William Gay Biography
WILLIAM GAY BIOGRAPHY, BY J.M. WHITE
It seems that with all things related to William Gay there are no facts, only stories. He was born on October 27 or at least his family celebrated his birthday on that date. But the year has been very much in question. He liked to say he was born in 1941 but at some point he backed off that a couple of years and the year 1943 has appeared in some of the biographical information in print. But according to his younger brother William was born in 1939. That’s the way it goes.
It appears his father and his mother each came separately from Alabama and moved to Lewis County about 1934, his parents subsequently meet and married there in Lewis County. His father was named Arthur and his mother called Bessie. They lived in the poorest area of the county which was called Swiss Colony. His father had a fourth grade education and had a definite attitude about taking help from the government or anyone else. He wanted absolutely nothing from the government and didn’t believe in giving the government anything of his. He was a big man, about six feet tall, but William’s mother was short. The old man was a good musician and people would come over and ask him to get out his banjo and play.
There is a streak of talent that runs in the family. William’s grandfather was a banjo player named Elbert and his Uncle Scott was a psychic who was known far and wide and would give psychic readings for people. His oldest son is a musician and a song writer. His daughter, Lee Gay, is a published writer. William knew he was a writer from an early age and wrote his first “novel” when he was a teenager. When he was a young boy he and his brother had a path through the woods from the house where they grew up to their grandparent’s house and, as they would walk along the path, William would make up stories and tell them to Cody. He had a fascination with westerns and had a hero named the Cowboy Kid and he would recite the adventures of the Kid to pass the time. He wanted to write as early as he could remember but there were no pencils or pens in the household so for the earliest stories he made his own ink out of walnut stain and wrote the stories he had been telling Cody on their walks. By age fifteen he got a little three-ring binder and wrote two “novels”. These were unnamed except the word “novel” appears at the top of the first page of each. He would fill up every page with his handwritten text and then turn it over and write on the back of the pages from back to front, a habit he maintained the rest of his life.
William was the oldest of three boys. He was born at home in a two room house where he grew up without a car or electricity. Their father had plowed all day behind a mule for fifty cents a day when he was in Alabama and things weren’t much better for them in Tennessee. He was a hard working man and ended up with a job in the wood mill where they cut railroad ties. However, the job was in Hohenwald and he didn’t have a car so he would walk about six miles to work and then back home that evening. On weekends the whole family would walk to town. People would see them walking to town lined up according to height when they went grocery shopping on Saturday. In those days the grocery stores kept an old truck and would drive you home with your groceries if you didn’t have a car.
When William was about fifteen they moved to a larger house in a local community known as Grinder’s Creek. It was on a big farm and they were sharecropping and didn’t have to pay rent if they would “look after” the place. The family never owned a car and were raised poor, as they say in rural Tennessee. For Christmas William would get something like a little toy that had come in a cereal box. They did have a radio and William was immediately taken by the sounds he heard on the radio in the early days of rock-n-roll when Elvis was changing everything and the greatest sounds were coming from Sun Studio in Memphis where they were inventing a new form of music called rock-n-roll.
As a teenager, and as a young man, William was not a person to provoke a fight, but he never backed down either and ended up in a number of brawls that landed him in jail. His father had to sell his banjo one time to get him out.
William liked to tell the story that his compulsion to write started in the seventh grade when a teacher noticed he was reading all of Zane Grey and Earle Stanley Gardner, among other popular writers. The teacher gave him Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. He read Look Homeward Angel by the light of a coal oil lamp, transfixed by Wolfe’s language. It was the first time he realized that language can transport you, that it can take you outside yourself and whatever your life is, and that the sum of arranged words can mean far more than the individual words used in this construction. He was stunned and never got over it, he immediately started writing a novel.
William himself wrote a brief explanation of this and I found it in his archive. He said, “When I was in the seventh grade a teacher noticed that I was reading widely but not too well. I was reading Zane Grey and Earle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane and Erskine Caldwell. ‘You are all width and no depth’, he told me. The next day he presented me with the Modern Library edition of Look Homeward Angel. ‘Read this and tell me what you think’, he said. All these years later it is still difficult to express what I thought. The book changed my life, I began it that night and was immediately drawn into it from the first sentence. Wolfe’s landscape became more tangible than my own back yard and the characters caught up in my tumultuous life and were as real as the people in my day to day life. The book raised a curtain on the word. It articulated some compulsion to write that I had no words for. Wolfe made it possible to believe that the stuff of life could by some strange alchemy be transmuted to the page. He demanded to be absorbed into my bloodstream, Wolfe whispered to me in the night and his soaring incantory rhetoric of horns highballing it through the October nights, his search for the stone, the leaf, the unfound door were like a hallucinatory drug.”
