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TN writer pours his South into his prose

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William Gay sees decades of work translate into novels, films  

William Gay of Hohenwald, will read at Sherlock’s Bookstore on Friday evening as part of the Tennessee Writers Alliance WordFest. His short stories and novels have gained him acclaim as one of the premier contemporary writers of Southern fiction.

Photo by Julie Gillen

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

One of the finest contemporary scribes of Southern fiction makes a rare appearance in Lebanon Friday evening.

William Gay, whose first novel, “The Long Home,” won the James A. Michener Memorial Prize in 1999, will read at Sherlock’s Books as part of the Tennessee Writers Alliance WordFest (call ahead for ticket availability).

Gay, a native of Hohenwald, has been writing since his teen years while making his living as a carpenter and drywall hanger. Ten years ago, in his mid-50s, he was finally able to lay his toolbox aside and wrestle with words full time. Since then, he has nabbed national and international literary acclaim, and his short story, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” has been turned into a movie, while his novel “Provinces of Night” has just wrapped filming in Wilmington, N.C., with a cast that includes Val Kilmer, Kris Kristofferson, Hillary Duff, Dwight Yoakam and Hank Williams III.

Gay, 65, a Guggenheim Fellowship winner, is still ruminating about what he may present in Lebanon.

“I might read a short story about methamphetamines, ‘Where Will You Go

When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?’ It’s about greed and has got that meth theme running through the story. The meth guys are like the new bootleggers or something. Or I might read a couple of segments out of my next book that I am still working on, ‘The Lost Country.’ The title is in reference of a place you can’t get back to, that childhood and lost innocence,” Gay said during a phone interview this past week.

The meth tale was included in “The Best American Mystery Stories 2007” and “The Best American Short Stories 2007,” and Stephen King selected Gay’s third novel, “Twilight,” as his favorite book of 2007. He wrote of it in “Entertainment Weekly”: “The perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. ... ‘Think No Country for Old Men’ by Cormac McCarthy and ‘Deliverance’ by James Dickey … then double the impact.”

Storyteller Gay tends to set his novels in the rural South of the 1940s and ’50s and he has drawn comparisons to McCarthy, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell. His books have run with a similar theme of boys evolving into manhood in rough circumstances as their character is being tested.  

 Writers rendezvous

The Tennessee Writers Alliance WordFest will be held Friday-Saturday at Cumberland University. Registration begins at noon Friday, and cost is $125.Presenters include Fireproof author Eric Wilson (fiction), Wyatt Prunty (poetry), Lebanon’s own Leon Alligood (multimedia), Dwight Lewis (journalism), J.T. Ellison (mystery), Whitney Ferre (creativity coach), Kathryn Knight and Etta Wilson (manuscript first pages), and Ron Block (songwriting and music).

Authors William Gay and J. Wes Yoder (Carry My Bones) will read at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Sherlock’s Bookstore. Theater seating for the readings is limited to 40 people, and WordFest participants will have tickets. Any remaining seats may be filled by the general public at no charge. A second session of author readings will be added at 6:30 if needed.

At 6:30 p.m. there will be open-mic readings on the patio and book signings indoors. For more info, call 547-1217 or go online to www.tn-writers.org.

For Gay, it was a legendary Southern writer that sent him on his path to being a wordsmith.

“I think I was around 15 or so when a teacher gave me a copy of ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ by Thomas Wolfe. It sort of blew my mind and altered my way of thinking,” Gay said. “I thought, ‘This would be a great way to be if you could write something like this.’ I wanted to write sentences as good as Wolfe and later Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Conner. I think my short stories are sort of affected by O’Conner. I wrote off and on for years. I worked as a carpenter and drywall hanger for all the years that my kids were growing up. I was still sending stuff out and it kept coming back.”

Gay left Tennessee in the early 1960s to serve in the Navy and in Vietnam. He discovered a big world and many new influences but something tugged at his heart and brought him back to his Lewis County home, about a 90-minute drive southeast of Nashville.

