Over a year ago, I asked William Gay if he would consider coming seven hours from Hohenwald to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, to give a reading, and he said he would. He said he had an affinity for Appalachian literature and culture. Then he added that he would like to visit Harrogate because Cormac McCarthy had named a character in one of his novels “Harrogate.” So a quest was born, and William invited his friend Sonny Brewer to take another long road trip. It’s a sad thing for LMU that William passed away just before leaving for East Tennessee to share his work and his stories about writing.
It’s easy to understand his attraction to Appalachian landscapes—geographical or psychological. William Gay’s work resonates with an Appalachian sensibility—the lament and yearning of fiercely independent characters, whether evil or innocent, who wrestle their environment as much as their history, or circumstance, or fate—rendered in his eloquent, speakerly storytelling. William’s fiction always rewards readers with a fine tale with plenty of action and suspense, but the reward extends beyond the tale or its characters to that most local level of word choice, well-crafted sentence, and well-honed paragraph, where tension and conflict reside in words themselves, where words rub up against each other to generate friction and cultivate intimate relationships with one another in both sound and subtlety, where the reader may be forced to the unabridged dictionary to learn more about their own native tongue. I look forward to returning to his books and stories throughout my lifetime.
William Gay was a kind, generous, brilliant man. It’s sad to think about his novels and stories left unwritten. I’m thankful Sonny decided to make the trip to Harrogate and LMU anyway, with a photo of William Gay riding shotgun.
Darnell Arnoult is the author of What Travels With Us: Poems and Sufficient Grace: A Novel. She lives in Harrogate, Tennessee, and teaches at Lincoln Memorial University.