William Gay, A Great Southern Writer

Last year while visiting the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, I discovered another William Gay book had been published posthumously. “Stories from the Attic” is a collection of stories recovered from boxes in the attic of Gay’s former home. It’s a powerful addition to his already impressive publication record. If you’re not familiar with William Gay, he is one of the great Southern writers and a must-read.

I first encountered William Gay in the summer of 2000 when I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in a workshop led by Barry Hannah and Padgett Powell. In the workshop, there were authors who had published a novel or collection of short stories called “fellows,” since they had fellowships to attend. William Gay was one of those writers. There was a kind of buzz at the conference about him. The word was that he had just walked out of the Tennessee mountains with these wonderful stories.

Gay was a small man with a weathered appearance. He was quiet and always looked like he would rather be back in those mountains than at the conference. It was clear that Barry Hannah and Padgett Powell respected his work. They would sometimes ask him to give feedback for a story we were reviewing. He usually said little, such as “What they said,” referring to what someone else had said about the piece. During breaks Gay would be off by himself, smoking a cigarette. Occasionally, Hannah or someone else would approach him to talk. It was like they were trying to tap into the mystery of who William Gay was.

At the conference, the authors with published books did readings each day. For some reason I missed the session where Gay was to read. I heard later that he was so nervous he couldn’t do it. A day or two later, someone scheduled to read gave him their spot. I was there for that reading. Gay read a story about a man down on his luck, who bluffs his way into a job crimping metal roofing on a hot summer day. As you can imagine, things go bad fast. I was sitting beside a woman from New Jersey who told me afterward she couldn’t understand what he said. I was glad I grew up in Arkansas and was familiar with Southern accents. I wouldn’t have missed that reading for the world.

William Gay died in 2012 and left us with some great books: The Long Home, Provinces of Night, I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, and Twilight, to name a few. Fortunately, for us, more of his work continues to be published posthumously.

Here is a website for William Gay and his work as a writer and artist. If you haven’t already read Gay’s books, I highly recommend you do so.

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