His ex-wife tells the story a bit differently explaining that William’s love of reading was an escape from the total poverty he grew up in. But he was fascinated and took to reading and to collecting books and magazines from as early as he can remember. He started with comic books and maintained a fascination with them all his life. As a kid he managed to get a collection going and had a suitcase with a clasp where he could keep them, it was just wide enough to hold three rows of the comics neatly stacked in the bed of the suitcase. The only place to get comics and paperback books was at the drugstore where they had a revolving rack with paperback books for sale. The local dentist also helped out. He recognized that William loved to read and would, from time to time, give William old copies of Look and Life and Reader’s Digest. He kept them in his waiting room and when new issues came in and the old ones were outdated he would give them to William. But he was dissatisfied with this reading material and, while he faithfully devoured it, he couldn’t really relate to the people. In the southern novels of the day they were talking about people forming lynch mobs and doing things that he hadn’t ever experienced. It was only when he started reading Faulkner that he found a depiction of rural country people who seemed as real as the neighbors and family members he grew up with.
Tennessee’s public schools rank at the very bottom of all the schools in the country, something like forty-seventh out of the fifty states and the schools in Lewis County rank very low among the schools in the ninety-two counties in Tennessee. Consequently the educational opportunities provided by the public schools as William was growing up were very limited. However, William was a dedicated reader and determined to be a writer and the skills he sought to cultivate could not be taught in any school. He was reading everything he could get his hands on and he quickly gravitated away from the popular detective and mystery novels and the southern exploitation novels that depicted the south full of moonshiners, sexual perverts and racist gangs. While there was no shortage of any of these icons of the South in the rural counties in middle Tennessee, it was not what he could relate to in his life. The southern-most counties in Middle Tennessee border on Alabama and William’s home in Lewis County is just one county north of the state line. While it isn’t the Deep South, it certainly qualifies as the rural South in an area that was slow to recover from the depression. Lewis County was also slow in acquiring the amenities of modern life, like electricity and television. The high school had a little library and a librarian and William used it and read through the books in the school library. He liked to recall how one time he asked the librarian how much she had to pay to work there, assuming that it was a privilege you would have to pay for to get to hang out in the library with all the books.
Once he graduated from Lewis County High School he enlisted in the Navy and spent two years in the service, part of which was spent off the coast of Viet Nam. William never took to bosses and found the authorities in the Armed Services a bit difficult to handle. Once he was found AWOL and thrown in the brig. He was fond of telling a story of being on board a Navy ship and he had a small record player and he would sit up late at night and play his records. He took to Bob Dylan very early on and was fascinated by Dylan’s poetic lyrics and by his knowledge of American folk music. He was listening to Dylan sing “Like a Rolling Stone” where he has the refrain “How does it feel” and in walks one of his superiors who hears Dylan’s voice and is immediately so upset that he pulls the plug on the record player and closes the lid and hauls the whole thing to the side of the ship and throws it overbroad.
When William finished his service he ended up in New York and lived in the Village for a while. He had been stationed there and had a girl friend named Sarah. He got in trouble with Sarah over a Bob Dylan song as well when he kept playing “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” over and over and drove her a bit crazy. The energy of New York must have been inspiring to him, the counterculture was at its height and, as an aspiring writer, he could feel the literary energy in what was then, as now, the publishing capital of the country. By 1962 he was writing in notebooks and cranking out short stories and working on novels. In 1965 he wrote a complete novel, still extant, set in rural Tennessee.
He started painting with oil as a very young man. At one point someone who knew he had an interest in painting gave him a paint-by-number kit. It was one of those things you could get with the picture sketched onto the canvas with little numbers in each section of the picture showing you what colors to put in that section. William turned it over and painted on the back of it and painted a picture of a railroad train crossing a trellis with a dark sky overhead. His mother framed it and it hung in her house until she passed away.
He found his way back to Lewis County but there was little in the way of work and he was restless and decided to go to Chicago to make some money. He and his brother Cody moved to Chicago and lived in a redneck ghetto where people from rural Tennessee and other southern states congregated. He found work but wasn’t satisfied with living in the city and quickly migrated back to Hohenwald and settled there for the rest of his life. From then until he started publishing in 1998 he worked on and off doing carpentry, hanging sheetrock and painting houses. He would occasionally take a factory job of one kind or another but they never lasted long. He would work long enough to pay a few bills and would quit and devote himself to writing. Even when he was working he would take a chair outside and sit at the edge of the woods and write in his notebooks. When he was working during the day he would go into a sort of writer’s trance and would watch the story line of his work-in-progress play out in his imagination, creating the characters and working out the plot lines. Then, when he got home, he would write out the story line he had been imagining all day.
