Award-winning novelist William Gay, who died just over a decade ago, was heralded as a new voice in Southern fiction from the time his first novel, The Long Home, was published in 1999. When I read a reviewer’s comment that Gay was “incapable of writing a dull sentence,” he sounded like someone to find out more about.
In an interview published in 2013, he talked about being considered an heir to Faulkner, O’Connor, and Wolfe, and said that his favorite Faulkner novel is As I Lay Dying, because in it Faulkner writes about ordinary people. That’s a hallmark of Gay’s own writing, and draws on a long career that included house-painting and hanging drywall to support his family by day, writing out stories by night. Understandably, given that schedule, his first book wasn’t published until he was in his late fifties. But he had been on that path since seventh grade, when a teacher noticed his incessant reading and gave Gay a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, as long as he’d talk to him about it afterwards. It became one of his favorite books.
Younger people would ask him whether they should write what they want to write, even though it might be a hard road to get it published, or should they turn to genre writing (which is no picnic to get published, either, I’d add). His advice was always that they should write what they wanted to write. I think that’s what lets you, as a writer, put your heart into it and gives you the fortitude to stay with it over time through revisions, more revisions, critiques, and seeking publication.
Many book marketing folks say authors should have their ideal reader, or audience, in mind. Gay disagrees. He believes that, if you do, “the work is going to be more bland, with the rough corners knocked off.” It makes a story more generic and he said he’s always tried to avoid being generic. Much of Gay’s work is dark and violent, coming-of-age stories set in the 1940s and 50s, in which a young person must confront evil. (Stephen King, who knows something about evil, said Gay’s darkest, most Southern Gothic book, Twilight,was his “best read” in 2008.NOT the vampires.)
Gay went on a publish several more well regarded novels and a short-story collection with the juicy title, I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down (2002). His story, “The Paperhanger” was anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2001.
Looking for Great Reading? It’s my quarterly newsletter. Sign up here and receive three prize-winning short stories!