hull and a stick.
Karl Shapiro was a favorite of his, especially Car Wreck and Adam and Eve.
He smoked Marlboro Reds and didn’t mind a beer for breakfast.
His characters were as real to him as you and I. He could point to every hollow and house that showed up in his work if you went to Hohenwald with him.
He went AWOL and tried to walk cross-country but was eventually sent back.
He loved Bobby Dylan and went to live in New York partly just to meet him.
Beautiful women chased him down the street for autographs.
He hung drywall for a living before he was published, and he and his partner were the “fastest drywall hangers in Lewis County.”
He loved Billy Bob Thornton and watched Bad Santa and Sling Blade almost every year.
After The Long Home was published, he said its success was due to Richard Howorth at Square Books and Johnny Evans at Lemuria, selling his books “practically by hand.”
He was extremely loyal.
The scenes from his fiction came to him fully-formed: he wrote them longhand and then typed them over again before he sent them out. Between the longhand and the typed version very little revision was ever needed.
Hollywood, specifically some of the cast from HBO’s Deadwood, wanted to make a movie of Provinces of Night, and William’s main reason for meeting them was to try to get his friend Tommy Franklin on the show.
He hardly ever drove and never flew.
You’d often find him at a local bar on Hohenwald’s main drag the night he was supposed to be at a reading. If you asked him to come along, he’d get a six pack to go and jump in the car.
He was shy.
He and Sonny Brewer once drove from Tennessee to Maine for a reading.
He kept his writing mostly a secret until he was first published at age fifty-five.
He did not like to edit other writers’ work because he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
He knew where to find ginseng and picked it often on the hill behind his log house.
He declined The New York Times’s offer to come down and profile him for their Sunday edition because he didn’t much want his privacy disturbed.
He was also a visual artist—his medium was oil painting.
His last words to his daughter were, “Rick Santorum makes George Bush look like Abraham Lincoln.”
Suzanne Kingsbury is the author of The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me and The Gospel According to Gracey. She lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.