He was reading literary magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly and would work up a short story and send it off in a handwritten copy. He quickly figured out that publishers did not want to look at handwritten manuscripts and got his first typewriter. He never really mastered typing and would pick out the letters on the keyboard with a two finger-typing technique. But he fought off the discouragement and continued to submit piece after piece, encouraged only by occasional rejection letters that commented on his work rather than sending a perfunctory rejection slip.
He was married in 1968 to Diane Bowen at the Lewis County courthouse. They lived in a variety of places around Lewis County and for a while in Wayne County to the south where they lived at Sinking Creek, a place name that consequently appears in a number of the stories he was to write. During this time William would work sporadically and then up and quit and then he would wander in the woods, hunting ginseng and writing. When they couldn’t pay the rent they would get kicked out and he would find a new house and a job and pay the rent for a while before he repeated the pattern.
William and Diane started having kids and quickly had two girls and two boys. They managed to buy some land from William’s Uncle and started building a house. When they got the walls up he stretched plastic across the top and they moved in. Then he would work enough to make some money and would buy materials and work on the house until the materials were gone and then would go back to work to make more money. They started out with no electricity and used kerosene lamps. He finished the house and they lived in it for the better part of two decades and raised the kids. William worked as a carpenter during the week and sometimes on the weekends working with his brother hanging sheet rock. He collected all the books and magazines that he managed to acquire. He read voraciously, reading everything he could find about Southern literature as well as following the New York literary voices. He particularly liked Davis Grubb who distained the use of quotation marks when he wrote dialogue and wrote realistic novels about the South, his best known book was A Night of the Hunter which was made into a popular movie. William loved music and movies and read magazines with reviews of each of the arts. He had a place out behind the house where he would go sit at the edge of the yard and write and once he got all the kids to bed he would stay up late and write in his notebooks.
The kids all adopted nicknames. William had been called Buster by his father starting when he was a small boy and no one among his family and friends called him William. When the family put up a headstone for him in the family cemetery they put his full name across the top, William Elbert Gay and below it in parenthesis they put Buster.
His fascination with painting stayed with him and the family would typically give him some oil paints for a Christmas present and he would paint until the paints ran out. He would take old thirty-three rpm record covers and paint on them and eventually he started taking old salvaged four by eight foot paneling boards and cut them into canvas sizes and painted on the back of them. These were a common building material in the Fifties and Sixties and were thin manufactured panels that were slick on the front but textured on the back so that they held the paint and served much better than cardboard as an impromptu canvas. He painted landscapes around Sinking Creek where they were living at the time.
During all this time he was writing in spiral-bound notebooks, filling them with his handwriting on both sides of the pages. Typically sitting there writing with his coffee cup on the opposite page of his notebook. He would find work until he either had enough money for food and other expenses or he just couldn’t stand the boss and would quit and write. He eventually finished the house and had an attic where he built long bookshelves which he filled with books of all kinds. When he found a book he really admired he would read it over and over. He studied Faulkner reading his books until he had read every book Faulkner had written plus the various biographies and critical studies that appeared. He took a special interest in As I Lay Dying and The Hamlet and would read them over nearly every year. He eventually stumbled on a book by Cormac McCarthy in a junkstore in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Hohenwald is famous for its junk stores and the only books available in town were either cheap paperbacks from the drugstore or used books from the junk stores and he watched both for anything that might appeal to him. But in Columbia there was a real bookstore and he would go there anytime he had the chance. Plus they had a magazine rack where he could find copies of The New Yorker and other magazines that published short stories. He would read them and then throw them in the attic. Eventually the attic floor got covered with magazines several layers thick.
William found a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s second book, Outer Dark, in one of the junk stories, it had the cover ripped off but that didn’t matter. He quickly read it and was thrilled to find someone with a style comparable to the greats he so much admired who was writing about the people and places in rural Tennessee. He passed the novel to his brother Cody who also enjoyed reading and liked Southern literature. Then William went to the bookstore in Columbia and ordered a copy of The Orchard Keeper, Cormac’s first book. He got it and read it with the same enthusiasm. Here was someone he admired and he quickly figured out that the author lived in Knoxville. So one day William called information for Knoxville and asked if there was a Cormac McCarthy listed and, to his amazement, they gave him a phone number. He called the number and was in shock when Cormac answered the phone. William had a very distinctive accent so Cormac had to know right away that he was talking to someone who was from a rural background. They connected by talking about their mutual admiration of Flannery O’Connor. William would call him from time to time and they continued to talk on the phone until eventually Cormac asked William if he ever wrote anything and when he learned William was also a writer he offered to read something William was writing. By this time William was working on a variety of novels including the story that was to become Provinces of Night and he managed to type up a long segment of it and sent it to Cormac. A little later it arrived back with nearly every page covered with notes in the margins.
