It all began with a Christmas gift of Provinces of Night from my neighbors, Diana and Gary Fisketjon. I’m not sure which of them told me it was an important book, but coming from either of them it was high praise. Nor am I sure what I was already reading that Christmas, but whatever it was, I soon put it aside as I began to lose myself in William’s powerful, wonderful novel.
Of course, he was not ‘William’ for me in those days. He was still that odd, award-winning hermit of a writer who lived somewhere near Hohenwald. He was a brilliant, true-to-heart storyteller who stole my heart the way great writers had stolen it when I was young. But living relatively close, I assumed we would meet some day. In the meantime, I became a reader of all that was William Gay, and that was enough. If we ever were to meet, it would be on his terms. It would not be because I had somehow germed my way into his life.
Lucky for me, a friend of William’s, Julie Gillen, decided we needed to get together. I first noticed how small he was, a kind of otherworldly fragility that fit with his writing. He was mischievous and funny. There was a real sense that he had survived this life by the skin of his teeth. He was a gentle, creative man who dared to learn to write and to write brilliantly, despite circumstances that were mostly hurdles to be overcome. And along with his passion for writing, there was his passion for music, for painting, for women. He was a bit of a character out of his own work.
He came to Franklin and did my radio show, reading a piece that was way too long. As I sat next to William and saw my producer trying to get me to cut him off, I understood there was something important happening as he mumbled through the piece. William was not just reading William. He was being William. There was no pretense.
Not too long ago, I set William up with Bob McDill after he told me how much he admired Bob’s songs. He wasn’t just making conversation. He insisted on quoting me way more of his favorite Bob McDill songs than I really wanted to hear at the moment. As he went through song after song, he stroked my dog, Jake, the way folks who love dogs touch them.
As with everyone who leaves us too soon, William leaves behind a family who will forever mourn his loss. As for us, we have our inheritance. William has left us his novels, his short stories, his essays, and all the rest.
Thank you, William. We are rich, indeed.
Robert Hicks is the author of The Widow of the South and A Separate Country, and the creator of A Guitar and a Pen Old Time Radio Hour. He lives near Franklin, Tennessee.