“All my family lived here. I had this idea to be a writer you had to live in New York or be an expatriate in France or something like that. I realized what I wanted to write about was in the South, and I needed to live here. There seems to be more scenery, more to look at,” said Gay, who worked four decades with his hands under the sun but continued to plug away doggedly with his prose.

“I thought I was good enough to be published, and I liked doing it. From a practical standpoint, it don’t make any sense to write it and put in a box or in a closet. So the logical thing was to send it out to magazines. I didn’t have an agent. I was sending stuff to ‘New Yorker’ and ‘Esquire’ and then started submitting to literary magazines.”

In 1998 “The Georgia Review” accepted one of his short stories, and a few weeks later “The Missouri Review” took another.

Gay describes the exhilaration of his initial publishing experience saying, “There is no drug that could make you feel like that. It was one of the best feelings I ever had, sort of like being vindicated in a way. I had been a closet writer. I was working in construction. You don’t go out on Monday morning and say, ‘Listen to this sonnet I wrote over the weekend.’ It proved what I was doing was good enough to get in print somewhere.”

After success with the short stories, Gay churned out his first novel, which garnered a favorable review in The New York Times, gained him a little attention, and since then, he said, “I been able to make a living at it.”

Gay said he writes in spurts but can go at for hours at a time: “If it’s something I’m intensively working on, I look forward to it and work on it every day.” And he writes in longhand until he transcribes that into a computer.

“That’s pretty much the only way I can do it. I can’t write on keyboard, so I edit as I type it into a laptop. Then it’s like a second draft. I change as I type it up.”

Among his rewards for his writing acclaim, Gay taught writing for a semester at Sewanee: The University of the South, a treat he thoroughly enjoyed but found a bit peculiar.

“I got along well with the students but didn’t fit in that well with the academic types, except for a couple of the professors. It was a kind of a jarring transition from pouring concrete or doing drywall, from that to teaching college,” he said. “It’s a weird world. I never went to college, but here I was telling kids what they was supposed to do.”

A film version of Gay’s “Twilight,” a tale about a kinky undertaker who hires a hit man to snuff out a nosy teen, appears likely. Meanwhile, “Provinces of Night” is slated for a 2010 release, and “I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down” (the title comes from a Jimmie Rodgers song), starring Hal Holbrook, Dixie Carter, Ray McKinnon and Barry Corbin, has been shown to glowing reviews at American film festivals. (Gay’s title has been changed to “That Evening Sun.”) 

The author saw the film this spring at the Nashville Film Festival, where it found favor in his eyes.

“I liked it. I thought the actors did a good job. They changed my ending. It’s a little more upbeat than what I had written. It was dark. They lightened it up a little,” Gay said. “Holbrook was great and was really nice to me. He thanked me for writing the story.”

Besides novels and short stories, Gay also pens essays on music for a variety of magazines. He’s been a fan of Bob Dylan before most folks in the South ever heard of him, but he also favors such players as John Prine and Doc Watson and enjoys old-time country and blues from the 1920s and ’30s, such as The Skillet Lickers and white bluesman Dock Boggs.

For all his success, Gay says life is pretty much the same for him in the countryside of Lewis County. “It has sort of opened my eyes about a few things but hasn’t changed my lifestyle all that much. I still live very simple. I’m not very pretentious. I can buy a few more CDs and movies (on DVD and Blu-ray) now.”

The writer, who drives an old Jeep and still mows his own yard, is enmeshed in his fourth novel, “The Lost Country,” still working on where to take the plot. He may be writing about a time and place that has come and gone but there are chunks of it stuck in his mind and with effort, his memories will blend with his creative juices and the story will gel.

“I sort of like the South of a few years ago better than now,” he said. “There’s so much technology and too many yuppies. It’s almost like getting too homogenized, like the rest of the country. There used to be more individuality,” said Gay, a true individual with his roots running deep in Dixie.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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