For example, on one page William wrote the line, “Below him the railroad tracks ran parallel with the highway and with unholy din the train passed below him. Boyd watched the rattle and shake of the cars until the train was gone. The forlorn cry of the whistle hung in the air like the cry of some tortured penitent, mocking but somehow accusatory.” Cormac underlined the words “below him” to point out it reappeared twice in that one sentence giving it two lines and an arrow to a comment on the margin of the page where he wrote, “Best advice G. Stein gave E.H. concentrate.” E.H. being of course Ernest Hemingway who greatly admired Gertrude Stein and was a regular visitor at her salon in Paris. McCarthy also noted the words “the rattle and shake of” with brackets <the rattle and shake of>. Apparently he used < > as marks of approval for phrases he liked. Cormac ended with a marginal note about the last sentence in the paragraph saying, “A bit dramatic?” On the remainder of that same page Cormac noted that William had used the word “pale” three times, he underlined it once on the first occasion, twice on the second and three times on the third, with a marginal note, “This word occurs very often”. Finally William used the word “churted” describing a road that, from a distance, “reappeared red and churted in the gaps”. Cormac noted in the margin that the word churted is not in the Oxford English Dictionary. On the next page William has the line, “He slid the last few feet down a churty bank and arrived panting and out of breath by the side of the car.” Cormac underlined “churty” with two lines and make the marginal comment, “cherty maybe? (I didn’t like it the 1st time all that well.)”
Meanwhile Cormac was working on Suttree and he sent a full copy of the book in manuscript form to William. Getting a manuscript copy of Suttree in the mail was one of the greatest days ever for William. He read it through twice and then let his brother read it and then mailed it back. It was 1979 when Cormac published Suttee and about that time left Knoxville, living around Nashville for a while and then relocating out west. They were corresponding at that time and William got several letters from Cormac both before he went out west and after. At one point William actually got a call from Cormac’s wife asking if he knew where Cormac might be. Seems Cormac had been gone and hadn’t told her he was leaving or where he was going so she was calling anyone who knew him to try to track him down. William didn’t have a clue and was no help.
William’s children remember the 1980s and 1990s as an idyllic lifestyle which they compare to an updated version of Little House on the Prairie. He raised the kids on music and books and read to them daily. Then when they went to sleep he would sit and write. William would never eat with the family. His wife thought he was in there reading but he was very shy about eating with anyone for the rest of his life. When he would come home from work in the afternoon his youngest son would be sitting on the porch steps waiting for him. The kids would draw in his notebooks which are filled with crayon drawings of cars and tractors between the pages of his writings.
According to William’s wife he did his best writings in the seventies and his later writings didn’t have the same quality. He continued to peck out the stories he was writing on cheap manual typewriters which he mastered up to a point. But it was one rejection after another, and if he did get any comments they would tell him to cut the poetic language out of his stories and, of course, that was what he was working to incorporate into them. He would get discouraged from time to time but he found that life without writing was just not conceivable and he would pick it back up and roll on.
At one point about 1980 William found an agent in New York who would work on commission and submitted a manuscript of what would later be The Long Home, which he was calling The Pit. He managed to get the whole thing typed up and made copies. They corresponded and the agent told him that if he would just get rid of the flowery language they would have a good chance of publication. That was not about to happen, having mastered the use of multivalent language he would not consider trying to unlearn it. He knew his style was either going to work with the poetic language or it wasn’t going to work at all and he was determined to continue. It seems some publishers expressed some interest but they were never able to close on a deal but it did stir up a lot of expectations in William and in the family that he was going to be a published author.
There had always been tension in his relationship with his wife. They raised the family but it was all done in a continuing poverty where there was never enough money for all the bills and it was a constant juggling act for William to make enough money to pay the most important bills and then take up writing instead of working. Once the kids had graduated from High School there wasn’t any glue holding the relationship together and William and Diane separated and then decided to divorce. William moved out and lived in a variety of rented houses around Lewis County, still working, mostly painting houses and hanging drywall or doing any kind of carpentry, whatever it took to make the money for the rent. At one point he had a house where he could live but the floor in one of the rooms had rotted and the bare ground was all he had left in that room. His brother tells about coming to visit him there and he saw a big spider that would emerge from under a piece of furniture and roam around on the floor. Once he pointed out the spider and William’s response was, “Yea, he lives here.” He clearly had a live and let live attitude toward the spider and wouldn’t kill it or anything. He didn’t keep guns and never hunted. He didn’t seem to care about either the clothes he wore or the house he lived in. As long as he had some old jeans, a warm shirt and a coat and hat he was happy, that along with a roof over his head was all he needed.
By the time the 1990s were progressing William had written the better part of at least four major novels. He had notebooks with what was to become The Long Home, Provinces of Night and many of the short stories that went into I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down as well as another novel he was calling Fugitives of the Heart and a novella loosely based on the story of the Bell Witch called Little Sister Death. His two daughters helped with typing and were experts in reading his handwriting which became more idiosyncratic the more he wrote. Eventually, he stopped crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s and that made it much more difficult for anyone outside the family to decipher his writing.
William ended up living in a trailer on Grinder’s Creek. He was very happy being on Grinder’s Creek since he had spent part of his childhood there and knew the terrain and the people. Finally in 1998 his life changed dramatically and he started getting published. He had a long foreground, writing in long-hand for all those years, struggling to get his stories and novels typed, submitting them all over the place with year after year of rejection. In the earlier years he would submit to the top rank of the literary magazines sending his stories to the The New Yorker and Atlantic. Eventually he figured out that it might be better to start off with smaller, less prestigious journals and began sending out pieces to places in the South that published Southern writers. Then it was almost as if his life changed in the course of one year. Suddenly he exploded on the scene, in the same month he heard from the Georgia Review and then the Missouri Review both accepting short stories. In the next few years he went on to be published in Harpers, GQ, Atlantic, Southern Review and the Oxford American among others.
After several rejections in previous years he became a regular for the Oxford American and eventually was one of their contributing writers. He regularly provided musical reviews and in the last year of his life had an on-line music column for the Oxford American web page. Once he started getting published his stories started appearing in anthologies such as New Stories from The South, The Year’s Best in 1999, 2000, and 2001, along with Best New American Stories,
2000, the O’Henry Prize Stories, 2001, Best Mystery Stories, 2001, Best Music Writing, 2001, and the Stories from the Blue Moon Café, Anthology of Southern Writers, 2002. One of his stories, originally titled “The Paperhanger, the Doctor’s Wife and the Child Who Went into the Abstract” first published by a friend of his in Hohenwald as a booklet, went on to become one of the most anthologized stories in modern literature. At this time it has appeared in fourteen different anthologies including Best Stories of the Past Decade, Best Stories of the Last Hundred Years and Best of the Best.
One of the editors at the Missouri Review was also the editor of a small press in Denver called MacMurray and Beck. One day William received a call from MacMurray and Beck and it was this editor asking if he had a novel he would care to submit. When he told the story he would always say, in a sort of off handed way, “And of course I did.” In fact he had several and he ended up sending off the manuscript to what would become The Long Home. The editor let him know that they liked the manuscript but wanted a different title; he was still using the title The Pit. William had recently been at a funeral of a relative and the preacher at the funeral had quoted from Ecclesiastes chapter 12 verse 5, “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.” He immediately knew he had his title and called the editor with the title The Long Home. While the press liked the book very much they wanted him to make extensive changes and to shorten the book considerably. Having never placed a novel he didn’t feel he was in a very good negotiating position and reluctantly agreed to make the recommended changes although he always regretted it. However, the original manuscript does exist and perhaps someday a restored text will become available.
The novel came out in 1999 and received very positive reviews including The New York Times. After that he got a call from a young literary agent in New York and she placed his second novel with Doubleday in 2000. He was able to pull this off since he had the novel, Provinces of Night, basically complete and ready from all the years of writing he had done during the 1980s and 1990s. Again he garnered rave reviews for it as well. Both his novels have been published in England and the second book has been translated into German. As a result of the publication of The Long Home he won the 1999 William Peden Award and the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize. He was awarded a 2002 Guggenheim Fellow and a few years later was nominated for and received a substantial cash award as a United States Artist Fellow.
While he was living in the trailer on Grinder’s Creek someone broke into the place and took a bunch of manuscripts. He was working on a new novel set on the Natchez Trace in the 1800s. He told me that one of his best pieces of writing was in that lost manuscript, a scene where the main character comes to a river he has to cross, reminiscent of a scene from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. That manuscript in notebook form and some of his music were taken and never recovered. That shook him as he didn’t want to try to rewrite it. For him, once the inspiration for a scene hit there was no going back, and once it was written, it was written. Although he revised his final drafts he was loath to rewrite anything previously written.
With the advances from the two novels and the cash awards from the Guggenheim and the United States Artist award his financial situation was, for the first time in his life, fairly secure. He was able to move to a much nicer house, this one on Little Swan Creek, just a few miles off Grinder’s Creek and not far from the Natchez Trace. The house was only a few miles from the city limits of Hohenwald but a few miles out of Hohenwald is all it takes to put you in a highly rural environment. He quickly filled the living room with bookshelves and hung his own oils on the walls and was quite at home in his new domicile. His oldest son, Chris, lived with him and they both enjoyed the same types of music and entertainment and settled into a comfortable lifestyle with his newly acquired literary fame.
William found himself very much in demand to do book tours and to attend literary conferences. He toured the South to promote his books and visited bookstores and literary venues across the South. Each year the Tennessee Committee for the Humanities in Nashville holds one of the largest literary conferences in the South and he was asked to attend each year. Another local college, Austin Peay in Clarksville, holds an annual literary conference and he quickly became the highlight of that event and was invited back year after year. They videotaped some of his appearances and these can be viewed on the web for those who would like to see William in person reading from his works and answering questions. However, William was very fond of quoting from the first page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Mark Twain makes a reference to providing a few stretchers in relationship to the reality he is portraying in the novel. In addition, Sewanee, The University of the South, in nearby Monteagle, has a long tradition of hosting the top flight southern writers and William received a call from Tam Carlson in the English Department inviting him to attend the annual week-long writers conference held there on campus every summer and this was followed by an invitation to come teach for a semester. The students who attended William’s seminars still remember it as a seminal event in their education.
In the course of these travels and attending conferences William formed friendships that were to be meaningful for the rest of his life. At one of the conferences he was in a line to speak with Cormac McCarthy’s editor. While he was waiting in line he struck up a conversation with the person behind him and it turned out they were both obsessed with Cormac’s writing and in fact had the same question for the editor. Cormac had just published All the Pretty Horses which came out to enormous publicity and rocketed Cormac from being a “writer’s writer” to national fame and fortune. The person behind him turned out to be Tom Franklin who became a close personal friend with William and has gone on to write a number of works that have brought him literary recognition. The question they wanted to put to the editor was what had happened to cause Cormac to change his style. The previous two books, Suttree and Blood Meridian, are two of the most highly-acclaimed novels of the past hundred years and continue in the vein of his earlier books with poetic language that rivals William Faulkner. So to William and to Tom Franklin All the Pretty Horses lacked the poetry that was so prominent in his previous books and marked them as high accomplishments, ranking with James Joyce and the best voices in the pantheon of modern writers. Here Cormac was writing a Western novel without any of that, simply telling a compelling story, set in Texas and Mexico. Both William and Tom considered it a sellout to abandon the style that they both loved and admired. They considered it a bid for popularity that was always ridiculed by Cormac in the past. The editor did little to throw light on the topic since Cormac’s manuscripts arrived at the press more or less ready for publication and he had the reputation of not needing or accepting much in the way of editorial input.
But after this William and Tom went off to drink beer and compare notes and they exchanged phone numbers and subsequently became close friends and occasional traveling companions. Tom would call William late at night and they would talk for an hour or more, Tom would read aloud from his works in progress and ask for comments from William. Tom was teaching at Ole Miss in Oxford and William took a liking to Oxford, the legendary home of William Faulkner and would come down the Natchez Trace to be a guest lecturer in Tom’s classes and to give readings at the local bookstores and literary events. He found someone at Oxford who was willing to come get him so he didn’t have to drive. He was not fond of travel but William’s home was very close to the Natchez Trace and the Trace wound its way through southern Tennessee, crossed the Mississippi line and proceeded on down to Natchez, Mississippi, crossing a main road near Tupelo where they could get off and drive about thirty miles to Oxford. The Trace was an old Indian trail that had turned into a pioneer road and had been preserved as a scenic two lane highway with a fifty mile per hour speed limit and limited access. He found that drive quite relaxing and it was one of the few road trips that he really enjoyed.
At Oxford he would always make a pilgrimage to Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, where he was recognized for his own writing. On one of these visits it was a quiet day and the staff offered to let him sit at Faulkner’s desk and type something on Faulkner’s typewriter. However, the opportunity spooked him and he declined.
In his travels to the literary conferences he became friends with Sonny Brewer who owned a bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama. Fairhope was, like Oxford, a literary hotbed in the South and William was always welcome and invited to attend events there. He and Sonny became close friends and Sonny began editing an annual anthology of Southern literature called The Blue Moon Cafe and he always included the latest short story from William in each volume. Sonny has deep connections to many of the writers in the Southern genre including Harper Lee who lives nearby. Sonny immediately took to William and they became traveling companions to various literary events. Sonny went on to write a series of novels himself and they would often both be invited to the same conferences so it worked out well for Sonny to come up and spend a night or two and drive William to the next event.
Once I got to know William I offered to drive him as well and would occasionally get to take him to Nashville or Clarksville. It was quite an event to be with William at a literary conference as all the other writers who were in attendance wanted to shake hands and talk with him. In the course of these events everyone who was anyone, as well as his growing legion of fans, wanted to come up and speak with him. Any aspiring writers in the crowd, and there were always plenty of those, wanted to spend a few minutes with him and would inevitably ask his advice and many of them came with manuscripts they wanted him to read. He was very kind to this cadre of writers and graciously accepted their work and took it home and studied it, marked it up, and sent it back to them.
As he aged he became more and more reluctant to attend readings and literary conferences but typically he couldn’t pass up the money. However, these events seemed to take a toll on him and while he was always admired and well attended, he felt deeply uncomfortable being on public display. He also started supplementing his income by selling his paintings. He had always painted but mostly around the holidays as gifts for all the kids and grandkids. Many of his painting have inscriptions to various members of the family. As his literary fame grew his paintings became sought after by collectors. His paintings are dark and have a primitive feel to them, some with the proportions a bit skewed. However the colors occasionally show a modernist influence making a strange blend of dark landscapes with colors that blend and stand out next to one another in a way that is abstract and expressionistic. Once he realized he could make money on them he got motivated and started painting more than ever. He started using standard canvas and thinking up new subjects while never venturing outside landscape painting.
Like his darker writing there is something eerie about the paintings, something almost scary, as if they are haunted, or depict places that are haunted.
At one point I approached him about doing an art show and he was very interested. He started painting and came up with about fifteen new works. I called a gallery in Oxford and the owner was excited to have an art show to coincide with the annual literary conference at Ole Miss. The show was a big success. One collector drove over from Texas and bought six of the paintings and nearly all the new ones sold. Later when he would do readings at Landmark Books in Franklin or other local venues he would bring a couple of paintings and they would sell quickly.
William continued to write, producing new short stories as well as articles about the music and musicians he cared about the most. Plus he wrote a new novel which he wanted to call Cut Flowers but changed to Twilight. It came out to great reviews, and was quickly published in England, Germany, Italy and France where it won a literary prize. He had a large backlog of material that he had written in the 1970s and 1980s; but he left it all in the attic of the house he had built and never went back to reclaim it. Once he left something he never came back to it, and while he had several major works that he had written he never made the effort to retrieve them and would instead work on something new. He told me once that a magazine had offered him ten thousand dollars for a novella and he was considering doing a piece he called The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train. I later came to learn he had an amazing one hundred page novella called Little Sister Death in a typescript in the old attic. It is a novelization of the famous Tennessee haunted house story about the Bell Witch and it is one of the scariest pieces of writing that I have read. It gives the reader the shivers and ranks with anything written by Edgar Allen Poe. Yet he didn’t go retrieve it for the magazine but preferred to work on something new. It was part of his ethic as a writer to move on and continually do something new.
He continued to write long- hand and eventually moved from the typewriter to the computer but he never advanced beyond two finger typing and never really mastered the computer. Different friends would give him computers and show him how to use them. He went through a series of them, he would try to type something but then couldn’t figure out how to save it or if he did he couldn’t figure out how to retrieve it later so it was very frustrating for him. He did have some family members who tried to help him and he managed to get a few of his short stories typed up on the computer.
In the last year of his life William slowed down considerably. His daughter had a cancer which he recognized was fatal but he never wanted to talk about it. Laura handled it with amazing grace and poise. She had four boys and a husband and lived until in the end without bitterness or remorse. But it took a heavy toll on William both emotionally and financially. His youngest son also had some serious trouble. He was involved in a fatal car wreck and ended up serving time in jail. William supported him while he was serving time, writing him regularly and sending whatever he was allowed to send in terms of money or supplies. Then he went through a series of undiagnosed seizures. One of the first happened while he was attending the annual Festival of the Book in Nashville. He was staying in a hotel room in downtown Nashville and suddenly lost all awareness of where he was or what he was doing there. One of his sons was there with him and Chris quickly found him dazed and confused in the room and immediately took him home. He recuperated at home and refused to see a doctor. All of this weighed heavily on him.
He continued to be an avid reader. I would take him books and he enjoyed reading them and we would discuss them in great detail. I introduced him to writers such as Jean Genet and Lawrence Durrell and the new Latin American writers like Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolano. He read all the magazines he could get his hands on and subscribed to several. One of them had an article by Steven King where King listed his top ten favorite books of the year. He listed Twilight as the number one book on list, William was reading the article and when he came to the list he started at the bottom with number ten, never suspecting that his name would be on the list and was totally amazed to see his name at the top. King went on to talk about him in the article and was bewildered that he had not achieved broad popular support as a writer.
The older he got the more reluctant he was to go into Hohenwald. Someone would inevitably recognize him and want to talk about the books. People would remark how they could identify the people who were portrayed in the books. He was fond of telling about the time a woman came up to him in a local store and confronted him. She told him she had read one of his books and that she knew him and his family and she knew he wasn’t smart enough to know all those twenty-dollar words he was using. She said she figured he must have hired somebody to put in all those words. He did give a reading in the local county library and that event seemed to please him. A lot of the local women came and wanted to get their picture taken with him and he was flattered by the attention. He also came to an English class in the elementary school where his grandchildren were attending and got his picture in the paper.
William always liked to have a dog around and he was especially fond of Knuckles who was a goofy-looking white pit bull. After Knuckles died he got a new pit bull puppy and named it Jude. Jude turned out to be very precocious and quickly grew into a very large adolescent. Whenever I came to visit, Jude would greet me at the car and immediately jump up on me with both paws and when I got inside and sat on the couch Jude would jump up on the couch and lick me or walk all over me. Jude’s robust affections would necessitate William taking him to the back door and tossing a treat out on the porch and Jude would head out to pick it up while William shut the door behind him, “Works every time.” he reported. But once he went to Oxford for an event and left Jude in the house and returned to find everything in the living room torn up. His solution was to stay at home after that until Jude outgrew the puppy stage.
He had satellite television and enjoyed the late night shows. He was fond of old reruns and had seen every episode of Seinfeld and had some channels that played reruns of The Waltons. But his favorite entertainment was baseball and he was an avid Cubs fan. He would stay up late most weeknights and would watch David Letterman. He said that after the divorce for a while when he was living by himself before he was published it was lonely and he would watch Seinfeld reruns and then Letterman would come on and he identified with him. Both these shows gave him a lot of company.
As his fame spread the phone started ringing more and more and there were always people wanting to talk with him. He found it impossible to end the conversations so he would get stuck in hour-long calls where the person wouldn’t end it and he didn’t have the heart to tell them to get off the phone. He came to hate the phone in the last couple of years and had some people who would call and if he didn’t pick up they would call back every fifteen minutes like clockwork. The same thing would happen with visitors; people would drop in and then stay until midnight sitting and talking. Since he wouldn’t eat in front of guests if someone dropped in he wouldn’t have dinner until they were gone. But he was great fun to talk with and was always ready to talk about books, music and movies. He had one of the biggest collections of DVDs I had seen. One wall beside the large flat screen television was covered with shelves filled with DVDs. He didn’t mind loaning them and I would always take one home with his recommendation. He was not fond of talking about his past and would quickly change the subject or stick with a few well known stories that he liked to tell.
In his living room every flat space was covered with books, magazines, DVDs and CDs. They would pile up on the floor and eventually he would build more bookshelves and occasionally sort them out and clean up but they would quickly pile up again. His cabin had central heat and air but he wouldn’t use it. He installed a wood-burning stove in the living-room, it was a nice one with glass panels in the door so he could sit in his favorite chair and watch the fire burning. In the summer it would get really hot in the house but all he would use was a floor fan.
He was flattered one time to hear from the publishers of the Folio Society in England. They were planning a new edition of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and contacted him to write a preface and offered to pay three thousand pounds. He was the perfect person, he had reread the book nearly every year or two of his adult life and knew many parts of it by heart. The job befuddled him at first and then one Sunday afternoon he sat down and wrote about six thousand words. They had requested three thousand but went ahead and published it whole. He had some trouble when the check arrived since his bank in Hohenwald didn’t see many checks in the form of pounds and he ended up having to pay some extra fees to have it changed to dollars. The book was published in a limited slipcase edition with really nice illustrations. The books had to come from England and you had to join Folio Society to purchase it.
The very last thing he published was a piece in the Chattahoochie Review called “Reading the South (Paperback Edition)”. It didn’t come out until a few weeks after he died. In the essay he tells about the early pieces of Southern literature he was able to read and how he would buy them at the paperback book rack in the local drug store in Hohenwald.